Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events/Prophet Wroe
John Wroe was born at Bowling, in the parish of Bradford, Yorkshire, on September 19th, 1782, and was baptised in the old parish church of Bradford. He was put to school, but from want of capacity or of application he made such poor progress that when he left it he read very imperfectly, and he never acquired a facility of reading.
He was brought up to follow his father's employment, which was that of worsted manufacturer, combined with farming and the proprietorship of a coal-pit. In course of time his father gave him a share in his business, and articles of partnership were drawn up, but were never signed. John's natural incapacity for application to business probably obliged his father to place his brother Joseph in his room as partner, and John afterwards often complained of being hardly treated by his father and brothers. It is evident, however, that this treatment he brought on himself, and that his father acted with judgment in not entrusting the conduct of business into his hands.
His grandfather is said to have declared that "the Lord would raise up a minister from among his offspring." To fulfil this prophecy Wroe placed his youngest son Thomas in a school to be educated for the ministry in the Church, but was prevented from applying to the Archbishop of York for ordination for him, as the Vicar of Bradford and a friend dissuaded him from doing so, on account of Thomas labouring from an impediment in his speech.
John's irritation against his brother Joseph brought him to the verge of committing a dreadful crime. He procured a pistol and lay in wait for his brother, intending to shoot him, but his conscience reproached him, and he did not put his murderous purpose into execution.
John and his father in course of time came to an open rupture about some wool that had been bought by the latter, and John determined to set up for himself. He applied for a farm in Tory Street, and the landlord would have accepted him, but his father intercepted the letter, and took the farm himself for three years. John, highly incensed, moved into the farm-house, and maintained his position there during all that time. His father wished to dispossess him, but not liking to summons his own son, he thought it better to suffer him to remain there.
On his way one night to Adwalton he was attacked by two men, who robbed him of eighteen pounds. The men were apprehended but not convicted, and John never recovered the money.
He took up wool-combing as a business, and engaged apprentices. One of his apprentices, Benjamin Lockwood, involved him in losses, according to his own account, and this led him to bankruptcy.
I give the next passage from his memoirs as it stands. It is vaguely worded, and I do not profess to understand it. "He was about five years an housekeeper previous to his marriage with the daughter of Benjamin Appleby, of Fasseley Mills, near Leeds."
In 1819 John Wroe was attacked by fever, and was pronounced in danger. Dr. Field, who attended him, advised Mrs. Wroe to prevail on him to settle his affairs. The thought of death so moved and alarmed Wroe that he entreated that some Methodist preacher might be brought to visit and pray with him; but they refused, although his wife sent to four of them. She then asked him if she had better not send for his parish priest, or some of the clergy-men of the Church; but he declined, saying it was too late, and he begged her to read to him some chapters from the Bible; "and," said he, "I will see what I can do for myself."
He gradually recovered his bodily health, but not his ease of mind, and for some months he continued wandering about the fields with his Bible in his hand, sitting down under the hedges, and spelling out easy passages for himself; but still found no comfort.
Soon after this he fell into epileptic fits, and saw visions. In these trances he became completely rigid, his eyes remained closed—the eyelids as fast together as if they had grown to one another, and his tongue stiff in his mouth. In this condition he remained sometimes seven, twelve, twenty-four, or even thirty-six hours. After one of his fits, his eyes remained closed for six days, but he recovered the use of his tongue. The first of his trances came on in the morning of November 12th, 1819, at two o'clock, before dawn, as he was rambling in the fields. He says: "A woman came to me, and tossed me up and down in the field. I endeavoured to lay hold of her, but could not; I therefore knew it was a spirit." Could this not have been his wife, impatient at him leaving his bed and rambling about so early?
After this he was taken and put to bed. Whom by? Was it by this woman who tossed him about? In bed he remained twelve hours.
On the 19th November, six days after his shaking, he had a fit, and lost his sight and power of speech. On his returning to consciousness, he wrote on a black board, in rude letters and abject spelling, the revelations he had been allowed to behold. It consisted of oxen running down a lane, tossing their horns, which frightened him to tears. "I thought that I walked about a mile among these beasts, until I returned to my former place, and there an angel met me, and he took me to a large place, where I saw a great number of books, placed on their edges, having gilt letters. There also appeared large altars, full of letters, but I could not read them. I begged that I might be enabled to read and understand what I had seen; and there appeared another, the letters of which were black print or old English, with the word Jeremiah on the top of it, and the letter L. I wrote on the wall with my fingers at the time, as I lay in bed; the people who were present observing me, concluded that I wished to write (I was dumb, for my tongue was fastened in my mouth as before); they gave me a piece of board and chalk, and I wrote Jeremiah, 50th chapter. I had never read this chapter, or heard it read, or seen it before, to my recollection; but when I came to myself, I could, without looking at it, repeat nearly every word in it."
On the 29th of November following he had another epileptic fit accompanied with visions; and on the 14th of December "I was again struck blind at about ten o'clock in the forenoon, and remained more like a corpse than a living man for twenty-four hours, when I came to myself by degrees, but continued blind for five days. After many things, the angel said to me, 'Thou shalt be blind for six days, and on the seventh day thy father shall come to thee, and many people with him; he shall lay his right thumb on thy right eye, and his fourth finger on thy left, as a token that he remembers his former sins and wickedness; and if not, it will be a witness against him at the Day of Judgment, and thou shalt receive thy sight.' During the six days that I was blind my wife at one time was reading a hymn for me; when she had read it I desired her to read it again; but before she had done so I fainted, and saw the elements separated, and there appeared before me a large open square; I saw our Saviour nailed on the cross and the tears trickling down his face, and at that time I thought he was weeping for the wicked people upon the earth. An angel then appeared holding a man by a single hair of his head, who had a very large sword in his hand, which he waved backward and forward. I then saw a pair of large scales let down to the earth, and a great bundle, which was placed in one side of it, which I thought was the sins of the people, and then saw a great number of weights placed in the other; but the bundle was so much heavier that the weights bounced out, and the scales were drawn up into heaven. Then the man that was held by the hair of his head by the angel brandished his sword six or seven times, as formerly, and disappeared. I afterwards saw Moses and Aaron, accompanied by a great number of people, attended by angels, and I heard such delightful music as it would be impossible to describe. There was darkness over the place soon after, and I lost sight of all in a moment."
