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Prophet John Wroe
Virgins, Scandals and Visions
By Edward Green
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Edward Green
All rights reserved.
A Prophet is Born
A small, ugly, hunchbacked man with shaggy hair and a haggard face, who spoke with the broadest of Yorkshire accents, seems the most unlikely person to have headed a religious sect in the early nineteenth century. Yet this native of Bradford was not only to wrest leadership, but would give his schism from the Southcottians media coverage the older sect had not received since the death of Joanna Southcott, their founder. Wroe's prophecies, speeches and various antics brought him much notoriety during his long life, though it was not until he was in his late 30s that he started on the road to fame with dramatic fits and trances lasting for many hours, in which he encountered the strangest of visions. All this seemed unlikely in the winter of 1819, when Wroe lay ill, his unremarkable life seemingly about to end, his name just one of many Wroes recorded in the pages of the Bradford parish registers.
John Wroe (or Roe) was born on 19 September 1782 at the family farmhouse in Rooley Lane, West Bowling, Bradford. Today this 'lane' is a busy three-lane dual carriageway taking traffic from the M606 to Bradford city centre. Then it would have been nothing more than a country road in a rural hamlet close to the Yorkshire mill town. John was the eldest surviving son of Joseph Wroe, a farmer who also had financial interests in local coal mines and the Bradford worsted woollen industry. Despite his comfortable family background, he received little education. A near neighbour at Bowling, Samuel Muff, recalled that Wroe's teacher 'never could teach him to spell or read, or even to speak plainly'. Despite attending a school at Bretton, near Wakefield for a year, he progressed slowly, and, as he himself admitted, his reading barely improved, his master commenting that he would learn nothing no matter how long he stayed.
There is very little information about the first thirty-six years of Wroe's life, and what there is comes from one primary source, Divine Communications, which is ostensibly his autobiography, published by the Society of Christian Israelites in three volumes. These books are analysed closely in Chapter 7, and when compared with other available primary sources relating to events in Wroe's life, their accounts seem accurate. Certain important incidents, however, are missing from the pages of Divine Communications. The first eighteen pages of volume 1 give an account of the Prophet's life prior to 1818. His existence was far from remarkable, but the narrative does give some important indications as to Wroe's future character. A number of important themes emerge, fitting into the 'signs and portents' tradition, according to which people with great spiritual gifts have often been the runt of the litter.
Firstly, Wroe talks about being victimised by his father, and also his father's apparent favouritism towards his younger brother Joseph, in a strange parallel with the way the biblical Jacob favoured his own Joseph above his other children. As a child, Wroe was 'put to all kinds of drudgery and kicked and cuffed about' by his father. Mr Wroe taunted his son, calling him Tom Bland after 'an idiot' in the nearby Bowling Workhouse. While carrying out repairs on some houses that his father had bought, Wroe was nearly bent double from carrying a window lintel to the second floor. This, according to Wroe, accounted for his characteristic hunched back. He was further taunted for his deafness, which had come about after he was thrown into an ice-covered pond. This condition was cured in young adulthood by the Whitworth doctors, one of whom syringed his ears.
Secondly, we learn of the family's Church of England background; they were staunch Anglicans, reflecting their comfortable status. Wroe was baptised in Bradford Parish Church on 8 December 1782. More importantly, we also discover the family's belief in prophecies. Wroe's grandfather had once announced that the 'Lord would raise up a priest from the fruits of his loin'. Mr and Mrs Wroe took this announcement seriously and named their youngest son Thomas after his grandfather. He was trained to go into the Church, but was advised against the ministry by the vicar of Bradford and the Archbishop of York because of his stammer.
Wroe's critics, including the well-known Victorian Anglican vicar the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould, regard his account of the early years of his life as deeply self-piteous. They attempt to explain Wroe's treatment by his father as being a consequence of Wroe's own stupidity, claiming that he was aimless, work-shy and unable to apply himself at school. This seems at odds with the shrewd person they later describe as devious and cunning. Wroe's supposed near illiteracy is also highly questionable. There is evidence that he could write. Was Wroe's lack of education overstressed by both his supporters and critics to show on the one hand what a remarkable person they thought him to be, and on the other to portray him as a stupid and worthless individual?
As for the rest of the family, we know that Wroe had a sister, although he does not mention her name. Neither, perhaps significantly, does Wroe make a direct mention of his mother in the pages of Divine Communications. She was Susanna, the daughter of Thomas Fearnley. Susanna married Joseph Wroe on 8 June 1778 at Bradford.
