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the case up to ridicule. But space and time enough have now been
occupied with the task, and we must speedily draw to an end with

6



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

Richard Brothers. He shewed most fully the extent of his self-
delusion, perhaps, on the occasion of his visit to the House of Com-
mons. After formally announcing that he was about to do so, he
went to that place for the purpose of prophesying to the members
of wars and rumours of wars, and of directing them, as their true
' king and minister of state,' how to avoid the coming perils. Strange
to say, the reckless speaker sent back the letter of the prophet with a
messenger, who set him off with what he felt to be, ' in such a public
place particularly, unfeeling contempt and incivility.' But the House
of Commons had not yet seen the last of Richard Brothers. On the
4th of March 1795 the poor prophet was taken into custody,
ostensibly to answer a charge of high treason, founded on the
printed passages relating to the king, but in reality to try the sanity
of the man in a regular way. He was tried, and was declared by a
jury to be insane. The imputation both of insanity and high treason
was combated, in two long speeches in the House of Commons, by
Mr Halhed, and these speeches shew both learning and ingenuity in
no slight degree. But the case was too strong for Mr Halhed, and
his motions fell to the ground unseconded.

Richard Brothers now fell under the care of the lord-chancellor
as a lunatic, and passed the whole of his remaining days, we believe,
in private confinement. Doubtless he would there be much more
happy than in the midst of a world for which his unfortunate situa-
tion unfitted him. The victims of such illusions create a world ot
their own around them, and in imaginary intercourse with the
beings that people it, find more pleasure than in any commerce with
the material creation. Richard Brothers, as far as he lived at all
for the ordinary world, lived only to give another proof of the
strength of the superstitious feeling and love of the marvellous in
man, as well as of the difficulty which even education has in repress-
ing their undue exercise.



FEMALE FANATICS.

During the past century the religious world has been scandalised
by the wild fancies and pretensions of several female fanatics,
equally mad or self-deceiving with the most visionary impostors of
the male sex. We shall first speak of

Ann Lee, the founder of the religious sect commonly called
Shakers. She was the daughter of a blacksmith, who lived in Toad
Lane in Manchester ; a very poor man, who gave her no education,
and sent her while a mere child to work in a cotton-mill. She seems
to have been a violent, hysterical girl, ambitious of notice, and fond
of power, and to have always possessed, in virtue of her strong will
and vehement temper, a great deal of influence over the people
around her. Marrying, while very young, a blacksmith named

7



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

Stanley, she had four children, all of whom died in infancy, and to
this, perhaps, may be ascribed the preference of the celibate to the
married life, which she ultimately raised into a part of her religious
system. She became one of the earliest believers in a prophetess,
who appeared about a hundred years ago, in the town of Bolton-on-
the-Moors, in Lancashire a poor woman, named Jane Wardlaw,
the wife of a tailor, who believed she had 'received a call' to go
forth and testify for the truth. The burden of Jane Wardlaw's
message was, that the end of all things was at hand, that Christ was
coming to reign upon the earth, and that his second appearance
would be in the form of a woman, as prefigured in the Psalms. In
subordination to this, she took up several of the tenets of the Society
of Friends, to which she and her husband originally belonged ;
especially, she raised her voice against war and against profane swear-
ing. Her followers believed that she was filled with the Holy Spirit ;
they received her utterances as the voice of God ; and she acted as
if all the powers of earth and heaven had been given into her hands.
Ann Lee, on her conversion (about 1758), began to preach the same
message in Toad Lane and the adjacent streets of Manchester ; but
she soon went beyond her teacher, and gained the leadership of her
co-believers for herself. It happened that she was brought before a
magistrate, charged with an obstruction of the streets, caused by the
crowd collected to hear her preach, and she was sent to the Old
Bailey Prison in Manchester. When she came out of prison, she
gave forth, that one night a light had shone upon her in her cell ;
that the Lord Jesus stood before her ; and that He became one with
her in form and spirit (1770). Her pretension was, that Christ was
come to reign in her person. It was favourably entertained by the
followers of Jane Wardlaw ; and they acknowledged her as their
Head, or Mother, in place of Jane, whose pretensions had never gone
so far. She found, however, that among her neighbours and fellow-
workers, her claim to be the Bride of the Lamb seen in the Revela-
tion by St John, excited only jeering and ridicule ; and she received
a revelation that she should seek in America a home for herself
and her few disciples that it was in America that the foundations
of Christ's kingdom were to be laid. So she went to New York in
1774, accompanied by seven disciples five males and two females.
Her husband also went with her ; but he seems to have had no faith
in her, and he left her soon after their arrival, in consequence of
one of the features then introduced into her system. This was the
practice of celibacy, which she had not previously enforced upon
her followers, though she had commended it. Her teaching was,
that men called into grace must live as the angels do, among whom
there is no marrying or giving in marriage ; that no form of earthly
love could be allowed in the Redeemer's kingdom. Finding a popu-
lous city unfavourable to her designs, she removed, with her fol-
lowers, first to Albany, then far into the wilderness to Niskenna,



