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There's a thin line between saintliness and madness. Here are inspiring tales of holy folly that laugh in the face of human wisdom... and also breathtaking examples of religious stupidity that fly in the face of common sense.

As told by Stephen Tomkins

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30: End-time prophet (and Messiah's Mum)
capital Tjoanna southcottN A SECRET LOCATION somewhere in England lies a box. Inside are the revelations of Joanna Southcott, which may only be read when every bishop of the Church of England assembles to open it. Which is a shame, because they're said to contain very important information about the end of the world.

Joanna Southcott was a Devon upholsterer and end-time prophet born in 1750. Till the age of 42 she was nothing more exciting than a Methodist, but then she started getting messages from God and issuing thousands of paper "seals" guaranteeing salvation. She also wrote prophetic poems and published 65 books.

But the best stuff was put in the box until "all twenty-four bishops of the Church" should come and read it. Evidently the apocalypse is easier to foresee than the expansion of the episcopate.

At 64, Southcott announced that she was pregnant with the new Messiah and her followers made a magnificent cot for him. She went into labour on 25 December 1814 and cried out that the child was being born through her side. "Thus the ethereal invisible body was taken by angels back to the Throne of God." She died two days later, saying in her will that she had been deluded by the Devil.

Her following thrived and in 1927, after a bus advertising campaign, a psychic researcher decided to arrange a meeting in London for press and bishops, and the Southcottians apparently gave him the box. Only the suffragan Bishop of Grantham came, but figuring it was as good as they were going to get, they opened the box. Inside, they found a romantic novel, a French court calendar, a pistol, a night cap and a dice cup.

The Southcottians said they'd got the wrong box, and they guard the true one, along with the cot, in a secret location to this day. They also offer one-inch square bits of cloth, as God instructed Southcott, with the power to heal all ailments and personality problems – but they suggest users remain under the care of a doctor.

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