Prophecies seldom fail for true believers. Time and again we see this. Failure would impugn the Almighty’s integrity. In simple terms, if a prophet’s foretelling goes awry the prophecy is not of God, and the prophet is false. Obviously, responsibility for the failure should shift to the prophet. But invariably restructuring of the prophecy occurs through motivated reasoning and the prophet slips away vindicated. Sometimes believers need an iron will to maintain their faith after the prophet is betrayed, while others make it a point to avoid man’s puny wisdom waiting for the Lord to bring light to the hidden things of darkness and the prophecies.
In this context, the continued use of end-time prophecies has a long and interesting history. (Paul Boyer. When Time Shall Be No More. Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Cambridge, Mass; Harvard University Press. 1992.) By observing “the signs of the times” while trying to match world events with specific prophecies (a consequence of our pattern-seeking nature); many so-called prophets continue to fail in predicting “when time shall be no more.”
For reasons that hinge on deep structural psychological needs the annihilation of the world has strong grassroots appeal to ordinary religious laypersons. As an affirmation of their end-time faith, Armageddon has also become a household word. The promise of Christ’s imminent coming offers hope of deliverance from suffering and death. It is said that sermons on prophecy attract large crowds because of the hope to escape social ills, political turbulence, or prolonged catastrophes of some kind, or to settle unfulfilled or loss of other native desires. There are a variety of reasons. (Norman Cohn. Cosmos, Chaos & the World to Come. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press. 1969.) With heighten expectation the sequence of human responses after a prophetic failure falls into predictable emotional patterns. Social scientists are learning more about these natural tendencies.
To begin, the base rock for the study or uses of prophecy offers the opportunity for humans to imagine how God’s plan will unfold in history, while at the same time hoping to produce tangible and coherent proof of the religious doctrines that supports the individual’s faith.
Sociologists who study loyalty to belief commitments find that religious groups seldom follow a rational course of action after prophetic failure or in creating logical explanations attributed to the failure. (Jon R. Stone (editor). Expecting Armageddon: Essential Reading in Failed Prophecy. New York, NY: Routledge. 2000). see also, Paul Boyer. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1992.) Somewhat surprising after an undeniable refutation, and often not anticipated, it may take years for the devoted to abandon previously held “absolutes,” embedded in the prophecy, if at all — although it is not unheard to forge a revision with conditional attributes (e.g., Jonah’s prediction that Nineveh should be destroyed). (Deuteronomy 18:21-22.) There is interesting evidence that bears on the topic.
This was certainly true in England during the suffering of the war years (1793-1814) and a wave of uncertainty and unrest in England during the demise of the domestic system to new factory systems, in the life of the charismatic Joanna Southcott (1750-1814), born of a poor farmer in East Devon, England. (Frances Brown. Joanna Southcott: The Woman Clothed with the Sun. (Manchester, England: Butterworth Press. 2002.), and James K. Hopkins. A Woman to Deliver Her People. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 1982.) During the expanse of her prophetic mission twenty of twenty-two harvests failed which led to starvation and civil insurrection. Her messages connected to the working class. “I hear the cries of the poor, complaining they are starving to death, for want of food.” The rural economy was in great turmoil. Her rise to audacious millennial prophecies which were popular in the early nineteenth-century, are worth explaining. But her prophecies today are little more than a footnote in the history of Christianity in England.
Who Was Joanna Southcott?
Joanna Southcott pursued a life-long habit of reading Scripture while rendering everyday events into prophecies through her opaque biblical lens. She had little education, except for her unceasing study of the Bible. Apparently, considerable weight was given to her messages because she was an untutored female in the “conveyance of divine truths.” Among the clerics who adding their name to the delusion, the Reverend Hoadley Ash, a learned and pious doctor of divinity, made the point of asking why did the finger of God select Joanna Southcott, a “weak, low, simple and illiterate woman?” (James K. Hopkins. A Woman to Deliver Her People. Joanna Southcott and English Millenarianism in an Era of Revolution. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. 1982. p. 123.) Her lack of education overstressed what a remarkable person she was in the minds of her supporters.
Her early years were spent as a farm laborer, domestic servant and upholsterer. Southcott joined the Methodist; but after gaining the pretensions of a prophetess was no longer welcome. Her prophetic career began in 1792 at forty-two after she started hearing a “still small voice” glorifying the Second Coming of Christ. The “voice,” she claimed, “gave evidence of predicting the future based on current events.” Many of these prophecies centered on the anticipated arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte (the beast or anti-Christ of Revelation) and his French soldiers on English soil. While at home, her prophecies gave a new twist to crop failures and starvation the wave of uncertainty and unrest in England. She warned that crop failures were the visitation from God as punishment for the clergy’s disbelief in her mission and prophetic writings.
