Joanna Southcott

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Joanna Southcott[1]
JOANNA SOUTHCOTT-Devonshire Characters and Strange Events.jpg
BornApril 1750
Taleford, Devon, England
Died27 December 1814(1814-12-27) (aged 64)
London, England
Occupationreligious prophet

Joanna Southcott (or Southcote) (April 1750 – 27 December 1814), was a self-described religious prophetess from Devon, England. A "Southcottian" movement continued in various forms after her death.

Early life[edit]

Joanna Southcott was born in the hamlet of Taleford, baptised at Ottery St Mary, and raised in the village of Gittisham, all in Devon. Her father, William Southcott (died 1802), ran a small farm. She did dairy work as a girl, and after the death of her mother, Hannah, went into service, first as a shop-girl in Honiton, then for a considerable time as a domestic servant in Exeter. She was eventually dismissed because a footman, whose attentions she rejected, claimed that she was "growing mad".[2]


Originally in the Church of England, in about 1792 she joined the Wesleyans in Exeter,[3] Becoming persuaded that she possessed supernatural gifts, she wrote and dictated prophecies in rhyme, and then announced herself as the Woman of the Apocalypse spoken of in a prophetic passage of the Revelation (12:1–6).

Coming to London at the request of William Sharp, the engraver, Southcott began selling paper "seals of the Lord"[4] at prices varying from twelve shillings to a guinea. The seals were supposed to ensure the holders' places among the 144,000 people who would be elected to eternal life.

The new Messiah and death[edit]

At the age of 64 Southcott affirmed that she was pregnant and would be delivered of the new Messiah, the Shiloh of Genesis (49:10). The date of 19 October 1814 was that fixed for the birth, but Shiloh failed to appear, and it was given out that she was in a trance.

She had a disorder which gave her the appearance of being pregnant and this fuelled her followers, who reached a number of around 100,000 in 1814, mainly in the London area.[5]

Southcott died not long after. The official date of death was given as 27 December 1814, but it is likely that she died the previous day, as her followers retained her body for some time in the belief that she would be raised from the dead. They agreed to her burial only after the corpse began to decay.

She was buried at the Chapel of Ease at St John's Wood in January 1815.[6]


The "Southcottian" movement did not end with her death in 1814. Her followers are said to have numbered over 100,000, but had declined greatly by the end of the 19th century. In 1844 a lady named Ann Essam left large sums of money for "printing, publishing and propagation of the sacred writings of Joanna Southcott".[7][8] The will was disputed in 1861 by her niece. Her grounds for doing so included that the writings were blasphemous and the bequest was contrary to the Statutes of Mortmain: the Court of Chancery refused to find the writings blasphemous but voided the bequest as contrary to the Statute of Mortmain.[9][10]

In 1881 there was an enclave of her followers living in the Chatham area, east of London, who were distinguished by their long beards and good manners.[11]

Southcott left a sealed wooden box of prophecies, usually known as Joanna Southcott's Box, with the instruction that it be opened only at a time of national crisis, and then only in the presence of all the 24 bishops of the Church of England at that time, who were to spend a fixed period beforehand studying Southcott's prophecies. Attempts were made to persuade the episcopate to open it during the Crimean War and again during the First World War. In 1927, the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed that he had come into possession of the box and arranged to have it opened in the presence of one reluctant prelate, the suffragan Bishop of Grantham. It was found to contain only a few oddments and unimportant papers, among them a lottery ticket and a horse-pistol. Price's claims to have had the true box have been disputed by historians and by followers of Southcott.[12]

Southcottians, denying the authenticity of the box opened in 1927, continued to press for the true box to be opened.[13] An advertising campaign on billboards and in British national newspapers such as the Sunday Express was run in the 1960s and 1970s by one prominent group of Southcottians, the Panacea Society in Bedford (formed 1920), to try to persuade the 24 bishops to have the box opened. The Society's slogan was: "War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott's box." According to the Society, this true box is in their possession at a secret location for safekeeping, with its whereabouts to be disclosed only when a bishops' meeting has been arranged. Southcott prophesied that the Day of Judgement would come in the year 2004, and her followers stated that if the contents of the box had not been studied beforehand, the world would have had to meet it unprepared.[citation needed]

Charles Dickens refers to Mrs Southcott in his description of the year 1775 at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities.[14]


Among her 60 publications may be mentioned:

  • The Strange Effects of Faith. London: E. J. Field. 1802.
  • The True Explanation of the Bible. London: S. Rousseau. 1804.
  • The Book of Wonders (1813–1814)
  • Prophecies announcing the birth of the Prince of Peace, extracted from the works of Joanna Southcott to which are added a few remarks thereon, made by herself, ed. Ann Underwood. London: 1814
  • Joanna Southcott: A dispute between the woman and the powers of darkness (1802) New York; Woodstock: Poole 1995. ISBN 1-85477-194-9. Facsimile

See also[edit]

  • John Ward (1781–1837), a self-styled prophet who claimed to be Southcott's successor
  • Alice Seymour – another 20th-century follower of Southcott