At first the young Wroe worked for his father but his brother Joseph was put in charge of him and the brothers often quarrelled and fought. When Wroe was about 15, his uncle John tried to intervene regarding his father's treatment of him. Wroe's uncle tried to persuade his brother to let Wroe become an apprentice in his own trade. Joseph would not give his permission, but Wroe left anyway, to live with his cousin and to become an apprentice wool-comber. Wool-combing is the process of carding the tangled fibres of raw wool into roughly parallel strands and the removal of the short stable wool. The finished product is wool of sufficiently high quality to be used in the manufacture of worsted cloth. The worsted woollen trade was centred in and around Bradford, which hugely expanded in the early 1800s, the town's population rocketing from 13,264 in 1801 to 43,527 by 1831.
Joseph Wroe, however, persuaded his eldest son to terminate his apprenticeship and return home. He drew up a partnership agreement which was never signed. It was not until John Wroe had reached the age of 24 that he set up in business for himself as a wool-comber, at first staying with his cousin before taking up the tenancy of a small farm at Street House, Tong Street, south of Bradford. This was to be his main home until 1831. When Wroe first took out the tenancy his father again tried to interfere in his affairs, sending Wroe on an errand to Liverpool. Wroe claimed that his father had taken advantage of him and cheated him out of the tenancy, taking ownership of the farm behind his back.
Within three years Wroe had possession of the farm. He took on a number of apprentices in his wool-combing business, but the conduct of one of the young men caused him severe losses of several hundred pounds. The apprentice, Benjamin Lockwood, had built up large debts with many local traders, in particular James Rusher, a wool merchant from Wakefield. The young man had wanted to save the money to go to America but instead almost ruined Wroe's business, as Wroe and his wife's family ended up paying bills plus legal expenses that together amounted to a sum in excess of £500.
To add to his woes, one night, at the time of Bradford's winter fair, the hapless young Wroe was attacked by two men at Adwalton who robbed him of 18 guineas. Although the men were convicted and found guilty of the robbery Wroe never recovered the money, and the circumstances of the crime caused him a great amount of trouble and expense.
Wroe's brother Joseph had married Mary Firth, and at about this time John let his brother and his brother-in-law Peter have goods and money to the value of £70 on loan. This was never returned, and such was Wroe's anger towards his brother that in the winter of 1817 he procured a pistol, determined to kill Joseph. Wroe set off for his brother's house, carrying a piece of paper with words he had transcribed from Psalm 55 written on it:
For it was not an enemy that reproached me, then I could have borne it; neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me, then I would have hid myself from him. But it was thou, a man, mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance. The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords.
The intention was to push the piece of paper under Joseph's front door, give him time to read it and then shoot at him through the window. On the way to his brother's house, however, Wroe relented and decided not to carry out his plan.
Bradford parish registers show that John Wroe married Mary Appleby at the parish church on 22 April 1816. She was the daughter of Benjamin Appleby of Farnley Mills, Leeds. Farnley is the next village to Tong in an easterly direction. The couple remained married until Mrs Wroe's death over thirty-seven years later. They had at least seven children although three died in infancy. Of the other four, Joseph, Susanna and Sarai survived their father.
So far there was little, if anything, in this somewhat mundane life to suggest that Wroe was destined for a strange career of fame and notoriety, but everything would change, dramatically so, following Wroe's long illness. In the autumn of 1819 Wroe became sick with fever, which over a few weeks had 'reduced him to a mere skeleton'. Wroe was visited by two doctors, Dr Blake of Bradford and Dr Field of Tong Street. Death was surely close at hand, a grim prognosis confirmed when Dr Blake advised Mrs Wroe to make the necessary final arrangements. Wroe's thoughts turned to his spiritual requirements. Interestingly, he requested that his wife should call for Methodist ministers to come and pray with him at his deathbed, but they refused. Mrs Wroe suggested calling for the local vicar, but Wroe thought by that time that it was too late and asked his wife to read him a couple of chapters from the Bible as a means of comfort.
To everyone's surprise Wroe actually recovered from his grave illness. While he convalesced he was often to be found by the roadside between Tong Street and Tong, a Bible in his hand, sitting under hedges, asking passers-by to help him read out certain passages. Soon, however, illness returned, and John Wroe started to encounter visions he believed were of heavenly origin. The first occurred when he was wandering in the fields near his home. As he later wrote in Divine Communications, 'I saw a vision with my eyes open; a woman came unto me who tossed me up and down in the field.' He realised it was a vision, as he 'strove to get hold of her, but got hold of nothing'. He therefore knew she was a spirit. Later editions of Divine Communications include a bizarre footnote at this point, which states that 'Some part of this history has been published before in pamphlets wherein it is said he got hold of the woman by the breast, which is a misrepresentation of the writers.' Wroe took to his bed once more and was shortly afterwards struck blind and lost the power of speech, at the same time falling into a trance. He encountered many visions, the first of which took place at about 2 a.m. on 12 November 1819. On regaining consciousness Wroe wrote an account of his vision on a blackboard, which was later transcribed:
The sun and the moon appeared to me, after which there appeared a very large piece of glass, and looking through it I saw a very beautiful place, which I entered into; and I saw numbers of persons who were bearing the cross of Christ; and I saw angels ascending and descending; and there came an angel who was my guide. There then appeared a great altar, and I looked up and beheld, as it were, the Son of God; and looking down, I saw both the Father and the Son, and angels standing on both sides and playing music; and my guide said to me, 'Now thou seest the Father and the Son, and the glory thereof'.