He continued with his eyes shut for exactly six days, and on the seventh his father came and placed his thumb on his right eye, and his fourth finger on his left, whereupon John Wroe opened his eyes and then fainted away. As soon as he received his sight the people surrounding him asked if he really saw clearly. He found that with one eye he saw as distinctly as before, but with the other only imperfectly, and this he attributed to some one having three days before endeavoured to force the eyelids open.
Wroe tells us in his Autobiography that his father, placing his thumb and finger on his eyes in the manner indicated beforehand by the angel, filled every one with astonishment; but from Joseph Wroe, his cousin, we learn that the father did this according to the express orders of John.
Samuel Muff, a spectator, says: "During the twenty-four hours that John Wroe was in his trance reports of the circumstance frequently reached my house, adding that he was likely to die. I accordingly went to see him, and he came to himself when I was in the house, but was entirely blind. On hearing my voice, he communicated many things to me which I cannot at present recollect; but I remember his having said that he was blind, but that he would yet see. He wrote me a few lines in the course of his six days' blindness, desiring that I would come and see him at the time his eyes were opened, and which he asserted would be at the end of the six days; the letter was sent to me by one of my neighbours, who declared he saw him write it; and stone blind as he then was, it is the best piece of his writing I ever saw. I complied with his desire, and actually saw his eyes open in the manner already related. After his father had placed his thumb and finger on his eyes, he appeared to me for some time as if he were dead. He afterwards came to himself, sat up in the chair, and his eyes instantly opened. He and I were brought up within a quarter of a mile of each other, and were schoolfellows, but the master who instructed us never could teach him to spell or read, nor even to speak plainly."
Joseph Wroe, John's cousin, says: "The first time I met with John Wroe after the commencement of his visions, which was in the street in Bradford, I said, 'I have been informed that thou hast begun to preach.' He replied, 'Well, I do not know much about preaching, but I have begun talking, and people may call it what they please.' I said, in a contemptuous manner, 'I have also been informed that thou hast been visited with visions or trances; what hast thou seen?' He replied, 'I have seen a great deal too much to relate here.' He appeared reserved, and would say no more. Some time after this a person came to my house, and inquired of me whether I had seen my cousin John, adding, 'People say he is blind, and has been so for three or four days.' I went to see him on the following Sunday, with many others. At his desire I led him to the door, and accompanied him to the house of a neighbour, named Abraham Holmes: it was this man who wrote his visions, and part of which was done on that occasion. We delayed there until it was dark, and I led him back to his house. When I was about to return home he laid hold of my hand, and would not suffer me to proceed until I had promised him to return next day, as he asserted that he would then receive his sight. I accordingly attended the same day; several persons did the same, and one of them said to John, 'Art thou not afraid that thou wilt never see any more?' He replied, 'No, I have not a doubt about it. I am as firm as a rock in the belief that my sight will be restored at the appointed time.' A few minutes before the time he requested that some person would lead him to a private place, where he might have an opportunity for prayer. I accordingly led him into the parlour, and withdrew; he soon after returned, and ordered a chair to be placed in the middle of the room, so that every person present might observe what was to be done. He then called his father, directing him to lay his thumb and finger on his eyes, and he did so. John said, 'You have done enough; take away your hand.' He then stretched out his legs and feet, his head and arms fell back, and he fainted, and his countenance appeared like that of a person who was dead. He remained so for about a minute, when his eyelids began to move, and suddenly opened: he came to himself and said, 'I can see.' I inquired of him, 'How wast thou before thy sight was restored?' He replied, 'I got a glance of that glorious place, and at that instant my sight returned.'"
The following night he prayed that he might be guided in the choice of a sect to which to belong. At about two in the morning he woke, and saw on the tester of his bedstead a black board, on which appeared in gilt letters, "A.A. Rabbi, Rabbi, Rabbi." He awoke his wife, and told her what he had seen. He thought at first that Rabbi was the name of a town, and that he was perhaps to go to that place and declare there what he had seen; but afterwards concluded it was a sign that he was to go and testify to the Jews. Afterwards he conceived himself to be commanded to testify in England for three years, "with his hat on his head," and at the expiration of that time to join the Jews.
Accordingly, in the same year, 1820, Wroe went to Liverpool by Huddersfield, to visit the Jews there. At Huddersfield he was well received by three Methodist preachers, who helped him on his way with money. On reaching Manchester he lodged in a house, and was asked by the person who let him his lodging whether he knew John Wroe, as he understood that he came from Bradford. Wroe having answered in the affirmative, the man continued—"What sort of a fellow is he?" John replied, "Some give him a very indifferent character; but time proves all things." He was then asked if he were John Wroe, and when he said he was, he was told that he should be heartily welcome to his lodging and victuals gratuitously as long as he stayed there.