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

and there founded the settlement which still exists, of Wafer Vliet.
It was in the spring of 1780 when she had been three years and a
half at Niskenna, looking for new believers to come in, but making
no attempt to win them that the first American converts joined
her Society. A revival had taken place at Albany, and had spread
through the surrounding districts.; and from Hancock and New
Lebanon a deputation was sent to Niskenna, to see what light its
inhabitants enjoyed as to the way of salvation. The deputation
consisted of Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright subsequently the
heads of the Shaker Society. These persons became believers in
Ann Lee ; and through their agency, other converts were won, and
a Shaker Society established at New Lebanon. Towards the close
of 1780, the revolutionary war being then in progress, notoriety was
given to Ann Lee's pretensions, through an incident seemingly
unfavourable. Owing to her British origin, her denunciations against
war, and her refusal to take the colonial oaths, Ann was imprisoned
for some time at Poughkeepsie, on suspicion of being a British spy.
Before she was let out of prison, in December 1780, all the colonies
had heard of 'the female Christ.' In the following year, she started
upon a missionary tour through New England and adjacent colonies ;
she found the people everywhere curious to see her, and she made
not a few converts. She did not return to Water Vliet till September
1783, and about a year after, she died. Her death was a surprise to
many of her followers, who believed that she was to live among them
for ever ; but her successors the Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright
already mentioned to whom, on her death-bed, she had made
over the headship of the Society, were ready with a theory account-
ing for it. ' Mother Ann,' they said, could not die, and was not
dead, and had not ceased to live among her people. She had only
withdrawn from the common sight ; she was still visible to eyes
exalted by the gift of grace ; she had cast the dress of flesh, and was
now clothed with a glory which concealed her from the world. So
it would be with every one of the saints in turn ; but the spirits of
those who ' passed out of sight ' would remain near and be in union
with the visible body of believers. This explanation was generally
accepted, and has become a vital part of the Shaker creed, which
thus falls in, in so far, with the more recent doctrine of ' Spiritism,'
as it is called.

By Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright, the successors of ' Mother
Ann.' the Shakers were gathered into settlements, ten in number ;
and a covenant was drawn up embracing the chief points of their
creed, and of the social system since associated with it. Their head
was, of course, 'Mother Ann' the second incarnation of Christ
of whom Joseph and Lucy were temporarily the representatives :
elders and deacons, male and female, were appointed ; the institu-
tion of celibacy was confirmed ; and a community of goods was
introduced. On the death of Joseph Meacham in 1796, 'Mother
62 9



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

Lucy' became the sole head of the Society, and she governed it
with ample powers for twenty-five years. She named a female suc-
cessor with the title of Elderess; and the name of ' Mother' has not,
since that time, been applied to the female head of the community.
The Shakers were, at the census of 1860, more than six thousand in
number, included in eighteen societies ; of which three are in the
state of New York, four in Massachusetts, two in New Hampshire,
two in Maine, one in Connecticut, four in Ohio, and two in
Kentucky. Their numbers have increased considerably since 1860;
the influence of their opinions has greatly increased ; and the
eighteen separate settlements continue to form a united and peaceful
Society.

