From private religion to public interaction: The Oxford Faculty of Theology and the Panacea Society
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Oxford
Unit of AssessmentTheology and Religious Studies
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Religion and Religious Studies
Summary of the impact
The Panacea Society was an inward-looking religious community formed in
Bedford in 1919. In 2001 a few reclusive members remained — some of the
last representatives of a religious sub- culture dating back to the 1790s.
Since 2001, members of the Oxford Faculty of Theology have been
instrumental in advising and enabling this Society to evolve from a closed
religious group into a charity funding social and educational initiatives
and a public museum explaining apocalyptic religion to general audiences.
Oxford-based researchers have produced notable academic outputs through
discoveries in the Panacea Society archives; findings which shaped and
informed the new museum.
The Panacea Society was a twentieth-century manifestation of a persistent
and extensive English religious tradition, generally termed
`Southcottianism' — after one of its founding prophets, Joanna Southcott
(1750-1814). Centred on beliefs in direct divine inspiration and an
imminent millennium, Southcottianism evolved a complex theology and
attracted thousands of adherents in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and
the United States. As a tradition, it exhibits abundant features common to
forms of utopian and apocalyptic religion found across diverse centuries
and historic contexts. Movements of this kind often guard their most
dearly-held beliefs from the uninitiated, leaving few public records of
their identities, social experiences, or complex theological developments.
As a religious culture of this kind which was discovered intact, with a
vast archive of manuscript and rare print material spanning two hundred
years, the Panacea Society offered a rare opportunity to examine the
dynamics of religious formation and affiliation in microcosm, and explore
aspects of how heterodox religions spread, evolve, divide and decline.
Dr Jane Shaw, then of the Oxford Faculty of Theology, first visited the
Panacea Society in 2001 with an interest in researching their history. The
Society had been established in 1919 by a group of women led by a messiah
figure, Mabel Barltrop, and developed into a sizeable religious community
anticipating the apocalypse in the turmoil of interwar Britain. Following
their messiah's death in 1934, the Society sustained its communal life for
decades, yet by 2001 was no longer recruiting members. Initial dialogue
between the Society and Dr Shaw involved access to their archives. Once
the scope and condition of this historic material became apparent,
negotiations led to the Oxford Prophecy Project, funded by the Society for
the purpose of cataloguing, preserving and researching the archives.
The Oxford Prophecy Project was convened by Dr Shaw and Prof. Christopher
Rowland in the Oxford Faculty of Theology, 2003-2010. Dr Shaw's research
in the history of religious experience and feminist theology led to her
biographical study of the Panacea Society itself, centred on their female
messiah Mabel Barltrop, known as `Octavia'. Prof. Rowland drew on his
diverse interests in early Christianity and interpretations of the Book of
Revelation to explore comparative aspects of millennial religion, while
also preparing a theological study of Joanna Southcott's contemporary, the
visionary engraver William Blake. Besides these lead researchers, the
- Dr Deborah Madden (on project 2003-08 as postdoctoral researcher), who
produced the first intellectual history of the popular radical prophet,
- Dr Philip Lockley (on project 2004-09 as research assistant and
doctoral student), who undertook the task of cataloguing the extensive
Panacea Society archives and produced studies identifying their
significance in revising existing historical and theological
understandings of nineteenth-century millennial religion.
- Dr Susanne Sklar (on project 2003-07 as doctoral student), who
provided an innovative reading of the theology of William Blake in the
light of visionary religious traditions. Dr Sklar's 2012 publication was
based upon her research at Oxford.
- Gordon Allan (on project 2003-08 as part-time research assistant), who
shared his unique expertise in Southcottian theology and global archive
collections with project colleagues.
The Prophecy Project represented the foremost centre for study of the
Southcottian millennial tradition in the world, recovering diverse
dimensions to its history, development and theology.
Following the conclusion of the Prophecy Project, Dr Lockley undertook a
further project in the Oxford Faculty of Theology, 2010-12. This not only
provided further innovative insights into the international nature of
modern millennialism, but also brought together the full research findings
of the Prophecy Project and presented them in an accessible style for the
public in the Panacea Museum, Bedford, opened in August 2012.
References to the research
Christopher Rowland, Blake and the Bible, New
Haven, Yale University Press, 2010 Available on request.
