The Christian Israelites in Sheffield

John Wroe and the demise of the Christian Israelites was a popular topic to fill column inches, even into the early years of the 20th century. Here, a columnist writes about the Church in Sheffield.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph
Tuesday 16 September 1902

CURRENT TOPICS

“The new Messiah” continues to attract attention. We have had in this district (writes a correspondent) developments as extraordinary as anything in the Ark of the Covenant. There used to be in Sheffield, and there may be yet perhaps, a sect known as the Christian Israelites. They were followers of “the Prophet John Wroe”. My introduction to this sect was in Endcliffe Woods many ago, when the old wheels were still being worked, and the rivulet pursued its way unrestricted by Corporation or any other regulation. A man without head-gear was lapping the water in one of the upper reaches. Getting into conversation with him, he frankly told me that the reason he wore no hat was because it was against his belief. Following up the clue thus afforded, I found he was a follower of John Wroe. One part of their creed was that they must not wear any head gear or “mar the four corners of their beard.” John Wroe, I found, was a personality of some consequence. My informant, who was a shoe maker by trade – and a very good shoemaker too, for he made me much comfortable and reliable footwear – lent me the books of his faith. The believers in John Wroe had a place of worship near St George’s Church, which was known, I believe, as the Victoria Rooms. At one time they had a brass band, which used to conduct them to their meeting-house. They called their prophet the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and they held that whoever kept his commandments could never die. Asked how it came about that the sect which, at one time had about fifty of a following in Sheffield and the neighbouring locality, had dwindled to less than half-a-dozen, this member of it had a ready reply. He admitted that a number had died, but he took their death as testimony to the truth of his faith. “The fact they died” (he said, quite confidently) “was clear proof that they had not kept the commandments.” Of course, with faith like that, there was no arguing [warning, pathetic pun approaching], and the cobbler kept to his “last” a believer in John Wroe.

Then there is at this day an equally remarkable manifestation of faith or infatuation. Within a mile or two of Wakefield is a place called Wrenthorpe Palace, where another “prophet” was honoured even more reverently than John Wroe. There are many wonderful stories Wakefield way of what took place at Wrenthorpe. After a time the prophet disappeared, on an evangelising mission, it was said, and for many years the Palace was kept up in perfect condition, the dinner laid every day in good style, so that the prophet, when it pleased him to return, might find everything in apple-pie order for him. His followers were not confined to Yorkshire or the neighbouring counties. They came from all parts, and there have been some rare assemblies in the grounds, which are still sacred to the sect. Some years ago an American sailor turned up and presented himself as the missing prophet and the machinery of the law had to be put in operation to get him evicted. To-day the place is now in possession of one who claims to be the rightful owner, and who issues little leaflets from time to time to remind the world that Wrenthorpe is still the Mecca of the Faithful.

Delving further back, we find the article from which much of this story was copied.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph
Thursday 5 July 1888

ESTHER JEZREEL

The creed of the “House of Israel”, as now disclosed the death of Esther Jezreel, known by her people as “Queen Esther”, reminds me of the Christian Israelites, about whom I wrote several papers some seventeen years ago. They were the followers of the Prophet John Wroe, whom they styled the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah”. Their great doctrine was that the Faithful could never die. By “the Faithful” they meant all who kept the Commandments of John Wroe. There is still one of the sect in Sheffield. He is a shoemaker, now nearly seventy years of age, and he recently married a wife of 27! He gave me the books of his Prophet, which I read carefully, and very curious reading they were. When I asked him what had come over his companions he admitted they were dead. “Then you do die?” I remarked. “Yes”, he said, “the death is a proof they did not keep the Commandments.” There was no arguing on these lines, of course. These Christian Israelites wore their hair long, disdained the use of hats, and refused, as they put it, “to mar the four comers of their beard” – in other words, to shave, or even to trim, their beards. They had one time a brass band, and made a unique show as they proceeded to a building in Gell Street – afterwards a school, I believe – for service. They maintained, in excellent style, a princely place called Wrenthorpe, near Wakefield, with full retinue of servants, in daily expectation of the return of their Prophet. Can any Wakefield readers tell us about Wrenthorpe?

Esther (or Clarissa White) was the widow of James Jezreel who had almost completed a massive fund-raising project to build the headquarters of the Jezreelite Church in Kent.

And, picking up on the request for more information about Wrenthorpe, a reader’s not so helpful response is published in the Telegraph three weeks later.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph
Thursday 26 July 1888

WRENTHORPE

The “Wrenthorpe”, writes a correspondent, in reply to my request for information, “is better known as ‘Potovens’ in Wakefield. The writer knew Prophet Wroe nearly fifty years ago, also many of his followers, and was acquainted with the building of the Temple or Mansion, which is of stone, the wood being cedar. The funds were got from his followers. Wroe carried on the business of a printer in King Street in that town.” Printers were smart people in those days. They are a class who have always had an eye to “the chapel”, and duly reverence the “Father” thereof; but they not now produce a genius who sets up as a Prophet – unless it is sporting prophet, and even sporting prophets are more prone to get into duckponds than temples and mansions. John Wroe found prophecy a better calling than job-printing. Most printers who have built houses for themselves have got them through a building society. John Wroe’s notion was an improvement upon that – he got his mansion through his followers, who believed in him so thoroughly that they keep it up in expectation of his return. Does any Wakefield reader remember about the sailor who turned up at “Potovens”, stating he was the prophet Wroe? The followers thought the Prophet had acquired some very bad habits in his travels. A prophet who was eternally hitching his slack, expectorating all over the place, and swearing at everybody – whose prophecies were limited to threatening to send them to very warm place if he did not get all he wanted – was not what they expected. So they went to law, and it took the brethren six months to evict that false Prophet.

The ‘sailor’ is of course, Brooklyn native, Daniel Milton.