The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America

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9780195098358: The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America
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In the autumn of 1834, New York City was awash with rumors of a strange religious cult operating nearby, centered around a mysterious, self-styled prophet named Matthias. It was said that Matthias the Prophet was stealing money from one of his followers; then came reports of lascivious sexual relations, based on odd teachings of matched spirits, apostolic priesthoods, and the inferiority of women. At its climax, the rumors transformed into legal charges, as the Prophet was arrested for the murder of a once highly-regarded Christian gentleman who had fallen under his sway. By the time the story played out, it became one of the nation's first penny-press sensations, casting a peculiar but revealing light on the sexual and spiritual tensions of the day.
In The Kingdom of Matthias, the distinguished historians Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz brilliantly recapture this forgotten story, imbuing their richly researched account with the dramatic force of a novel. In this book, the strange tale of Matthias the Prophet provides a fascinating window into the turbulent movements of the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening--movements which swept up great numbers of evangelical Americans and gave rise to new sects like the Mormons. Into this teeming environment walked a down-and-out carpenter named Robert Matthews, who announced himself as Matthias, prophet of the God of the Jews. His hypnotic spell drew in a cast of unforgettable characters--the meekly devout businessman Elijah Pierson, who once tried to raise his late wife from the dead; the young attractive Christian couple, Benjamin Folger and his wife Ann (who seduced the woman-hating Prophet); and the shrewd ex-slave Isabella Van Wagenen, regarded by some as "the most wicked of the wicked." None was more colorful than the Prophet himself, a bearded, thundering tyrant who gathered his followers into an absolutist household, using their money to buy an elaborate, eccentric wardrobe, and reordering their marital relations. By the time the tensions within the kingdom exploded into a clash with the law, Matthias had become a national scandal.
In the hands of Johnson and Wilentz, the strange tale of the Prophet and his kingdom comes vividly to life, recalling scenes from recent experiences at Jonestown and Waco. They also reveal much about a formative period in American history, showing the connections among rapid economic change, sex and race relations, politics, popular culture, and the rich varieties of American religious experience.

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About the Author:


Paul E. Johnson is teaches history at the University of Utah, and is the author of A Shopkeeper's Millennium. Sean Wilentz is Professor of History at Princeton University. An editor of Dissent, and a regular contributor to The New Republic, he is also the author of Chants Democratic.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Combining rare narrative skills and historical detail, Johnson (History/Univ. of Utah) and Wilentz (History/Princeton) recreate the fascinating tale of a false prophet and his misguided followers in New York in the 1820s and '30s. The authors reveal the social, economic, racial, and sexual conditions that give rise to apocalyptic cults and their virile, charismatic leaders. A whole series of evangelical cults appeared in the early decades of the 19th century to serve the poor, the emotionally needy, those excluded from the new prosperity, optimism, tolerance, personal freedom, and rational belief of the mercantile classes. Elijah Pierson started the Retrenchment Society to rescue prostitutes but became deranged himself when he was unable to raise his wife from the dead. Robert Matthews, later Matthias, an impoverished carpenter who had beaten and abandoned his wife and children, engaged Pierson's interest and used his resources to start his own Kingdom, a communal patriarchy that advocated ``abundant'' food, naked bathing, wife-swapping, and complete obedience. Fully bearded, dressed in bizarre costumes of ruffles, pantaloons, and a magician's cap, the deranged Matthias ``damned'' wives who worked, men who wore spectacles, and most Christians. Inevitably, his anarchic thinking came in conflict with the law, and although he was suspected of poisoning Pierson and stealing his money, Matthias was convicted only of beating his daughter and jailed for 30 days. The lurid trial dominated the new ``penny'' journalism, generating pamphlets and books alerting Christians against fanaticism. But to the slaves, the improvident, and the laboring classes, Matthias and similar cults offered a refuge and inspiration. A black servant, for instance, had her own revelation in 1843 and was reborn as Sojourner Truth, abolitionist ex-slave. A chilling study in social psychology, this volume explores the dark energies behind leaders such as Jim Jones and David Koresh and the needs they exploit. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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