Selected Review: "[This book] will become a landmark study. ... Rowland
combines acute theological perception with sustained readings of William
Blake's art that indicate his extraordinary hermeneutical achievement and
significance for contemporary Christian theology." David Jasper, Theology,
115(2) (March/April 2012), 149-50.
Jane Shaw, Octavia — Daughter of God: the story of a female
messiah and her community, New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2011 Available on request.
Selected Review: "Beautifully
researched and written, based on the remarkable archives of the Panaceans,
this book is exemplar of a critical, yet deeply sympathetic, biography of
a religious community." Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 64:2
(April 2013), 434-5.
Susanne Sklar, Blake's 'Jerusalem' as visionary theatre:
entering the divine body, Oxford, Oxford University Press,
Selected Review: "The
strength of this full-length study of Blake's greatest work... lies in its
combination of close reading of the primary and many secondary texts with
a passionate engagement with the poet's redemptive aim...[This study] is
well grounded in examination of Blake's sources and influences as well as
of his many bêtes noires...The structure of the book too is meticulous." Journal
of Theological Studies (2013) 64:1, 315-8.
Deborah Madden, The Paddington prophet: Richard Brothers's
Journey to Jerusalem, Manchester, Manchester University
Press, 2010 Available on request.
Gordon Allan, `Southcottian Sects from 1790 to the Present Day', in Kenneth
Newport and Crawford Gribben (eds.), Expecting the End: Millennialism in
Social and Historical Context (Waco, 2006). Available on request.
Jane Shaw, `A Modern Millenarian Prophet's Bible' in Radical
Christian Voices and Practice, ed. Zoe Bennett and David Gowler,
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012. DOI:
Philip Lockley, `Who was "the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott"?:
Millenarianism in early nineteenth-century England', Journal of
Ecclesiastical History, 64:1 (Jan. 2013), 70-95. DOI: 10.1017/S0022046911002569.
Key grants awarded to Oxford Faculty of Theology
Prophecy Project (2003-10)
Grant Sponsor: The Panacea Society, Bedford
Postdoctoral Project in Millennial Religion (2010-12)
Grant Sponsor: The Panacea Society, Bedford
Details of the impact
The Oxford Prophecy Project proved a catalyst for the Panacea Society's
surviving members to re- orientate their aims as a funding body towards
greater public engagement. Members of the Oxford Faculty of Theology played
crucial advisory and practical roles in this process of re-orientation.
Former members of the Prophecy Project, Jane Shaw, Christopher Rowland, and
Gordon Allan, were each appointed as trustees by the then surviving members,
on the basis of working relationships established during the research
project and their proven interest in the history of The Panacea Society and
its antecedents. As trustees, Dr Shaw, Prof. Rowland and Mr Allan have since
aided the evolution of the Panacea Society into a modern charity (now The
Panacea Charitable Trust) with a deliberate concern to engage in grant
awards for projects with social and health benefits to wider society, in
addition to research in higher education [i]. Allan and Lockley have
been central to a further initiative to open up the historic site of the
Panacea Society in central Bedford to the general public by turning several
buildings into a permanent museum exhibition (The Panacea Museum) explaining
both the history of the Society and wider millennial and utopian religion to
a public audience [ii].
A foundation of the Oxford research project was the organizing and
opening of the vast archives of the Panacea Society's own history, and its
substantial materials relating to other modern religious movements.
Through cataloguing these archives, distinctive themes in the Society's
story and elements of its preceding tradition were brought to prominence.
These not only informed the academic works produced in the Prophecy
Project, but, through the influence and encouragement of project members,
provided a thematic basis for the Society's choice of new funding purposes
as a charitable body. One such theme is mental health. Mabel Barltrop, the
founder of the Panacea Society, had once campaigned for greater compassion
and openness in the treatment of mental health patients, following her own
experience in an Edwardian asylum. Since December 2010, the Panacea
Charitable Trust has established a unique policy of block grants to the
Bedford Council for Social Services with a particular concern for mental
health services. These have been administered by the Bedfordshire and
Luton Community Foundation (BLCF), whose chief executive states: "BLCF
feels that this programme has been highly successful to date...The
Foundation feels that it has been allowed the flexibility to make awards
to groups that support mental health issues that other funders may not see
as being in that category....We feel that the return on investment where
almost 2,500 people have been supported to date is of great benefit to the
town of Bedford and its residents." Examples of how funded groups have
assisted individuals include: a teenager with a rare disability and
trouble with expressing his feelings and frustrations overcoming
depression and gaining confidence through a theatre project; and building
the self- esteem and social skills of a bullied school refuser who, after
being absent from school for three years, now has aspirations of going to
university. Another instance involved a new mother dealing with grief and
post-natal depression who had also recently fled domestic violence. Her
referral was urgent and the service co-ordinator was able to offer
intensive support immediately thanks to this funding .