The accomplishment of some predictions made by Wroe tended greatly to increase his fame and impress the ignorant and superstitious with belief in his supernatural mission. But it is as easy to account for the accomplishment of these prophecies as it is to vindicate the natural origin of his fits and visions. He predicted the speedy death of his wife's brother, and he sent his wife to her brother, Joseph Appleby, to inform him that before long he would be dead. Appleby was at the time ill in bed: there is little doubt that the fright caused by receiving this message killed him.
In the spring of 1821 the cousin of John Wroe, who employed him as a wool-comber, refused to engage him or have any more of his badly-executed work, telling him he was more fit to be a preacher than a wool-comber. Thereupon John fell back in a fit against a bale of wool, and when he recovered called all to witness what he said—"Take notice of that young man," said he, pointing to the son of his employer, who had been foremost in his complaints and abuse; "he will never more do any work; he will never again pay any man wages." The young man was immediately taken ill and died. In this case the lad was no doubt killed by fright.
On the 14th of August, 1822, came the final summons to Wroe to go to the Jews. As he was sitting in conversation with some dupes or believers he asserted that he heard thrice a voice which cried, "Go to my people Israel, and speak the words that I command thee." It continued speaking for about a quarter of an hour, and was succeeded by beautiful music. "He inquired of the aforenamed persons," we are told in his Autobiography, "whether they heard anything? and when they answered in the affirmative, and appeared alarmed, one of them said, 'The voice came from beneath the second bar of the fire-grate.' Wroe said, 'This voice is not come for my sake, but for yours.'" One regrets to hear this, for hitherto Wroe seems to have been acting in sincere good faith, believing in his visions; but on this occasion there is apparent deception. His neglect had lost him his livelihood, and he was obliged to prey on those deluded people who regarded him as a prophet, and to keep up the delusion had recourse to artifice.
He was now convinced of the truth of the great revelation of Joanna Southcott. Already, in August, 1820, he had had an interview with George Turner, the prophet of that sect, on his visiting Bradford, on which Wroe had informed Turner that he (Wroe) was sent exclusively to the public, and that Turner was sent exclusively to the elect of the Society; and on this understanding Turner had consented to shake hands with him.
But in 1822 the Society of Joanna Southcott was in a state of expectancy, awaiting the advent of the promised Shiloh on the 14th of October in that year, and it seems to have entered into Wroe's head to take advantage of this, and announce himself to the Society as a prophet in place of Turner, who, he had the shrewdness to see, would be discredited by the failure of the appearance of the Shiloh. He was accordingly visited with trances, in which he saw Joanna "transfigured before him in the open firmament, in the day-time, with the Child in her left arm."
Accordingly, Wroe attended a meeting of the Society at Bradford on August 25th, 1822, and he announced: "You are expecting Shiloh to appear and be amongst you on a certain day; but I tell you He will not; and many of the believers will fall off, not merely one or two in a society, but whole societies will fall away. Yet I do not doubt that the visitation to George Turner is of God; and as a testimony of which, I will give in my name among you."
On the following Sunday evening he had one of his epileptic fits in the meeting, and lay as if dead. On recovering he announced that he had seen an angel, who had commissioned him to act as prophet. But only two persons at the meeting believed in him, and the whole of the Society at Bradford never thoroughly accepted him. He thento Almondbury, where was a meeting of the Southcottites, where also he met with indifferent success.
On Sunday evening he reappeared in Bradford, and adopted the following extraordinary expedient to impress the congregation:—Unknown to the members, he caused two men to stand, one on each side of the archway leading into the second room of the meeting-house—the house being divided into three parallel apartments, which opened into each other by an archway in each partition, thus forming a sort of narthex, nave, and chancel. Each man held a sword, and the swords were united at the points, so that the Friends, to enter, had to pass under the swords. Wroe entered last of all. Then the men pointed their swords at his breast saying, "The sword of the Lord is against thee." Wroe instantly fell on his knees, and prayed aloud that if his mission were not Divine, the swords might fall and smite him asunder.
Wroe then stood up and walked to the second archway, the men with the swords stepping backwards before him, still with their swords at his breast. Thus he stood and preached on his mission to the congregation, who were amazingly impressed at this solemn farce. When all was over, he bade those of the Bradford Society who believed in him to pass under the swords; and the great majority of the congregation did so. This naturally created a schism in the body.
Letters were written by the Committee of the Society at Bradford, by Wroe's direction, to the Societies at Ashton-under-Line, Stockport, Sheffield, and Colne, to inform them of what had taken place, and requesting them to delegate two men from each congregation to come to Bradford and examine the truth concerning the mission of Wroe. The Societies at Stockport and Sheffield declined the invitation, but in the following year nearly the whole of the body at Sheffield accepted the prophetic mission of Wroe, and some at Stockport believed.
It was time now for Wroe to begin his mission to the Jews. He had a large following, and was provided liberally with money by his dupes, which he was not, however, suffered to touch himself.
After having visited Jews at Liverpool and London without success, on April 27th he embarked in the brig Doris at Liverpool for Gibraltar, in company of Robert Harling, of Thornhill, and reached there on the 20th of May. But there Harling's heart failed, whether at the sight of the "abominable idolatries" of the people, or because his faith was shaken in Wroe, does not transpire. On the day following their landing Harling returned to England in a vessel that was ready to sail; but John, having visited and converted the local Methodist preacher, remained with him two months. This preacher, Cooke, was greatly exercised in spirit on the arrival of the Prophet; but having prayed earnestly to the Lord, as he tells us, "The Lord opened my eyes to see," and he became an enthusiastic believer.
