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2005-2006 Visiting Fellows

The formation of Joanna Southcott’s theology and the ‘old Southcottian’ Movement
Matthew Niblett
Keble College, University of Oxford

Princeton University Library is fortunate to possess an internationally important collection of nineteenth-century millenarian literature. Among these archives is a unique collection of printed and manuscript material belonging to the British religious visionary Joanna Southcott (1750 - 1814) and her followers, including her key clerical supporter, the Reverend Thomas Philip Foley. Southcott inspired one of the most significant British prophetical movements of the nineteenth century, and her ‘divine’ revelations resulted in a scriptural canon of texts more than equal in length to that revealed to Joseph Smith, Jr. Much of the manuscript material relating to Southcott and her followers has until recently been held in private collections, and so her thought and engagement with contemporary Christian movements has been neglected. I was much indebted therefore to the generosity of the Friends of Princeton University Library for making available a fellowship grant which enabled study of these important documents. As it transpired, their significance and interest was greater than I had imagined.

The most significant aspect of the Princeton collection is the surviving personal library of the Reverend T.P. Foley, a Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge, and Rector of Oldswinford in Worcestershire. Foley, not unusually for a late-Georgian Anglican cleric, took a keen interest in contemporary prophecy, and latched onto Southcott’s mission at an early stage, soon becoming her key champion, publisher, distributor, and activist. In several volumes he bound together Southcott’s printed revelations, interleaved with blank pages, which he then annotated extensively with notes, observations and exegesis of her texts. Not only do these provide a unique insight into the workings of a late-Georgian clerical mind; they also help to reveal exactly how Southcott’s educated supporters interpreted and understood her theology and ideas. It became clear that Foley had added layers of notes to these texts in stages, both before and after Southcott’s death, providing a valuable record of how her mission developed and was carried forward posthumously.

Beside this printed material, my work also involved examination of Princeton’s manuscript collection of Southcottian items. The bulk of this collection consists of notebook volumes containing handwritten transcriptions of Southcott’s revelations. During her lifetime Southcott normally used amanuenses to copy down her visions and revelations, and after her death it became a common spiritual exercise for her followers to make their own copies of these communications. Unsurprisingly, many of the Princeton transcriptions exist in other archives, but careful study of the collection revealed a few new entries, including a rare hymn composed by Southcott for the opening of one of her chapels. More striking were some original letters in the hand of Southcott’s closest followers, including Foley and Ann Underwood, which illuminated the way in which the movement was consolidated. In addition to these letters were special items that provided a unique insight into the material culture of the Southcottian movement. These included seals given to followers to protect them from the devil, an embroidered sampler made by Southcott as a token of affection for her closest associates, and a vellum scroll with a pledge of commitment signed by sixty followers as a record of their faith.

The research conducted in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections has added greatly to my understanding of the Southcottian movement, and will form an invaluable contribution to my forthcoming monograph on Southcott and proposed future study of Foley. For this I am extremely thankful for the opportunity provided by the Friends of Princeton University Library. I have particular reason to be grateful to Steve Ferguson, Dan Linke and Linda Oliveira, who were unfailingly helpful in their advice and assistance, as well as those attending my Library seminar talk for their comments which were both stimulating and useful.

Oxford, December 2010


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