Southcott, Joanna (1750–1814)

A Devon maidservant and upholsterer who in 1801 began to publish accounts of the prophetic visions she had been experiencing since 1792. Although the Devon clergy proved uninterested in her experiences, her publication The Strange Effects of Faith; with Remarkable Prophecies (Made in 1792) (1801–2) brought her to the attention of followers of Richard Brothers, including Southey’s acquaintance William Sharp. Transferring their allegiance to Southcott, these Brotherites brought her to London, where they and a number of women converts enabled Southcott to publish her prophecies of a coming millennium in England, in numerous pamphlets – many of them bought and collated by Southey in the course of his work on Letters from England, then the best-researched and most detailed account to have been published. Southcott also embarked on a preaching tour and attracted many thousands of followers, whom she confirmed as adherents by issuing with seals, bearing her symbol and signature and the believer’s. Many of her followers were women, for Southcott empowered the female, suggesting that she herself fulfilled the predictions in Genesis 3, that the woman’s seed shall bruise the serpent’s head, and Revelation 12, that the woman clothed in the sun will precipitate a millennium. Southey’s sceptical distrust of Southcott and her movement came to a head in 1814, when she announced that she, a virgin of sixty-four, was pregnant with Shiloh, the returning saviour. She died, without issue, on 27 December, although William Sharp believed that her body might only be in a trance and be resuscitated and the Shiloh discovered. She left behind her a ‘great box’, made by Sharp, containing sealed prophecies, to be opened by the bishops of the Church of England.

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