In April, 1750, Joanna Southcott was born at Taleford Farm, in the parish of Ottery St. Mary, in the County of Devon in the West Country of England, which thus added to its already memorable Roll of famous names, one, beloved and revered by many throughout the world. She comes of a race known the world over for the men and women it has bred — a race conspicuous for its tenacity of purpose, indomitable courage, love of liberty, civil and religious. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” was the sceptical cry of the so-called learned men of old. To-day the same old cry rings out — “Can any good thing come out of Devon?” Surely it was a fitting place to be chosen by the Infinite Father for the birthplace of the daughter to whom He spoke “in a Still Small Voice.” Joanna grew up under the pink-blossomed apple-trees of the West, and thus we have one fulfilment of the prophetic words, “I raised thee up under the apple-tree, there thy mother brought thee forth” (Song of Solomon). Her mother, a deeply religious woman, said: “I had great promises made me before she was born, and since, that she should be both a fighter and a prevailer.” This prophecy was abundantly fulfilled in later life, for Joanna fought with resolute spirit and a high courage against the malice, bitter opposition, and ridicule of the enemies of her Mission, although her naturally proud and sensitive spirit must have suffered unspeakably. Only her intense, burning love of God carried her through. The Southcott family was an old and proud one, and had owned estates in Wotton, Hertfordshire, but through a series of unfortunate happenings, Joanna’s father, shorn of his inheritance, took to farming in a very humble way. Hence Joanna grew up with little education, as has been the case with very many of the world’s greatest personalities, but the “ponderings of her heart” found here and there in her books, show a mind clear and direct, a reasoning power, calm and logical, which so often disconcerted her opponents. At an early age Joanna went out in to the world to earn her living; her work took her to such places as Honiton, Heavitree, Okehampton, and Exeter, and other beauty-spots of Devon. Her employers testified later to her unfailing honesty, upright character, and honourable conduct in all her relations with them — a testimony invaluable as years went on.
Joanna was eighteen when the “Spirit of Truth” became her guide and guard; from 1772 to 1792 her whole life was thus directed, but it was in 1792 that the Lord visited her in great power, to “warn her of what was coming upon the whole earth.” In this year she began writing by the dictates of the Spirit, in her spare time, all her writings being placed in a box (The Great Box) in the custody of one of her friends. Her prophecies were thus dealt with so that there could be no imposture; all bore the names of at least two or more witnesses. It is particularly interesting to note here that none of these sealed packets were opened, none of their contents published, until 1801; this interval of nine years was to serve as a testing time of the truth of the Spirit that led her; when these prophecies were given to the public their fulfilment was already a matter of history. It is a unique and safe test for the detection of “lying spirits”, as God knew when He gave it to Joanna.
In 1797 Joanna, for the first time, visited Exeter, where she made the acquaintance of the Rev. Joseph Pomeroy of St. Peter’s. For six years he upheld her cause, but owing to the ridicule of his brother clergymen, gave it up. Pomeroy is said to be a type of the clergy in the end, “who think they shall save their honour by being mockers and despisers of the whole; not seeking to have the truth cleared up, tried and proved, as I have commanded” (Book 34, p. 39).
In 1801 Joanna published the first part of The Strange Effects of Faith. As a result, many new friends gathered around her, forming the nucleus of what was destined to become a great company of Believers. About Christmas, 1801, seven men travelled to Exeter with set intent to inquire into the character and writings of Joanna, who was then working in the historic cathedral city. These were to be known later as the faithful Seven, who were present at all the trials of the Prophetess’ Writings. They were the Rev. Thos. Foley of Old Swinford, Worcestershire (of whom a Bishop of London was a descendant); the Rev. Thos. Webster of St George’s, Westminster; the Rev. Stanhope Bruce of Inglesham, Gloucester; William Sharp, the famous engraver; George Turner of Leeds; John Wilson of Kentish Town; and Peter Morrison of Liverpool. In a letter addressed by the Rev. Thos. Foley to the Vice-Chancellors of Cambridge and Oxford, he speaks thus of their inquiry: “We had proof demonstrative that Joanna Southcott was truly pious, honest and industrious, and would not utter a falsehood for the world, and was moreover of a sound and perfect mind. We had ample proof, confirmed by many witnesses, of the accurate fulfilment of her prophecies with regard to the war both at home and abroad, to harvests at home, and to many other things equally extraordinary. We were eyewitnesses of her writing (and I have been so constantly since, being almost wholly with her) when she was dictated to by the Spirit of God. We then heard her explain the Scriptures in a most clear, wonderful and illuminating manner.” Such is the testimony of Mr. Foley, who was “an English gentleman — a very gallant gentleman,” if ever there was one.
