The Box of Eternal Peace

This chest is said to hold the secrets of eternal peace. although it has been an enduring object of fascination for 200 years, it has never been opened. So why do its elderly guardians suddenly feel the need to throw light on their mysterious world?
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The Independent Online

"Take a taxi from Milton Keynes," said the man from the Panacea Society. "It will save time." It did. But thanks to a long traffic jam at the roundabout with the M1 it gained me just a mere 20 minutes which, with a cab fare of £28, turned out to be a rather expensive way of saving time.

But then, time is running out for the Panacea Society (established in 1926). Its members are waiting for the end of the world, and so convinced are they of its imminence that they have refurbished an elegant Edwardian terraced house in Bedford for the exclusive use of Jesus Christ when he returns for the Second Coming. It has new carpets throughout, and a new kitchen and bathroom, though as one of it members pointed out, Christ "may not require the shower, because he will have a radiant body" when he returns for the Last Judgement.

If time is running out for them, money is not, which is perhaps why using a taxi at £1.40 a minute seems a worthwhile deal. They have recently found themselves under the cold commercial scrutiny of the Charity Commissioners, who discovered that the society has accumulated, at a conservative estimate, £15m in property and stocks, which generate more than £500,000 a year in income.

And yet they were not spending any of it. Quite properly, according to the aims and objectives of the society at any rate, they were saving it all up for Jesus to spend when he arrives in Bedford. "The Lord worked as a carpenter the first time," Panacea's treasurer, a beady-eyed, full-bearded, octogenarian Scot named John Coghill, explained. "He will still need money this time."

This is not quite how the Charity Commissioners saw it. Accumulating goods and cash for a future event – date unspecified – is deemed not to be in accordance with the terms of charity as defined in English law. So to keep their tax-beneficial charitable status, the society was last week forced to auction off vast quantities of antiques, jewellery, paintings and other valuables which had been left to it when the 120,000 members who joined it in its heyday in the 1930s "passed over to the other side". The £800,000 raised by the five-day auction will be added to their capital, but the interest from it must henceforth be spent, in the year in which it is earned, on conventional charitable acts. (The society recently gave £250,000 to a Bedford Hospital appeal and child development project.)

But there was one treasure that they would never agree to auction. The Panacea Society's most closely guarded possession – no outsiders are allowed to see it – is a box which once belonged to Joanna Southcott, an 18th-century religious figure, described by her adherents as a prophet and by the Dictionary of National Biography as a "fanatic". Joanna, who said she received messages from God, made predictions and sealed them. In her life, many – on matters like crop failures and the course of the Napoleonic wars – came true. But a large quantity of other prophecies and instructions were sealed in the box, with the order that it should only be opened at a time of national emergency and in the presence of 24 bishops of the Church of England.

Ever since, the corded and nailed chest – which we know, thanks to one dutiful British Railways official in 1861, weighs 156lb – has been handed down unopened from believer to believer (though several "hoax" boxes have materialised and been opened in the interval). For the past 200 years, the holders of the "true" box have been trying to persuade various Archbishops of Canterbury to help open it and share with the world the details of these final visions of Joanna – a proposal which successive Cantuars have rejected with varyingly arctic degrees of disdain. In an attempt to twist their episcopal arms the society placed, throughout the 20th century, adverts in the Daily Mail and The Sunday Telegraph entreating the public to petition the Anglican church to change its mind. "Crime and banditry and the distress of nations and perplexity will continue to increase until the bishops open the box," the full-page ads said.

"No outsiders have seen it till now," Mr Coghill said, as he opened a blue folder and produced a photograph of the hallowed object. "This is the very first time we've allowed anyone even to see a photograph. Make sure you mention that. We've decided to become more open."

Beside him in the society's graceful and well-appointed office in Bedford sat another of the society's elderly trustees, Mrs Ruth Klein. It was Mrs Klein who had done all the interviews on local television and radio about the auction, but now Mr Coghill had decided to step out of the shadows to explain the basis of the society's belief. Neat tables composed in spidery handwriting covered the pages that he now produced.

"The first thing to understand is that Adam and Eve were real people," he began. "The story of evolution is correct, but there came a point at which God put a soul into a human being. First came Eve, who was both male and female. She conceived Adam." It was already a fairly unorthodox start.

