Prophecy and the Southcottian “Canon”

At the heart of Christian belief, across denominations, is the collection of texts commonly known as “the Bible”. This singular name obscures the real variety of texts contained within: texts of different ages (with arguably the earliest texts in the Hebrew Bible dating – in part – from the 8th Century BC); texts of different genres (legal texts, prophetic oracles, narrative texts, Gospels, apocalyptic texts); and texts which – from a Christian point of view – respectively form “new” and “old” testaments. Indeed, most of the individual texts within this collection are the product of successive authors, editors, and translators. The book of Isaiah, for instance, is comprised of at least three separate collections of prophetic oracles, which reflect different stages of ancient Jewish history.

The texts collected into the volume known as the Bible are but a selection of the writings that were produced, read, and had authority in early Jewish and Christian movements. Texts such as 1 Enoch, the book of Jubilees, and the Apocalypse of Peter were clearly influential texts for a range of early readers. Given that reading and texts were a pivotal component in early Christian and Jewish religious experience, some of the keenest debates in these traditions focussed on what texts were authoritative, and which weren’t. Gradually, these texts began to form “canons”, lists of texts which communities agree had a binding authority for the religious life of the movement. For Christians, this canon became the Bible in use today (although between denominations, the debate about exactly which texts are “canonical” hasn’t entirely been settled…) For the Southcottian movement, in particular, the question of which writings form the Southcottian “canon” is a complex one.

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The Muratorian Fragment, one of the earliest “lists” of authoritative biblical texts. Accessed via wikimedia commons. Held at Bibliotheca Ambrosiana, Milan. Cod. J 101 sup

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Prophecy Colloquium at the University of Bristol

Last Wednesday, I organised a half-day mini-conference for colleagues at the University of Bristol to share research around the theme of prophecy. Imaginatively titled (ahem) Prophecy: An Interdisciplinary Colloquium, the event featured colleagues from across the Faculty of Arts to share short papers derived from their research, ahead of a keynote paper on “The Prophetic Roots of Boko Haram” by Daniel Agbiboa of the University of Oxford. The day was a great success, with paper topics spanning a chronological timespan of more than two millennia, and analysed a range of prophetic movements and figures.

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New Bedford Rising: The Aftermath Dislocation Principle revisited

Back in September, I wrote about the Aftermath Dislocation Principle, a dystopian model village designed and curated by James Cauty, depicting a post-apocalyptic Bedford at the heart of Banksy’s Dismaland. Shortly after writing the blogpost, I noticed that the site was getting a fair amount of traffic from Cauty’s website. It turned out that the bizarre tale of the Panacea Society, and the unexpected apocalyptic significance they gave Bedford, gave James the idea to continue the story. Setting themselves up in a disused railway arch on America Street in London (near Borough tube station), Cauty, his team, and the post-apocalyptic police set to work building a New Bedford (“sponsored by Greggs and the Panacea Society”) in Little England’s looted and desolate land. Yesterday, I finally got down to London to see how “New Bedford’s Police” were getting on.

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New Bedford: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Exit”

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The Jezreelites from Outside the Gate

If there is one thing that this research project has taught me, it’s that it’s very easy to get too hung up on the published word. To assume that what an individual, or a group, puts out for public consumption (however limited that public consumption may be) is the distillation of their thoughts and ideas, and that we need not necessarily dig much deeper. For a religious tradition like the Southcottians, however, this clearly won’t do. Their voluminous archives, and the significance they invested in writings which did not get committed to the printing press, indicate that a significant amount of Southcottian biblical interpretation took place behind closed doors, and in the personal interactions between members of the community.

And so, to Kent.

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View from the Medway Archives Car Park towards Rochester Castle

The Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre in Strood, houses a significant collection of artefacts and writings from the New and Latter House of Israel – colloquially still known as the Jezreelites. This Southcottian community, established by James “Jershom” Jezreel (aka James White), in Chatham, in the 1870s, left behind significant collections which give us an insight into the religious services conducted by the community’s leaders and a glimpse at how individuals explored their religious commitment in their every day lives. I visited the collection recently, and was stunned by the richness of the material available.

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Southcottianism: A Negotiation with Creation

I did not beget myself, nor bring myself forth, neither did I make my own principles. If some unlucky being, some thousands of years ago, corrupted himself, and tainted all his posterity, and you and I happen to be of his race, bless me, is it not a most unfortunate thing, that I, a poor innocent wretch, should be charged with his sin!

John “Zion” Ward, letter to Charles Bradley, 1835

William Blake, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, 1799-1800 (wikimedia commons)

“Zion” Ward was a prominent Southcottian prophet who emerged in the generation after Joanna Southcott’s death. After becoming acquainted with Southcott’s writings in 1814, Ward’s interest in preaching Southcottian ideas grew, culminating in a formative encounter with a Devon-based prophet named Mary “Joanna” Boon. Boon’s writings led Ward to develop the conviction that he was the fulfilment both of Southcott’s “Shiloh” prophecy and the figure that all of scripture allegorically pointed towards. His ensuing preaching activities led him to rail against both the established Church and to agitate for political reform, and he was eventually incarcerated for blasphemy in Derby in 1832 after publicly eating a leg of mutton on the national Fast Day. (For more on Ward, see Lockley, 2014, pp.125-42, 185-208).

Ward’s extravagant messianic claims brought him into conflict with Church dogma in fairly obvious ways. Yet in his writings, one area in which he particularly finds conflict with the Anglican Church – and indeed much Western Christian orthodoxy – is over the interpretation of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3. In his letter to his ally and confidante Charles Bradley, he rails against what he feels is the church’s delusive interpretation of the text as supporting the doctrine of Original Sin.