This first examination of the Writings of Joanna Southcott in 1801 is known as the First Trial. Later, in January, 1803, at the High House, Paddington; again, on December 5, 1804, at Neckinger House, Bermondsey, the Second and Third Trials of further Sealed Writings took place. On each occasion the proceedings lasted for seven days. These Trials of the Writings were ordered by the Lord, and to each the Bishops and clergy were invited. Each invitation was rejected, often with abuse. The Third Trial, a shadow of the Great Trial, predicted to be held after Joanna’s death, and to be called by the “great and learned,” was organized and carried out with all the formulae of legal procedure; there were present twenty-four judges and a double jury of twenty-four. The Attorney was one John Scott of Devon. At nine o’clock on the seventh day, Joanna sealed up the Writings to be kept till after her death, and the packet was delivered to one of the judges. As the clergy had refused to appear, their places were taken by Believers, these travelling from many parts of the country for the purpose. The full account of the proceedings at this Trial is given in the Book of the Trial, published by Joanna in January, 1805; and reprinted by Miss Alice Seymour in 1916. It is one of the most interesting of all the books of the Prophetess, particularly so in the light of events to-day when the public interest in Joanna Southcott is so increasing that the Great Trial itself cannot be far off, when, according to a prophecy, “all present will be convinced of the truth of Joanna’s Visitation,” and “those who come as her enemies will go away her friends.” In the same book we read these powerful words of the Spirit: “All that will happen till My Kingdom is established is in thy writings, but is not to be known at present; but nothing shall be concealed from thee that I will do upon the earth.” A copy of the Book of the Trial with a special “Foreword” was sent to the Bishops in 1916; for many years they and the clergy have received copies of Southcott publications.
Up to 1804, Joanna had repeatedly petitioned the Bishops and clergy to search into her writings, and if they could prove they were not from the Spirit of Truth, she promised to consign them to the flames; but the Lord will not plead with man for ever, thus it is, that after her public appeal in 1804, she was commanded to write these words: “No longer shall my friends invite men, no longer shall they entreat them, but they shall stand valiantly in their faith and wait till men shall invite them” (Bk. 24, p. 45).
Joanna visited London for the first time in 1802; here she met Miss Jane Townley, a lady of means and position, and her maid, Ann Underwood, the two women who were to be her faithful friends and co-workers up to the time of her death. Ann Underwood wrote a beautiful hand, and after 1804, wrote at Joanna’s dictation practically all her Communications.
In the same year, William Tozer, a native of Exeter, joined Joanna’s cause and became a prominent preacher in the movement, drawing large congregations at his meeting-place in Duke Street, St. George’s Fields, London. All preachers in the movement used the Liturgy of the Church of England, for it is prophesied that “from the Altar shall My Glory burst.” No distinctive form of dress was ever worn by her Believers, neither would she allow any ritual peculiar to the movement. The services were of the simplest, different from no others save that portions of the Prophetess’ writings were read, and among the hymns sung were those composed by some of her followers in accordance with the Spirit of the Visitation.
