Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Book Review: The Kingdom of Matthias

 The Kingdom of Matthias

Religion is something that is heavily rooted in American society. The United States of America has thousands of different churches, smaller denominations and non-western religions. “The Kingdom of Matthias” by Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz tells us about Robert Matthews who would later refer to himself as “Matthias.”

The authors used memoirs and stories from William Stone, Margaret Matthews, and Gilbert Vale to write this book. These were the only sources available due to the fact that ‘Matthias’ did not leave behind any diaries or the like. The authors had to use second person sources in order to construct the life and history of this person.

The book begins with the story of Elijah Pierson who came from humble beginnings and move to New York. He was very religious. Upon his arrival to New York City he found himself out of place, so to speak. The people of New York were immoral in his eyes. They drank and lived licentious lives. Prostitution was rampant as well as many other vices. Elijah Pierson saw himself as a missionary and began to preach about God to whoever would listen.

His style attracted some followers who saw him as some sort of a leader or prophet. However, all this changed after his wife Sarah passed away. He literally believed Scriptural passages regarding the resurrection of the dead and attempted to raise Sarah from the dead himself. When this did not happen, people began to question. He himself began to wonder why God didn't raise his wife Sarah from the dead. As a self-proclaimed messenger of God, Elijah felt he could use the powers of God like the Apostles and others in the Bible did.

The book then continues to focus on Robert Matthews. Like Elijah, Matthews was an ardent believer. At work he would try to preach to his co-workers but was met with ridicule and this upset him. He would unfortunately take his frustrations out on his wife Margaret. At one point he made it big financially and had lots of wealth but then went through a down time.

Matthews as he grew in his ideas about God began to become delusional. He saw himself as the “Prophet of the God of the Jews” and eventually even believed he was God himself. His followers gave him money and with that money he would found a community. He would then search for the best metals to fashion religious appointments (candlesticks, chalices, swords) and furniture with. Matthias would let his beard grow since the Bible says for men not to cut it.(Leviticus 19:27)

He had a lavish taste for clothing as well and had uniforms designed for him with the most expensive materials around. Matthias would then go around the Bowery and Battery Park to preach. Those who didn't believe him he would dismiss as devils. Despite claiming to be a “Prophet” and “God,” Matthias still was abusive to his wife.  

At the time, laws prevented women from divorcing their husbands unless adultery was involved. Matthias’ style of preaching was harsh and he had a misogynistic view as well. Women were evil and of the devil, according to him. They tempt men and distract men from God.

Elijah Pierson would die and suspicion would arise that he was poisoned. Matthias would eventually be arrested because many saw him as mentally unstable and in conflict with New York's blasphemy laws. The “kingdom of Matthias” he founded would eventually dissolve and the media at the time would write articles about cults and how even educated people can fall into the tutelage of delusional people such as Matthias.

The book is interesting and ties in to what we know of today as the New Evangelical movements, the Finneyites, the “Second Awakening,” which was a period where fanaticism, fundamentalism and even delusions began to take hold in America. These would bring about cults and sects such as Pentecostalism, Adventism, The Watchtower and so on that would challenge mainstream Christianity and bring about new and sometimes strange ideas regarding God. This book puts into perspective why sects exist in America today by providing details on their evolution in early America.

I enjoyed reading the book. To me it shows how easily some people can fall for delusional ideas. It also shows that people of today aren't so different from people back then. There were drunkards, prostitutes; New York City was always the “whore of Babylon,” so to speak. Over zealous religious people would try hard to spread their ideas. Many of them were delusional and borderline schizophrenic. We find that even today. Many representatives of sects stand on corners shouting with microphones and speakers or distributing pamphlets claiming to be messengers of God “Jehovah” or the Angel “Moroni.”

However, they are not as extreme as Jose Miranda who comes to mind and reminds me of Matthias. Jose is a Hispanic man in Miami, Florida who thinks he is God. He even calls himself the “Antichrist” and uses the infamous “666” numbers as his sign. Many people believe this man and give him money just like back in the day people believed Matthias and gave to him money. Unfortunately, not much has changed since Matthias' time.  There are still crazy people out there and people who listen to their every word.

I recommend reading this book if you like American history and want to know a bit more about the origins of religious sects in American society.

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