Their doctrine has been to some extent developed as well as
systematised since the death of ' Mother Ann.' They believe that
the kingdom of heaven has come ; that Christ has appeared on earth
a second time, in the form of ' Mother Ann,' and that the personal
rule of God has been restored. Then they hold that the old law
has been abolished, and a new dispensation begun ; that Adam's
sin has been atoned ; that man has been made free of all errors
except his own ; that the curse has been taken away from labour ;
that the earth and all that is on it will be redeemed. Believers, on
going ' into union,' die to the world, and enter upon a new life, which
is not a mere change of life, but a new order of being. For them,
there is neither death nor marriage ; what seems death is only a
change of form, a transfiguration which does not hide them from the
purified eyes of the saints ; and in union, as in heaven, there is no
marrying or giving in marriage the believer owes love to all the
saints, but his love must be celibate in spirit and in fact. The believer,
living in union, is in heaven. The Shakers believe that the earth,
now freed from the curse of Adam, is heaven ; they look for no resur-
rection besides that involved in living with them in 'resurrection
order.' The believer, upon 'entering into union, leaves behind all
his earthly relationships and interests, just as if he had been severed
from them by death. Those who have ' passed out of sight ' are
still in union ; and the Shakers live in daily communion with the
spirits of the departed believers.

It being the work of the saints to redeem the earth from the
effects of the curse, labour is a sacred and priestly function, especially
when bestowed in making the earth yield her increase, and in
developing her beauty. It should be done in a spirit of love ; the
earth, they say, yields most to those who love it ; and love and
labour will in time restore it to its primitive state. According to
Mr W. Hepworth Dixon, from whose New America (London, 1867)
the materials of this sketch have been chiefly derived, they bestow
upon their gardens and fields the affections which other men bestow
upon family or worldly goods. Their country they regard only as
it is a part of the earth, which they love, and as the favoured land



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

in which God's kingdom is first to be established. In its politics"
and its fortunes, they take no interest; and, indeed, their whole
system is a protest against the existing constitution of society, as
well as against the ordinary lives of men. Consistently with their
belief in the second appearance of Christ in the form of a woman,
the Shakers seem to hold that there is a female as well as a male
essence in the Godhead to believe in the motherhood as well as
the fatherhood of God.

Their mode of worship is thus described : ' The two sexes are
frequently arranged in ranks opposite to and facing each other, the
front ranks about six feet apart. There is usually an address by
one of the elders upon some doctrinal subject, or some practical
virtue, after which they sing a hymn ; then they form in circles
around a band of male and female singers, to the music of whom
they " go forth in the dances of them that make merry," in which
they manifest their religious zeal ; and at times the excitement and
fervency of spirit become very great, and their bodily evolutions,
while maintaining the order and regularity of the dance and the
music, are almost inconceivably rapid.' It was in ridicule of the
bodily movements accompanying their worship that the name of
Shakers was given to them ; the name by which they designate
themselves is, the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second
Appearing. In their church-service, music bears a prominent part ;
the hymns and chants which are used being all of Shaker origin,
communicated to believers in dreams and reveries by the spirits
with whom they have communion. The spirits, it is said, shew no
great regard for rhyme or grammar.

They do not consider a life of celibacy as a duty for all, otherwise
the race would soon come to an end. There are two orders in the
world- the Order of Resurrection, and the Order of Generation.
Those who have entered the Society are of the Resurrection order,
for whom there is no marriage ; they claim, says Mr Dixon, to be
a sort of priesthood of saints, appointed to serve God, and to redeem
the world from sin. The outside world is of the Generation order,
and for them marriage is still, for a time, allowed.

