Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followersby Jane Shaw
In 1919, in the wake of the upheaval of World War I, a remarkable group of English women came up with their own solution to the world's grief: a new religion. At the heart of the Panacea Society was a charismatic and autocratic leader, a vicar's widow named Mabel Bartlrop. Her followers called her Octavia, and they believed that she was the daughter of God,… See more details below
In 1919, in the wake of the upheaval of World War I, a remarkable group of English women came up with their own solution to the world's grief: a new religion. At the heart of the Panacea Society was a charismatic and autocratic leader, a vicar's widow named Mabel Bartlrop. Her followers called her Octavia, and they believed that she was the daughter of God, sent to build the New Jerusalem in Bedford.
When the last living members of the Panacea Society revealed to historian Jane Shaw their immense and painstakingly preserved archives, she began to reconstruct the story of a close-knit utopian community that grew to include seventy residents, thousands of followers, and an international healing ministry reaching 130,000 people. Shaw offers a detailed portrait of Octavia and describes the faith of her devoted followers who believed they would never die. Vividly told, by turns funny and tragic, Octavia, Daughter of God is about a moment at the advent of modernity, when a generation of newly empowered women tried to re-make Christianity in their own image, offering a fascinating window into the anxieties and hopes of the interwar years.
“Impressive empathy . . . a comprehensive yet nuanced book.”—Margrethe Løøv, Nova Religio
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OCTAVIA, DAUGHTER OF GODThe Story of a Female Messiah and her Followers
By Jane Shaw
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2011 Jane Shaw
All right reserved.
On Valentine's Day 1919, a former suffragette and vicar's daughter named Ellen Oliver declared that she had received a divine 'revelation', which was confirmed, in the days and weeks that followed, by a group of middle-class Englishwomen who had gathered themselves around Mabel Barltrop. The revelation was that Mrs Barltrop was the daughter of God, a female messiah. On the basis of that divine message, many of these women gave up their homes, old friends, and even family connections, and went to live in Bedford, to build a community there: the New Jerusalem, the kingdom of heaven on earth, the place where they believed they would achieve immortality. How did Mabel Barltrop, an ordinary Church of England vicar's widow, come to believe that she was the daughter of God and that she could lead a community that would bring her followers to everlasting life on earth? How did she transform herself from a largely self-taught but well-read woman who had always relied on her intellectual understanding of theology to someone who trusted what she came to believe were direct inspirations and messages from God, now directing her life and the lives of others towards such radical ends?
This story has many beginnings. We could start, as a conventional biography might, with the earthly birth of Mabel Andrews in 1866, a middle-class girl born into a family with literary connections and the usual Church of England attachments and sensibilities of the time, who married a young curate named Arthur Barltrop, had four children and was widowed when she was just forty. Or we could root the story in her eventual dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the Church of England, as an intelligent woman in middle age who felt dismissed by its patriarchal structures and alienated by its theology. Then the story would begin with Mabel Barltrop's religious awakening in September 1914, when she picked up and read a blue leaflet about Joanna Southcott, a prophet writing in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England who provided her with a radically alternative vision of Christianity in which woman has a large part to play.
But if we start the narrative with Joanna Southcott, we could say that the whole story really began a hundred years before Mabel's religious awakening, in 1814. This was when Joanna Southcott, a domestic servant from Devon with little formal education, claimed that she would give birth to 'Shiloh', a messiah figure. By then, Southcott had moved to London and had at least 10,000 followers. Her latest claim was the talk of all of London. Southcott died at the end of 1814, without having given birth to a physical baby, much to the satisfaction of the nay-sayers. Many of her followers believed, however, that a spiritual child had been born and immediately taken up into heaven; they therefore awaited the incarnation of that child. For the circle of women who had gathered around Mabel in 1919, this was the story of Mabel's spiritual birth, for they believed that she was that child, Shiloh, the daughter of God.