On Saturday, the 31st, Wroe appeared in the synagogue of the Jews and delivered his testimony. The Governor of Gibraltar declined to permit him to preach in public; consequently Wroe departed, having been offered a free passage to England. Before he did so he had been turned out of the synagogue, and had invaded the Roman Catholic Churches, where he deposited his prophecies on the altar in Spanish. This is one of them:—
"I, Jesus from heaven, command thee, John Wroe, to warn the kingdom of Spain that if they return not from their wicked ways of worshipping images made with men's hands, and bowing before them, I will draw my two-edged sword against them, and it shall turn every way till I have destroyed them. But who is this that has caused them to err? They have hearkened unto their priests instead of hearkening unto me. Now, I will tell you what I will do unto your priests: I will chase them as hounds chase a fox, until I utterly destroy them, and the remnant that is left shall slay your king, and they shall know that I have sent this unto them by my servant."
He began to address the Irish Roman Catholic soldiers on the Rock, but the adjutant turned him out. In the two months he was at Gibraltar he had succeeded in making many enemies. A woman threw a pitcher out of a window at his head, but fortunately missed him, and he was several times threatened with a pistol. One day that he was creating disorder in the cathedral the priests took him by the shoulders, thrust him out, and locked the doors behind him.
Wroe reached Liverpool on August 23rd, and then visited Ashton and Birmingham. On October 12th he again sailed for the Continent, and reaching Paris on the 16th, he began to preach his mission to the Jews in the Palais Royal.
From Paris he and his companion, William Lees, went to Strasburg, where they "attended the meeting of the Jews in their synagogue. These Jews, not understanding English, conducted them to the house of the Rabbi, who was not at home. His daughter could speak some English, but not sufficient to admit of her understanding the whole of what John and William wished to communicate. The Jews therefore requested to have the purport of the message given to them in writing, which was accordingly done. They behaved very well. On the following day, Sunday, John was so ill that he was confined to the house, and sent William to the Hebrews to receive their answer to his letter. William found a man who could speak English. He said 'he had read the letter to the Rabbi, who was very angry, and said he had power to imprison them for two years, but had pity on them, thinking they were deranged.'"
After visiting Vienna, they proceeded to Trieste. One would like to know what they thought of that glorious road over the Sommering Pass, and down the valleys of the Murz and the Save, by Laibach and the weird ashen-grey dolomite peaks of the Terglou and Dobratz; but no allusion to the scenery escapes these dull travellers, except that they "durst not proceed by night, through the apprehension of robbers, the road being over the mountains."
At Trieste they visited the Jews and a Roman Catholic priest, who treated them with good-natured contempt; and they went on to Venice, where they again testified to the Jews. At Verona they left a letter addressed to the Roman Catholic priests, on the altars. At Vicenza their letter to the priests was returned to them unanswered. At table d'hôte at the inn, where about forty gentlemen of different nations were present, "the spirit of the Lord rested on John, and he stood up and addressed them, and gave them two letters. They appeared much astonished."
From Milan they made their way to Paris, distributing tracts and prophecies among the Jews and Catholics, and strewing them on the altars of the churches. Having deposited one of these prophecies, not couched in the most sanguine and complimentary terms, addressed to the French priest, upon the high altar at Amiens, they nearly got into trouble. They were arrested at Calais, and their baggage overhauled by the police, who had received orders from the Minister of the Interior to search them for papers against the Government. But the police-officer, having looked through their budget of tracts, observed, contemptuously, that "they were all on religious subjects," and let them depart.
John then took all that remained of his tracts and denunciations of woe against the idolators, in Italian and French, and tore them into small pieces, which he scattered about the streets of Calais, saying "he was commanded to do so as a testimony against them." On the 17th December they embarked on the French mail, a sailing packet, and had a very rough passage. It blew so hard that they could not reach Dover, but stood off Deal beach, and a boat conveyed the mail and the passengers ashore. They had to pay fifteen shillings each to the watermen, exclusive of their fare in the packet. They were well drenched with salt water, but John cheered on William by assuring him that before they reached home he would see the young woman who was to become his wife.
On reaching London, Wroe visited some of the Believers, and prepared the way for a future visit, when he would meet George Turner face to face. He assembled the Friends at Gravesend and Chatham, and prophesied before them, and William Lees at the former place saw the enchanting Cordelia Chenne, whom he afterwards married, thus fulfilling the prediction of Wroe in the billy-boat. The following year was an eventful one.
In January he received a communication "from the Spirit" that he was to spend forty days in a dark hole, and eat nothing but butter and honey, and drink milk. On the 29th he was publicly baptised in the river Aire, above Apperley Bridge, by John Brunton, of Bradford, in the presence of some thirty thousand spectators.
"Both sides of the river were lined with persons of various ages and denominations. The Spirit had given John a sign—that on his entering the water the sun should shine; for during the two preceding days the weather was extremely cold, with severe frost accompanied with snow. The Sunday forenoon on which the ceremony was to take place continued very wet till noon, and when Wroe arrived at the brink of the river, the sun was still veiled. He walked down the river, intending to delay till the clouds broke; but the people, thinking that he was afraid of the cold water, roared at him, 'he dussn't go in! He's runnin' away!' They were all disposed to view the fun, and they endeavoured to stop Wroe's further progress. Some friends followed him, urging him not to disappoint the crowd, and he found that he had better put a bold face on it, and go in. The sun just then shone forth with a degree of warmth most unusual at that season of the year. The musicians and singers began to play and sing, and he descended into the water. But when preparing to do so, a cry was raised by the multitude, 'Drown him!' The same words were uttered by some young men who had placed themselves on the branches of a tree adjacent to the river. John commanded them, in the name of the Lord, to come down. One of them, named Hudson, who was formerly John's apprentice, cursed him. Immediately that part of the bank on which the tree grew gave way, and all were precipitated into the river. None of them were drowned, but some had five or six miles to travel home in their wet clothes; and Hudson, who had cursed John, died within a few days after. When John came out of the water the musicians and singers again performed."
