Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance states that the brain cannot simultaneously hold two contradictory ideas. It’s a useful device in empowerment training. Leon Festinger (1919-1989) developed it from research into a group of Canadian millenniarists who convinced themselves that the world would end on December 21st 1954, and when no such cataclysm took place declared that the light which spread from their group had saved the world.
Festinger would have dined out on the Panacea Society, founded in 1919 by Mabel Barltrop, the widow of an Anglican curate, who received a message that she was a new messiah. This was the first of a succession of messages from God, delivered promptly at 5.30pm each day, which ultimately filled sixteen handwritten volumes.
The Panaceans became custodians of Joanna Southcott’s box, which that prophetess had prepared before her death in 1814 with strict instructions that it was only to be opened at a time of national crisis by an assembly of twenty-four Anglican bishops.
Mabel’s supporters renamed her ‘Octavia’ and bought houses near to hers in and around Albany Road in Bedford. Here they lived in a community of genteel and elegant delusion.
Here also the Society duly prepared a residence for twenty of the requisite bishops (the other four would have to make do with a nearby hotel) to carry out the box-opening ceremonies in appropriate dignity and comfort. Endless petitions and advertisements in the national media failed to persuade their lordships to take Joanna Southcott at all seriously.
Mabel herself would not step more than 77 paces away from her home for fear of being attacked by Satan.
She identified this Bedford colony as the original site of the Garden of Eden, and the location to which Jesus Christ would return at the Second Coming. No 18 Albany Road, “The Ark”, was duly prepared for His reception. There was agonised debate about whether He would need a shower, being “radiant”, but one was provided in case.
Mabel, who administered the Sacrament to her flock wearing a Liberty scarf, began a healing ministry, breathing over tap-water that was used to soak linen which was then cut into little squares for dispatch to something like 130,000 applicants between 1921 and the end of the century.
The Society received a considerable jolt in 1934 when Mabel was found dead in bed. This extraordinary behaviour seemed inexplicable, and they waited four days for her to resurrect. When she became increasingly off-colour they eventually called an undertaker.
Nevertheless, the last believing member of the Society survived until 2012, and the Society has now reinvented itself as a philanthropic charity to disburse its accumulated resources of at least £22 million.
One of these projects is the Panacea Museum [http://panaceatrust.org/the-panacea-museum], an unusually fascinating place that needs a couple of hours to assimilate.
When I photographed it on a visit with the Ancient Monuments Society, one image of the garden included a glowing apple within the frame. A trick of the light, surely?