Why was another messiah figure needed? Had Jesus not died to save humankind? According to Mabel Barltrop, that Saviour was not enough because suffering still existed on earth. The problem was this: despite Jesus' death on the Cross, sin still existed in the world. A further saviour was needed to enable the salvation not just of the soul with rewards in heaven but also of the body, with rewards here and now, on earth. Original sin had to be overcome completely, and humanity needed to be returned to its pre-Fall state. We could then begin the story at the very beginning of the beginning in the Christian tradition, with the sin of Eve in the Garden of Eden, a garden which Mabel Barltrop and her followers came to believe extraordinarily was their very garden in Bedford. If woman was responsible for the Fall, then only woman could achieve the ultimate redemption. Original sin could only be completely overcome in the original garden, the New Jerusalem founded by a new female redeemer. This is who Mabel Barltrop came to believe she was, and this is why those otherwise conventional middle-class women came to Bedford to gather around her: to bring an end to sin; to follow the new female messiah figure; and to prepare themselves for immortality.
We shall begin the story on 9 September 1914, when Mabel Barltrop, a forty-eight-year-old woman who was short and stout but nevertheless handsome and well-dressed and always wore a veiled hat when walking out, went to her local library, as she had done every week since she had been a teenager, to borrow some books, for she loved poetry, novels and essays as well as theology. A female library assistant came up to her and said, 'Very few ladies read really good books; you are one of the few who search these shelves, so I think you are the best person to whom I can give this', and she handed Mrs Barltrop a small blue leaflet. It told the story of Joanna Southcott. Mabel was convinced that she had come across something very wonderful, and took it to her best friend Kate Firth, a practical Yorkshirewoman who lived near her in Bedford. They sent away for further books, which were advertised in the leaflet. Mabel read them 'like a famished creature' and immediately knew that she was now going to be 'taught of God'.
What led Mabel Barltrop to see Southcott's theology as the path to the truth? She had been a very dutiful vicar's wife, teaching Sunday school in her husband's parishes; keenly participating in the recently founded Mothers' Union; visiting the poor. But her husband had given up his ministry early because of illness, and had died of a brain tumour in 1906. Left with four children to raise by herself, she attempted to earn a living as a freelance literary critic and editor, her income supplemented by financial help from her Aunt Fanny (who lived with her), and her husband Arthur's family. While much of her energy was absorbed by the practical difficulties of widowhood, her questions about the Church did not recede. She had always been a seeker, hoping for reassurance that she was really saved. An early letter that Arthur had written to her, most probably when they were engaged, suggests that she had always struggled with her faith and he had tried to reassure her. He wrote, 'When you feel farthest from God then perhaps you are nearest. If one always felt a sublime pleasure in worship and contemplation where would be the exercise for faith?'
Although Mabel felt her agonies about faith, to the extent that they led to two nervous breakdowns and two residential stays in mental hospitals, she had always tried to work out those problems intellectually. She was well read in the Christian tradition for a woman of her time, studying the latest in theology in her search for answers to the ultimate questions. After her husband's death, this quest intensified: it became increasingly clear to her that this was not simply a problem to be solved by her mind. She began to have the first of the visions that characterised her early years as a prophet, and she also developed what she called 'a most trying form of illness a dread of being in church!' She found that she could not overcome a terrible feeling of anxiety as she approached the altar, and so she stopped receiving Communion, simply kneeling throughout the service. She later wrote, 'Throughout this time I was constantly depressed by the apparently useless efforts I made to obtain what is called "assurance". I left no stone unturned.' She continued to go to church several times a week, and made 'exhaustive and careful confessions'. She tested all parts of the Church of England (Low, Broad and High the last of these being where she felt most naturally at home), and even thought of converting to Roman Catholicism. She placed a great deal of emphasis on the sacraments (especially Communion and Confession) and dismissed the Protestant Nonconformist churches, where the sacraments were less important than preaching, even though her paternal grandfather Edward Andrews had been a celebrated Nonconformist minister.
Mabel's concern was that the Church of England taught that the kingdom of heaven is at hand but did nothing about it. It taught the salvation of the soul but not of the body. It promised the wiping away of pain, illness and tears but only in heaven where, as she put it, those things do not exist anyway. She wanted these things so often relegated to a future heavenly life on earth. She complained that in the season of Advent, that month before Christmas in the church calendar, most preachers simply used their sermons to prepare for Christmas. This did not satisfy Mabel, for whom the Second Coming of Christ was an imminent event. Much to her disappointment and disapproval, there was no attempt in the usual Church of England vicar's Advent sermons 'to prepare for the actual prophecies of the Second Coming'.
