The end of the 1700s were a time of great change, with events like the French Revolution and the rise of radicalism leading many to think in apocalyptic terms. In 1791 a former naval lieutenant named Richard Brothers began preaching that an angel had warned him of the fall of Babylon, otherwise known as London. According to Brothers, God told him in July of 1791 that he had intended to "punish the world with desolation" but had "suspended his judgment for a time" as a personal favor to Brothers: "I pardon London and all the people in it, for your sake: there is no other man on earth that could stand before me to ask for so great a thing." But this was only a temporary reprieve. God still planned to destroy all the nations and make Brothers the Ruler of the World at sunrise on November 19, 1795.
Brothers believed that the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel were living in western Europe, and it was his personal mission to identify these "hidden Jews" among the British people so that they could return to Jerusalem to live in post-apocalyptic peace and righteousness. Brothers concluded that he himself was a descendant of King David through James the brother of Jesus, and thus was "nephew of the Almighty." Following the last judgment, he would rule over Israel and work miracles like Moses, using a rod he had fashioned from a rose bush.
Many of Brothers’ followers transferred their allegiances to a new voice crying in the wilderness, the prophetess Joanna Southcott. The daughter of a devoutly religious farmer, Southcott was born in Devon in 1750. She lived most of her life as a member of the Church of England and worked for years as a maid and as an upholsterer, but in 1792 she began hearing voices and jotting down verse prophecies in a form of automatic writing. She tried turning to the Methodists and then to other Dissenters, but they rejected her. She then approached a Church of England clergyman named Pomeroy, who received her kindly but remained unconvinced, despite the accuracy of several of her predictions. Pomeroy was particularly concerned by Southcott’s belief that she was the “Bride of the Lamb” mentioned in the biblical book of Revelation, "a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars." When Southcott published her prophecies, Pomeroy was horrified to find himself cited as a sympathetic authority, and burned many of the writings she had given him.
Still, Southcott’s ministry prospered, especially when she began issuing (some said selling) “seals,” paper tokens given to her followers in recognition of their status as believers. In 1809 the possession of one such seal by a con-woman and convicted murderess, Mary Bateman, proved a brief black eye on Southcott’s ministry, but after she received a legacy from one of her followers in 1812, Southcott was able to devote herself with even greater energy to her divine calling.
In October, 1813, sixty-four year old Southcott was told by her prophetic “voice” to prepare for her wedding. The voice added in 1814, “This year in the sixty-fifth year of thy age thou shalt bear a son by the power of the Most High.” The news fit Southcott's vision of herself as the Bride of the Lamb, since the book of Revelation promised, "And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days."
Southcott announced her impending blessed event to her followers, saying her baby would be the “Shiloh” mentioned in the biblical book of Genesis and his birth would usher in the End of Days. A number of medical men even confirmed the pregnancy. Though Southcott’s disciples greeted the news with great joy and showered the supposed mother-to-be with gifts, the general public remained skeptical. In a letter to his friend and publisher John Murray, the ever-snarky Lord Byron called Southcott “this new (old) virgin of spiritual impregnation,” adding, “I long to know what she will produce; her being with child at 65 is indeed a miracle, but her getting anyone to beget it, a greater.”
Though Southcott originally expected the birth in July of 1814, no baby appeared. Eventually she and her followers settled on October 19, 1814, as the joyous date. October came and went, and still no baby. By November, poor Southcott was coming to the awful realization she had been mistaken, telling her friends, “Now it all appears delusion.” After making a will declaring that she had been deceived by the Devil, she returned all the baby gifts and went into a rapid decline, dying on December 27. Though Southcott had requested her body be kept warm for four days after her death in case she should be resurrected, at the end of that period she was autopsied and buried.
With no Shiloh, the thousand two hundred and three-score day countdown to the end of the world was put on hold. Though Southcott left behind a sealed walnut box of prophecies with instructions that it be opened at a time of national crisis, and then only in the presence of all the bishops of the Church of England, it was eventually opened in 1927, and with only a single bishop present, the suffragan Bishop of Grantham. It proved to contain little more than books and souvenirs, the 56 objects including an ivory dice cup, a broken horse pistol, a 1796 lottery ticket, and an embroidered nightcap.
Yet a stubborn group of Southcottians, the Panacea Society, refused to give up hope. They claimed to have the real Southcott box, and promised that Shiloh would be born and the Day of Judgment would arrive in the twenty-first century. They even predicted the year.
Alyssa Everett's debut regency, A Tryst With Trouble, is available now for pre-order from Amazon. Her second, Ruined by Rumor, is due out in May. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.