The clergy and the privileged classes belittled her, burned or returned her letters, even going so far as to forbid her from publishing her books, calling them blasphemous. Her movement was largely ignored by the government and the professed churches. The broad-sword of criticism from Johnson Grant, a Scottish parish priest and respected author of English church history, established that most of Southcott’s prediction had failed, including the prophecy that the “devil was to be wholly banished from England.” (Johnson Grant. A Summary of the History of the English Church. London, England: J. Hatchard. 1814. p. 466.) Even if she had been able to banish the devil for a full year her prophecies would have spread more rapidly.
A host of adversaries claimed that she copied her published materials and her prophecies were plagiarized as second hand. (Johnson Grant. p. 454.) When a follower sent her some books she returned them saying, “I never read any books, at all, but write by the spirit as I am directed. I should not like to read any books to mix my senses with any works but those of the spirit by whom I write.” (Hopkins. p. 10.) Her handwriting was difficult to decipher. Apparently, Ann Underwood, Southcott’s principal secretary and amanuensis, was the only one who could read her communications and correspondence. (Hopkins. p. 94. Underwood was one of the best-known individuals in the movement. Her handwriting was instantly recognized. Only rarely did she express her own opinions .)
As Southcott’s confidence and fame grew she became weary of trying to convince the local clergy to her prophetic role and the truth of her visions. She blamed Satan for the Fall and anyone who opposed her was an “enemy to the human race, and friend to the Devil.” In preparation for the second coming, two men on their way to quarrel with her teachings—when suddenly they dropped dead on the road. Southcott explained that the Spirit claimed “my angels had served a death warrant on the two adversaries because of their insolence.” This rendered Southcott’s authority nearly unassailable for the weak minded.
Southcott’s first book at age fifty-one was published in 1801. It was titled, The Strange Effects of Faith. This launched her profitable writing career. During the next thirteen years she published sixty-five books and pamphlets (many were repetitious) and was said to have amassed 100,000 followers from all walks of life, but mostly the poor. (Historians actually place this estimate as low as 20,000.) Several individuals of means joined her inner circle and arranged for Southcott to move to London. After arriving in London, Southcott went on missionary tours around the country declaring the superiority of her mission and sealing converts. Chapels sprang up for worshipers, although she never intended to organize a church. People were attracted by her stunning promise of a redeemed England in which her true believers would soon possess the land. Spiritual warfare between Christ and Satan and/or apostasy (what she called The Great Controversy) was central to Southcott’s writings and teachings. (Joanna Southcott. The Controversy of the Spirit with the Worldly Wise. March, 1811.) The catalogue of discontent attracted followers to millennial sects.
Southcott sealed her faithful (intending to convert a 144,000 followers mentioned in Revelation) by creating a loosely-organized community of believers. Generally to be sealed, two publications written by Southcott were required reading before believers were offered the Celestial Seal. The sealing practice included taking a piece of paper and writing a simple acceptance message with Southcott’s signature at the bottom. This was folded and sealed with special wax and the initials IC engraved on the “Celestial Seal.” The initials IC stood for Iesu Christi. The Celestial Seal also protected believers from the workings of Satan. If the believer died before the second coming believers were told to take their seals into the coffin to make heavenly immigration more direct. There was some hint that devout possessors of the Celestial Seal could live a thousand years. The Spirit ordered her to stop sealing in 1808, probably because the gullible became aware that bad things happened to the sealed as well as the unsealed.
With steadfast assistance from her circle of friends the Southcottian movement continued to grow. Many across England were engaged in debating her prophetic claims, even among the privileged. After her first book appeared in 1801, Southcott published sixty-five books totaling about 5,000 pages. Her unpublished manuscripts would double this output. “By one conservative estimate, a total of 108,000 copies of her various works were published and circulated from 1801 to 1814, making her one of the most popular writers of her time.” (Sylvia Bowerbank. Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) Prophet and Writer. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004-13.)
Remarkably, Southcott disclaimed any responsibility for her books. These writings were not her invention. She said there was “no knowledge of myself to know, nor power to fulfill.” It was the work of the voice of God. “Without the Spirit I am nothing, without the Spirit I know nothing, and without the Spirit I can do nothing; so whether you judge the spirit good or bad, to that Spirit you must allude the whole; for I am a living witness against every man that say my writings are my own invention.” (Hopkins. p. 34.)