Materials discovered in the Panacea Society Archives, together with the
broader academic research findings of the Oxford Prophecy Project, each
directly informed the most significant initiative for public engagement
undertaken by the Panacea Charitable Trust: the Panacea Museum. While the
Panacea Society has long been part of the modern culture of Bedford, its
history and activities have been largely unknown. Even though millennial
religious movements and wider apocalyptic sentiments are phenomena well
recognised in public discourse, they are frequently misunderstood in
theological, sociological, and historical terms. Indeed, the insights of
academic research in this field are only rarely communicated to audiences
outside academia, thus proliferating misconceptions. In the period 2010 to
2012, under the guidance and expertise of the named members of the Oxford
Faculty of Theology, the Panacea Charitable Trust sought to rectify both
these situations. In addition to its other funding programmes, the Trust
established a permanent exhibition seeking to inform and educate a general
audience in the variety of apocalyptic and millennial forms of
Christianity in the modern period.
The Museum opened on the site of the original community campus of the
Panacea Society in August 2012. It combines a series of rooms and
buildings restored to their appearance in the 1930s — when the religious
community was in its heyday — with an extensive exhibition presenting the
research of the Oxford Prophecy Project. All the text panels and many
exhibit labels were written by Philip Lockley, as was the museum guide
book, complemented by comments by other members of The Prophecy Project [iii].
The museum explores not only the role of prophecy and millennial
expectations in the Christian religion, but also claims to religious
experience, psychological responses to faith and doubt, and the role of
symbol, ritual, textual interpretation and charisma in religious groups.
The Museum opening has received significant coverage in the local press.
Several articles, such as those in `Bedfordshire on Sunday' [iv]
and the `Castle Quarter' [v] recognize the extent to which the
Panacea Society has been a long-standing `mystery' for Bedfordians, and
now pay tribute to this mystery being `revealed' in the museum. The museum
was also reviewed on the Religion in Museums website, being described as "a
fascinating new museum of religion" with some "most remarkable
exhibits" [vi]. The new Panacea Museum is now recognized to
form a part of Bedford's `cultural quarter', so called because the Bedford
Museum, the Cecil Higgins Gallery, and the John Bunyan Museum all face the
same street. Negotiations have now begun with these institutions and the
Bedfordshire Museums Outreach Officer to secure accreditation for the
Panacea Museum. In line with its charitable educational aims the Trust
has, since 2011, contributed to a grant supporting the first professional
curator at the next-door John Bunyan Museum and Library [vii].
The Museum is staffed entirely by volunteers, and is therefore only open
by appointment or on advertised open days. In the first 12 months, the
museum has attracted 23 pre-booked visits from community groups and held 7
open days. The total number of visitors is 1890, including the following
audiences and constituencies:
- Staff from local and regional museums and archives services
- Local History societies
- Community and educational groups, including several branches of the
Women's Institute, G.O.D. [`Growing Old Disgracefully'], University of
the 3rd Age
- Local school groups — St Thomas More School; Biddenham Upper School:
Feedback from visitors is overwhelmingly positive. Comments written in
the Visitors' book or recorded elsewhere indicate a strong level of
interest, a sense of surprise at learning so much, and appreciation for
how complex ideas are presented in an accessible way. As one visitor
"Better presented than the V & A" [viii]. Email
feedback includes similar points: "We had a super day and really
enjoyed ourselves. I can't fault the Museum at all — everything is so
well presented with great interpretation and well-pitched text panels
for context." . Questionnaires distributed to a few
visiting groups elicited comments such as "Very well put together.
Interesting insight into the history of Bedford" and "I would
have to come back again to take it all in" .
Sources to corroborate the impact
 Written statement from the Chief Executive of BLCF
 Email feedback from museum visitor
 Visitor questionnaire response
Other evidence sources
[iii] The Panacea Museum Bedford. A Souvenir Guide. (Bedford: the
Panacea Charitable Trust 2012) http://panaceatrust.org/wp-content/plugins/page-flip-image-gallery/popup.php?book_id=3
[viii] Visitor feedback from Museum on file