Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wroe, John

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WROE, JOHN (1782–1863), fanatic, founder of ‘Christian Israelites,’ eldest son of Joseph Roe, was born at Bowling, parish of Bradford, Yorkshire, on 19 Sept. 1782 (baptised on 8 Dec.). His name is latinised Joannes Roes by Samuel Walker and Henry Lees, his followers. His father was a farmer, worsted manufacturer, and collier. As a lad he was neither robust in mind nor in body, and grew up without learning to read. He complains of ill usage; after carrying ‘a window stone to the second floor,’ he was never straight again. He was with his father in business, getting the drudgery and cheated of the profits, till at length (about 1810) he set up for himself in the farming and wool-combing business, marrying, five years later, a daughter of Benjamin Appleby, of Farnley Mills, near Leeds (she died on 16 May 1853, aged 74). Symptoms of mania appeared in the winter of 1816–17, when he harboured for a time the resolve to shoot his brother Joseph, who had overreached him. In the second half of 1819 he was struck down by fever, being at the same time much harassed by debt. On his recovery he took to bible-reading in the fields, and began to see visions, followed by temporary blindness and a condition of trance (the first dated vision is 12 Nov. 1819). They were written down by neighbours (Abraham Holmes being the first scribe), and were considered prophetic. His wife had his head shaved (1 Feb. 1820), but the visions went on. He began to attend meetings of the followers of Joanna Southcott [q. v.], then led by George Turner of Leeds (d September 1821). His angelic ‘guide’ told him to visit the Jews. He walked to Liverpool for that purpose, and on the same errand travelled to London, where he delivered (30 Aug. 1820) a ‘message’ to the queen. In September 1822 he first claimed the succession to Turner's leadership; by many members of the Southcottian societies his claim was allowed. On 14 Dec. 1822, leaving his wife and three children, he started on his prophetic peregrinations to the Southcottian societies, the Jews, and ‘all nations.’ His authority for preaching ‘the everlasting gospel of the redemption of soul and body’ was supposed to be attested by acts of healing, as well as by prognostication. His travels, as reported in the fragmentary notices of his followers, are not without interest; in 1823 he visited Gibraltar, Spain, France, Germany, and Italy; in 1827 he made his way to Scotland, in 1828 to Wales. His peculiarities developed as he went on. In March 1823 he discarded the names of the months, using the quaker numbering. He let his beard grow. On 30 Aug. 1823, and again on 29 Feb. 1824, he was publicly baptised in running rivers. On 17 April 1824 he was publicly circumcised at a meeting of believers, and proclaimed the fact next day to a large congregation in a field at Ashton-under-Lyne. His followers adopted the rite. For circumcising Daniel Grimshaw, an infant who died of the operation (September 1824), Henry Lees of Ashton was tried for manslaughter at Lancaster (March 1825), but acquitted. On several occasions Wroe disappeared for days together, subsisting once for fourteen days (September 1824) on hedge fruit and growing corn. He divided his people into twelve tribes; his son Benjamin was to lead one of them, and on Benjamin's death he transferred the name Benjamin to another son. Money was forthcoming in support of Wroe's pretensions. In 1823 his followers employed a room at Charlestown, Ashton, as a ‘sanctuary.’ On 25 Dec. 1825 a well-built and costly ‘sanctuary’ was opened in Church Street, Ashton. On this erection John Stanley spent 9,500l.; a fine organ was subsequently added (the building is now a theatre). The sanctuary had an ‘unclean’ pew, and beneath the pulpit was a ‘cleansing’ room. At each of the cardinal points in the outskirts of the town a square building was erected, marking the four ‘gates’ of the future temple area, of which the ‘sanctuary’ was to form the centre. One of these (in which Wroe's ‘trial’ was held) is now a public-house, known as ‘The Odd Whim.’

While living at Park Bridge, near Ashton, a charge of criminal intercourse with Martha Whitley, his apprentice, a child of twelve, was brought against Wroe on 18 Dec. 1827, but not sustained. During his absence at Bristol, in October 1830, charges of minor misconduct were laid against him by Mary Quance, Sarah Pile, and Ann Hall, all of whom had been in his service. An investigation was held (24 and 25 Oct.) at Ashton by a committee of his friends. The proceedings, which were unruly, ended in an acquittal, after two of the ‘jury’ had been removed and replaced by others; one of these two was James Elimalet Smith [q. v.] ‘A very considerable part’ of his following, including Henry Lees, now left him, and ‘cut off their beards.’ Wroe left for Huddersfield, but made two attempts (February and April 1831) to return to Ashton, causing serious riots. Other immoralities were laid to his charge, but cannot be said to have been proved. He was frequently accused by those who left his fold of sharp practice, which they called swindling.

From this date the ‘Israelites,’ or ‘Christian Israelites,’ as they called themselves, Wroeites, as their opponents designated them, formed a sect apart from the main followers of Joanna Southcott. His adherents at Ashton-under-Lyne, among whom were many respectable shopkeepers, were popularly known as ‘Joannas’ for forty years later; their long beards, and their habit of wearing their tall broad-brimmed felt hats, as they served their customers, rendered them conspicuous; their shops were closed from Friday at six to Saturday at six. George Frederick Muntz [q. v.], when visiting Manchester, was saluted as a ‘Joanna’ on account of his beard. The women followers had many peculiarities of dress, and the dietetic regulations of the community were strictly conformed to Hebrew usage. Half-members, being uncircumcised and not wearing the beard, were recognised as ‘brethren’ on ‘signing to obey the two first books of the Laws.’ Obedience was enforced by a system of penances.