Southcott touched a religious or spiritual need in the English countryside among the laboring classes that was endearing to many men and women. Her prophecies covered common themes; most were vague enough to be credulous. A key element of her teachings was her insistence that a woman would bring about the millennial change. ( The biblical injunction was invoked. “For the time has come, that your women shall prophesy, your young men shall dream dreams, your old men shall see vision; for the day of the Lord is at hand.”) The significance of this extraordinary woman exposes a paradox for modern times. Southcott was born deeply religious in the Age of Reason at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But this age was permeated with irrational beliefs and superstitions and she was troubled that it might be the Devil speaking to her rather than the Holy Spirit. (www.bushrunner66.hubpages.com/hub/biography-of-Joanna Southcott.) Despite the bitter disillusionment that occurred in her followers when Southcott failed to deliver the messiah, many of her followers with fresh hopes of the messiah’s arrival explained the disappointment away by stating that “God has disappointed us to test our love for Him.” (Edward Green. Prophet John Wroe. Virgins, Scandals and Visions. Cloucestershire, England: Sutton Publ. Limited. 2005. P. 34.)
The Rise to Leadership
One of her most dependable supporters was the famous London engraver William Sharp. In promoting Southcott to the Exeter Bishop, the engraver underlined his convictions by saying, “The present awful state of the world has been increasing in calamities, ever since the year 1792, the very year when the SPIRIT OF PROPHECY was given to Joanna. Let any person only compare the state of this nation, beginning at that year 1792, with what it is at present; let them well consider the burdens have increased upon the people: the sufferings many must have gone through, by dearth and scarcity, and an uncommon increase of national taxes and other heavy expenses!” (Hopkins. p. 185.)
By 1811 the followers of Southcott were full of anticipation and dread. The end was “nigh” and many cancelled social engagements, thinking they would have to leave London at any moment. (Frances Brown. Joanna Southcott. The Woman Clothed with the Sun. Cambridge, England: The Lutterworth Press. 2002. p. 235.) Further corroboration came in September with the arrival of an ominous comet in the night skies. There were floods, storms, fires and volcanic eruptions, it seemed more than usual. What did this all portend?
But then after the spectacular growth in the earlier years, recruitment slowed. Apparently, Southcottian’s thrived best in a world of disasters and fears. In the fall of 1813 there was good news nearly on every front. Believers grew restless, how long would they have to wait for His kingdom to be established? Southcott predicted that something important was about to happen. It was about this same time that Southcott felt a powerful “visitation” working on her body. Southcott announced her pregnancy in the 3rd Book of Wonder on March 10, 1814. (See Johnson Grant. A Summary of the History of English Church and of the Sects Which Have Departed From its Communion. London, England: J. Hatchard. 1814. p. viii.) Then in November Southcott released a letter to the Morning Herald that the day of Salvation was expected in April 1814.
Southcott’s interpretation of Revelation 12:1 led her to believe she was the “woman clothed with the sun,” and was to bring forth a messianic child named Shiloh. (An obscure figure mentioned in Genesis 49:10.) When she communicated to her following (she was still a virgin) that the Spirit told her, “This year, in the sixty-fifth year of thy age, thou shalt have a Son by the power of the MOST HIGH.” The child’s name was to be Shiloh. (Hopkins. p. 199.) Church of England clergyman G.R. Balleine looked at the original Hebrew and concluded that this text was so obscure to be “almost untranslatable.” (Edward Green. p. 21. There was precedent in the Bible for such things. If God could create miracles in ancient times He could do the same today. Finally, the Prince of Peace was coming.)
Thousands began to converge into London. Imposters arose claiming to be Southcott hoping to exploit the growing numbers of followers. Sharp made an engraving to thwart off the imposters. The eager anticipation of the birth of Shiloh provoked elaborate gifts for the child. There were laced caps, embroidered bibs, silver cups, gold coins, even a royal manger equipped with lamb’s wool mattress, sheeting of the finest linen, and golden pap-spoons. A blind woman gave a sixpence. Finally, Southcott refused to accept any more gifts. Gifts were to be return if there was no child.
At the beginning of August nine medical men, over the course of several days, interviewed and examined Southcott concerning her pregnancy. Six entertained no doubt. However two physicians, Dr. Sims and Adams of the Small-pox Hospital were not satisfied. For one thing, Southcott would not allow a pelvic examination, only her breasts which had swollen in anticipation of the child. So the handful of doctors who pronounced her with child based their findings on her own female intuition and considerations of the children-bearing women around her. The truth of her anticipated motherhood rested on her word. Her followers waited with keen anticipation to welcome the child.