  1. ^ Portrait drawn and engraved by William Sharp, 1812.
  2. ^ Dictionary of National Biography, 1885–1900, vol. 53, p. 277.
  3. ^ Women Writers IV. Novelists, Essayists and Poets – R–Z (London: Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers, Summer 2012).
  4. ^ Denham, G (1815). "Remarks on the Writings and Prophecies of Joanna Southcott: being an attempt to prove her assertions inconsistent with the will of God as revealed in the scriptures of eternal truth". Dean&Munday. p. 23. Retrieved 16 December 2015.
  5. ^ Robert Chamber's Book of Days, vol. 2, p. 775.
  6. ^ Robert Chamber's Book of Days, vol. 2, p. 775.
  7. ^ Austin Wakeman Scott (1966). Select cases and other authorities on the law of trusts. Law school casebook series (5th ed.). Little, Brown. p. 682.
  8. ^ Frank Swancara (1971). Obstruction of justice by religion: a treatise on religious barbarities of the common law, and a review of judicial oppressions of the non-religious in the United States. Civil liberties in American history. Da Capo Press. p. 171.
  9. ^ Thornton v. Howe, 54 Eng. Rep. 1042 (Ch. 1862).
  10. ^ Charles Beavan, ed. (1863). Report of cases in Chancery: argued and determined in the Rolls court during the time of the Rt Hon. John Romilly, Kt, Master of the rolls, Volume XXXI, 1862. Saunders and Benning. p. 14.
  11. ^ Robert Chambers, Book of Days, vol 2, p. 776.
  12. ^ Trevor H. Hall (1978). Search for Harry Price. Duckworth. pp. 154–160. ISBN 0-7156-1143-7.
  13. ^ "Religion: Servant Woman's Box". Time Magazine. 8 May 1939.
  14. ^ Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities. Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period, as at this. Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and-twentieth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster.


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Southcott, Joanna". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Richard Reece M. D.: A letter from Joanna Southcott to Dr. Richard Reece containing a circumstantial exposition of her present situation, as given by nine medical gentlemen..., six of whom have pronounced her pregnant with her permission to Dr. Reece, in case of her death before the birth of the child, to open her body, to find out the cause which has produced such singular effects in a woman of her age. London, 1814
  • Richard Reece M. D.: A Complete Refutation of the statements and remarks published by Dr. Reece relative to Mrs. Southcott ... By an impartial observer. London, 1815
  • Richard Reece M. D.: A correct statement of the circumstances that attended the last illness and death of Mrs. Southcott with an account of the appearances exhibited on dissection and the artifices that were employed to deceive her medical attendants. London 1815
  • Library of Biography. Remarkable Women of different Nations and Ages. First Series. Boston. John P. Jewett and Co., 1858
  • Richard Pearse Chope: Life of Joanna Southcott. Bibliography of Joanna Southcott by Charles Lane, communicated by R. Pearse Chope read at Exeter, 25 July 1912. Reprinted from the Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art. 1912.
  • The trial of Joanna Southcott during seven days, which commenced on the fifth, and ended on the eleventh of December 1804 at the Neckinger House, Bermondsey, London. Plymouth, England: Jas. H. Keys, 1916
  • Rachel J. Fox: The truth about Joanna Southcott (prophetess), the great box of sealed writings, together with a challenge to the bishops to support her writings, by a Member of the Church of England. Bedford: Swann & Cave, 1921
  • Rachel J. Fox: The sufferings and acts of Shiloh-Jerusalem, a sequel to "The finding of Shiloh." London: Cecil Palmer, 1927.
  • Ronald Matthews: English Messiahs. London: Methuen, 1936
  • George Reginald Balleine: Past finding out, the tragic story of Joanna Southcott and her successors. London: S.P.C.K., 1956
  • Eugene Patrick Wright: A catalogue of the Joanna Southcott collection at the University of Texas. Austin: Univ. of Texas, 1968
  • Grayson, Emma: Had they had knowledge. New Plymouth, N.Z. 1974
  • Report on the papers of J. Southcott, 1750–1814, religious fanatic, and of her followers, 1801–1896. Middlesex Record Office 1040. London, 1975
  • John Duncan Martin Derrett: Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, his association with Joanna Southcott. Poona (India): B.O.R. Institute, 1979.
  • James K. Hopkins: A woman to deliver her people. Joanna Southcott and English millenarianism in an era of revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981 ISBN 0-292-79017-1
  • John Duncan Martin: Prophecy in the Cotswolds 1803–1947. Joanna Southcott and spiritual reform. Shipston-on-Stour: P. I. Drinkwater on behalf of the Blockley Antiquarian Society, 1994
  • Val Lewis: Satan's mistress, the extraordinary story of the 18th century fanatic Joanna Southcott and her lifelong battle with the Devil. Shepperton: Nauticalia, 1997 ISBN 0-9530458-0-3
  • Susan Juster: Mystical pregnancy and holy bleeding, visionary experience in early modern Britain and America. In: William and Mary quarterly Vol. 57, No. 2 (2000) ISSN 0043-5597
  • Frances Brown: Joanna Southcott, the woman clothed with the sun. Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2002 ISBN 0-7188-3018-0
  • Frances Brown: Joanna Southcott's box of sealed prophecies. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2003 ISBN 0-7188-3041-5
  • Gordon Allan, "Joanna Southcott: Enacting the Woman Clothed with the Sun," Michael Lieb, Emma Mason and Jonathan Roberts, eds, The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (Oxford, OUP, 2011), 635–648

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