This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967
John Wroe (1782-1863), evangelist, was born on 19 September 1782 at Bowling, Yorkshire, England, the son of Joseph Roe, a fairly prosperous farmer and businessman. Wroe suffered early ill health and in his thirties began to experience religious trances. In 1819 he associated with Yorkshire followers of Joanna Southcott, led by George Turner; on Turner's death in 1821 Wroe was generally accepted as successor. He quickly replaced Southcott's teaching with his own creed, Christian Israelitism, proclaiming that he was appointed by God to encourage the gathering of the descendants of the 'lost' tribes and to bring about their redemption before personal death and the millennium. But elucidation of these themes became secondary to the statement of prophecies, which Wroe claimed as divinely inspired and had his disciples transcribe and publish. He imposed strict rules of conduct, such as abstinence from shaving, repudiation of conventional medical care, and adherence to a restricted diet.
Inspired to carry his message throughout the world, Wroe conducted an extensive missionary programme. The creed first came to Australia with Charles Robertson. An impressive figure (J. Hood, Australia and the East, London, 1843, p. 240) he soon built up a following so enthusiastic that authority considered taking coercive action. In 1841 Extracts of Letters from Australian believers was published. The master himself came to Australia in 1843, receiving his first 'divine communication' there in September. This sojourn lasted until February 1844; he returned in September 1850 and on several later occasions. The first trip covered only Sydney and near-by districts, but later he visited Tasmania and Victoria. Other 'beardies' preached from place to place, especially on the goldfields. These followers included John Cartwright, Thomas Frost, Robert Robertson, and Joseph Donnolan, who in April 1851 sailed with Charles Robertson on an ill-fated mission to China. Permanent groups formed at Sydney, Hobart, Adelaide, Penrith, Geelong, and above all at Melbourne, where the Wroeites developed from the congregation established in Fitzroy by Rev. John Allen. Australian references are scattered throughout Wroe's prophecies, and his faith-healing claimed dramatic miracles in Sydney and Hobart. Although some local followers refused to accept the full discipline, Australia seems to have provided his best audience. In 1966 the Melbourne congregation was the most vigorous of the few which survived, exclusively in Australia and America.
Emotional extremism, with strong sexual undertones, characterized Wroe's preaching. It explained both its appeal, and the ill odour in which critics held it. The Wroeites by Allan Stewart (Melbourne, nd) attested the power exercised by the creed and alleged that its rites incorporated sexual play. John Davis, The Wroeites' Faith (Sydney, 1850), attacked its theology. Both pamphleteers had British counterparts.
Wroe married Mary Appleby in 1815. Despite various scandals involving him the two remained associated until her death on 16 May 1853. Wroe died in Melbourne on 5 February 1863.
Michael Roe, 'Wroe, John (1782–1863)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wroe-john-2819/text4039, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 3 July 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967