Half-truths, little tidbits of information used for one’s own interpretation and advantage, can be harmful, even damnable. Zeal without knowledge can be destructive, extremely destructive. Indeed, this type of zeal can become the devil’s toy.
More than 250 years ago, a little girl was born in the parish of Ottery St. Mary, in the county of Devon in the west of England. The month was April and the year was 1750. Joanna Southcott, for so the girl-child was baptized, grew up in rather poor conditions. Her father, William Southcott, sprang from rich stock, but circumstances had reduced him from living on a manor to working a small dairy farm. A Church of England member, by all accounts, he read the Bible to his family. As she grew older Joanna was taught to help out on the farm, even running it for a time when her father was ill. She was capable girl.
Eventually Joanna left home to begin a career. Employed by an upholsterer in Exeter, she learned how to cut cloth, choose fabric, work with trims and sew welted edges. It was during this time that she became engaged to a young man by the name of Noah Bishop. Noah was a footman, whose duties at his place of employment included admitting guests and waiting at table. They seemed a well-matched couple. However, after a rather short courtship, Joanna suddenly broke off the engagement. The reason she gave her fiancé was rather strange – she let him know that an angel had appeared to her one night telling her that she must not allow her body to be defiled by a man. Poor Noah!! His intentions towards Joanna had been honorable. He concluded that she was deranged!
During Joanna’s stint of employment with the upholsterer, a revivalist Methodist preacher visited the area. Notoriously amoral, he openly lived with a mistress and flirted freely with the opposite sex. Yet he was allowed in the pulpit, preaching loudly about sin and damnation. Proud and boastful of his salvation status, he openly thanked God for not making him like the other “sinners” in the congregation. All Joanna’s fellow workers were afraid of him. Joanna was not. She saw through the man and was amazed that his hoax was accepted.
Leaving the employ of the upholsterer after breaking her engagement, Joanna began work as a domestic servant in Exeter. According to a later portrait drawing of her by artist and engraver William Sharp (1749-1824), we can conclude that Joanna was probably a sweet and pretty-looking girl in her younger years, becoming more buxom and well upholstered around the waist in middle age.
A woman in need of friends
Although she had been raised in the Church of England, Joanna joined the Wesleyans in 1792. Persuading others that she possessed supernatural gifts, she wrote and dictated prophecies in rhyme. She also began to teach, preach (Had she never been taught regarding I Tim. 2:12?) and prophesy. A number of her predictions seemed to come about. Many of these “prophecies” referred to events that occurred during her lifetime. For example, she is credited with having foretold the famine of 1795, the bad harvest of 1797, the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the deaths of several more or less well-known persons.
Was Joanna a loner? She surely needed Christian companions who loved her enough to caution her. Her feet and her mouth were steering her towards greater and greater heresy. The worst heresy was that she claimed to be the woman mentioned in Revelation 12:1-6. Quite a profession! She openly designated herself a prophetess whom God had divinely appointed to be the mother of the Messiah. (What happened to Isaiah 7:14? Did she not know the Christ Child had already been born?) Joanna must have been without Christian friends. Friends will caution you; friends will reprove you; friends will point you to the truth of the Gospel fulfilled; and friends will tell you of the hope of heaven and the danger of hell if you do not turn from error.
Joanna’s followers were marked by peculiarity of dress, which resembled that of Quakers, the men sporting long beards. With thousands of adherents, among whom were some clergy, Joanna also began making and selling printed seals which supposedly guaranteed the buyer entry into paradise after the Apocalypse. (Even the familiar John 3:16-18 seems to have been lost on Joanna and her supporters.) Seating, it was said, was limited to 144,000, so buy seals while you can. Exorbitant prices were charged. Joanna, denying that she was profiting from the sale of these “indulgences,” continued to manufacture them. Some six or seven thousand were sold and a number of them are still in existence. They are small pieces of paper with a circle drawn in the middle. In this circle are written words which imply that the buyer is saved. Every one of these seals was signed by Joanna Southcott.
In addition to teaching and lecturing, Joanna also wrote some thirty or so books which were published during her lifetime. The manuscripts, many of which are written in different handwritings, are still available, pointing to the employment of an assistant.
Pregnant at 63?
In 1813, Joanna now being 63 years old, and living with two lady companions, began to take on the appearance of a pregnant woman. Her stomach grew rounder and rounder, and she announced to her followers that she was now about to become the mother of the promised Child spoken of in Revelation 12. She asserted that redemption would be completed in herself. (What happened to Hebrews 9:12?) She would bruise the serpent’s head and the immediate aim of her life was to destroy the devil.
