December 3, 2011 3:12:00 PM
In 1919, a group of middle-class English women in Bedford (between Oxford and Cambridge) devoted to English ways and to the Church of England, received a revelation that would change all their lives forever. One of their members, Mabel Barltrop, was the daughter of God. The members started calling her Octavia. She was 53 years old, a widow of a priest in the Church of England, and she announced a new theology. There was God the Father, and Jesus the Son, and God the Mother, and Octavia the Daughter. Her organization, the Panacea Society, was to be bustling and moderately influential, and it was inescapably dotty. It was a cult, but in Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and Her Followers (Yale University Press), author Jane Shaw has presented a sympathetic picture of a cult that was pleasant, silly, and unthreatening. It is refreshing to read of a cult so mild. Shaw is a theologian herself, the Dean of Grace Cathedral in Washington, and she is sympathetic to the Panaceans, who could not have asked for a better-rounded portrayal of their organization. Shaw has brought in over 400 pages of details to describe the society and its activities. The Panaceans were sincere, they were not charlatans, and their ideas (especially seen at this temporal remove) were often just batty. Shaw writes with understanding and humor, and although there is sometimes some archness in what is a truly funny story of eccentrics, she is never condescending.
Octavia had a difficult life, including a marriage shortened by the death of her husband (whom she years after the fact identified as Jesus). She was hospitalized as a melancholic twice, the second time for eighteen months. She may well have harnessed her compulsions into her obsessive management of her religious group's activities and personal behaviors, and she might well have felt that redeeming the world would be a good ease against depression. She took her religious inspiration from the British prophetess Joanna Southcott, who had died in 1814 at a time when she had announced that she (at age 64) was pregnant with Shiloh, the messiah promised in Genesis. Shiloh, according to those who continued to believe in Southcott's prophecies, would come when the world was in deep crisis, and World War I fit the bill. Octavia was convinced that she herself was just that Shiloh, and she founded the Panacea Society in 1919. The new Jerusalem and the new Garden of Eden were to be centered in the market town of Bedford. It was a woman who had arranged for the expulsion of the original God-created pair from the original garden, and Octavia reasoned that a woman was needed to get everyone back to the pre-Fall paradise and bring on the Millennium.
It was not simple to be a member of the Panacea Society. Part of the fun in thinking about this cult is that they were devoted to bourgeois life. When Octavia imaged her community, she wrote to a friend, "Wouldn't a Hostel - a 'Land of Goshen' - be lovely? Really devoted 'believers' could take up nice houses in Bedford which is a most lovely place & is going up by leaps & bounds. Selfridges is coming [&] has taken a huge block in High Street..." Selfridges is an upscale department store chain; Shaw jokes that Octavia "is the only Messiah figure in history to name Selfridges as a selling point to her followers." Edwardian, if not Victorian, domesticity was the rule. One of Octavia's letters, pages of complex theology, ends with, "I am so sorry about your burst pipe and that you have a cold." She held such objects as a household broom to have particular meaning, thinking of herself as the broom to sweep the world of evil. Octavia had a system of managing that was attentive to detail, or in other words, intrusive. No other religious society was so built on etiquette. Her paper on manners declares, "Any person who makes an undue noise when eating toast, and declares they cannot avoid it, must leave off eating toast and must not take any other food which causes them to make a noise." She gave written instructions on all matters theological, often mixing them with household management. Panaceans were to eat date pudding, for instance, on Palm Sunday, because dates grow on palms. No home economist paid more attention to telling others about minutiae. The women might for years have run their own households and baked their own cakes, but Octavia insisted, "If cherries are put in a home-made cake, it wants a lot of cherries, or add cherries to a lot of other fruit with it; hardly ever are there enough cherries in a cherry cake." There was one tiny detail in which the households of the members could not be typical of the British middleclass: Octavia recommended celibacy. There were about seventy resident members, and almost all were women. Many were widows like Octavia herself, and some were wives who found that Panacean spiritual life meant more to them than marital life. Some who remained married got their husbands to join, and presumably stayed celibate ever after. Despite her emphasis on female power, Octavia was no suffragette; the sort of liberty the suffragette movement encouraged, asserting independence even against the church, was not for her.
The theology of the church was all in preparation for the imminent arrival of Jesus, and the members intended to make him personally welcome. Indeed, though the Panacea Society is barely hanging on, they have Number 18 Albany Road reserved for Jesus, with new carpets and new curtains, and a shower. There are few members left, so most of the community's houses have been rented out; the current residents of the apartment assigned to Jesus are on two month's notice. The Panaceans discovered they had the gift of healing. Octavia could breathe on tap water, which could be used to dampen linen, and the linen would be dried, cut into small squares, and mailed all over the world to cure anything. It worked, too; recipients were politely required to send regular reports on the results, and administrators at Bedford tallied them up and kept records on them. (The records reflect Octavia's obsessiveness; the rich trove of detailed records was made available to Shaw, who though she is not a member and does not share Panacean faith, is a trustee of the society as it remains.) Cards that had been imbued with the water might be used to redeem buildings. If you had money in a bank, for instance, you were to drop a card within the bank and that would somehow sanctify and protect it, and although it didn't matter if the card were swept up and discarded, you might put a little glue on beforehand and stick it under the counter. The ladies also chased around England sprinkling their water on establishments that needed it, like the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, and Westminster Abbey. They were especially interested in a sealed box of prophecies from Joanna Southcott, a box that was to be opened in the presence of 24 Anglican bishops (and they have special rooms for the 24 ready for the opening ceremonies). They had posters on buses to say "Crime and banditry, distress and perplexity, will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott's Box," and the box became so famous it was eventually joked about by Monty Python. It remains in the possession of the society, unopened.
Though greatly reduced in numbers now, the society struggles on. The greatest of its shocks must have been Octavia's own death; she was found dead in her bed one morning in 1934. "The shock was not just that of discovering a dead body," writes Shaw. "It was the horror of discovering that the beloved divine daughter had actually died in a community that promised immortality." They did keep the body around for three days before burying it, in hopes that Octavia would arise. It all seems not to have been enough of a shock to hazard the strong faith her followers had in Panacean beliefs, but with the loss of Octavia's strong leadership, and with the emphasis on celibacy, and also with the general sweet silliness of the society's tenets, the numbers are dwindling and no new members are being sealed within. It was a cult with a limited run, and certainly there are those who are going to think that the enormous amount of attention Shaw has paid it in this history is a misplacement of effort about trivia. It is always interesting, however, to see the way strong faith may cause humans to behave in curious manners. The Panaceans at least caused no direct harm, and Shaw's history of their movement is funny and instructive.