How an Obscure 1920s Doomsday Cult Helped Me Understand My Mother’s Obsession With QAnon
Life is full of strange synchronicities.
A couple of years ago, I made a short documentary about a-little known Doomsday cult that formed in the wake of WWI and the Spanish Flu pandemic. It was a bizarre story, featuring a female messiah with divine healing powers, and a frantic mission to open a sealed box of prophecies.
All of this took place in a small market town in the East of England, where Jesus himself was expected to make an imminent arrival.
Fast-forward to 2020, and I’m living through a global pandemic of my own. I’m also dealing with the cult-like behaviour of a close family member who had fallen headfirst down the strangest of rabbit holes.
In case you’ve missed it, QAnon is a ‘far-right conspiracy theory’ that claims the world is run by a secret cabal of satanic, cannibalistic paedophiles. Thankfully, former US President Donald Trump has been working hard to expose and depose this powerful network, and restore the word to order. (Biden’s recent inauguration seems to have thrown a spanner in the works, but really it’s all part of the plan.)
This strange mythos originated in 2017 when a user known as “Q Clearance Patriot” began posting in the online imageboard 4Chan, dropping behind-the-scenes intel on this secret battle. No one knows who Q really is (are?), but adherents commonly hold them to be some sort of high ranking official in the US Government.
In any case, a community quickly developed around interpreting and spreading Q’s messages, and the movement is now global. Despite being about as as realistic as an episode of The X Files, 1 in 4 Britons now believe in ‘QAnon-related theories’ — and my mother is one of them.
Whilst I love her dearly, this caused weekly explosive arguments between us. I couldn’t understand how someone could believe in something so far-fetched, that had been disproven time and time again. Nor could I understand how a normally left-leaning, politically moderate person could buy into something associated with extremism and the far-right.
Perhaps most perplexing was her unshakable Donald Trump fandom. We’re not American, we don’t live in America…
There was my mistake, by the way: thinking it had anything to do with politics, or even Trump.
Sometime into the pandemic, I remembered the strange cult I’d investigated in my film — then things started to make sense.
Heaven is a place in suburban England
Most people have never heard of The Panacea Society, but they weren’t exactly a small-scale operation. At their peak, the quasi-religious group had over 70 members living together in their main campus, with an additional 2000 members worldwide. The movement is now extinct, but the last surviving member only died in 2012 — so there were dedicated followers for nearly 100 years after their founding in 1919.
To call them a ‘Doomsday cult’ is perhaps sensationalist. They would more accurately be described as a ‘millenarian religious group’ — millenarianism describing a belief in an upcoming radical transformation of society. In Christianity, this normally refers to the Second Coming of Christ; in other schools, this could be something like the 2012 Apocalpyse at the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar.
The Panaceans leaned towards the Christian view— with some creative license. They believed a new era of peace and happiness was imminent, where Jesus would return and establish Heaven on Earth. As a group, composed predominantly of middle class women, the Panaceans took it upon themselves to organise everything for this upcoming transition — think village fête committee meets the apocalypse.
Women on a supernatural mission
It gets weirder. The Society was born from a shared fascination among founding members in the teachings of an 19th Century prophetess named Joanna Southcott. During her lifetime, Southcott had claimed to be pregnant with a new messiah named Shiloh — though the 64-year old virgin never did give birth to such a baby. Just over 100 years later, the Panacea Society’s leader, vicar’s widow Mabel Baltrop, declared herself to be the embodiment of this messiah: the daughter of God. She took the name Octavia, and became a prophetess in her own right, receiving direct messages from God every day containing instructions for the society.
One of the Panacean’s main activities was a relentless campaign to persuade the 24 bishops of the Church of England to open Joanna Southcott’s sealed box of prophecies. The prophetess had left this behind with strict instructions that it was to be opened only during a time of national crisis, in the presence of the 24 bishops. When this occurred, it would signal to God that the world was ready to be saved.
This was taken very seriously. The Panaceans set up a massive printing department for producing leaflets, and placed adverts in newspapers, on billboards, and on the side of buses. Between the 20s and 30s, they generated over 100,000 signed petitions to open the box.
Alas, the request was never met.
Though they are probably best known for their campaigns surrounding the mystical box, another key focus of the Society was to provide healing — ‘panacea’ means a cure for all disease. Like any top-tier religious leader, Octavia was believed to have healing powers that could be distributed via linen cloth that she breathed on and prayed over — this cloth could then be placed in water and drunk or applied to the skin, providing a cure for any ailment. During the life of the society, over 120,000 people worldwide requested healing, and received the blessed linen free of charge.
Method to the madness
Whilst there is no one fixed definition of the word ‘cult’, the Cambridge English Dictionary describes it as follows: ‘a religious group, often living together, whose beliefs are considered extreme or strange by many people’.
By that yardstick, the shoe seems to fit with the Panacea Society — though perhaps a crucial distinction from other cult-like movements is that it appears to have been entirely benign. There is no suggestion that anyone was coerced, abused, or manipulated.
So what explains the unwavering belief and life-changing commitment made by the society’s closest members, and the spread of its message worldwide?
It would be tempting to write off the Panaceans — much like ardent QAnon followers — as in some way crazy. It becomes more tempting when you learn that Mabel Baltrop spent not one but two stints in mental asylums for what appears to have been depression, exhaustion, grief and mania. But it would be lazy to dismiss the Panaceans as a product of mental illness or delusion.
