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The Kingdom of Matthias

A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America

Second Edition

Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz

Publication Date - 02 April 2012

ISBN: 9780199892495

256 pages
5-5/16 x 8 inches

In Stock

An updated edition of "a dazzling work of original history that is a joy to read"--Atlantic Monthly


Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz brilliantly recapture the forgotten story of Matthias the Prophet, imbuing their richly researched account with the dramatic force of a novel.

In the hands of Johnson and Wilentz, the strange tale of Matthias opens a fascinating window into the turbulent movements of the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening--movements that 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 personality 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.

New to this Edition

  • New preface by the authors


  • Microhistory classic
  • Authors are prolific public intellectuals and historians.

About the Author(s)

Paul E. Johnson is Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of South Carolina and is the author of numerous books, including Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper and A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837.

Sean Wilentz is George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, Princeton University. He is the author of Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1950 and The Rise of Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, among other titles.


"The book reads much like a novel....The authors relate this offbeat tale like the good storytellers they are, sqeezing the story out of a number of sources in a creative and imaginative way."--Journal of Social History

"A history book that reads like a novel of suspense and intrique...it affords us a rare glimpse into a much-misunderstood time."--WORLD

"Johnson and Wilentz successfully anchor their narrative in the religious and economic history of the early nineteenth century."--American Historical Review

"The story is an inherently engrossing one, and its retelling will be of direct value to scholars of the history of communitarianism and of alternative religions. The scholarship here...is impressive; the authors have come up with remarkable detailed sources for a story so seemingly marginal and so long past. But even more impressive is their ability to tell an engrossing story in language at once scholarly and as compelling as that of a good novel."--Utopian Studies

"This interesting and informative examination of an early religious cult will be a definite asset for anyone doing research on the history of cults."--KLIATT

"Johnson and Wilentz weave a gripping story around the activities of the Prophet Matthias and his band of followers."--New York History

"An extraordinary cache of information about the period from roughly 1800 to 1850. It is also a bizarre story: it has sex and sexual depravity, violence, murder, a courtroom drama, a media feeding frenzy, prostitution, lunacy, theft, religion (plenty of that), politics, social commentary, subtle humor, a fascinating if weird cast of characters, and a surprise ending....Written with the sweep and narrative drive of a best seller....A dazzling work of original history that is a joy to read....What makes this study so extraordinary, aside from the fascinating story, is its depiction of a large slice of American life during a period of momentous social, economic, and political change. In addition to important religious history, the authors provide a great deal of detail about living conditions of the time."--Atlantic Monthly

"One of the most entertaining and felicitously written academic histories I have ever read. [The authors] have taken the story of one tiny collection of cuckoos and related it to the greater story of the early decades of our republic."--Roger Miller writing in The Milwaukee Journal

"A highly readable and well-researched examination....Matthias is presented effectively against the backdrop of his social and economic times and brought vividly to life. Recommended."--Library Journal

"Fluid, well-contextualized and dramatically detailed."--Publishers Weekly

"A book about American evangelicalism and cults which proves that Jim Jones and the more recent Branch Dividians are part of a longer tradition....Johnson and Wilentz set their compelling history against the backdrop of an America experiencing rapid social and economic change. Theirs is as much a history of our moral and cultural formation (often via the press), as the tale of a mesmerizing, dangerous man."--Booklist

"The Kingdom of Matthias is as exciting as a novel: it has sex, a weird religious cult, a murder mystery, and an ending that is truly a surprise. It is also a serious work of historical scholarship--in short, a wonderful book that will keep you up all night."--Katha Pollitt

"It happened in Jacksonian America, this fascinating episode of religious frenzy and delusion, but it could just as well happen in America today--or tomorrow. In their vivid book, Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz open up a chilling vein of continuity in the American religious experience."--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

"A mesmerizing tale of fanaticism and fervor, of early nineteenth century Christians convinced they are Old Testament prophets: as Johnson and Wilentz deftly place this strange story in social, religious, and economic context, they illuminate the uniquely American history of extremist patriarchal cults that reaches from the Prophet Matthias to David Koresh, and deliver on the final page a stunning surprise."--Jean Strouse, author of Alice James: A Biography

"American religion has often been distinguished by self-declared saviors, loud and pompous messiahs, self-profiting tyrants. One of the most egregious--vulgar, sinister, and unbelievable--was the early 19th century Robert Matthews, who while enforcing the submission of his women and profiting from the possible murder of his most devoted follower, proclaimed himself the prophet Matthais and close enough to God to replace him--from time to time. The story is told well here by two marvelously inquisitive historians who possess the sure hand of a gifted novelist. An excellent book in every way and a warning to the latest 'Messiah'--The prophet Matthias ended in the dust."--Alfred Kazin

"Johnson and Wilentz are marvelous storytellers as well as skillful historians. The tale of the prophet Matthias brings vividly to life a buried side of antebellum American religion and politics and opens up a critical and neglected side of American culture to serious discussion. It's not just essential reading; it's also a roller-coaster ride through the past."--Mary P. Ryan, University of California at Berkeley

"Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz have recovered one of the great, weird instances of the spiritual volatility of our country. The Kingdom of Matthias is about marginality, fantasy, commerce, sex, and the soul's hunger, and the classically American combustion of all of the above. Johnson and Wilentz tell their strange story with compassion and with scholarly care. They are rational men tracking the power of the irrational; which is to say, they are fine historians. They have written a delicious and disturbing book."--Leon Wieseltier

"A story of religious fanaticism and sexual scandal in the early days of the republic, The Kingdom of Matthias is a brilliant work of historical scholarship with disturbing contemporary implications. A beautifully written narrative that builds toward a stunning conclusion."--Brian Morton, Executive Editor of Dissent

"[An] engaging and entertaining study, this is a bizarre story, one which makes for superb reading."--Matthew G. Schoenbachler, Book Reviews

"A fascinating microcosm of the Age of Reform, written by twotop-notch scholars."--Kenneth W. Noe, West Georgia College

"The authors relate this offbeat tale like the good storytellers they are, squeezing the story out of a number of sources in a creative and imaginative way."--The Journal of Social History

"Important and illuminating...the authors have skillfully placed their subject within the broader context of American religious, social, and economic history...perspective from which to understand early Latter Day Saint history in the larger cultural milieu in which it emerged."--John Whitmer Historical Association Journal

Table of Contents

    Prologue: Two Prophets at Kirtland
    One: Elijah Pierson
    Two: Robert Matthews
    Three: The Kingdom
    Four: The Downfall
    A Note on Sources

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