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Book Review: Octavia, Daughter of God by Jane Shaw

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Bedford is a medium-sized town on the East of England and before reading Octavia, Daughter of God I would have been able to tell you precisely nothing about it. After reading the book I can tell you that for a time in the early 20th century it was the home of Octavia – who, along with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were, in the words of the Nicene creed considered to be “very God of Very God” – and for Octavia’s followers the town was the most sacred space on earth.

In this book Jane Shaw, a former Oxford academic and current Episcopal priest, tells for story of the charismatic religious leader Mabel Barltrop and her followers. Barltrop would come to be known as Octavia, the “daughter of God”, and her followers would become known as the Panacea Society.

The Panacea Society was for a time a subject of many a newspaper story and to this day it has left is mark. The Panacea Society is still a registered charity and, according to the UK Charity Commission, has an investment income of £500,000 a year.

As a biography, Octavia, Daughter of God tells a fascinating story of a new religious movement and its struggle against the modernising influences of the modern world and of the development and transmission of “charismatic power” within a religious context.

Likewise, Shaw (who it should be noted is listed by the Charity Commission as a trustee of the Panacea Society) offers a comprehensive biography of Barltrop from and how she became came to consider herself and convince others that she was a human incarnation of the Godhead and, strangely, also a staunch advocate of the Church of England.

Clearly, such a seemingly eclectic group whose theology embraces millenarianism,a feminine deity, charismatic gifts, healing ministries with a conservative view of church and state has a history behind it. Although the group’s backdrop in Southcottian religion is discussed it not analysed in nearly enough detail.

The result is that as a work of religious biography Octavia, Daughter of God has a lot to offer but it is limited as an academic work and, as such, a good work is prevented from being an excellent one. That this opportunity is missed is a shame as Shaw clearly has the skills to deliver such a project – I wonder if the reason for not theologically and sociologically contextualising the movement was for those remaining members who would have objected to their divine religion being related to other movements and thereby limiting is revelatory nature.

Overall, however a very well written book that introduces a fascinating window into recent radical religion in the UK that prior to reading I had never heard of. A recommended book.

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