The Wandering Jewish Prophet in New York

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

by Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz
Oxford University Press, 222 pp., $25.00

Early nineteenth-century America witnessed the greatest outpouring of religious feeling in Christendom since the religious turbulence of seventeenth-century England or perhaps the Reformation. Amid all the momentous events of what came to be called the Second Great Awakening, one year, 1830, seems to stand out. (Is it just co-incidental that 1830 was also the year that Americans reached a level of consumption of alcoholic spirits—four gallons per person—that was the highest for any year in all of American history and one of the highest in the world?) In that spirit-soaked year the great evangelical preacher Charles Grandison Finney came to Rochester, New York, the fastest growing community in the United States, and launched a religious revival that eventually shook the nation. In that same year the celibate communitarian sect called the Shakers attained a greater number of members than at any other time in its history.

At the same time Alexander Campbell, a seeker of primitive Christianity, broke from the Baptists and began publication of the Millennial Harbinger in preparation for the momentous alliance of his “Campbellites” with Barton Stone and the creation of the Disciples of Christ, which within decades became the fifth largest denomination in America. In 1830 a twenty-five-year-old failed farmer from Palmyra, New York, Joseph Smith, Jr., having translated some golden plates given to him by the Angel Moroni, published a six-hundred-page American bible, the Book of Mormon, that began the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And in that same crucial year, 1830, a down-and-out carpenter in Albany, New York, named Robert Matthews experienced a revelation that turned him into the wandering Jewish prophet Matthias.

Of all these religious events of 1830 it is the last and least familiar—the story of Robert Matthews, or Matthias—that historians Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz have chosen to tell. Perhaps because it is the least familiar event, the story of it is especially enthralling.

Matthews was born in 1788 to a Scots immigrant family in the farming village of Cambridge in Washington County, New York, located midway between the Hudson River and the Green Mountains of Vermont. He was raised in a world of strict Calvinism that, as the authors say, nursed “ancient ecclesiastical grievances unknown to the rest of the world.” Unsuited for farming, Matthews apprenticed as a carpenter and by 1808 turned up in New York City as a skilled journeyman in his craft. Taunts from his fellow workers over his religiosity and a conviction for assaulting a woman in 1811 eventually led to his return to his home town of Cambridge, where he became a country storekeeper and married and began a family. But he went bankrupt in 1816, when credit became tight, and was forced to return to New York with his family and once again take up carpentry. The deaths of two of his children and the difficulty of finding work drove him into despair and fits of rage.

At the same time Matthews began experiencing ever stranger religious sensations. Following…

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