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False Prophet

June 2024
1min read

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 pages, $25.00 . CODE: OUP-9

The authors, both American historians, begin their superb narrative with the improbable 1835 meeting of two selfstyled prophets from upstate New York: Robert Matthews, better known as the Prophet Matthias, fresh from his murder acquittal in New York City, and Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They met in Kirtland, Ohio, where Smith was building the first of his Mormon cities, and they spent a day comparing their religious visions and divine credentials while a scribe tried to keep up. The next morning the Mormon prophet sent Matthias on his way. “I told him,” Smith wrote in his diary, “that my God told me that his God is the Devil.”

That Matthias’s religion faltered while Smith’s grandly succeeded only adds to the interest of this book: he makes an obscure but luridly fascinating character to follow across America at a time when, the authors write, “the seers of the new republic set the pattern for later prophetic movements down to our own time.”

Robert Matthews was a failed carpenter who had abandoned his wife and children in Albany; in 1832 he presented himself, as Matthias the Prophet, to Elijah Pierson, a wealthy New Yorker who had become unhinged after the death of his wife. Matthias was soon preaching in Pierson’s parlor against women, clergymen, and “all men who wear spectacles.” Eventually he established a “Kingdom” thirty miles north on the Hudson and married himself to the wife of his host, Benjamin Folger. Folger stayed on and took up with Matthias’s daughter. “There is too much changing of wives here,” one visitor said. When the sickly Pierson died of ailments for which Matthias had withheld treatment, it all caved in. The Prophet was tried for murder; he served four months for assault and contempt of court. The only redemption in Matthias’s Kingdom came after its ruin: The household’s servant, a former slave named Isabella Van Wagener, went on the road afterward with a new name that had been revealed to her, Sojourner Truth. This is terrific history.

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