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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, by 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 his excitement over hearing a service in an African Methodist church, he began professing that he was no Christian at all but a prophesying Hebrew, just as Jesus the carpenter had once been. He became involved in the plans of a New York newspaper editor, Mordecai Manuel Noah, who hoped to build a Jewish homeland on Grand Island on the Niagara River. When these plans fell through, Matthews moved his family back to Washington County.

After moving about he ended up in Albany sometime in the mid-1820s. His black moods were more frequent now, and he took to whipping his wife when angry. She in turn became increasingly convinced that he was insane. After trying out the Dutch church in Albany he moved to a schismatic Presbyterian church under the evangelical ministry of a follower of the great evangelist Charles Grandison Finney. By the late 1820s he was working only occasionally, spending the rest of the time furiously reading the Bible and religious tracts and stopping people on the street to tell them of his visions.

In 1830 he suddenly ceased shaving and announced to his wife that Albany was to be engulfed by a flood. When his wife refused to leave Albany with him, Matthews fled alone with his children. He was picked up several days later and confined for two weeks as an insane pauper in the Albany alms house. After several arrests for beating his wife, he left home alone once again, wandering to the western part of New York State, then to Rochester, and back to his wife and family in Albany. When his wife told him to get work or leave, he traveled west again, then south and east to Washington, DC, before ending up in 1832 in New York City.

In the meantime the Prophet, as he was called, had decided to call himself Matthias, which was the name of the disciple chosen by God to replace Judas after he had betrayed Christ. Although Matthias was only the latest in a series of deluded religious fanatics preaching to crowds in the streets of New York, he was more conspicuous than most. He was tall, stately in his bearing, with fury in his eyes and, at a time when most men were cleanshaven, in possession of a huge, luxuriant ash-colored beard.

Soon after arriving in New York, Matthias met Elijah Pierson, a once well-to-do businessman who himself had become a religious seeker and prophet. The meeting was a turning point for both men. Johnson and Wilentz devote one of the four sections of their book to describing Elijah’s career, which was almost as strange as that of Matthews.

Elijah Pierson was born in 1786 in rural New Jersey near Morristown and was reared as a strict Calvinist Presbyterian. As a young man he left for New York City to take a job as an apprentice clerk. By 1820 at the age of thirty-four and unmarried, he had succeeded to the point where he and a partner could set up their own mercantile firm on Pearl Street.

The new business world of the city was very different from the farming community of Morristown. As the authors make clear, “Elijah’s fortunes were now tied not to an inherited farm set within a network of kin but to individual ambition, risk-taking, and the accumulation of money.” In place of a wife and family Elijah sought solace in religion, and soon he became caught up in the missionary work of some evangelical Presbyterians. Involvement with the Female Missionary Society for the Poor led Elijah not only to the evangelical woman who would become his wife but to the very un-Calvinist conclusion that even the lowliest of persons could be cleansed of sin. Elijah and his wife were attracted to ultra-evangelical reformist movements that attacked male authority and domestic luxury. Before long they became involved in a sect of perfectionist Methodists who believed among other things in the direct inspiration of the Holy Ghost. After three years of praying with this sect Elijah began talking with the Holy Ghost and recording what He said.

In 1829 the Piersons moved to Bowery Hill and under the direction of a woman named Frances Folger set up a perfectionist community called the Retrenchment Society. They were joined by Frances Folger’s cousins by marriage, Benjamin and Ann Folger, and their children. Benjamin was a wealthy hardware merchant, but his riches had no place in this ascetic community. The members shed all their fashionable clothing and furnishings, radically simplified their diets, fasted regularly, and threw themselves into religious frenzies, once meeting continuously for three weeks, pausing only for naps and light refreshments, with Elijah doing much of the preaching.

What is astonishing is that the larger evangelical community did not denounce this fanaticism, “for,” as the authors say, “in the religious excitements of the late 1820s, who was to say what was excessive and what was not?” Instead Elijah and his friends built alliances with more mainstream evangelicals, including leading reformers like Lewis and Arthur Tappan. They began rescuing prostitutes from the slums, which only further convinced the group of the evils of male authority. Gradually the community, which moved from Bowery Hill to Fourth Street, picked up new members: a carpenter, an elderly Jewish widow from Newark, a wealthy merchant and widower named Sylvester Mills, and a tall, deep-voiced black servant named Isabella Van Wagenen, who had once been a slave.

The lingering sickness and death of his wife in 1830 further unsettled Elijah’s mind, and he announced that God had called him to become the Prophet Elijah the Tishbite, with his first task being to raise his wife from the dead. Although that proved impossible, Elijah now quit his business entirely and devoted himself to fulltime praying, preaching, and talking with Jesus. One by one his old evangelical friends abandoned what the authors say was “an obviously deranged Elijah Pierson.” Soon his only social contacts were with Jesus and the members of his little community.

In 1832 the Prophet Matthias joined the Prophet Elijah and his group on Fourth Street in New York City. Matthias soon convinced Elijah that it was not Jesus’ Kingdom that was imminent but that of the Father, and that Matthias was God’s instrument for bringing about the reign of Truth and for redeeming the world from devils, disobedient women, and humiliated men. Jesus had once been the Spirit of Truth, but after his Crucifixion that Spirit had entered Matthias and had remained latent until the Christians were nearly finished ruling the world. Now after eighteen hundred years of degenerating Christianity, which had been weakened and taken over by women, the time was at hand for Truth to return. (As scholars have noted, American Christianity was indeed becoming increasingly feminized in these years.)1

Matthias declared that, as the Spirit of Truth (and male authority), he would preach until 1836; all who had not entered the Kingdom by then would be damned. Christian confusion would continue for another fifteen years until Matthias in 1851 brought the gentile world to an end by fire. In the new pure green world that Matthias foresaw for those who had joined the Kingdom there would be peace and prosperity without money and a marketplace. Matthias would rule this world and at his right and left hands would be the former wealthy merchants, Pierson and Mills. After hearing this message, Elijah stopped preaching forever and turned his ministry over to Matthias; at the same time Mills turned his large house over to Matthias’s cult.

With all the wealth of Pierson and Mills available for use, Matthias could see no sense in the asceticism of the old perfectionist community. The Spirit of Truth demanded clothing, food, and furnishings befitting his status. His wardrobe was one of the most extravagant the city had ever seen—a cone-shaped black leather cap, a military frock coat of the best green cloth lined with silk and decorated with gold braids, a fine silk vest and a crimson sash, green or black pantaloons, and (depending on the weather) sandals or highly polished Wellington boots. (One reporter said he looked like a cross between a drawing-room dandy and a Spanish or Italian brigand.) Although Matthias arrived at Elijah Pierson’s door in poverty and in secondhand clothes, within weeks he was living as a wealthy man.

  1. 1

    See Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (Knopf, 1977).

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