A Shaker settlement is, for convenience, divided into families,
consisting of the brothers and sisters, who live in the same houses,
each governed by an elder and an elderess. There are two orders
of members Probationers and Covenanters that is, novices and
full members. It is on becoming a covenanter that the Shaker puts
his property into the common stock. On entering upon residence,
he becomes subject to all the rules of the society ; but he is free
whether a covenanter or a probationer to leave the body whenever
he pleases. Both men and women wear a dress of prescribed cut.
Some latitude is allowed as to the materials of the dress. Men and
women, it is said, have the look of persons at peace with earth and
Heaven. All labour with their hands, both men and women ; but



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

the latter do only indoor work. Every man, whatever his rank in
the church, follows some manual occupation, and most of them have
more than one. Working not for gain, but with loving care, and
with the sense that they are exercising a priestly function, the
Shakers are unrivalled among their neighbours in the arts to which
they apply themselves, especially the culture of their land, and the
production of fruits and flowers. They pay great attention to
ventilation and to all sanitary conditions ; they live almost entirely
upon the produce of the soil, and drink only water ; they employ
no doctors, and take no drugs, and are, nevertheless, among the
healthiest of communities. Their Society is recruited mostly by
young men and girls ; but occasionally, married persons with their
children come ' into union.' Husbands and wives, when they have
come ' into union,' become as brothers and sisters. The education
of the children attached to the Society is the work of the sisters,
and they do it exceedingly well. The brothers and sisters take their
meals in a common room, eating at six in the morning, at noon, and
at six in the afternoon. Their meals are taken in silence, any
direction that has to be given being given by a gesture or in a
whisper.

Such is this singular body, which is described as exerting a
powerful influence on the course of American thought and sentiment.
And yet, strange to say, all this originated, only a hundred years
ago, in the morbid visions of an illiterate, hysterical factory-girl.

Jemima Wilkinson was another American fanatic who flourished
at the same time as Mrs Lee. She was the daughter of a member of
the Society of Friends of Cumberland, Rhode Island. Mentally
deranged, her first visions occurred in 1775, when she pretended that
she had been ill, and had actually died. Her soul having gone to
heaven, as she alleged, she there heard the inquiry : ' Who will go
and preach toadying world?' Whereupon she answered: 'Here
am I, send me.' Her body, as she said, was then reanimated by the
spirit of Christ, upon which she set up as a public teacher, to give
the last call of mercy to the human race. She declared that she had
arrived at a state of perfection, and knew all things by immediate
revelation , that she could foretell future events, heal all diseases, and
discern the secrets of the heart. If any person was not healed by
her, she conveniently attributed it to the want of faith.

Mrs Wilkinson made many other extravagant pretensions. She
assumed the title of universal friend ; declared that she had left the
realms of glory for the good of mankind, and that all who would not
believe in her should perish. She pretended that she should live a
thousand years, and then be translated without death. She preached
in defence of a community of goods, and took -herself whatever 'the
Lord had need of.' Multitudes of the poor, and many of the rich, in
New England believed in the truth of these frantic assumptions, and
made large contributions to her. Some gave hundreds, and one even



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

a thousand dollars for her use. In a few instances wealthy families
were ruined by her. No detection of her fallacies undeceived her
willing dupes. She pretended that she could walk on water, in
which she signally failed. She pretended that she could raise the
dead to life, but a corpse placed in a coffin remained dead in spite of
all her efforts. Her own death occurred in 1819, and thus her claims
to immortality were completely falsified. Yet her followers would
not at first believe that she was dead. They refused to bury her
body, but at last were compelled to dispose of it in some secret way.

Mrs Buchan, a resident in Glasgow, excited by a religious mania,
announced herself in 1 783 as a mother and leader of the elect. She
likewise was resolute in proclaiming that she was the woman spoken
of in the Revelations; that the end of the world was near; and that
all should follow her ministrations. For some time she wandered
from place to place, attended by hundreds of half-crazy dupes. This
woman appears to have been one of the least selfish or arrogant of
the class to which she belonged. She seems simply to have been
a lunatic, whom it was cruel to allow to go at large. She announced
that she was immortal, and that all who believed in her should never
taste death; but in time, like all other mortals, she died; and this
event staggered the faith of her followers. The Buchanites, as they
were termed, are now, we believe, extinct. Perhaps some of them
were absorbed by the next impostor-fanatic who appeared in
England.