Possibly due to a tumor growing within her abdomen, Joanna presented herself to the public as one shortly to give birth. Those who believed what she spouted, waxed enthusiastic. Holding collections, they sent a delegation to an expensive cabinet-maker and bought a cradle – a fashionable cradle, richly ornamented and decorated. They set this up in a specially prepared place and began to collect accessories. Baby blankets, pillows, linens and embroidered sheets began to accumulate. It was, after all, for a miraculous child and who would not want to hail this baby with luxury and comfort!
The excitement over this apparent pregnancy and upcoming birth was palpable among the population, especially in the London area. The number of eager followers were said to have numbered around 100,000. Most of them were illiterate and rather credulous, but some were middle-class and clergy. They all fully believed the claptrap and nonsense. (Where there is no prophetic vision people cast off restraint – Proverbs 29:18.) One pastor even offered to resign from his diocese if the “Holy Joanna,” as he called her, failed to give birth to the Messiah.
The days and months passed. No baby was born. In August of 1814, a physician by the name of Dr. Reece, examined Joanna, to “ascertain the probability of her being in a state of pregnancy, as then given out.” He affirmed that she was indeed with child. Other doctors were called in, reputable medical men, and they, as well, concluded that she was pregnant.
More weeks passed and Joanna herself, despite her grand delusions, became uncomfortable with her bulky stomach. She hesitatingly allowed that she might have been deceived by some spirit, either good or evil.
Dead but still causing problems
As the year of 1814 drew to a close, Joanna Southcott died. She died surrounded by a few of her ill-informed disciples, and she died without giving birth. She had been barren. Prior to her death another surgeon had been called in by Dr. Reece and he had, without any uncertainty, declared that Joanna was not in the family way, that she was ill, and that he did not foresee any hope of her recovery. Before her death at the end of December 1814, she had been confined to bed for ten weeks.
Dr. Reece, who was in attendance during her last hours, immediately after Joanna died, wrote to the editor of the Sunday Monitor:
“Agreeable to your request, I send a messenger to acquaint you, that Joanna Southcott died this morning precisely at 4 a.m. The believers in her mission, supposing that the vital functions are only suspended for a few days, will not permit me to open the body until some symptom appears, which may destroy all hopes of resuscitation.”
Holding on to the hope that Joanna would resurrect, something she had predicted, her followers wrapped her body in warm blankets, placed hot water bottles at her feet, and kept the room warm. Crowds assembled around the house, hoping and waiting for her to rise from the dead. However, it was all to no avail and her body began to putrify. Even as decomposition set in, there were those who swore not to shave their beards until Joanna’s resurrection. Likely a great many men with very snarled and lengthy beards were consigned to the grave in the years that followed.
A later autopsy showed that Joanna Southcott had suffered from dropsy which had killed her. She was buried in Marylebone cemetery on January 2, 1815. Laid into her coffin, she was interred under a fictitious name. The authorities feared that if they did not do this, grave robbers might want to open the tomb, ransack her remains, and profit by the sale of her bones.
Prior to her death Joanna had dictated a will in which she professed to have lied, professed to have been prompted by the devil. In this document she insisted that after her death, the cradle and all things with it, should be returned to the people who gave them.
The 1568 Bishops’ Bible reads Proverbs 29:18 in this way:
When the worde of God is not preached, the people perishe: but well is hym that kepeth the lawe.
In twenty-first century English language this translates freely as:
When the Word of God is neglected, ignored or not preached properly, the people will perish: but discerning people who hear the Word of God and obey it, are blessed.
Again, where God’s Word is not preached, people become fools, believing anyone and everything. Strange and ludicrous as Joanna’s story is, many Joanna’s have walked the earth in the past and are still walking it. A William Davies (1833-1906), leader of a Latter Day Saint schismatic group, taught his followers that one of his children was the reincarnated Jesus. Lou de Palingboer (1898-1968), founder of a religious movement in Holland, claimed to be “the resurrected body of Jesus.” And a couple of years ago, a parish in the Church of Sweden, tweeted out that Greta Thunberg, teenage climate activist, was an appointed successor to Jesus Christ.
Pregnant with self-deception and self-importance, such people give birth to the wind and reap the whirlwind. Make sure you are able to recognize such frauds. Make it your 2020 resolution to become better acquainted with God’s Word and to read it faithfully each day!
This article has been corrected to note that it was a parish in the Church of Sweden and not the Church of Sweden itself that tweeted “Announcement! Jesus of Nazareth has now appointed one of his successors, Greta Thunberg.”