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.
Matthias’s community soon attracted attention. Relatives of Sylvester Mills eventually had Matthias arrested and thrown into the ward for the insane poor at Bellevue. But the police could not prove that the Spirit of Truth was not who he said he was, and Matthias was released. When the community was ousted from Mills’s house, Pierson rented another. When it looked as if the tiny group might wither away, it was rescued by Benjamin and Ann Folger, the young, attractive, well-to-do couple who had once been part of Elijah’s old congregation.
What remained of the cult moved to the Folgers’ country mansion near Sing Sing, a thriving village on the Hudson some thirty miles north of New York City. Matthias named his new house Mount Zion. He attracted some new members, called himself “Father,” and, as the authors put it, “used prophecy and terror—not to mention his disciples’ money—to make Mount Zion the first perfectly reformed rural household in the coming Kingdom.” Central to that reformation, Johnson and Wilentz suggest, was the Prophet’s attempts to return to his half-remembered, half-idealized Presbyterian youth in a patriarchal authoritarian world. “From his seat at the head of the table, Matthias disciplined his house and delivered the meandering, often angry sermons that became the one source of Truth at Mount Zion.”
Everything in the Kingdom began to change with Ann Folger’s seduction of the woman-hating Matthias. For months Ann charmed the Father and sought to anticipate his every need and every thought. Finally Ann and Matthias announced that they were “match spirits,” and that they should marry and have a son who would be the Messiah. Benjamin, Ann’s husband, was not happy with this announcement but eventually consented to having his wife become Mother of the Kingdom. The Mother soon became pregnant (with a girl, as it turned out). Matthias next brought his twenty-year-old married daughter and eleven-year-old son to Mount Zion. Benjamin promptly seduced the daughter; Matthias reacted by whipping his daughter and then marrying her to Benjamin. Through it all the shrewd black ex-slave Isabella Van Wagenen carried on most of the household work and observed everything.
When the husband of Matthias’s daughter brought charges against the Kingdom, the Father had to give up his daughter; but he promptly married Benjamin to another member of the community. Benjamin, however, began having suspicions that Matthias was a fraud, but was placated by his former wife, Ann, who continued to sleep with him off and on. Finally Elijah Pierson, who was only forty-eight but, toothless and with outlandishly long hair and fingernails and suffering from periodic fits, looked much older, decided that he too wanted a match spirit. He seems to have had his eye on the Mother when one day in July 1834 he had another fit and died.
Outside the Kingdom rumors spread that Pierson had been murdered. Inside the Kingdom members began turning on one another. Matthias accused Ann Folger of disloyalty, and Benjamin Folger offered to pay Matthias to leave his house. When the Prophet left, Folger brought charges of fraud and had Matthias arrested. Although Folger dropped the charges of fraud in the midst of the trial, Westchester County officials were already preparing a case against the Prophet for the murder of Elijah Pierson. By this time the New York penny-press had picked up the scandal and made it a topic of national news. All of the newspapers were hostile to Matthias—calling him “Matthews the Imposter”—but they differed greatly in their analyses. Some thought Matthias a fool, some a charlatan, others a lunatic. Many thought that he represented a species of disorder that Jacksonian Americans had begun to label “fanaticism.”
During the trial the murder charges came to nothing, but the charges made by the husband of Matthias’s daughter that the Prophet had beaten his daughter and thus violated the rights of the husband were made to stick, and Matthias was sentenced to four months in jail. After his release, the now shaven Prophet showed up briefly at his wife’s house; from there he journeyed to the pioneer Mormon settlement in Kirtland, Ohio, to meet another Prophet, Joseph Smith, and was last heard of preaching to the Indians in Iowa Territory. Sylvester Mills was released from a lunatic asylum and once again became a stylish and respectable merchant. The Folgers got back together again, with Benjamin continuing to make real estate deals through the 1840s. Most marked by the whole affair was the ex-slave Isabella Van Wagenen. Like her mentor the Spirit of Truth, Isabella had her own visions, became a traveler, and eventually an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. God renamed her too: the world would come to know her as Sojourner Truth.
It is a fascinating story, and Johnson and Wilentz have written it with skill and verve. (Perhaps because the book reads like a novel, the authors or publisher decided, unfortunately, that it needed no index.) Fascinating or not, however, this sensational scandal quickly lost the public’s attention, overwhelmed by a profusion of New York crime stories that became a staple of American reading in the late 1830s and 1840s. And thus after the initial excitement of reading the story passes, some important questions linger: What is the historical significance of this event? Why should two distinguished historians take the time to write about it, and why should anyone bother to read it?
The book represents a new genre of history writing that has become increasingly popular over the past couple of decades. Called at various times microhistory or ethnographic history, this kind of history takes small events in the past involving inconspicuous people and a limited number of sources and teases out of them stories and meanings that presumably throw light on the larger society. Italian scholars in the 1970s, eager to find some alternative to the dominant influence of the French Annales school with its stress on deep-lying structures and the long-term implications of quantitative and serial data, coined the term “microhistory” and, with works like Carlo Ginsburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976, English edition 1980), have done the most to develop its potentialities.