Mabel wanted hope for a brighter future, and Southcott's writings gave it to her with their clear promise of Christ's Second Coming. Southcott taught that there is a 6,000-year period of man's reign on earth, at the end of which the millennium will come. Mabel calculated that those 6,000 years were almost at an end, and therefore Christ's Second Coming was imminent. This filled her with expectation and excitement. For what was distinctive about Southcott's views was the idea that the millennial state to which Christians look forward is to be on earth. The saints will not be taken away before Christ comes and establishes his rule (quite the opposite of what happens in the Left Behind books and films, which have been so popular in the USA in the last few decades, where the saved are taken up to heaven in an instant, leaving a pile of clothes or a half-finished task to the bemusement of their families and friends). According to Southcott, the saints or the saved will remain on earth; they will be protected from God's judgment, free to enjoy God's kingdom of peace and justice here.
Mabel found this idea of God's kingdom and the end of suffering on earth deeply appealing. Suffering and loss had been a constant theme in her life, and her own suffering utterly preoccupied her. Her father had died when she was just nine years old. Two years later, her beloved older brother had left for South Africa, seeking relief from consumption in a warmer climate, and he had stayed there to make his fortune, as many young men did in the Empire at the time. She never saw him again, for he died after falling from a horse in South Africa in 1891, the same year that her mother, an invalid who suffered badly from rheumatism, also died. Her husband, Arthur, had become ill only seven years into their marriage, and after a decade of uncertainty, anxiety and suffering, he died in Holloway Sanatorium on 22 November 1906. Aged just forty, Mabel had been in the local mental hospital, the Three Counties Asylum in Stotfold, Bedfordshire, at the time of his death, diagnosed with melancholia, the 'exciting cause' of which was 'Domestic worry'. In short, she was completely unable to cope with an ill husband and four children, though after Arthur's death she rallied and managed to return home. And then in 1914, World War I began, with all its attendant carnage.
Despite Mabel's dutiful attendance at church from a very young age, her involvement in church societies and philanthropic activities, and her exemplary life as a curate's wife, she felt that the Church had given her no satisfactory answer as to why all the people she was closest to, except her Aunt Fanny (who partly raised her) and her own children, suffered and were taken from her when they were still relatively young, and before she was forty years old. Such family loss was not uncommon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Victorian culture made much of death, with elaborate funeral rites, precise mourning rituals and vast gravestones. But those rites were of no comfort to Mabel, and they would soon prove utterly inadequate to a whole generation in the face of the overwhelming loss and grief of the war.
Mabel Barltrop was sick of mourning and widow's weeds, invalids and illness. She wanted to bypass death, to eradicate it. She wanted to find a way of living on earth without pain, suffering and death. That possibility is what she found in the Book of Revelation and Southcott's prophecies. Her husband had preached on the subject, and this gave her another clue to the theological way forward: 'I recall a remarkable sermon of his, somewhat on these lines, in which he said something to the effect that we have never found the right gate out of the Revelation which will take us back to Genesis before the Fall.' If the extraordinary promises of Christ's coming were to be fulfilled, if there was to be the cessation of pain and death, then they must return to the very start of things, to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and to the life of Adam and Eve before the Fall. In her formation of the community in Bedford, Mabel's aim was to get back to that 'Church in Eden'. Later, when the Panacea Society had been in existence for several years, she wrote: 'we have found the gate which led us there'. However, after reading Southcott's writings in 1914, she did not forge her own way forward immediately. She tried the path of the Church of England first.
