David Blackburn

Coming in 2011: A female Messiah

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Bethlehem was an odd venue for the birth of Christ; but not as odd as choosing Bedford for the New Jerusalem. Yet, in 1919, a widow named Mabel Baltrop, was declared to be the daughter of God by a group of women styling themselves the Panacea Society. They called her Octavia and she appointed 12 apostles who spread the word from Bedford to the globe’s four corners, founding a utopian communion followed by 130,000 people. The movement was observantly documented by devotees.

This is the latest chapter in the history of the neo-spiritual boom that succeeded the slaughter in Flanders. Jane Shaw lessens the subject’s apparent absurdity by placing it in the emerging social changes of the period – the Panacea Society owed its existence to the suffragettes, the nascent welfare state and the rise of Fabian socialism, just as it did to the philosophical implications of the nihilistic Great War. Octivianism was more than an expression of quasi-religious fervour; it was a creed of social conservatism, public morality and personal restraint. No wonder that Stanley Baldwin enjoyed such success in the interwar period.