Joanna Southcott. This person was born in Devonshire about
the year 1750, of humble parents. In early life, and till near her
fortieth year, she was employed chiefly at Exeter as a domestic
servant. Having joined one of the Methodist bodies, her religious
feelings were powerfully awakened, and becoming acquainted with a
man named Sanderson, who laid claim to the spirit of prophecy, the
notion of a like pretension was gradually impressed on her mind.
Possessing a very inferior education, and naturally of a coarse mind,
her efforts at prophecy, whether in prose or verse, were uncouth and
unworthy of the notice of people enjoying a sane mind. There
being, however, always persons of an unsettled turn ready to give
credence to pretensions confidently supported, her influence extended;
she announced herself, like her predecessors in England and
America, as the woman spoken of in the Book of Revelations ; and
obtained considerable sums by the sale of seals which were to secure
the salvation of those who purchased them.

Exeter being too narrow a field for the exercise of her prophetic
powers, Mrs Southcott removed to London, on the invitation and at
the expense of William Sharp, an eminent engraver, who had
become one of her principal adherents. Both before and after her
removal to the metropolis, she published a number of pamphlets
containing her crude reveries and prophecies concerning her mis-
sion. Towards the year 1813 she had surrounded herself with many

13



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.

credulous believers, and among certain classes had become an object
of no small importance. Among other rhapsodies, she uttered dread-
ful denunciations upon her opposers and the unbelieving nations,
and predicted the speedy approach of the millennium. In the last
year of her life she secluded herself from the world, and especially
from the society of the other sex, and gave out that she was with
child of the Holy Ghost; and that she should give birth to the
Shiloh promised to Jacob, which should be the second coming of
Christ. Her prophecy was, that she was to be delivered on the igih
of October 1814, at midnight; being then upwards of sixty years
of age.

This announcement seemed not unlikely to be verified, for there
was an external appearance of pregnancy ; and her followers, who
are said to have amounted at that time to 100,000, were in the
highest state of excitement. A splendid and expensive cradle was
made, and considerable sums were contributed, in order to have other
things prepared in a style worthy of the expected Shiloh. On the
night o'f the iQth of October a large number of persons assembled in
the street in which she lived, waiting to hear the announcement
of the looked-for event ; but the hour of midnight passed over, and
the crowd were only induced to disperse by being informed that Mrs
Southcott had fallen into a trance. On the 27th of December follow-
ing she died, having a short time previously declared that ' if she
was deceived, she was at all events misled by some spirit, either
good or evil.' Under the belief that she was not dead, or that she
would again come to life, her disciples refused to inter the body,
until it began to be offensive from decomposition. They then con-
sented, with much reluctance, to a post-mortem examination, which
fully refuted Joanna's pretensions and their belief. The appearance
which had deceived her followers was found to have arisen from
dropsy. The pretended mission of Joanna Southcott might be
expected to have been now thoroughly abandoned ; but whether
influenced by fanaticism or shame, her disciples clung to the cause
of the deceased. They most reluctantly buried the body, without
relinquishing their hopes. Flattering themselves that the object
of their veneration would still, some way, reappear, they formed them-
selves into a religious society, under the name of the Southcottian
Church. The members affected a peculiar costume, of which a
brown coat of a plain cut, a whity-brown hat, with a long unshaven
beard, were the chief features. Joanna Southcott was unquestion-
ably, for the last twenty years of her life, in a state of religious
insanity, which took the direction of diseased self-esteem. A lunatic
asylum would have been her most fitting place of residence.



RELIGIOUS IMPOSTORS.



ROBERT MATTHEWS.

Some years ago a considerable sensation was created in the state
of New York by the mad and grotesque pranks of Robert Matthews,
who presumptuously laid claim to the divine character, and had the
address to impose himself as a superior being upon some of the most
respectable members of society. As no account, as far as we are
aware, has ever been published in Britain of this remarkable affair,
notwithstanding the interest which it excited in America, we propose



Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 49 of 58)