54 pages 1 hour read

Paul E. Johnson, Sean Wilentz

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

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1994

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Summary and Study Guide


The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th Century America is a work of non-fiction published in 1994 by Oxford University Press. Historians Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz tell the little-known story of Matthias the Prophet in a dramatic and well-documented account that blends biography with true crime. The authors recount events that occurred during the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant religious revival in the United States that reached its peak in the mid-19th century.

Unlike traditional Christian sects, Protestant revivalists encouraged visions, dreams and prophecies, as well as ecstatic experiences brought on by communion with the Holy Spirit. A core tenet of the revivalist movement was a belief in the equality of all people before God, which is why poor white men, women and slaves were so drawn to its teachings. Led by charismatic leaders, believers emphasized individual responsibility, demonstrating a commitment to good deeds and holy living with social activism and the avoidance of vices like alcohol, tobacco, fornication, and gambling. Many who joined revivalist sects and participated in their open-air meetings during the Second Great Awakening perceived traditional Christianity as hopelessly corrupt.

The title character is Robert Matthews, a down-and-out apprentice carpenter from Coila, a village in upstate New York, who declared himself to be Matthias, Prophet of the God of the Jews. His hypnotic personality drew in a cast of figures seeking salvation. Major characters include the meek, gullible and devout businessman Elijah Pierson, as well as the Folgers, Benjamin and Ann, a young attractive Christian couple and the shrewd ex-slave Isabella Van Wagenen, better known as Sojourner Truth.

Matthews, as the Prophet Matthias, is a larger-than-life tyrant who controlled his followers in an absolutist-style church called the Kingdom. Financially supported by Elijah Pierson and Benjamin Folger, he used their money to establish his cult, an organization characterized by misogyny and male supremacy over women and justified by Calvinist philosophy. Matthews rearranged his followers’ marital relationships; as rumors of wife-swapping and other unconventional happenings at the Kingdom began to leak out to the wider community, tensions started to build and finally exploded when Matthias was tried for fraud and murder. His exploits became a national scandal.

The sordid story of Matthias the Prophet ends when the authors explain that the jury found him not guilty of fraud or murder, but guilty of assault for beating his daughter and for contempt of court. Matthews served only four months behind bars. Public sentiment, fanned by lurid daily accounts of the trial published in the penny press, concluded that Matthews got off too lightly. The authors attribute the emergence of the Kingdom as a national scandal to the penny press, who shaped public perceptions of the cult at this time in history.

According to Johnson and Wilentz, the debate around Matthews’s mental state continues. As well, questions that concern the accountability of Matthews’s followers and the inherent dangers of religious fanaticism linger in the public imagination. The story of Robert Matthews and his alter-ego, the Prophet Matthias of the God of the Jews, places him in the company of more-recent religious cult leaders, including Jim Jones and David Koresh.