Bureaucracy: Index to the Divine and Spiritual Writings of Joanna Southcott

Pullen, Philip. Index to the Divine and Spiritual Writings of Joanna Southcott. London: Printed by T. Wood, 1815


Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) was a self-proclaimed prophetess who began publishing her spiritual and prophetic works in 1801. At the age of 42 Southcott began to hear a ‘voice’ that, she claimed, enabled her to predict various events during the 1790s, including the war with France and food shortages. Due to the accuracy of her prophecies, Southcott quickly drew a number of followers to her cause. Between 1801 and 1814, these followers consolidated into a movement fueled by the volume of Southcott’s publications—over 65 books and pamphlets that circulated in over 100,000 copies collectively (Bowerbank). Published the year after her death, this 240 page book indexes many of Southcott’s popular writings.  It is organized alphabetically, and each entry includes a word or phrase, followed by numbers that are assigned to one of Southcott’s works as well as the page number containing the relevant discussion. The book thus functions as a finding aid for those studying Southcott’s writings. However, the book also includes interleaved blank sheets at regular intervals in the text, filled with manuscript notes. These blank pages indicate that the book was also used as a commonplace book in which the reader could copy and compile relevant passages. Generically designed to serve a specific bureaucratic purpose, the interleaved pages and the religious content of Southcott’s works indicate how an index could become a form of spiritual accounting.

Before her visions, Southcott had worked in various households as a maidservant, and her prophetic writings contain an intriguing mixture of prophecy, biblical citation, spiritual advice, and narratives of everyday events from her youth. Southcott appeared to many people as a defender or voice of the working classes in a time of social and political upheaval across Europe and in Britain. Her work could be understood as democratic, but she also developed a practice of “sealing” to attach her followers to her more effectually. “Sealing” was a form of privileged membership approved in a ritualized pledge to Southcott herself; it involved Southcott and her follower signing a paper inscribed with a circle and a message of acceptance, which was subsequently folded and sealed by Southcott (Bowerbank). To be sealed, followers were required to read two of Southcott’s books, Sound an Alarm in my Holy Mountain (1804) and A Caution and Instruction to the Sealed (1807). Southcott’s writings became part of the right of passage demanded of her followers, promoting the development of a devoted and elite group defined by textual knowledge and personal connection to the prophetess.

In this context, we might understand the Index in several ways: as an index, the book opens Southcott’s body of work to a wider audience interested in specific ideas or passages, thus fulfilling the ostensibly democratic bent of her spiritual work. The index also works to legitimate Southcott as an author by drawing on the authority of alphabetically-organized concordances of the Bible, including the standard eighteenth-century concordance to the King James Bible, Alexander Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Holy Scriptures (1737). The very existence of an index to Southcott’s work confirms the importance of that work by providing an exhaustive account of its content; like biblical concordances, it encourages study and marks Southcott’s writings as not just important but “invaluable” and “inspired” (Cruden, t.p.). As with contemporaneous publications like Joseph Priestley’s Index to the Bible (Philadelphia, 1804), which organizes its content by subject rather than by words and concentrates on prophecy, the Index is designed to enable people unfamiliar with Southcott’s work to navigate it successfully. With the inserted blank pages, the book also provides new readers and the inner circle of her devoted readers with a means of personal inscription, a way of affirming—by copying out her words—their dedication to her cause and work even after her death. 

Find Index to the Divine and Spiritual Writings of Joanna Southcott in the UNT Libraries Catalog.