Joanna Southcott had not only published a number of her prophecies, she had also sealed up several of them in a large wooden box in the early nineteenth century, leaving instructions that this box was to be opened in a time of grave national danger by twenty-four bishops of the Church of England. The bishops represented the twenty-four elders sitting around God's throne in chapter 4 of the Book of Revelation. When Mabel read Southcott's published prophecies and biblical interpretations, her first instinct was an enthusiastic desire to tell the clergy of the Church of England about them and ask the bishops to open the box. She firmly believed that after the opening of Southcott's Box of Prophecies, England would become the new Israel and the biblical promises would come true. Despite her disillusionment with the Church, she still regarded it as capable of listening and thought the bishops would willingly open Southcott's box. She expended all her energy on writing to bishops and many of the clergy with 'the joyous news of the imminent approach of the King'.
Mabel was not the only woman interested in Southcott at this time. There already existed a campaign to get Joanna Southcott's Box of Prophecies opened. There had been a revival of interest in Southcott in the early part of the century, largely promoted by Alice Seymour, owner and headmistress of a private girls' school, Headlands College, in Plymouth in Devon. Beginning in 1907, Seymour had republished, or in some cases published for the first time from manuscripts she held, Southcott's work as a series of 'Express Leaflets'. Seymour also published in 1909 a two-volume work about Southcott, The Express, which attracted considerable attention. The Daily News called it the book of the week and, according to Seymour, the Daily Mail was interested enough to send a journalist to talk to her. Following that, Seymour republished all of Southcott's sixty-five originally published books. These books and pamphlets were distributed through networks of Southcottian believers and at meetings in the 'commodious houses' of London social hostesses as well as more ordinary tea parties and speaker events. They extended far beyond Britain and were even mailed out to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA. A woman and young man in San Diego, California, for example, reprinted all the books and an edition of The Express and travelled a thousand miles in their car making the cause known. Interest in Southcott caught on through networking, hard work and word of mouth.
Who were the Southcottians? They form a vital backdrop to the story of Mabel Barltrop and her Society, and therefore merit a brief diversion. Mabel was inspired by Southcott's writings, and by the writings of other prophets who came after Southcott and developed her ideas. But it was not only the writings that were important. The Panaceans drew heavily, especially in the early days, on existing groups and networks of the various different sorts of Southcottians for the membership of their own community. Indeed, Mabel's aim was to unite all the Southcottian groups under the Panacea umbrella; though she drew many in, she never succeeded in achieving this goal.
After Joanna Southcott's death in 1814, some of her followers fell away disillusioned, while many continued to believe but split into various groups. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there existed several Southcottian groups. These groups, taken together, are often referred to as The Visitation. First, there were the 'old' Southcottians, those who had never given up their faith in Southcott's original vision and were still awaiting the coming of Shiloh. These believers had kept the faith alive during the time of despondency and disappointment just after Southcott's death in 1814, and had passed their devotion and faith down the line, in particular through several prominent families: the Jowetts, the Foleys, the Jones family and others. Their sole interest was in Southcott and her theology and they had a special concern that her Box of Sealed Prophecies was kept safe and in the possession of a Southcottian believer at all times. They were not, however, activists about getting the bishops to open the Box, believing rather that the bishops would seek them out when the time was right. They awaited the physical coming of Shiloh, aware that one of Southcott's last commands in the summer before her death was 'No more meetings till Shiloh comes.'
Southcott had never tried or wanted to start a church. She had published her prophecies and acquired a following. She had instructed her followers to worship in the Church of England (after her own brief and rather unsuccessful flirtation with the Methodists). She had Church of England priests amongst her followers and she wanted Church of England bishops to test the truth of her writings. Her ministry was carried out largely through print. People read Southcott's writings (and the Bible), individually or together in small groups. Worship together as Southcottians was not necessarily central to their faith, though there were Southcottian chapels in parts of England. Networking through the distribution of printed literature was their central evangelistic activity; sharing literature and discussing it their primary communal activity. The Southcottians therefore formed a fairly loose movement, and usually worshipped in their local parish church. Southcottians might be sitting in the pew next to you in church, and you would not know.
Excerpted from OCTAVIA, DAUGHTER OF GOD by Jane Shaw Copyright © 2011 by Jane Shaw. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jane Shaw is Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, and former Dean of Divinity, New College, Oxford. She is the author of Miracles in Enlightenment England, published by Yale University Press. She lives in San Francisco.
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