The mob then set on Wroe with sticks, pelted him with mud, and he and his band of Believers were obliged to beat a precipitate retreat.
On April 17th, in the same year, he was publicly circumcised. This function was introduced and announced by the band of singers of Ashton-under-Line marching in procession through the village, playing and singing the whole way. In the evening the highly unedifying performance was performed in the meeting-house of the Friends, "in the presence of the congregation."
On August 30th he was again baptised in the river Medlock, near Park Bridge, and on coming out of the river he stood with one foot in the water, the other on the land, raised his hands to heaven, and swore that there should be no more time—in imitation of the angel described in Revelation (x., 5, 6).
He seems now to have enjoined circumcision on all male adherents, and reports circulated that several children had died in consequence. "But," says the Autobiography, "these reports, with one exception, were entirely false." The child who died was the son of Robert Grimshaw, of Hurst Brook, near Ashton. The poor child died six days after the operation. An inquest was held by the coroner, and a verdict of manslaughter was returned against Henry Lees, the operator. He was, however, acquitted at the Assizes, as the medical evidence was not conclusive that the wound occasioned by circumcision had caused the child's death.
On the 11th September Wroe received a call to wander in the fields for fourteen days, and live on nuts, wheat, blackberries, hips, herbs, and water. But these, as may well be believed, did not satisfy his hunger. At the end of this time, which he spent in wandering to Huddersfield and Oakenshaw, he told his wife "he had a command from God that she should destroy all pictures, portraits, or likenesses of anything he had created or caused to grow, whether of iron, stone, wood, cloth, or paper, and everything of a black colour that could be found within the house." Which command she, like a dutiful but foolish wife, obeyed.
He then proceeded to Bradford, and on Sunday the 26th addressed a large congregation which crowded into the chapel to hear him. It ended in a riot. "John left the room, accompanied by Elizabeth Elsworth and Mary Brear, with whom he walked about two hundred yards, when one of the females received a blow and was pushed aside. John was also forced along for some distance. However, they reached the New Inn, where there were two horses in readiness for John and his friend. Many of the people were about to enter, but were prevented by the landlord. Some persons already in the house said the two females were 'John's women,' and that he was picking poor people's pockets. The horses being got ready, the people in the house rushed out, crying to their persecuting companions, 'Now, lads, he's going!' on which they closed the yard gate. John, however, escaped by another passage. Having succeeded in getting on the road leading to Great Horton, a cry was raised, 'Kill him! kill him!' He was then pursued by the mob, amounting to thousands, some crying out, 'That's the devil who says he's been living on hips and haws, wheat and nuts, for fourteen days!' He was surrounded, and prevented from proceeding. By being preceded by Joseph Brear, he soon after succeeded in clearing his way, and proceeding a little further. But he was stopped, the mob pulling his horse and tearing his clothes. Joseph again succeeded in clearing the way a little, but was presently knocked off his horse by a stone; when remounted, they proceeded a short distance. John then turned and said something to the people. John and his horse were then pulled down and struck; the bridle and girth were broken in pieces. He at length succeeded in getting on the causeway, and resumed his journey on foot; stones and other missiles were showered against him in all directions. Some of his companions entertained fears that he never would reach Horton with life."
The bursting of a storm of rain fortunately dispersed the mob, and the Prophet escaped. "On arriving at Moses Elsworth's nearly his whole body was black; he had also one of his eyes much discoloured, and received a cut on his face from a stone." On the following day he obtained warrants against nineteen of the mob, who appeared before the magistrate, were bound over to keep the peace for twelve months, and had to pay all expenses.
Prophet Wroe now deemed it expedient to visit London. Accordingly he had a revelation in August, 1825: "Go thou to Tozer, and stand before him, and prophesy, with thy rod in thy hand, and say, 'Thus saith the Lord, the Lord thy God has showed thee many things; and for this end wast thou born. The seal thou hast received thou shalt be able to retain; but thy body shall go to the dust, and thou shalt put on incorruption at the first resurrection. … Thou shalt be a witness for Joanna, and thou shalt come with her, and at that day thou shalt be great unto the ends of the earth."
On the 28th August, John Wroe, with his faithful ally, William Lees, visited the chapel of Mr. Lindsay, a prophet of the congregation of Joanna Southcott in London. Lindsay received them cordially, and announced to his congregation that "Brother Wroe" was to have full liberty to use the chapel morning and afternoon.
Now Tozer was the right-hand man of Lindsay—his faithful witness, who wrote down the oracles that dropped from his lips. He was, in fact, to Lindsay what William Lees was to John Wroe. It was to this Tozer that Wroe bore the message given above, which was a speech wrapped up in the most flattering and complimentary language, but a snub for all that. Mr. Tozer was wont to designate himself, "The man clothed in linen, with the writer's inkhorn," and believed himself, or endeavoured to induce others to believe, that he was the person spoken of by the Prophet Ezekiel (ix., 2); and when Mr. Lees appeared on the scene with a white surplice on and an ink-bottle at his left side it was a distinct throwing down of the gauntlet, and was likely to lead to unpleasant results. Foreseeing which, Wroe wrestled in prayer before the congregation that "Satan might be rebuked within them walls that day." Then Wroe stood up and said with a loud voice, "Thus saith the Lord, There are in this place those whose places shall be taken by others who have mocked and despised them. None shall enter but such as are circumcised or married." Lindsay turned red, trembled, and knocked over his inkstand. Tozer got up and said, "Friends, what must be my feelings at this time? This day of the month, this day of the week, eleven years ago, I addressed 1500 people in this city, and since that time the visitation has been trodden under foot. Eleven days were spoken of by the Woman—take them to mean years—(see the book, and find it). God grant that this may be the beginning of the Gathering." The people answered "Amen." It is evident he was overawed by Wroe and Lee in his white surplice and ink-pot.
