In 1956, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge published a work chronicling a subject billed as ‘an unrecorded chapter of Church history’. The author was an elderly Anglican clergyman, George Balleine. The book was Past Finding Out: The Tragic Story of Joanna Southcott and her Successors.
Before Balleine, the early nineteenth-century figure of Joanna Southcott, and her eventually global religious movement, had garnered scant mainstream attention. The most extensive work was Ronald Matthews’s rudimentary analysis of Southcott and five other ‘English Messiahs’ in a 1936 contribution to the psychology of religion. Southcott had not, in fact, claimed to be a messiah herself; rather, she was the prophet of a coming messiah named ‘Shiloh’. Southcott’s followers (variously labelled ‘Southcottians’, ‘Christian Israelites’ ‘Jezreelites’, among other names) believed that she and certain later figures were inspired by God to signal the imminence of the Christian millennium. Claimants to be the actual Shiloh messiah occasionally featured within this particular tradition of biblical interpretation, inspiration and theodicy. The splinter-prone movement spread through Britain, Australia, New Zealand and North America, and retained a few thousand members in the twentieth century.