Driven from Ashton in 1831, Wroe continued to travel in search of disciples, his headquarters being at Wrenthorpe, near Wakefield, where he had a printing press from 1834, perhaps earlier. In 1842 his house was broken into by burglars. On the false evidence of Wroe and his family, three innocent persons were transported; they were released five years later on the discovery of the real culprits. In the autumn of 1843 he visited Australia and New Zealand, and again in 1850, returning in June 1851. His followers were known in Australia as ‘beardies.’ He had many followers in America, which he visited four times. After rambling as before in many parts of England, he again visited Australia, returning to England in 1854. In 1856 he directed his followers to wear a gold ring. The rings supplied by Wroe were paid for as gold, but turned out to be base metal. His Melbourne followers found money for building him a splendid mansion, Melbourne House, near Wakefield, dedicated with great ceremony in presence of delegates from all parts of the world, at sunrise, on Whit-Sunday, 1857. He was again in Australia in 1859. On a final voyage (1862) to Australia, he dislocated his shoulder. He died suddenly on 5 Feb. 1863 at Collingwood, Melbourne. He had prophesied 1863 as the beginning of the millennium; his followers expected his resurrection. No portrait of him exists, pictorial art being rejected as a breach of the decalogue. J. E. Smith refers to his ‘savage look and hump back;’ Chadwick mentions his ‘very prominent nose;’ others note his haggard visage, shaggy hair, and broad-brimmed beaver.

Wroe's ‘divine communications,’ as recorded by his scribes and published by the ‘trustees of the people called Israelites,’ may be found in

  1. ‘An Abridgment of John Wroe's Life and Travels,’ 4th edit. Gravesend, 1851, 8vo (the incomplete first edit. Wakefield, 1834, 8vo, has title ‘Divine Communications’); vol. ii. 4th edit. Gravesend, 1851; vol. iii. 1st edit. Gravesend, 1855, 8vo; there is also the first volume of a fuller collection, ‘The Life and Journal of John Wroe,’ Gravesend, 1859, 8vo; a second volume, Gravesend, 1861, 8vo, is merely a fifth edition of ‘Abridgment,’ vol. ii.
  2. ‘The Word of God to guide Israel … containing the Afternoon Service,’ Wakefield, 1834, 8vo (finished 20 April).
  3. ‘The Laws and Commandments of God,’ Wakefield, 1835, 8vo.
  4. ‘Twelve Songs for Divine Worship,’ Wakefield [1834], 8vo (chiefly from the Song of Solomon); included in ‘Song of Moses and the Lamb,’ Gravesend, 1853, 12mo (several earlier editions of this hymn-book, which appears to be of mixed authorship).
  5. ‘The Faith of Israel,’ Wakefield, 1843, 12mo.
  6. ‘The Laws of God,’ Wakefield, 1843, 12mo.

Two sets of reports of Wroe's sermons are in

  1. ‘A Guide to the People surnamed Israelites,’ Boston, Massachusetts, 1847, 12mo, and
  2. ‘A Guide to the People surnamed Israelites,’ Gravesend, 1852, 8vo.

See also ‘An Abridgment of John Wroe's Revelations,’ 3rd edit. Boston, Massachusetts, 1849, 8vo; ‘Extracts of Letters,’ Wakefield [1841], 12mo (from Australian believers), and ‘Extracts of Letters … of the Israelite Preachers,’ 1822–9, 12mo (eight pamphlets).

There must have been some strange fascination about the man, for (apart from his remarkable code of discipline) his utterances are but fatuous insipidities with a biblical twang, having neither the pathetic earnestness of Joanna Southcott nor the crude originality of her other improver, John Ward (1781–1837) [q. v.] The appended notes, claiming ‘fulfilments’ of Wroe's prophecies, are childish. Any speciality attaching to Wroe's doctrine arises from the presence of a mysticism akin to that of Guillaume Postel (1505–1581), which demands a feminine Messiah to complete the requisites of salvation. The references to topics of sex are frequent, but not impure; it is said, but the statement may be received with caution, that there is a secret manual of the sect, ‘the private revelation given to John Wroe’ (Fielden), offensively indecent in its language; its subject is understood to be one which is common to all treatises of moral theology. The mode of administering the penance by stripes, as related by Fielden, is grossly indelicate; but there is not a tittle of evidence of immoral teaching. His community still exists in diminished number.

[Wroe's publications, above; E. Butterworth's Hist. of Ashton-under-Lyne, 1842, p. 69; Davis's The Wroeites' Faith, 1850; Fielden's Exposition of the Fallacies of Christian Israelites [1861?]; Letter to ‘Leeds Times’ on the Character of J. Wroe, 1858; Notes and Queries, 18 June 1864, p. 493; Smith's The Coming Man, 1873, i. 168; Baring-Gould's Yorkshire Oddities, 1874, i. 23; Glover and Andrews's Hist. of Ashton-under-Lyne, 1884, p. 306 (engraving of the sanctuary); W. Anderson Smith's Shepherd Smith, 1892, p. 44; Chadwick's Reminiscences of Stalybridge, in ‘Stalybridge Herald,’ 1897, Nos. xiii–xvi; extract from Bradford parish register, per Mr. A. B. Sewell; information from the Rev. W. Begley.]

A. G.