In the afternoon Wroe was again at the chapel, and again hinted that there was now a new outpouring upon himself, and that the old prophets were to yield to him. "Thus saith the Lord, Many in this place that are first shall be last." Tozer and Lindsay looked uneasy. "If you will sign for Satan's destruction, let a man be deputed to Ashton on the 17th of next month. Many dreams have been interpreted there; let the same be sent to those who profess to be visited, and see who will get an answer in truth."
Lindsay walked backward and forward, in and out of the room, whilst John Wroe spoke, but said nothing. At the conclusion of Wroe's speech, Lindsay, who was greatly agitated, said, "I have received an order from above to go and see the Living Skeleton now exhibiting in Pall Mall, at three o'clock to-morrow, and John, with others, must go with me. And let so-and-so take his clarionette and play a tune before the skeleton, but for what purpose I know not."
John Wroe answered—"If the Lord hath commanded me to go, I will go; if not, I cannot go."
This Living Skeleton was Claude Ambroise Seurat, born in 1797, who was exhibited in London in 1825. His flesh had wasted completely away, and when he had attained his full height he presented the extraordinary spectacle of a skeleton covered with skin, alive and able to move and converse. A portion of Mr. Hones' description of him must be quoted here:—"He seemed another 'Lazarus come forth,' without his grave-clothes, and for a moment I was too consternated to observe more than his general appearance. My eye then first caught the arm as the most remarkable limb; from the shoulder to the elbow it is like an ivory German flute, somewhat deepened in colour by age; it is not larger, and the skin is of that hue, and not having a trace of muscle, it is as perfect a cylinder as a writing-rule. Amazed by the wasted limbs, I was still more amazed by the extraordinary depression of the chest. Its indentation is similar to that which an over-careful mother makes in the pillowed surface of an infant's bed for its repose. Nature has here inverted her own order, and turned the convex inwards, while nobler organs, obedient to her will, maintain life by the gentle exercise of their wonted functions in a lower region. If the integument of the bowels can be called flesh, it is the only flesh on the body; for it seems to have wholly shrunk from the limbs, and where the muscles that have not wholly disappeared remain, they are also shrunk."
That this emaciated object, whose appearance in London created a sensation, should have been supposed by superstitious people, eagerly looking out for portents and realisations of wild prophecies, to be sent into the world with some peculiar significance, is not to be wondered at.
Lindsay seems to have resolved to put Wroe's apostleship to the proof by a visit to the extraordinary phenomenon, then exhibiting in the Chinese Pavilion, in Pall Mall. The Living Skeleton was to have decided between them, and confounded him who was the false prophet and impostor.
But Wroe would not go through this ordeal: he slunk away, conscious, perhaps, that he was an impostor, and with superstitious fear of the Walking Skeleton. He escaped to Greenwich, where he pretended to be ill.
Lindsay, finding Wroe was not at the exhibition, pursued him to Greenwich, and an angry meeting ensued.
Next Sunday, Wroe again invaded the chapel of Lindsay, who began to prophesy against him, saying, "I say, in the name of the Lord, you shall shave!" Then John Wroe took the prophetic rod, and thrusting it towards Lindsay, thundered forth, "Dost thou come to defy Israel? The Lord rebuke thee, Satan!"
Lindsay was silent, but presently tried to create a diversion by setting Wroe and his follower Lees at variance, for he pointed to the latter and said, "Thus saith the Lord, This man shall shave, and shall prophesy against his master." "When will he shave off his beard?" asked Wroe indignantly. "When thine is plucked up by the roots," answered Lindsay. The scene was becoming undignified. The prophets seemed to be aware of it, and that it was necessary to patch the matter up; so Lindsay said, "You see the spirits seem to differ a little; it is we who do not understand how they work and move."
By degrees Wroe succeeded in obtaining recognition as the Prophet from the majority of Joanna Southcott's congregations. The faithful men wore long beards, "the city mark," as it was called, and white linen vestments at the religious meetings in their tabernacles.
George Turner had succeeded Joanna Southcott; he was succeeded by William Shaw, and then Wroe received general acknowledgment. He announced that his mission would last forty years, and that at the expiration of this period Shiloh would come.
As soon as he was acknowledged as Prophet, he had a power in his hands which he did not fail to exercise. In 1830 he announced that he had received orders from heaven that seven virgins should be delivered to him to comfort and cherish him, and three of his believers at once gave up to him their daughters. With these poor girls and some married women Wroe wandered from place to place. They were with him in Kent, in Devonshire, in Lancashire, and Yorkshire—wherever Wroe pretended that he was called. The matter became scandalous, and the confidence of several of the members of the community was shaken. The girls were questioned, and made shocking disclosures. Two of the Society, named Masterman and Walker, rose in the congregation at Ashton, on February 27th, 1831, and charged him with profligacy. Wroe could not stand against the storm; he escaped through a trap-door in the orchestra, amidst cat-calls, jeers, and howls. He remained secreted in Ashton a few days, and then left the place for ever.
