Sean Wilentz, American Historian and Author

The Kingdom of Matthias, with Paul E. Johnson

In the autumn of 1834, New York City was awash with rumors of a strange religious cult operating nearby, centered on a mysterious, self-styled prophet named Matthias. It was said that Matthias the Prophet was stealing money from one of his followers; then came reports of lascivious sexual relations, based on odd teachings of matched spirits, apostolic priesthoods, and the inferiority of women. At its climax, the rumors transformed into legal charges, as the Prophet was arrested for the murder of a once highly-regarded Christian gentleman who had fallen under his sway. By the time the story played out, it became one of the nation’s first penny-press sensations, casting a peculiar but revealing light on the sexual and spiritual tensions of the day.

In The Kingdom of Matthias, the distinguished historians Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz brilliantly recapture this forgotten story, imbuing their richly researched account with the dramatic force of a novel. In this book, the strange tale of Matthias the Prophet provides a fascinating window into the turbulent movements of the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening–movements which swept up great numbers of evangelical Americans and gave rise to new sects like the Mormon. Into this teeming environment walked a down-and-out carpenter named Robert Matthews, who announced himself as Matthias, prophet of the God of the Jews. His hypnotic spell drew in a cast of unforgettable characters….By the time the tensions within the kingdom exploded into a clash with the law, Matthias had become a national scandal.

In the hands of Johnson and Wilentz, the strange tale of the Prophet and his kingdom comes vividly to life, recalling scenes from recent cult experiences… [and] showing the connections among rapid economic change, sex and race relations, politics, popular culture, and the rich varieties of American religious experience.

“Paul E, Johnson and Sean Wilentz have recovered one of the great, weird instances of the spiritual volatility of our country…. They are rational men tracking the power of the irrational; which is to say, they are fine historians.  They have written a delicious and disturbing book.” — Leon Wieseltier

“The story is well told here by two marvelously inquisitive historians who possess the sure hand of a gifted novelist. An excellent book in every way and a warning to the latest ‘Messiah’ – the prophet Matthias ended in the dust” –Alfred Kazin

“…A history book that reads like a novel of suspense and intrique…it affords us a rare glimpse into a much-misunderstood time.” –WORLD

The Kingdom of Matthias is as exciting as a novel: it has sex, a weird religious cult, a murder mystery, and an ending that is truly a surprise.  It is also a serious work of historical scholarship – in short, a wonderful book that will keep you up all night.” –Katha Pollitt

“Combining rare narrative skills and historical detail, Johnson and Wilentz recreate the fascinating tale of a false prophet and his misguided followers in New York in the 1820s and ’30s.” –Kirkus Reviews


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