A fascinating new museum of religion has opened (initially by appointment only) in Bedford, England. The Panacea Society was, between the two World Wars, a group of (largely) middle-class women who regarded Mabel Barltrop, a vicar’s widow, as the daughter of God, sent to build the New Jerusalem in Bedford. (See Jane Shaw’s Octavia, Daughter of God: the Story of a Female Messiah and her Followers. Jonathan Cape 2011). They bought houses close to each other, threw the gardens together, and lived a semi-communal life.
No true believers survive, but the Trustees have now opened a number of the houses, plus the garden, as a museum. Some are furnished as they would have been in the early 20th century, others display the story of the Society, and others the extraordinary English prophetic tradition more widely. Among the most remarkable exhibits are the items inherited by the Society from the famous English prophetess Joanna Southcott. See below the cradle and babyclothes prepared for her longed-for son Shiloh, the new Messiah. The museum has also opened the room prepared for 24 bishops of the Church of England to open Joanna Southcott’s box of prophecies; much of the Society’s energies went into calling for the bishops to open the box. A replica is displayed – the Trustees claim to have the real box safely.