Looking round me, I saw a large number of people, which no man could number; after that the angel, or my guide, said to me, 'Thy prayers have been heard, but not accepted; for thou wert not like Abraham when he offered up his son Isaac for a sacrifice; thou hast withholden thine heart back from the Lord thy God, but now thou art cleansed – Spirit, return to thy rest.' And as sudden as lightning these words struck forcibly upon me: 'Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, as long as thy rod and thy staff abideth with me.'
Throughout the twelve-hour duration of the vision, Wroe was conscious of those around him in the room, around his sickbed. Many shook his hand, fearing he was about to die.
Two days later, at 10 o'clock in the morning he was again struck blind and experienced another vision, lasting this time for seven hours. On this occasion he recalled that he walked down a lane where there were huge numbers of oxen. He was met by his angel guide, who explained that he would tell him the meaning of the beasts. The angel took Wroe into a large place, where he saw a great quantity of books placed on their edges. The books had gilt letters on them which he was not able to read. There then appeared a huge altar full of gilt letters. Wroe begged that he might be able to read the writing and understand what he had seen. There then appeared another book with the word 'Jeremiah' on the top of it, and the letter 'L'. As Wroe was experiencing this vision he wrote the word 'Jeremiah' on the wall with his finger. He attempted to speak, but his tongue was still stuck fast in his mouth, so he was handed a piece of chalk, with which he wrote 'Jeremiah 50th chapter'. In the vision the guide told Wroe that he would explain the meaning of the chapter to him. '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 every word in it, which indeed I did.'
Further visions encountered by Wroe over these two days were surely the most remarkable of his entire religious career, as they point to some of the paraphernalia with which Wroe became obsessed. As well as showing Wroe Christ on the Cross, Moses, Aaron and the twelve Patriarchs, Wroe's angel guide also showed him 'thousands more things' in the vision. These included the throne of God, which appeared in a place 'arched with precious stones, which shone with such lustre that my eyes could scarcely behold it'. Wroe continues, 'my guide showed me the Father and the Son in the midst of it: there then was the sweetest music I ever heard.' Architecture and music were to feature strongly in Wroe's Christian Israelite religion.
Further fits and visions were to follow. About two weeks later, on 29 November, Wroe had another fit, accompanied by visions, which lasted twelve hours. A further, particularly severe episode followed another two weeks later, on 14 December. Wroe was again struck blind, but this time 'remained more like a corpse than a living man for twenty-four hours, when by degrees I came to myself', although he was to remain blind for a further five days, slipping in and out of visionary trances. During these six days Wroe's wife read out the words of a hymn. Once she had finished, he asked her to repeat it, but before she could begin he fainted again, experiencing the following remarkable vision:
I saw the elements part, and there appeared a large open square, and I saw our Saviour nailed upon 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; there then appeared an angel holding a man by a single hair of his head, and he had a very large sword in his hand, and he waved it backwards and forwards; I then saw large scales let down to the earth, and I saw a large bundle put into one end of the scales, I thought that bundle was the sins of the people; and I saw a very large quantity of weights put into the other end, and they put the beam to a balance, and the bundle was so much heavier that the weights bounced out; the scales were then drawn up into heaven. I then saw the man which was holden by the hair of his head by the angel, and he brandished his sword six or seven times as before, then they disappeared. I afterwards saw Moses and Aaron, and a large number of people with them, accompanied by a number of angels; and I heard such delightful music which is impossible for me to relate.
Excerpted from Prophet John Wroe by Edward Green. Copyright © 2013 Edward Green. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
One A Prophet is Born,
Two The Southcottians,
Three The Rise to Leadership,
Four Baptism of Blood,
Five Building the New Jerusalem,
Six Scandals and Banishment,
Seven Return of the Native,
Eight Preaching to All Nations,
Nine Prophet Wroe's Mansion,
Ten Death and its Aftermath,
Eleven The Demise of the Christian Israelites in England,
Twelve The Last of the Wroes,
Appendix 1: Allegations from The Voice of the People,
Appendix 2: John Wroe in Literature,
Appendix 3: Saving the Odd Whim,