Saturday, 14 October 2017

English Messiahs

So there I was the other day, in one of my regular charity shops, when I spotted a book with the more than intriguing title English Messiahs. Opening it to have a look, I discovered that it was an account, by one Ronald Matthews, of six English religious pretenders who had claimed to be either the Messiah, or the harbinger – or potential mother – thereof, or, in one worrying case, God Almighty's nephew. It was published in 1936, and the author is careful to exclude the obviously insane or the obviously fraudulent – which still leaves him with plenty of Messiahs to choose from. There is something about Protestantism, the author suggests, that tends to encourage individuals who believe they have this particular kind of special destiny...
  Matthews' first case study is a fascinating and sad one – the story of the 'Quaker Jesus', James Nayler. He seems to have been a decently and sanely devout man, a prominent and effective Quaker, who suffered some kind of brainstorm that left him identifying rather too strongly with Jesus. As a result, he allowed a group of female followers to become dangerously devoted to him (he had a decidedly Jesus-like look to him). In the end, they insisted on leading him into Bristol on horseback, chanting 'Holy! Holy! Holy!', in what looked like a blasphemous re-enactment of Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Nayler was arrested, his case was discussed at length in Parliament, and he was duly punished for blasphemy by being pilloried and flogged, then having his tongue bored with a hot iron and his forehead branded with the letter 'B'. This was followed by two years' hard labour. He emerged from prison physically broken but with his mental equilibrium restored. Nayler died shortly after being robbed and left near death in a field in Huntingdonshire. As I said, a sad story.
 There is some sadness too in the case of the much better known Joanna Southcott, the remarkably popular 'prophetess' who, in her sixties, announced that she was going to give birth to 'Shiloh', the new Messiah. Instead of doing so, she died, surrounded by fanatical believers who were probably more convinced of her mystical pregnancy than she was. These believers were hard put to accept that Southcott was dead (despite the evidence of her decomposing body) or that she had never been pregnant, and even when they had finally swallowed these facts, many of them remained devout 'Southcottians'.
  Indeed the long afterlife of this particular nonsense is its most remarkable feature. I remember seeing notices in the papers as recently as the 1970s, proclaiming that 'War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott's box.' This was a sealed wooden box left by Southcott with instructions that it be opened at a time of national crisis in the presence of 24 Bishops – on which Christ would immediately return to Earth and eternal peace would reign. In 1927 the psychic researcher Harry Price claimed to have X-rayed the box and found it to contain such odds and ends as a rusty pistol, a lottery ticket and a nightcap. However, Southcottians declared that Price's box was not the real one, which was held at a secret location known only to them.
  Those notices in the papers were placed by the Panacea Society, the last incarnation of Southcottianism, founded in 1919 in Bedford. In the 1930s there were some 70 Southcottians in Bedford, and the Society owned several buildings in the town, one of them, known as The Ark, set aside for the use of the Messiah following the Second Coming. They also had allotments, and believed that Bedford was the original site of the Garden of Eden – a quite wonderful flight of fancy, as anyone who's visited Bedford will appreciate.
 Though the Panacea Society no longer exists as a religious community, there is still a charitable trust – and, amazingly, a Panacea Museum that is open to the public and boasts an impressive 4.7 rating on Trip Advisor. Next time I'm in Bedford (for the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery), I must drop in.

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