|Inside Gittisham Church|
Over the centuries there have been a handful of self-appointed eccentrically motivated, so-called religious women, who were born and brought up in the heart of Devon. At least a couple of them managed to create a stir, not only within the county, but way beyond its boundaries. One in particular caused sensation when in the early C18 she declared herself to be the new messiah. Joanna Southcott became the greatest religious phenomenon of her age.
Joanna Southcott, (b. Gittisham, Devon in 1750, d. 1814), was the Westcountry prophet, visionary and so-called greatest religious phenomenon of her age. At her death she left an infamous 'Box of Sealed Writings'. Joanna believed she was the woman clothed with the sun of the Book of Revelation. At the age of 64 she declared that she was pregnant with the Messiah by means of Immaculate Conception: she died four months later; dissection after death revealed no pregnancy, but instead flatulence and ‘extensive omental fat’.
I had my own revelation when, one day, taking the time to do a little family history, I realised that one significant branch of my own Devon family originated from the east Devon district near to where Joanna Southcott’s family farmed. My own ggggrandparents may have known her family,perhaps indeed, knew her. I mused on what they may have thought of the weird and wonderful declamations and writings of this way-out woman. And in particular how the communities in the vicinity may have reacted on hearing about Joanna’s infamous box. I wrote the following poems some time ago after finding about Joanna.
Woman clothed with the Sun: Joanna[i] (1)
As then, two hundred years before, thoughts turn
to Apocalypse. Inclement weather now,
the world in terror then. Pandora’s red delights
are thrilling earth … A quiet voice caresses
still those sunlit scenes, translating
God had chosen
to announce the Second Coming and
the snake’s ubiquitous in long grass.
Despise not prophecies or those who can
foretell the shooting star… Now I’ll tell
them what to do. Just prove the writings, they
are true. Unfasten cords from the Box
within that Great Box of Common Wood;
in the inner Arc white-bound with ribbon find
sealed rich bundles of texts. Read sigils for
healing earth from these leaves of the Tree of Life.[iii]
Look for the Key. At the apposite moment
all’l be revealed – a dream-bird’s flight
across Midnight Skies or a conflagration.
Sudden. Startling. Of the ancient oak tradition.[iv]
Some said she was charismatic, enigmatic;
others, eccentric, fanatic, an impostor. Choose
for yourself. Hear the story, seal the fate
of the Woman of the Revelation. Her son,
Divine Child, was to be born and succoured
on the State-Bed - its frame satinwood,
embroidered with gold. The canopy’s ornamented
with morning and evening stars,
a gold dove at its centre preens the olive branch
of peace; blue silk entwined with blue thread
shimmies over the cradle-crown:
intricate carving and a gilt sheen beneath.
The layette, daytime frocks, night flannels: linen;
muslin caps and flannels for a coat; those tiny silver
brocaded shoes. So
Shiloh, Prince of Peace.[v]
of the piece was located in the disease of the uterus:
size of a small pear, thus dissected relic of her mission.[vi]
[i] Joanna Southcott, b. Gittisham Devon in 1750, d. 1814; the westcountry prophet, visionary and greatest religious phenomenon of her age. Over 140,000 people joined the Southcottian Society founded by her.
[ii] As a child Joanna loved to wander in the fields of the locality of her Father’s farm at Gittisham; later, many of her religious prophetic texts were brimful with farming imagery.
[iii] The infamous 'Box of Sealed Writings' left after Southcott’s death still apparently awaits in safe custody the will of twenty four Bishops who will demand “in the time of danger” to investigate its contents. Over the years since its inception the Box has caused much furore. Joanna began to sign and seal her writings two years after she first began to write in 1794, noting the dictates of the voices within who ordered her to hand them over to friends, who were at the end of each year to seal them within a box. One of the pioneers of the movement having custody of the box in 1801 and returning from Exeter to London had a large case made, which enclosed the whole box,”for the cords around it were sealed with seven seals and I had a quantity of tow put between the box and the case to preserve the seals from being broken". Hence, there was now a box within a box. After Joanna’s death in 1814 the box, which was by now referred to as the “
”, underwent a series
of perambulations and even to the present day has caused much conjecture as to
its whereabouts and authenticity. Ark
[iv] In the 1930s an ancient oak tree in the park at East Barnet burst into flames on a clear day with no apparent cause and led to much consequent speculation; it was beneath this tree that Joanna was supposed to have received inspiration that she was the “woman clothed with the sun” described in the Book of Revelation and thus was led to the predictions and secrets contained in the infamous box.
[v] At the age of 64 Joanna declared that she was pregnant with the Messiah who had been immaculately conceived; he was to be called
Shiloh. She died four months later. Preparations for the
supposed child had been elaborate and exotic.
[vi] After her death her body was kept warm for four days and four nights, after which a dissection was performed to find the truth of the pregnancy and cause of death; the result was no pregnancy but appearance of pregnancy due to flatulence and “extensive omental fat”.
|Joanna's childhood home|