Virgins, Scandals and Visions

Edward Green. Prophet John Wroe: Virgins, Scandals and Visions. Sutton Publishing, 2005.🔻
Today charismatic figures have meetings with space brothers, channel Atlantean sages or take visionary journeys to the realms of the dead or the extraterrestrial. In the early ninetieth century such people used the language and mythology of traditional Christianity to generate highly idiosyncratic belief systems. One such figure was George Wroe a Yorkshire born would-be messiah who attracted portions of the followers of the late Joanna Southcott to his own Christian Israelite religion.

The main tenants of this religion were male circumcision, refusal to shave, and the peculiarities of dress of both sexes. These rules of course served to mark them as a people apart from the communities in which they operated. For example, this was at a time, unlike the later nineteenth century, when it was very rare for men not to be clean-shaven.

Wroe, like many later cult leaders, was a charismatic and strange individual, given to dreams, visions and prophecies. These either centred around coming new technologies, or his personal battles with rivals. With his strange faints and illnesses and wanderings Wroe fits into a shamanic tradition. Also within this tradition is his transgressive behaviour, particularly towards young women. It was his alleged seduction of his young female disciples which led to his expulsion from his adopted town of Ashton under Lyne, a place where the weakness of the established church and the relative absence of mainstream nonconformity led to a vacuum filled with all sorts of millennial speculations.

Like many other cult leaders Wroe ended up a good deal wealthier than he had begun, and on his death there was a bitter dispute as the church he founded tried to get its hands on the property he left his family.

Also like so many of these figures it is difficult to work out whether they were complete charlatans, or whether they at least at some level believed their own stories. There seem to be easier ways of making money than the road Wroe set upon. Nor is it clear as to whether or not they have some actual clinical psychiatric condition, or are acting out social roles. -- Peter Rogerson

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