The Failed Prophecy and Death of Joanna Southcott
The Monitor began issuing official bulletins which were sent throughout the country. The Times criticized the Monitor for pandering to the audience, but there was an unparalleled increase in circulation and the editor welcomed all news and letters, particularly correspondence from the attending physicians. The expected arrival was October, 1814. But by November Dr. Reece who had continued his visits was puzzled and began to worry about his reputation as a physician. He flinched a bit, but he refused to despair. After all, his beliefs were deeply and sincerely held. Even though he was beginning to waver he still maintained along with the rest of the true believers they would all “see her as promised, with the child in her arms and milk in her breasts.” (Hopkins. p. 209.)
While meditating on the Virgin Mary just before Christmas Southcott felt her body shake — maybe this was moment when Shiloh’s existence would appear. On Saturday December 24 a nurse standing near Southcott’s side felt a swelling the size of a baby’s head along her abdomen which suddenly disappeared after a sharp kick. Unfortunately, at this time Southcott’s health was failing rapidly. When Ann Underwood her faithful companion asked the expectant mother how she was feeling, Southcott whispered, “I am not afraid to appear before my God, as I have done nothing but what I believed to be in true obedience to my Lord.” Two nights later her breathing was slow and labored and her last breath was drawn exactly as the clock struck four AM next Morning.
Southcott was dead. Grave despair spread through the minds of her followers. Was there still a child in her womb?
For the first four days, under directions from her inner circle, the cadre of physicians were not allowed to determine the cause of death, if indeed she was dead. Southcott had instructed her followers to keep her warm for four days with hot water bottles packed around her in case she returned. Should she fail to revive after four days, doctors were to dissect her body and release Shiloh? In the course of the autopsy performed by Dr. Reese there was no sign of pregnancy nor was a child discovered. Her uterus was the size of a pear. With fear of an uproar from the disillusioned her body was placed in a plain coffin and the lid screwed down and she was buried quietly in the cemetery in St. John’s Wood. (Hopkins, p. 210)
Afterwards, engraver William Sharp said confidently, “On Christmas Day the Child was born or about that time…I have not a Particle of doubt on my mind that the Power who created all things caused this wonderful Event to take place for our final restoration to happiness.” (Hopkins. p. 211.) Southcott was not mistaken, she was not deceived — King Shiloh was a spiritual birth rather than a temporal one.
Disciple John Wroe (1781-1837) gracefully rose to save Southcott’s prophecy, claiming to be the successor of the prophetess. First, he reminded the devoted that the doctors found her pregnant. Indeed, many of her other specific prophecies had come true. Returning to the messianic vision, he prompted the adherents to believe that Shiloh had been quietly taken directly from the womb to heaven to mature. Thus, Shiloh lives and after heavenly instructions will return sometime around 1820. Shortly after this Southcott’s writings were neglected and 1820 came and went without a Messiah.
The strange thing about this story is that there have been friends of Southcott who continue to gather together in every subsequent generation and every place on earth who are looking for the Final Millennium in a “mood of wistful expectation.”
Southcottians across the spectrum of self-delusion were extreme. The study reveals that direct refutation of their belief systems advanced into a confirmation of the prophecy. The fact is that all of us are susceptible to follies of reasoning at times. The celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger recognized the psychology of failed prophecy in a theory which he called “cognitive dissonance.” The theory goes like this. When the mind holds thoughts or ideas that are in conflict, or when it is assaulted by facts that contradict core beliefs, this creates an unpleasant sensation or discomfort. One will then move to resolve the dissonance by bringing ideas into compatibility again. The goal isn’t truth or accuracy per se; it is to achieve consistency between one’s beliefs and the prior ones. This occurs especially for strong emotional beliefs consistent with the cognitive mind and emotional disposition of the individual. (Leon Festinger, et al. When Prophecy Fails. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 1956.). see also Leon Festinger, et al. “Unfulfilled Prophecies and Disappointed Messiahs.” p. 31. In Jon R. Stone, (ed.). see note 3.)
Sociologists and neuroscientists are beginning to recognize this pattern in the brain and seek ways to improve how we deal with failures of all types. Fundamentally this happens because much of our thinking occurs in an automatic, subconscious manner. Some parts these behaviors are supported genetically, others by conditioning. Increasingly it is recognized that as our thinking in not as reliable as anticipated (or while being subjected to painful self-delusion) it is the result of “motivated reasoning” that justifies failures through a “spreading emotional activation” in the brain involving core belief systems about ourselves and the world. (Chris Mooney. The Republican Brain. The Science of Why They Deny Science — and Reality. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2012.)