"Of course, it's nonsense that they ate the fruit of the tree; that's just the way it's put in the Bible," he continued. "Eve was the fruit and the sin was having sex when her seed was contaminated by blood. That is how children are born wicked, deformed or unsatisfactory in some way. It's a perfectly important eugenic fact. The sin of Adam and Eve was having sex at the wrong time of the month." It was becoming obvious why the bishops were not keen to come to Bedford to join in. Mrs Klein began to inspect her fingernails as her colleague continued to expound the society's curious mixture of 19th-century biblical literalism and early 20th-century Modernist science.

"Adam and Eve lived until they were 930," he said. "All the patriarchs did, until the people with souls began to intermarry with other races, which still had animal souls. This brought down their lifespan – and accounts for the immense cruelty of some races, those with more genetic links to races without souls."

"Would you like some tea?" asked Mrs Klein suddenly, with mild agitation. She left the room.

"Mrs Klein doesn't want me to tell you all this," Mr Coghill said darkly, moving on to explain what happened to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. "They made their way across Europe – the signs cannot be refuted – and arrived in England as the Angles, Saxons, Danes and Normans. So England is the second Promised Land and Britain has been the great nation which God promised to Abraham."

At that point, Mrs Klein returned with the tea and a plate of chocolate biscuits covered in bits of ginger snap. Mr Coghill stole a swift, furtive glance at her. "I'm trying to show you how it all fits into God's divine plan for mankind, but Mrs Klein doesn't want me to."

So how, I asked, did they know all this? "Everything is contained in the Bible, but it has been misunderstood until the arrival of the British prophets of the 18th and 19th century."

Who? "The seven prophets – Richard Brothers, Joanna Southcott, George Turner, William Shaw, John Wroe, James White – of whom Octavia was the greatest. Joanna Southcott at the age of 64, in the last year of her life, was told she was to bear a divine child. Just before she died, she declared the child, Shiloh, was born – it came out of her side – but no one saw it. It was invisible, and was taken by angels back to the throne of God. But Shiloh returned as the moving spirit of Octavia."

Mrs Klein took up the story. "That was the name taken by Mrs Mabel Barltrop, the widow of a vicar who in the 1920s began to hear words from God," Mrs Klein said. "With her followers in what became the Panacea Society, she set up a house in Bedford with 24 bedrooms, furnished and ready for the 24 bishops."

But why Bedford? "England has always been a favoured country and Bedford is right at the centre of England," she said. It is the site of garden of Eden, which is why Christ will return to earth here. "And it's a lovely town, very pretty, with the river..."

Mrs Klein produced a small, postage stamp-sized bundle. She warmed to her theme. "God told Octavia that people should drink a new, healing water. She was instructed by the Lord to purchase large quantities of best quality linen and these were cut into one-inch squares with pinking shears, tied into bundles and then blessed." People contacted the society in their tens of thousands to ask for a linen square to make the blessed water. "It really worked. People were cured of illnesses and helped in relationships or with work. Even their pets were cured."

Now it was Mr Coghill's turn to look uneasy. "I don't think you should tell him all that," he said.

"But I thought we'd agreed to be more open," she countered.

"Not that."

"Well, I've already said it all on local radio."

"I've been taking the water since 1934 and I never felt the need to know all that," he said a touch grumpily. "We didn't need all that in the old days."

But the old days have gone. In the 1930s the society had a staff of 27 and a community of 70, who bought the Edwardian villas surrounding Mrs Barltrop's in Albany Road. At its height 120,000 people across the world were taking the waters. Now they are down to around 1,000. The number of active members is down, according to some reports, to as few as five. "I don't think we have to give numbers," Mrs Klein said with a flash of asperity.

But she knows there is an ambiguity in her position. For a start, the end of the world is nigh. "We just hope it will be soon," she says. After all, it is 6,000 years since Adam and Eve, and 1,000 years is a day to God, so the week of Genesis is nearly up.

"But God never gives a date. And we've had one or two dates slip by..." she says. So it would be nice to get some young blood into the society. "We are dwindling," she concedes. "So if there's anybody out there – devout Christians, a true believer in the Lord's Second Coming, with a desire to take the healing water..." And a yen to spend half a million a year of someone else's money might come in handy, too.

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