CenSAMM: Violence and the Apocalypse
Please note that this review was written for the weekly newsletter of the Bedfordshire Humanists, and is reproduced here without change. We trust that due allowance will be made for some of the more esoteric references.
Bedfordians will no doubt be aware of the existence of the Panacea Society, even if they are a little hazy on the details.
Briefly, the story is this. In 1919, the Society was founded by Mabel Barltrop, the widow of an Anglican vicar, who had become convinced that she was a Messianic figure, the 8th in a line (referred to as ‘the Visitation’) that had started in the 1790s with the mystic Joanna Southcott (Skeptics regulars will remember her as one of Iszi Lawrence’s ‘Z-List Dead List’). Hence her adopted name of Octavia. She claimed healing powers, which could be distributed via a small square of linen, soaked in ordinary water and breathed on by herself. 130,000 of these ‘universal remedies’ were dispatched worldwide. She died in 1934, but the tradition was maintained by a small core of devoted followers.
As part of this operation, when the last heir of Joanna Southcott died in 1957, her sealed ‘box’, which contained her prophecies and was to be opened only in the presence of 24 Anglican bishops, was secured by the Society and brought to Bedford. Octavia believed that since the world’s evil had started in the Bedford area (seems a little harsh, I know), it was only logical that the Second Coming should take place here as well. Accordingly the ‘Ark’, a house in Albany Road, was kept prepared for the great event.
With the demise some years ago of the last true believer, the Society rather lost its raison d’être. So in 2012, to mark the end of the Panacea Society as a religious community, it changed its name to The Panacea Charitable Trust. The Trustees set up the former Bedford School boarding house in Newnham Road, which had been acquired to house the assembled Bishops, as a museum recording not only the Panacea Society itself, but the whole range of similar movements. They have also made a number of charitable grants to local community associations, religious and secular.
This year, to further its academic and educational aims, the Society has set up the Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements, under the directorship of Justin Meggitt, senior lecturer from Cambridge, and Oxford’s Emeritus Professor Chris Rowland. Have a look here.
There are actually three terms in use covering a rather similar spectrum of activity:
- Apocalyptic, named after the Book of Revelation, which relates to the end of the world: the ‘End Times’, Armageddon, the Rapture etc. etc.;
- Millenarian (why only one ‘n’ I can’t explain) which applies to a state of planetary perfection either happening after 1000 years – hence the rash of sightings around 2000 – or lasting for 1000 years. Or, of course, not, depending on the details of the ‘revelation’ concerned;
- Messianic, involving the coming, or return, of a saviour, e.g. the Second Coming of Christ, the return from occultation of the Shi’ite 12th Imam, or the return of King Arthur.
I spent Wednesday evening last week at the second CenSAMM free Film Night, Peter Weir’s The Last Wave and Roland Emmerich’s 2012, apocalyptic movies set in Australia and the US respectively, and both, it has to be said, pretty terrible. But the free pizza from (if I’m any judge) Santaniello’s made it more than bearable. The first film night, of course, clashed with our showing of Jon Amiel’s Creation at the Club, an infinitely more rewarding experience, intellectually and emotionally. Sorry about the pizza!
Thursday and Friday, 9.30–5.00, were devoted to their conference on Violence and Millenarian Movements. Again, no charge is made, and coffee and lunch are provided.
The association of violence with religious movements is of course of pressing contemporary concern – IS speaks explicitly of the establishment of the Caliphate and the End of Days, and sectarian conflicts seem endemic in much of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. But to illustrate that these are nothing new, an impressive range of topics was covered, both by speakers present in the flesh, and three Skype communicants, from Australia, Peru and Sweden.
Proceedings started with an account of half a dozen traditionally religious cultic ventures that had ended in tears. David Koresh at Waco is well enough known, as is Jim Jones at Jonestown; but I didn’t recall the Ordre du Temple Solaire, which in the ‘90s resulted in multiple murders (including a six-month-old Antichrist) and suicides in Quebec and Switzerland; or MOVE, a family-based religious ecowarrior movement which in the ‘80s turned its Philadelphia suburban block into an armed fortress, which the police could dislodge only by bombing it. I wasn’t actually aware of police forces maintaining bomber squadrons, but what do I know? The children emerged looking like famine victims, because it was an article of faith that they could only be fed raw food. Turns out the same outfit now runs a smallholding on Devon. Watch this space....
There were papers on the Melanesian Cargo Cult; the Fifth Monarchists of the 1650s, culminating in Thomas Venner’s 1661 revolt against the Restoration (which at least had the virtue of finishing up in the pub); changing attitudes over the course of the 17th century of the settlers towards the native American population, the Algonquian tribes; the Babis in Iran, associated with the founding of the Baha’i; over a century, from around 1850, of Christian Messianic movements among the Hmong of the highlands of Northern Vietnam; justifications for violence in Sunni and Shi’ite jurisprudence; the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru; a fishing community of Plymouth Brethren north of Aberdeen, who felt to me as alien and exotic as Charles Darwin’s Fuegians; Pizzagate and the New World Order conspiracy theorists; and the activities of the American Christian Zionists in Israel, far more fervent than anything exhibited by Jewish Americans.
There was thus a well-calibrated movement from the closed, explicitly religious cult model to wider mass movements associated with wider political objectives. It seemed to me that the psychological susceptibilities revealed – pessimism about the current state of affairs and a feeling that any change had to be for the better, a sense of victimhood, a culture of blame, a quest for scapegoats, a reductionism to simple solutions – were closely parallel to those which brought us the Bolshevik revolution, Fascism and Nazism between the wars, and movements which have yet to run their course, in the form of violent Jihadism and the xenophobic nativism that underpins the campaigns of Donald Trump in the US and UKIP and other Europhobic movements in Europe, and the appeal of Vladimir Putin in Russia.
It was a fascinating experience, delivered by a wide range of accomplished academics and speakers, which should go some way towards dispelling a natural Humanist aversion to this manifestation of fringe religious experience. The next venture, on ‘Climate and Apocalypse’, is scheduled for Thursday and Friday 29th-30th June. I shall be there!