Though they would never have described themselves as such, The Panacea Society can be looked at as a sort of feminist movement. In contrast to the traditional Christian churches, the Panaceans placed women at the front and centre of the belief system and the day-to-day management of activity.
At the time, this was no small thing. Women like Mabel Baltrop — intelligent, motivated, and religiously-sophisticated — could find no place in the Church, or in the world of politics.
From this angle, you can begin to understand the appeal of Southcott’s teachings to the Panaceans: the idea of a wife of God and sister of Jesus promoted a sacred femininity that is largely absent from traditional doctrine. You can also understand the allure of what the Panacea Society became: an opportunity to get directly involved in the spiritual evolution of the world.
Fundamentally, the Society gave power and critical information to people who traditionally had neither. This is not unlike QAnon’s messages and calls to action resonating with modern citizens dissatisfied with systems much larger than themselves. Storming the US Capitol may seem a million miles away from a polite series of letters addressed to the bishops of England, but arguably motivations were similar.
An end to suffering
When interviewed for my film, Alasdair Lockhart, Academic Co-Director of the Panacea Museum, questioned my initial view of the Panaceans as a nonsensical cultural phenomenon:
“It isn’t the mainstream process that they’re following, and it’s not the conventional way of doing things, but it’s from their point of view the natural outworkings of the place they found themselves in, and the world they lived in. I come back to the idea that this is what all religions do, and probably what all people do: they try to find solutions the problem of being alive in a world where there is suffering and people don’t always feel like they fit in — and you need to find a solution to that problem one way or another”.
Looked at more closely, suffering underpins so much of what the Panaceans did and stood for. And who could blame them? When early society members came together in 1919, the world was traumatised not only from the First World War, but also the Spanish flu pandemic, which wiped out 3–6% of the global population. To top things off, the threat of another world war loomed on the horizon for the next two decades, until WWII eventually broke out.
In this zeitgeist of doom and gloom, having witnessed so much senseless loss, it becomes much easier to understand the appeal of a movement centred around healing and positive transformation. The opening of Joanna Southcott’s box presented a way to prevent yet more suffering, and the Panaceans pursued that with everything they had.
Then and now
Just over 100 years later, the world finds itself in a similar age of doom and gloom, ravaged by the latest global pandemic. Years of political chaos, civil unrest, corruption scandals, and the existential threat of climate change have left many of us with a healthy aversion to checking the news.
Maybe we could do with a similar movement offering hope and healing — something showing us a way out of here.
Maybe those movements are already here.
Whilst a far cry from the genteel campaigning of the Panacea Society, QAnon emerges, at its core, as a narrative for the restoration of order.
The sad reality is that millions of children worldwide are victims of sex trafficking — QAnon is not wrong about this. The movement promotes a story where something is being done about this terrible problem — and it’s nice to believe that.
Looked at this way, the mass-market appeal of QAnon makes more sense — and I can view my mother more sympathetically. As much as QAnon is thought of as a far-right, Pro-Trump product, the movement appeals to many people who typically associate with neither. Especially in the past year, QAnon has gained traction with yoga enthusiasts, ‘mommy bloggers’ and new agers, drawn in by the anti-sex-trafficking goals, or rejection of the mainstream.
QAnon taps into a desire for change that resonates with people on a deeply emotional level. Like the teachings of the Panaceans, Q’s is a message of hope that strikes a chord because the world feels so damaged.
I would not be the first to liken QAnon to a millenarian movement, with strong religious undertones. We have a saviour (Donald Trump), a messenger (Q), and a day of reckoning — ‘the storm’, the predicted day of mass arrests of cabal members. It’s the time-honoured story of good versus evil, where good is posed to triumph. And oddly enough, the online community that developed around interpreting Q’s posts is not unlike an effort to decode a channeled message from God, or from a 19th Century prophetess.
Everyone wants to be part of something.
Looking for a way out
For a lot of people, I don’t think QAnon is really about politics — no more than the Panacea Society was really about religion. Times of upheaval, disruption, division and suffering pave the way for unlikely heroes preaching a better tomorrow, no matter how flawed they may be, or how fantastical the prospect.
Between March and June 2020, the first months of the COVID-19 Pandemic, QAnon activity nearly tripled on Facebook and nearly doubled on Instagram and Twitter. Those months were also marked by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd, which sparked a global conversation about endemic inequality and racism. We also saw the gears of the political machine stir into motion for the most important elections in US history.
QAnon has been called a cult, a LARP (live-action role play), and even a source of domestic terrorism — but it’s also an understandable product of the troubled times we live in.
I can’t claim to have the answers regarding what QAnon really is, who really started it, what its members truly believe — or indeed why. The appeal of QAnon is doubtless nuanced, and different for every individual.
But I come back to something Vicki Chambers, lead archivist for the Panacea Museum, said to me of Mabel Baltrop:
“All those women that joined, she did genuinely give them something real: she gave them comfort, and she gave them a sense of purpose.”
For all its misgivings, I don’t think that QAnon is so different. If she’d been born 50 years later, maybe we’d find Mabel Baltrop similarly promoting her teachings on YouTube, or Telegram, or in niche subreddits.
In dark times, we’re all looking for someone to show us the way back to the light. Sometimes that’s politicians and scientists, sometimes it’s a middle class widow channeling the divine. For many people today, it’s a codenamed figure that lurks in the depths of 4Chan.