Joanna Southcott

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Joanna Southcott[1]
JOANNA SOUTHCOTT-Devonshire Characters and Strange Events.jpg
Born April 1750
Taleford, Devon, England
Died 27 December 1814(1814-12-27) (aged 64)
London, England
Nationality English
Occupation religious prophet

Joanna Southcott (or Southcote) (April 1750 – 27 December 1814), was a self-described religious prophetess. She was born at Taleford, baptised at Ottery St. Mary, and raised in the village of Gittisham in Devon, England.


Her father was a farmer and she herself was for a considerable time a domestic servant in Exeter. She was originally of the Church of England, but about 1792, 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 Revelation – in the King James Version, Revelation 12:1–6:

  1. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
  2. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
  3. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
  4. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
  5. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
  6. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

The coming of the new Messiah, and death[edit]

Coming to London at the request of William Sharp (1749–1824), the engraver, Southcott began selling paper "seals of the Lord"[2] at prices varying from twelve shillings to a guinea. The seals were purported to ensure the holder's place among the 144,000 people who would be elected to eternal life.

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 died not long after. The official date of death is given as 27 December 1814; however, 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 its burial only after it began to decay.


The movement did not end with Southcott's death in 1814. Her followers, referred to as Southcottians, are said to have numbered over 100,000, but declined greatly by the end of the nineteenth 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".[3][4] The will was disputed in 1861 by her niece on grounds including that the writings were blasphemous and that the bequest was contrary to the Statute of Mortmain: the Court of Chancery refused to find the writings blasphemous but held the bequest was contrary to the Statute of Mortmain and therefore void.[5][6]

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 24 bishops of the Church of England (there were only 24 at the time), who were to spend a fixed period of time 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 Bishop of Grantham, not a diocesan bishop but a suffragan of the diocese of Lincoln): 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.[7]

Southcottians claimed that the box opened in 1927 was not the authentic one and continued to press for the true box to be opened.[8] 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 twenty-four bishops to have the box opened. Their 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 Panacea Society, this true box is in their possession at a secret location for safekeeping, with its whereabouts only be disclosed only when a meeting with the bishops 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]

The efforts of the Society have so far been unsuccessful; Church of England officials have commented that for them to take part in the opening would be to unnecessarily arouse public interest in the affair.[citation needed]

Charles Dickens refers to Mrs. Southcott in his description of the year 1775 at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities.[9]


Among her sixty 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. Edited by 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), self-styled prophet who claimed to be Southcott's successor.


  1. ^ Portrait drawn and engraved by William Sharp, 1812.
  2. ^ 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. 
  3. ^ Austin Wakeman Scott (1966). Select cases and other authorities on the law of trusts. Law school casebook series (5th ed.). Little, Brown. p. 682. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ Thornton v. Howe, 54 Eng. Rep. 1042 (Ch. 1862).
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ Trevor H. Hall (1978). Search for Harry Price. Duckworth. pp. 154–160. ISBN 0-7156-1143-7. 
  8. ^ "Religion: Servant Woman's Box". Time Magazine. 8 May 1939. 
  9. ^ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities Book I, ch. I.


  •  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," in Michael Lieb, Emma Mason and Jonathan Roberts (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (Oxford, OUP, 2011), 635–648.

External links[edit]