Southcottians and Shiloh: Genesis 49:10 and the Morphology of a Messianic Hope

Jonathan Downing

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Paper

Abstract

In 1814, a 63 year-old self-styled prophet scandalised London society by proclaiming that she was to give birth to miraculous child, and fulfil the enigmatic promise of Genesis 49:10. In the KJV, this text promises the emergence of a figure called “Shiloh” who shall bring about the “gathering of the people”. It subsequently became an important apocalyptic proof-text for the prophetic communities which make up the movement known as the Southcottian Visitation, whose geographical reach extended to America and Australasia in the 19th century. The exposition of Genesis 49:10's promises by prophetic claimants within the group's history formed the basis for individual and community identity, and provided a focal point for groups' praxis, their view of history, and eschatology. This paper explores how reflections on this text by successive communities in this religious sub-culture can show us how messianic and apocalyptic interpretations of biblical texts adapt to shifting historical contexts. By examining the interpretation of Genesis 49:10 in three distinct stages of the movement – from its founder, through prophets that emerged in the mid-19th century, to early 20th century readings of the text – I demonstrate how a sacred text within a prophetic movement becomes a palimpsest, with successive and competing interpretations becoming layered onto the text over the course of the movement's history. In the case of the Southcottian Visitation's interpretation of Genesis's “Shiloh” prophecy, this raises important hermeneutical questions: the gender identity of the messianic figure; the negotiation of rival translations of the text; the interaction between competing interpretations within a single movement. I argue that prophetic movements such as the Southcottians use the apparently “failed” interpretations of previous authoritative readers to creatively re-engage with apocalyptic promises to forge new readings and new prophetic identities. This has important ramifications for understanding how texts can become “apocalyptic”, and how they can continually invite and engender interpretations throughout their history, and how this interpretative activity – often within religious subcultures – is a vitiating force in their textual and cultural afterlife.In 1814, a 63 year-old self-styled prophet scandalised London society by proclaiming that she was to give birth to miraculous child, and fulfil the enigmatic promise of Genesis 49:10. In the KJV, this text promises the emergence of a figure called “Shiloh” who shall bring about the “gathering of the people”. It subsequently became an important apocalyptic proof-text for the prophetic communities which make up the movement known as the Southcottian Visitation, whose geographical reach extended to America and Australasia in the 19th century. The exposition of Genesis 49:10's promises by prophetic claimants within the group's history formed the basis for individual and community identity, and provided a focal point for groups' praxis, their view of history, and eschatology. This paper explores how reflections on this text by successive communities in this religious sub-culture can show us how messianic and apocalyptic interpretations of biblical texts adapt to shifting historical contexts. By examining the interpretation of Genesis 49:10 in three distinct stages of the movement – from its founder, through prophets that emerged in the mid-19th century, to early 20th century readings of the text – I demonstrate how a sacred text within a prophetic movement becomes a palimpsest, with successive and competing interpretations becoming layered onto the text over the course of the movement's history. In the case of the Southcottian Visitation's interpretation of Genesis's “Shiloh” prophecy, this raises important hermeneutical questions: the gender identity of the messianic figure; the negotiation of rival translations of the text; the interaction between competing interpretations within a single movement. I argue that prophetic movements such as the Southcottians use the apparently “failed” interpretations of previous authoritative readers to creatively re-engage with apocalyptic promises to forge new readings and new prophetic identities. This has important ramifications for understanding how texts can become “apocalyptic”, and how they can continually invite and engender interpretations throughout their history, and how this interpretative activity – often within religious subcultures – is a vitiating force in their textual and cultural afterlife.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015
EventAmerican Academy of Religion/Society for Biblical Literature Annual Meeting - Atlanta, GA, United States
Duration: 21 Nov 201524 Nov 2015

Conference

ConferenceAmerican Academy of Religion/Society for Biblical Literature Annual Meeting
CountryUnited States
CityAtlanta, GA
Period21/11/1524/11/15

Keywords

  • Southcottianism
  • Biblical Reception
  • Genesis
  • New Religious Movements
  • religious history

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    Downing, J. (2015). Southcottians and Shiloh: Genesis 49:10 and the Morphology of a Messianic Hope. Paper presented at American Academy of Religion/Society for Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Atlanta, GA, United States.