The confidence of his faithful disciple Lees was somewhat dashed shortly before this by an exposure of the Prophet at Manchester. Lees had a friend at Manchester with whom he did business. Wroe used to spend much of his time in Lees' house. The Prophet announced to Lees that he was called by the Spirit on a mission, but that he had no money. Lees called a covenant meeting, and the sum of eighty pounds was raised, and placed at the disposal of the Prophet, who departed with it. Now it happened that Lees' friend did business at a certain public-house in Manchester, and having noticed Wroe there, and being shortly after at Ashton, he asked Lees where the Prophet was. Lees told him that he had gone on a mission. His friend laughed, and said, "Come with me and you shall see him."
With difficulty he persuaded Lees to get into a cab with him and drive to Manchester to the public-house. The two men went in, opened the door into a back parlour, and found the Prophet sitting by the fire, in his low-crowned brown hat and long coat, between two low women, drinking hot whiskey and water with them. The landlord informed them that Wroe had been there several days. Lees went home, burned his white robe, destroyed all his books and tracts belonging to the Society, shaved off his beard, and next Sunday was in the parish church, which he had been in the habit of attending before he fell under the influence of Wroe.
But his humiliation did not end here. His daughter gave promise of becoming a mother by Wroe. In vain did the Prophet assure him that the child that would be born was the promised Shiloh. It turned out to be a girl. Lees put Wroe out of his doors.
It was soon after this that the Prophet was met by Masterman and Walker, and the scandal of the virgins was exposed.
Lees, hearing that Wroe was coming to Ashton, exasperated at the dishonour of his daughter and the dupe that had been made of himself, stationed himself behind a chimney and fired a gun at Wroe. The ball whizzed past his hat, and fortunately did him no injury. But the rumour of these scandals and the death of a child named Wood whom he had circumcised, caused a riot at Bradford when he visited it shortly after. The mob broke into the tabernacle, tore up the benches, smashed the windows, and would have maltreated Wroe if they could have caught him; but the wary Prophet made his escape in time.
One day in July he had a vocation to go on a mission. He was then living at Pudsey. His followers raised a handsome sum to defray his expenses, and he departed. After he had gone, it was observed that his wife passed a certain public-house in the neighbourhood every day. This was unusual, and it was agreed to watch her. After John Wroe had been gone fourteen days, she was followed at a distance. She went down a lane to a corn-field and made a signal, whereupon Wroe was observed to creep out of the standing corn. His wife opened her basket and produced a dish of new potatoes and a mutton-chop, and a four-ounce bottle of wine. The Prophet drew a horse-rug from out the corn, and prepared to seat himself on it and enjoy his dinner, when the spies rushed upon him, carried him in triumph into Pudsey, set him on a donkey, rode him through the town, then tied a rope round his body, threw him into a horse-pond, pulled him out, and threw him in again and again; till the women, seeing him nearly exhausted, interfered and begged that he might be spared.
When he was living at Bowling he had a trance which lasted ten or twelve days. He lay apparently insensible on a stump bedstead, and people came from far and wide to see him. At the foot of the bed was a basket in which the visitors deposited silver and copper; and all who came were expected to give a trifle. There was a fixed hour at which the cottage door was opened and closed, and when it was closed the key was turned in the lock, and no one was admitted on any excuse.
It unfortunately happened that one night Mrs. Wroe went out for some purpose or other, and left the door unfastened behind her, intending to return in a minute. A man named Holt and his son lived close by. As they saw Mrs. Wroe go out, they and a neighbour who was with them thought the opportunity was not to be neglected, and opened the door of Wroe's house and peeped cautiously in. To their surprise John was sitting very comfortably in the ingle-nook, eating beef-steak, pickled cabbage, and oat-cake. Next day he was laid on his bed as usual in a trance, and so he continued for three or more days. One of the visitors wished to thrust a needle under Wroe's nail, to prove if he were perfectly sensible, but his wife would not permit it.
Another of his devices for raising money was not more honest. He announced that the Lord had declared to him that every member of the Society of the house of Israel was to wear a gold ring of the value of £1 3s. 6d., which was to be procured from the Prophet, and it was to be a sign and a seal to them that they were the elect. This was in 1856, and all the members were supplied with gold rings by 1857. At this time the number of the members was thought to be about 6000, of whom 700 were in Ireland.
Unfortunately for the credit of the Prophet, towards the end of 1856 one of the members, who had not wholly lost his common-sense, thought it advisable to have his gold ring tested with nitric acid, and the startling discovery was made that the rings were not of gold at all, not worth a florin each. Wroe threw the blame on the goldsmith who had provided him with them, and ordered that no more should be issued.
About 1854 John Wroe said he had a command from the Lord to build a mansion. The treasury of the "House of Israel" was empty; so the pillars of the Church met, and on consultation agreed to let Wroe have the Flying Roll money. This was a fund to which, after the death of Joanna Southcott, all sealed members paid according to their income or ability. It was a sacred fund retained by the Society for the purpose of publishing the Eternal Gospel and sending it to all parts of the world, proclaiming the millennium, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the Great Desolation. This eternal Gospel was to be published forty years after the death of Joanna. The sum amounted to a large amount—over two thousand pounds.
Wroe bought a piece of land on a height near Wakefield, and on this began to build. The house, said Wroe, was to be dedicated to the Lord, and was to belong to the members of the "House of Israel" gathered out of all nations. No architect was to be employed. It was to be built as the Spirit directed.
Subscription-books were issued to all the sanctuaries. Every member's contribution was to be entered separately, and no man was to know what his neighbour gave. The poorest workman was to contribute not less than 10 per cent. of his earnings. All extra gifts were to be sent to John Wroe at Wrenthorpe, near Wakefield, and those who did not wish to pay to the local treasurers might send their subscriptions direct to the Prophet.
During 1855 and 1856 post-office orders poured in from all parts, and it was said in Wakefield at the time that Wroe had more orders cashed than all the tradesmen of the town put together.
