Some called him a madman, others viewed him as a prophet. The Kingdom of Matthias is the story of Robert Matthews who deems himself as “The Spirit of Truth” and persuades others to partake in his unorthodox beliefs (Wilentz and Johnson, p.5). During the first half of the 19th century many parts of the United States were in turmoil as the Second Great Awakening begins to unfold. The Kingdom of Matthias takes place during the Burned-Over District which refers to an area in western New York during the 1820s through 1830s in which evangelical movements were prominent as damnation preaching prevailed which lead to new religious denominations, communes and reform movements.
Robert Matthews was not always unconventional in his religious thinking. He was born in 1788 to a Scottish immigrant family that settled in a farming village in Washington County, New York. They named their neighborhood Coila and were strict Calvinist Anti-Burghers (Johnson and Wilentz, p. 50). In general terms, the Calvinist believed that God extends grace only to the chosen and that people are predestined to enter heaven. They also believed that social hierarchy played a dominant role in the church and the household, and that the men were the head of the household and women played a subservient role. Through years of despair and turmoil in his life, including the loss of his parents at a young age, and the loss of two sons, his religious beliefs became diluted. He went from Scots Calvinism to Methodism (which he felt had the purest church that promised salvation to all that received Jesus in their hearts) and then to Judaism (Johnson and Wilentz, p.64 & 68). The Methodist Church he attended was an all-black congregation that first introduced him to evangelical ways and the thought of ending slavery and racial injustice (Johnson and Wilentz, p. 63). His encounter with Judaism was through a Jew he met named Mordecai Manuel Noah who wanted to create a Jewish homeland. Matthews proclaimed to be a Jew, but as Noah’s vision eventually died, Matthew became a man without a movement (Johnson and Wilentz, p. 65). Through Matthew’s travels he attended many evangelistic churches and claimed to receive regular visions and messages from God. His appearance became disheveled as he began growing a beard and his mental state became in question. His beliefs kept changing and through his own confusion and despair he would whip his wife and beat his daughter.
So how did a man that appeared to be delusional and abusive to his wife and family become known as “The Spirit of Truth”; a patriarch with his own followers? Several major factors come into play. First, this period of time was considered the “Market Revolution.” Technology was advancing rapidly and information to the public was being disseminated faster than ever before due to printing presses and telegraphs. People were leaving the farms and artisan roles in which they produced things on a small scale for individual consumption, and moved towards a factory system in which goods were mass produced (Keene, p. 260). There was migration from rural areas and immigration from Europe that caused a melting pot in the cities of differing social, economic and religious views. For Matthews, this revolution was both a benefit and a hindrance. It was the catalyst that exposed him to different religious views and beliefs and allowed him to travel easily through the Northeast to attend revivals. He was able to speak freely and promote his ideas. He became a prophet in his own right; however when plagued with a scandal the advancement of communication was a downfall when the penny press had a feeding frenzy and labeled him an impostor.
Second, a religious revival called the Second Great Awakening had a strong impact on Americans and they began seeking change. It grew partly as a backlash of the materialism of the market revolution and partly from a charismatic lawyer turned preacher that conducted a...
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