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

4.1 out of 5 stars 37 customer reviews

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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: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #92,106 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an amazing book - a true story about a long-forgotten part of our religious culture. Although the author is, quite frankly, terribly wrong at some significant points (for example, he truly doesn't comprehend the nature or the specific delineations and elements of Calvinism, which provides a pivotal vantage point in a portion of his telling of the story), it is generally an important work in understanding the cults that arose in the Northeastern part of America in the 19th century.

With the understanding that the author does not have the market cornered on knowing Calvinism, and therefore his opinions are highly suspect any time Calvinism is mentioned - even obliquely - it is still an excellent work, so long as you know that the author's presuppositional commitments in that area are likely wrong, or mistaken, or simply miss the mark entirely on that aspect.

There are some points at which our knee-jerk reaction to the main character in this true-life play would be suspected of mental illness, his is not totally a unique or singular type of craziness for the time, and especially less crazy than the strange twists that Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin M Stanton, took. While Stanton did not record that he believed he and Jesus, or God the Father, or the Holy Spirit had daily chit-chats (and "Matthias" did), at least "Matthias" allowed his beloved dead wife to be buried, and didn't keep her in his bedroom. On balance - or unbalance - "Matthias " DID expect Jesus to restore her to life any minute. Stanton, on the other hand, was creepy crazy.

Rather than spoil it for you, take the time and the little bit of money it costs, and get this book. You'll be glad you did.

(I'm aware of the tenets of Calvinism, for I've been one for 43 years; taught in Calvinist or Reformed churches; and am theologically trained on a post-secondary educational level in that field of study.)
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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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