I cannot see any fair play in this at all. Egad, Charles, it’s time to have done with orthodoxy, if this is the game that they have kept up for eighteen hundred years, and want to keep up the same for twenty thousand years longer, yes, and fifty thousand to that.

Ward’s objections to popular orthodox interpretations of Genesis 2-3 are, I would argue, mirrored across Southcottianism’s fragmented history. Throughout the Southcottian tradition, we see believers, prophets and writers wrestling with the interpretation of the second of the bible’s two accounts of creation. Establishing the “correct” interpretation of Genesis 2-3, and the story of Adam and Eve, becomes fundamental in establishing Southcottian identity, and the theological outlook of individual Southcottian communities.

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Dismaland, Bedfordshire and the Post-Apocalyptic

Readers of the blog may find this post an unashamedly populist diversion, but bear with me! At the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit Banksy’s “Dismaland” attraction in Weston-Super-Mare. This famous, and hugely successful, event, saw Banksy transform a disused and derelict lido into a anarchic and eclectic art exhibition, featuring pieces from 61 artists (including Banksy himself and Damien Hirst). Among the pieces exhibited was Jimmy Cauty’s “The Aftermath Dislocation Principle”, a 448 square feet model of the aftermath of an unexplained riot. The location of this “miniaturized post-apocalyptic world”? Bedfordshire.

“All is Not Well in Bedfordshire” – Pamphlet from Dismaland

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The Bible, Critical Theory and Reception Seminar 2015

Another excellent and stimulating conference done and dusted, with a great venue kindly sourced by Tom Hunt (follow Tom on twitter @TomHieron). The Prince of Wales pub in Moseley played host to some great papers, and left me with a lot of thoughts about the future of the discipline of “biblical studies” thanks to the varied topics being presented. If you couldn’t make it, check out the twitter hashtag #bctr2015. What follows is my (brief!) recap of the proceedings… Continue reading

Conferences 2015

Summer in academia is, invariably, conference season. Things are no different for this project. I am presenting on the Southcottians’ use of Genesis 49:10 (which I’ve written about here) at two conferences before the year is out.

The first is the excellent Bible, Critical Theory and Reception Seminar, held this year at the Prince of Wales Pub in Birmingham. This conference is one of my favourites, and a chance to hear genuinely innovative research in a friendly and supportive forum. And getting research out of the university lecture theatre and into the public[an] space is always a welcome development! It’s also one of the few forums in British biblical studies where scholars working on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament actually share ideas with one another!

The paper I’m presenting is a bit of an experimental effort, and is entitled Reception and the Palimpsest: Southcottians reading Genesis 49:10. Over the year, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about conceptual models for us to think about the use of biblical texts, and the mutation of theological ideas, over successive generations of a religious community. One of the ideas that has particularly been in vogue in literary theory is the idea of the “palimpsest”. Put simply, a palimpsest is a document whereby text on a page is erased, and a new text written on the now almost-clear document. Crucially, however, whether through modern technological techniques or imperfect cleaning techniques, the original text(s) are still visible.

A famous example of a palimpsest: the Sana’a manuscript, which contains one of the oldest Quranic material in the world (via Wikimedia commons)

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Everyday Messianism

“I beg you to ask that some cats, just a few, might live on through the millennium.”

Ellen Oliver, 1919

The Panacea Society were avid publishers. They circulated numerous tracts and journals, detailing their theology. They published a history of their community. They also took out advertisements in the national press to persuade the bishops of the Church of England to open Joanna Southcott’s box of prophecies that was under their custodianship.

But, as Jane Shaw’s excellent book on the history of the society makes clear, the beliefs of the soon-to-be Panaceans were formed in private – rather than public – communication, in a series of letters sent between prominent early members. It is in these letters (preserved in the Panacea Charitable Trust’s archives) that some of the Panacea Society’s most distinctive theological beliefs are first articulated. It was in a letter sent to Mabel Barltrop’s then-close confidante Kate Firth, that Ellen Oliver first gave voice to her belief that Mabel was the Shiloh promised by Joanna Southcott almost 100 years earlier. Reading these letters gives an insight into how theological ideas can emerge and develop tentatively, and in dialogue, well away from the public arena.

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Prophets and their “prepared” audiences

A short titbit of a post, today. I’m in the process of delving deeper into the figures that made up the Panacea Society. One of the important women in this movement was Rachel Fox, a founding member who went on to write an early history of the Panacea Society and was an influential correspondent with two of the Southcottian Visitiation’s later prophets: Helen Shepstone (aka Helen Exeter) and Mabel “Octavia” Bartrop.

Rachel Fox (from the Panacea Society's collections)

In “The Finding of Shiloh or the Mystery of God ‘Finished'” – a book giving an account of her correspondences with Shepstone and Barltrop, the prophets’ revelatory experience, and their growing interest in the identity of Shiloh – Fox makes a curious observation about the nature of prophetic revelation, as she sees it:

when the Lord gives a prophecy or a revelation, He must also give a gift of wisdom to some to understand it, while to others it will be a ‘dark saying.’ A prophet’s audience is a ‘prepared’ people, prepared, moreover, to a date.

Rachel J. Fox, The Finding of Shiloh, (London:Cecil Palmer,1921), p.56, n.2

Fox’s comments on the nature of prophetic utterances, and their mixed receptions among their intended audiences, give an important insight into the dynamics at play in prophetic movements. Those who claim to receive and transmit the word of God will inevitably find that many (most?) people will choose not to listen to it. That refusal to listen may also be complicated by the cryptic language through which God transmits his/her messages. Heard by sceptical human ears, the putative word of the Lord may simply sound “dark” and nonsensical.

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