Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Panacea Society: A 20th-Century Millenarian Movement

Just down the street from the John Bunyan Museum is a large property that was once the headquarters of the Panacea Society, and is now home to the Panacea Museum. I was anxious to get to our next destination, so we only had time to take a brief glimpse at a few rooms in the museum--long enough to be thoroughly intrigued.

At its peak in the early 20th century the Panacea Society had over 70 residents living in the community in Bedford. According to the Panacea Museum website, eventually "[o]ver two thousand people became members of the Panacea Society" from around the world.

The society is most well-known for an advertising campaign to pressure 24 Anglican bishops to open a sealed box of prophecies left behind by the 18th-century prophetess, Joanna Southcott:

Before her death in 1814, the 64-year-old virgin had announced that she was pregnant. This news became a national sensation, and thousands of her followers made clothing for the promised child, Shiloh, the second-coming of the Messiah:

(Read Genesis 49:10 for the details.)

No child materialized, however, and Southcott died 10 months after announcing her "pregnancy."
Fast-forward to 1919 when Bedford resident, Mabel Barltrop (1866-1934), a widowed mother of four children, announced that she was Shiloh. Mabel changed her name to Octavia and, together with twelve female apostles, founded the Panacea society.

One of the society's main occupations was advocating for the opening of Joanna Southcott's box. True to its name, the society also advertised a panacea:
"The cure was ordinary tap water over which Octavia had breathed and prayed. ... [D]emand from non-resident members prompted the development of a new method of transferring the healing power believed to be in Octavia’s breath. In a ceremony Octavia first prayed then breathed over long rolls of linen, which were then cut up into one-inch squares. Anyone applying for healing would be sent one of these small squares of healing linen. They were instructed to keep the linen square in a jug of water, and pray each time they used it. ... [O]ver 120,000 people have applied to the Panacea Society for healing since it began. Members of the Society meticulously archived the extensive correspondence from recipients of the healing squares replying whenever possible and the resulting archives are a fascinating record of faith and health from around the world."
In 2012, when the last member of the society died, the religious movement officially ended. The society--now with considerable financial assets--changed its name to the "The Panacea Charitable Trust," and transformed the Bedford property into a museum. The Trust's dual aims are to support the study of the Panacea Society and other similar millenarian groups and to contribute to needy causes in the Bedford area. (Christopher Rowland once served on the board; Justin Meggitt of Cambridge University is currently board chair.)

The Panacea Museum also hosts art exhibitions, though we didn't make it to the floor that held this one:

If I ever return to Bedford and have my druthers, I will give the John Bunyan Museum a pass (with all due respect), and spend my time at the Panacea.

Further Reading: As you would expect, the Wikipedia entries on the Panacea Society and Joanna Southcott contain basic information. The Panacea Museum website has a helpful overview of the society's history, but for some reason a much more detailed biography of Mabel Borthrop preserved on the Wayback Machine is no longer included on the site (HT: Wikipedia). I also consulted Stephen Coates's piece on Joanna Southcott's box.

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