In 1803 and 1804, Joanna visited Bristol, Exeter, Leeds, Stockport and other towns in the West and North, where the people flocked in great crowds to hear her, and thousands were sealed to show their desire by heart and hand for the overthrow of Satan and the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth. It was in 1803 that Joanna’s brother, Joseph Southcott, wrote his vindication of his sister’s character. He says: “In the beginning I thought her Prophecies to be a religious frenzy, but when she visited me (at Bristol) and read to me many wondrous things, I said to her, ‘God knows whence your Prophecies are, but they are not of your own wisdom.’ When I read her books in 1803, and reflected on all she had told me before, I was convinced her calling was of God.” I know of no severer critic than one’s own brother. In 1807, the Sealed numbered 14,000, and at least twice Joanna was accused of selling the seals which were given, however, “without money and without price” (Second Book of Sealed Prophecies, p. 64). Again, she says on this subject: “I should rejoice at the summons of death to stop my hand and leave this world if I am deceived and deceiving mankind.”
Meanwhile, the sixty-five books of the Prophetess were being published and she was carrying on an immense correspondence. To this period belong a large number of hitherto unpublished MSS., many of even greater interest and beauty than the published.
Of the last ten years of the Prophetess’ life much was spent with her two faithful women-friends in the quiet village retreat of Blockley, (now in Gloucestershire), among the green beauty of the Cotswolds.
There, in a quaint, old-fashioned house, high up on the hillside, its back set against the solid rock, and surrounded by an old-world garden that is a veritable abode of peace, Joanna was prepared for the momentous event of her life — the birth of the Shiloh. In 1813, she was warned by the Spirit that in the sixty-fifth year of her age, she was to bear a child by the “power of the Most High”; this was to be “the man-child that was to rule the nations with a rod of iron.” It was undoubtedly the crux of her mission, and to those who have studied her writings, its only logical termination. The story of the years 1813 and 1814 are told in The Five Books of Wonders. In them Joanna speaks of the warning of her approaching death in these words, “This I greatly rejoiced in, as I am as weary of the world, as the world is of me”; and again, “I cannot enter into particulars of what was revealed to me, as it was ordered to be sealed up, in the presence of the seven friends and put into the Box, that is not to be opened till my Great Trial, and then will be seen what was revealed to me every day.” Her visitation was particularly powerful at this time, and she goes on to say, “I have fresh things revealed to me every day. I am awakened between three and four every morning; I sit up in bed till day breaks; and have Communications given me as soon as I awake. When I rise, I go down to the dining-room by myself; the moment I enter the room, I feel as though I was surrounded by angels feeling a heavenly joy which I cannot describe. It has taken from me all natural appetite, yet I feel no want of food.”
The last year of her life was one of much suffering of body and mind; the newspapers were full of virulent abuse regarding the subject of the expected birth of the Shiloh; such was the persecution that Joanna gave orders for the closing of the chapels and the stopping of the Sealing. Many times must this brave woman-spirit have prayed that “this cup pass from me.”
In 1814, the Prophetess bade farewell to the quiet country retreat so dear to her, and at the command of the Spirit of God, set her face towards the Great Metropolis. During the last few months of her life, in spite of much suffering and great persecution, the old indomitable courage, the ever-present unconquerable faith in the truth of the Spirit that had led her from start to finish, never faltered. In London, on December 25, Christmas Day, the child was born and “caught up to God and His throne.” Two days later, Joanna Southcott passed to the “place prepared of God” (Rev. xii.). Outside the house the mob jeered and shouted in rage and fury; they did not understand that the final stage in the last of the Seven Great Wonders of God to man had come — even the birth prophesied by St. John in the Revelation. This book, that thrills us as we read, has ever been a sealed book to man, as God intended it should, until the appointed time for the fulfilment of its rich promises, the realization of its “Vision Splendid.” How wonderfully the Infinite Father preserves His secrets until such time as the spiritual understanding of His people is ripe to perceive, and to make them their own! So His Spirit in the fulness of time spoke to the “inner ear” of the woman, whose heart was wholly His; and lo! the pages of the sealed prophetic Book shone with a great illuminating light, the fulfilment of its wonders had begun here on our Earth, even as that beloved disciple of the Lord had prophesied.
(Adapted from “The True Story of Joanna Southcott ” by Mary Robertson)