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The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America Paperback – August 3, 1995

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A curious 19th-century American episode is examined in this fluid, well-contextualized and dramatically detailed account. From the 1820s to the 1840s, explain historians Johnson ( A Shopkeeper's Millenium ) and Wilentz ( Chants Democratic ), the country was awash in religious revivalism, a reaction by those bypassed by the industrial revolution. In 1832 Elijah Pierson, a New York merchant and religious reformer turned self-proclaimed prophet, met Matthias, born Robert Matthews, an outcast in churches who declared his own visions. Matthias took over Pierson's pulpit, preaching an apocalypse that promised no economic oppression for the worthy who survived. Matthias, however, lived extravagantly, and stole a follower's wife. Pierson's mysterious death in 1834 led to Matthias's arrest for murder and generated much publicity in the fledgling scandal-hungry New York City penny press. Matthias, found guilty on a lesser charge, later disappeared. His story, the authors note, influenced Herman Melville, and shows parallels with other outsider religions and cults. An ex-slave who was Pierson's servant and Matthias's disciple went on to achieve lasting influence under the name Sojourner Truth. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

In the 1830s in New York, Robert Matthews proclaimed himself to be the prophet Matthias. He became the center of a communal, patriarchal cult, in which his fanatical fervor captivated many respectable people. Economic and sexual surrender were demanded in patterns familiar to us from Jonestown and Waco. Matthias was eventually tried for the murder of a follower. Historians Johnson (Univ. of Utah) and Wilentz (Princeton Univ.) present a highly readable and well-researched examination of this forgotten figure of the Second Great Awakening in American religious history. Matthias is presented effectively against the backdrop of his social and economic times and brought vividly to life. Recommended for public and academic libraries with reader interest.
- C. Robert Nixon, MLS, Lafayette, Ind.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (August 3, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195098358
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195098358
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 0.4 x 5.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #711,393 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Blah on January 26, 2002
Format: Paperback
In this work, Paul Johnson has taken a relatively small and unknown event and used it to illustrate not only an interesting event but also an interesting perspective on the Burned-Over District as a whole. It touches on everything from sexual corruption to radical doctrinal innovations. The Burned-Over district saw the beginning of numerous religious movements such as Mormonism, Adventism, Christian Scientists, numerous smaller religions that did not survive, and even significant political movements such as Antimasonry.
This book is the story of one of those movements. The prologue introduces Matthias as he went to Kirtland to visit with the Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith. While this event occurred near the end of Matthias’ activity, it is obvious that he stole many of his ideas from Joseph Smith. Matthias initiated the practice of the washing of feet which was common to both the followers of Joseph Smith and Ellen White. He also believed that the truth of the Gospel had fallen from the earth shortly after the time of Christ another Mormon belief. In addition, he had a sword which he claimed was ancient similar to Smith’s sword of Laban, as well as naming the Priesthood after the order of Melchezidek. Likewise, his early mentor Mordecai Noah taught that the Indians were actually a branch of the Israelites which is a central idea found in the Book of Mormon. All of these ideas came out before 1830 when Matthias began his activity.
The most humorous part of this history is the anecdotes that relate to Matthias’ enemies trying to shave off his beard. Johnson has done an excellent job condensing all the most relevant information in this short work. The Kingdom of Matthias is an enjoyable read and a must for anyone interested in this interesting period in American religious history.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 24, 1999
Format: Paperback
"Kingdom of Matthias" serves as proof that religious cults and their leaders are not new to this century. A fascinating account and eerily accurate reflection of what happens when successful, intelligent people look for something more from life in the wrong place. With the sex scandals, questionable financial practices, media attention, and made-to-order eccentric leader, this story is a historical mirror to today's events. Recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Gio on June 1, 2009
Format: Paperback
News! News! Ave is born of Eva! Well, fellow post-Judeochristians, the good news is that religious frenzy has come and gone in American history before, and it eventually burns out. The "burnt-over district" of New York State got its nickname from the fury of its religious frenzy in the 1820s-1840s, during what historians have called the Second Great Awakening. With any luck, the lesson learned from that episode can be applied to the current weirdness, when a religious fanatic in Kansas can shoot a doctor to death in the nave of his own church, all in the name of Life. The lesson is: stand fast and don't let the bigots ignore their own sins.

The writers of this amusing little tale of 'sex and salvation' are two of America's finest academic historians. Sean Wilentz is the author of "Chants Democratic" and other books of social history of the early 19th C, as well as of "The Age of Reagan." Paul E. Johnson is also a social historian and the author of "A Shopkeeper's Millennium", concerning the enormous societal changes in America from the era of guilds and local trade to the dawning of modern enterprise. Those two books are classics that I recommend very strongly. "The Kingdom of Matthias" is a bagatelle by comparison; I'm quite sure Wilentz and Johnson had a lot of fun researching and writing it. It reads like a jolly novella.

In the 1830s, Robert Matthews of upstate New York was able to persuade a number of people of his divine inspiration. He was, he announced, the reborn Matthias, the Spirit of Truth, the Prophet of the God of the Jews. One of his devotees was a wealthy merchant Elijah Pierson, for whose murder Matthews would be tried in 1835.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By J. Donovan on May 24, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Although I am an academic with expertise in the Second Great Awakening and Early National Period of US history, I had never heard of the Prophet Matthias until a colleague suggested I read this book. "The Kingdom of Matthias" by Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz is an extraordinary study in what happens when enthusiastic religion and mental illness combine in one individual to tip him and his followers over into the unhealthiness of a personality cult.

The Prophet Matthias stands in a long line of deeply eccentric American religious figures whose stories are compelling and frightening, yet who remain on the fringe of American religious history. He is David Koresh without an explosive encounter with BATF, a cult leader who demanded that his followers submit to him in every segment of their existence, including sexually.

But perhaps the most important and powerful story in this book is the story of his most devoted and loyal follower, who went on to play a significant role in US history in her own right. I decline to reveal her identity in this review because if the reader knows who she was, it will dramatically dilute the book's final paragraph and, ultimately, its full impact. Suffice it to say that you will never look at her the same way again after reading this book.

I'm seriously considering assigning this book to my undergraduate students in "Christianity in America" this fall. It is very readable, very provocative, and will make you think about the issues it raises long after you have finished reading it.
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