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In 1830, in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, an addled carpenter in Albany, NY determined that he was truly the wandering Jewish prophet Matthias. Taking advantage of the spiritual swirl of the times, he got several New York businessmen to join his "kingdom", which he established on one of their estates in Sing Sing. Members of the patriarchal kingdom followed his word absolutely until sexual scandal and charges of murder and fraud tore the place apart. The subsequent trial of Matthias became one of the first big stories for the emergent penny press, but he was eventually cleared of all of the serious charges.
Wilentz and Johnson take this extremely minor, albeit colorful, episode from the American past and try to spin out grand theories from it concerning things like the social displacement caused by industrialization, the changing roles of women, religion in general, and so on. But ultimately, the story is really only interesting for its most colorful aspects and for the frisson of recognition it provides as we see parallels to modern equivalents like David Koresh and Jim Jones.
Oh, and there's one other parallel that the authors could not have imagined when they wrote the book-- the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. You see, Wilentz, if memory serves (see article), was one of the driving forces behind the Potemkin petition signed by "400 Historians!" averring that the Founding Fathers never intended impeachment to apply to crimes like obstruction of justice, perjury, and the like so long as they pertained to the President's private sexual behavior. How delicious are the ironies of life. These smug little liberal elitist profs set out to write a book about how the poor confused hoi polloi of the last century were sucked into the scams of charismatic but fraudulent religious hucksters who preyed on their need for reassurance in a tumultuous time. As it turns out, a hundred years from now when historians write about the huckster in the White House and his scandals, sexual and otherwise, and about the needy liberals who were willing to enable his degenerate behavior, Sean Wilentz will get his own footnote or brief mention as one of the minions eager to cover up or gloss over the aberrant sexual behavior of his messiah--just like one of the acolytes of Matthias. Whichever prophet you follow, you've gotta love a God who delivers such ironies.
The book makes for an interesting if inconsequential read. It seems like it would have been better as a journal article. Or what would make the most sense, how about a book on why Joseph Smith, who has a brief cameo here, succeeded so brilliantly in founding the Mormon Church, while folks like Matthias failed so miserably? But, of course, that would require dealing with a successful & still powerful religious movement, rather than poking fun at a long dead oddball.
-REVIEW: of The Passions of Andrew Jackson by Andrew Burstein (Sean Wilentz, New Republic)
Book-related and General Links:
-Sean Wilentz C.V.
-ARTICLE: ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (Lingua Franca)
-REAL AUDIO: Interview: "The Nature of American Democracy." (Talking History)
-REVIEW: The Wandering Jewish Prophet in New York (Gordon S. Wood, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW: (Janet Marsden, First Things )
-ESSAY: Bankruptcy and Zeal: The Republican Dialectic (Sean Wilentz, Dissent)
-ESSAY: Striving for Democracy by Sean Wilentz (Wilson Quarterly)
-ESSAY: Companion Essay: Was America Born Capitalist? (Gordon S. Wood, Wilson Quarterly)
-ESSAY: State of the Debate: THE RISE AND FALL OF RACIALIZED LIBERALISM (Sean Wilentz, American Prospect)
-ESSAY: Religious Cults Have Become A Great American Tradition (SEAN WILENTZ, LA Times)
-REVIEW: of Anthony Lukas' Big Trouble. The Wild West (Sean Wilentz, Slate)
-REVIEW: of Jim Sleeper's Liberal Racism. Mighty White of You (Sean Wilentz, Slate)
-REVIEW: of Sean Wilentz's Chants Democratic "American Liberalism" and Other Scholarly Jams
-Kingdom of Matthias: The Age of Reform AMS 355 Group 13 project
-BreakthroughBooks WE ASKED A STELLAR TICKET OF NINE SCHOLARS, JOURNALISTS, AND COMMENTATORS WHICH BOOKS MAKE THE MOST SENSE OF AMERICAN CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS. HERE ARE THEIR VOTES. (Lingua Franca)
-ESSAY : When the Intellectuals Become Political (Ronald Radosh, FrontPageMagazine.com | December 5, 2000)