At the same time anthropologists and ethnographers, led by Clifford Geertz, began promoting “thick descriptions” of ordinary events, not to formulate social laws but to uncover cultural meanings that required literary interpretation rather than scientific investigation. So Geertz’s cultural analysis of the symbolic action of a cock fight became a means of gaining insight into the culture of a Balinese community. As the practice of reading cultural behavior as texts became more and more popular, ethnography was transformed. Ethnographers like James Clifford and George E. Marcus became increasingly self-conscious about the literary and inventive character of this kind of anthropological storytelling, and they began exploring its various implications.
Ethnography, some said, has become “the discourse of the post-modern world.” It has abandoned the scientific search for origins and has become fragmented—composed of pieces and flashes of experience. There is not a single story of a culture anymore, only “a story among other stories,” with almost no thought given to the questions of why the stories should be about this group or this subject rather than another. Ethnographers are not interested in how their little episodes of experience are “embedded in larger, more impersonal systems” or “in the sort of events and processes that make history, so to speak.” They “cannot see the forest for the trees” in their microstudies because many of them have come to believe that “there are no forests.”2
Without accepting or perhaps even being aware of the implications of such fragmentation, American historians have recently begun exploiting this microhistorical, ethnographic technique, some quite brilliantly. One thinks of Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre, which was first a film and then a small book; Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre, whose thickly described episodes interpret the way some ordinary people of early modern France made sense of the world; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s marvelous story A Midwife’s Tale, based on the diary kept between 1785 and 1812 by a midwife and healer living in a small town on the Kennebec River in Maine; and John Demos’s recent book The Unredeemed Captive, which tells the story of a seven-year-old daughter of the minister of Deerfield, Massachusetts, who was captured by the Indians in 1704 and refused to return to her home. Although all these microhistories hope to say something important about the societies in which they are set, sometimes the sheer intensity and interest of the particular stories overwhelm their larger significance, turning them into little trees in search of a forest. This seems to be true of Johnson and Wilentz’s book as well.
At times Johnson and Wilentz appear to take the same line as some postmodern ethnographers do—by implying that their small story has no larger significance. They seek to evade the problem of significance by making fun of all those contemporaries (presumably including subsequent historians as well) who picked over the evidence about Matthias and his cult, “looking for clues to some grander meaning, hoping to support their conflicting views respecting humankind, God, and the United States of America.” All such cults in our history, like those of Jim Jones and David Koresh, the authors write, “burst into public notice, usually because of some confrontation with the law; immediately, they win notoriety, which in turn leads Americans to wonder about themselves and about what has become of their country to foster such lunacy. Just as suddenly, however, the prophets fail and then fade from public memory, until the next strange prophet comes along, and the questioning begins all over again.” The authors insinuate that they are not such fools as to be caught finding any grand meanings about America in the story of Matthias.
Yet beneath all this subtle mocking of the search for significance Johnson and Wilentz do have some ideas about what was happening in the larger society which can explain Matthias’s cult and, indeed, can explain how America in the early nineteenth century experienced “one of the most extraordinary spells of sectarian invention that the nation, and world, has ever seen.” The most important underlying force, they suggest, was what they and other historians have called “the market revolution,” that transformation peaking in the years between the 1820s and the 1840s “that took the country from the fringe of the world economy to the brink of commercial greatness.”
There are problems with this market revolution as a device for explaining the outbreak of religious enthusiasm. No one doubts that England experienced an even more impressive and extensive market revolution in these years, yet early nineteenth-century English religious developments, though certainly enthusiastically wild and evangelical, were never as confused, explosive, and fragmented as those in America. Johnson and Wilentz also suggest that much of the religiosity and revivalism of these years “emerged primarily not from the new middle class but from Americans whom the market revolution had either bypassed or hurt.” Yet their own evidence indicates that the dominant members of Matthias’s cult—Elijah Pierson, Benjamin Folger, and Sylvester Mills—were successful middle-class businessmen. The relation between religion and the development of a market society seems so complicated as to defy almost all generalizations.
Similar problems emerge with another of the authors’ explanatory suggestions—the transformation of gender relationships and the family. At one point the authors maintain that all the extremist prophets throughout American history have spoken not to some quirks of the moment “but to persistent American hurts and rages wrapped in longings for a supposedly bygone holy patriarchy.” It is undoubtedly true that changes in the roles of men and women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries lay behind the many utopian and often eccentric proposals for a new sexual harmony, but many of these proposals, like the radical celibacy of the Shakers, were hardly for a return to patriarchy; indeed, the Shakers, founded by Mother Ann Lee in 1776, became the first American religious group to recognize formally the equality of the sexes at all levels of authority.
What does seem fundamental to this explosion of religiosity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are the great numbers of radical changes that took place in people’s personal and social relationships, relationships that compared to other early modern societies were often weak and tenuous to begin with. Whatever transformed these relationships—whether it was the so-called market revolution, or the disestablishment of the Old World churches, or rapid population growth and movement, or the cries of equality coming out of the American Revolution—created needs and anxieties that often found resolution in religion. The sudden emergence in the early nineteenth century of new sects like the Mormons and weird cults like that of Matthias was certainly expressive of changes in social relationships and in American religious thinking that historians have only begun to explore.
Whatever the ultimate significance of Matthias and his cult may be for American history, however, there is no doubt that these two imaginative historians have written a splendidly readable and fascinating piece of history. That is no small achievement.
October 20, 1994