The female members of the Society were to furnish the mansion. They were not to tell their husbands how much they gave; and many put down their names for sums which they really could not pay, and had to sell goods and borrow cash to keep up their payments to the end of 1856.
The land was bought of Mr. William Ramsden, farmer, of Wrenthorpe, and was conveyed by Mr. Haigh, solicitor, of Horbury, to John Wroe, and not to the Society. A farm of upwards of a hundred acres was bought in addition, and was conveyed to himself.
The rumour of this produced some uneasiness among the members, and twenty of them waited on the Prophet to question him about the conveyance. He spoke them fair, assured them that the mansion and land would go to the Society, and in their presence drew up a will wherein he devised the whole estate to the Society. Messrs. Snell, Currey, Gill, and Farren, leading members and pillars of the Church, witnessed it, and departed in satisfaction to their homes. A fortnight after, Wroe sent for a solicitor of Wakefield, and privately drew up a new will, cancelling the old one, and in this latter will he devised the mansion and ninety-eight acres of land to his grandson, James Wroe; and to his daughters, Susanna and Sarah, property producing about £50 per annum to each; and to his only son Joseph property of the value of £60 per annum.
The mansion was designed somewhat in the style of Melbourne Town Hall. It cost upwards of £2000, but need not have cost half as much. When Wroe saw how the money poured in, he had the north-east wing taken completely down, and enlarged the building. Much of the work was done two or three times over. The glazier (Mr. Slater) had a contract to do all the glazing, and as soon as his contract was finished, Wroe contracted with Mr. Slater to take every square of glass out again, and put good plate-glass into the windows instead.
Wroe found he could not get on without an architect, and therefore employed Mr. Thorpe, of Wakefield, and worried him out of all endurance. Wroe visited Australia in 1850, 1854, 1859, and 1862. He was in America in 1840, 1848, 1853, and 1859. His wife died May 16th, 1853, aged seventy-four years, a fortnight after he left for America. He is said to have treated her badly. On his travels he assumed different names; sometimes he called himself Johanan Asrael, sometimes Yokkow or Yockaman.
He obtained the name of "Pudding Wroe" among the urchins of Wakefield and Bradford; the origin of this was as follows:—After one of his long trances, he began to walk about, and was asked by acquaintances concerning his health and appetite, and "What could he eat or fancy?" His invariable answer was, "Nowt but pudding."
The boys used to shout after him—"Pudding Wroe," or "Nowt but pudding," and this highly incensed the Prophet. One day, after he had had this cry ringing in his ears, he came home, and, standing in the door, saw the table laid for dinner, and his wife and children ready in their places. "What is for dinner to-day?" asked Wroe.
"Nowt but pudding!" shouted the incautious children. Wroe flew into a passion, and said to his wife, "I'll tell thee what, lass, I wi'nt have yon stuff called pudding ony more."
"Why, lad!" said Mrs. Wroe, "what are t' bairns to call it then?"
"They mun call it soft meat," answered John.
Wroe purchased a handsome mule with a long flowing tail, and a basket carriage. The harness was of the best kind, with silver buckles, &c. One day when Wroe drove to Sandal, and left his mule and carriage outside the house where he had business, some evil-disposed persons shaved the mule's tail. Wroe raved and threatened, but could not find the guilty parties. He never went near Sandal afterwards.
The following is Wroe's receipt for curing a cold:—Put two gallons of boiling water in a large bottle, and place a funnel on the neck; put your face in the mouth of the funnel, and throw a blanket over your head; thus you inhale the steam, and are thrown into a perspiration.
Wroe would put a pillow in the oven, lay his head on it, and let the oven be heated as hot as he could bear it, to drive away a head cold.
In his last voyage to Australia, in 1862, he fell upon the deck of the ship when it was rolling, and dislocated his shoulder. The doctor set it, but it soon fell out of place again, and never was right after.
On the day of his death, which occurred at Fitzroy, in Australia, he had been out walking as usual, and seemed in his wonted health. On his return from a walk he seated himself in his chair, and suddenly fell forward on the floor, and was taken up a corpse. He had been collecting money in Australia; and directly it was rumoured that Wroe was dead, all the members in Melbourne demanded back their money, and threatened to roughly handle Benjamin Eddow, Wroe's companion and secretary, unless he restored the subscriptions. He was obliged to surrender some of the cash, and to conceal himself. He got away the following day, and remained hidden in a blacksmith's shop till he could find a ship on which to get back to England. He brought with him between six and seven hundred pounds. The Melbourne Society complained that Wroe had not kept faith with them, for he had promised them he would never die!
- This he mentions in his tract, "A Vision of an Angel," Bradford, Inkersley, 1820.
- My informant, who knew Wroe well, says: "J. Holt, the young man who saw this, told it me. He is now living at Bradford."
- Is it more than a coincidence that the Southcottites should reproduce the forms and terminology of a heresy of the fourteenth century? The Abbot Joachim was the prophet then, and his "Eternal Gospel" proclaimed precisely the same doctrines as the "Eternal Gospel" of Joanna. This heresy invaded the ranks of the Franciscans, and produced a tremendous schism, which ended in the prescription of the Fraticelli. For an account of the Abbot Joachim and the Eternal Gospel see Hahn, "Ketzer Geschichte," ii. and iii.; and Dean Milman's "Latin Christianity."
- The members were obliged to keep books of their earnings, and exhibit them, to prove that they paid 10 per cent. to Wroe.
- This information comes from some of those who were thus victimised. Some members turned total abstainers, others vegetarians, to economise money in order to pay their subscriptions.