This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1995, Volume 12, Number 1, pages 103-106. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
Book Review - The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America.
Paul E. Johnson & Sean Wilentz, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1994, 222 pages. Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community. Spencer Klaw, Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1993, 337 pages.
While cults of various sorts have been part of Western culture since at least Hellenistic times (when early Christianity was one cult among many), they tend to be especially prevalent during times of social turmoil. One such time in American history was the first few decades of the 19th century during which an incredible number of secular, as well as religious, movements came into being and, for the most part, quickly faded away. Two recent books on cults from this period raise issues of interest to present-day cult observers.
In The Kingdom of Matthias, historians Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz tell the strange story of a very small movement which was briefly notorious in and around New York City during the early 1830s. Led by an eccentric self-proclaimed "Prophet of the God of the Jews," the cult would likely have vanished without a trace if its leader had not been accused of murdering one of his wealthy disciples. Much like David Koresh in our time, the bizarre prophet quickly became a media sensation. Johnson and Wilentz draw upon the trial record, newspaper accounts, and the several contemporary published accounts of the group to paint a fascinating picture of the Prophet Matthias's Kingdom, and the social and religious unrest amid which it briefly flourished.
Had Matthias not chanced upon a ready-made group of religious fanatics, originally banded together to save prostitutes from a life of sin, in the midst of a crisis of faith precipitated by its apparently deranged leader's failed attempt to resurrect his wife, he probably would have been just another mad prophet ranting on the street corner. But he brilliantly interpreted the little group's travails in terms of his claim to be “The Living Spirit of Truth," and as such presided over the community for about two years. But by the time of Matthias's arrest in 1834, his Kingdom was crumbling from the combined strain of financial woes as the wealth of his supporters was exhausted, and sexual tensions resulting from the Prophet's imposed rearrangement of marital bonds within the community. The murder charges were apparently based more upon community bias against the Kingdom than any real evidence, and Matthias was cleared of all responsibility for the death of his follower. He was, however, convicted of whipping his adult daughter on the occasion of her visit to the Kingdom and was sentenced to three months in jail. After serving his sentence, Matthias and his now-defunct Kingdom disappeared from the pages of history with the exception of the one member of the community who had remained loyal throughout the Prophet's tribulations: a black woman who often had mystical revelations, she was told in a vision a dozen years after the demise of the Kingdom to change her name to Sojourner Truth, and as such became a leading abolitionist.
Johnson and Wilentz locate the origins of the Kingdom of Matthias in the economic, social, and religious changes sweeping through the United States at the time. The sudden rise of a market economy displaced many men, like Matthias himself, from farms and villages to cities where they had to scramble to make a living as best they could. The resultant uncertain status of many men in both society and the family (Matthias's wife, after years of physical abuse and his repeated failure to support his family, had left him before the founding of the Kingdom) seriously disrupted the patriarchal system which up to that time had been the basis of American society. In addition, fervent religious revivals stressing the possibility of individual choice and divine forgiveness over the wrath of God and predestination repeatedly shook New England Calvinism to its very foundations.
In the authors' view, Matthias's religion--like that of his more successful contemporary fellow prophet, Joseph Smith--was a reactionary response to changes that threatened what little stability he had known in his life. But while it may be tempting to think that Matthias was unique to his time, Johnson and Wilentz remind us that such extremist prophets have had “a long and remarkably continuous history in the United States; they speak not to some quirk of the moment or some disguised criminal intention, but to persistent American hurts and rages wrapped in longings for a supposedly bygone holy patriarchy. It is easier to forget about these things than to understand them, for they do not match what we prefer to think are the main currents of our uplifting, optimistic national creed. But while most of us (like Matthias's contemporaries) move on to other stories, the virile charismatic prophets of apocalypse are receiving their visions and gathering their followers at Zion, taking their place in an American spiritual history whose last chapter is not yet written."
If the response of Matthias and his like to social change was reactionary, there have been other prophets whose goal was nothing less than revolution. Such a visionary was John Humphrey Noyes, the subject of Klaw's book, who about ten years after the demise of Matthias's Kingdom established a community based on “Bible Communism" in upstate New York. The Oneida community, the most successful of the many early 19th-century Utopian experiments, lasted for about 30 years and involved hundreds of people.
In the atmosphere of freedom created by the disestablishment of religion in New England and the replacement of Calvinism by the more optimistic view of human nature propagated in popular revival movements, some people went so far as to maintain that an earthly state of perfect sinlessness was possible (not unique to the time, such views have had a long history on the fringes of established religion). Noyes was converted to Perfectionism while a divinity student at Yale. After his dismissal from seminary as a result of his claimed sinlessness, Noyes continued to refine his views and was soon proclaiming his unique version of earthly perfection to a growing band of followers. A community was established in Oneida, New York, in which all property, even to basic articles like pocket watches, was held in common.
In what became the best known aspect of life at Oneida, the communistic ideal was extended to sexual relations through the practice of "complex marriage." All the men and women of the community were free to engage in heterosexual relations with whomever they pleased. Special pairings were discouraged and conceptions carefully planned for the benefit of the community. The use of male continence (a technique similar to that taught by New Age "tantric" groups) as a contraceptive method was apparently very successful, with few unplanned conceptions occurring during the 30 years that complex marriage was practiced. The required male self-control created a focus on female sexual pleasure remarkable for its time, as was the degree to which men and women shared equally in community tasks. The success of the community's commercial ventures (Noyes had nothing against money making so long as the wealth was equally shared) produced a strong financial base which enabled the community to prosper where many experiments in communal living had foundered.
In many ways Oneida seems to have been exceptional in the degree to which it avoided the pitfalls of most cults established around an authoritarian figure. Community members' accounts describe life there in positive, even glowing terms. Despite its scandalous sexual practices, Oneida was held in high regard by most of its contemporaries, and periodical threats of raids by outraged upholders of public morality never materialized.
But there seems to have been a darker side to life at Oneida. The diaries of some members disclose turmoil inside the community even during its most prosperous years. While the government was in theory democratic, Noyes usually had the final say in all decisions. Dissent, while not actually prohibited, was strongly discouraged. Few dared oppose "Father Noyes," and those who did usually left the community. Sexual freedom was more theoretical than actual, with Noyes's sister keeping careful track of who was sleeping with whom to ensure that couplings conformed to the rules, and to use sexual frustration as a punishment for those who challenged group norms. The practice of complex marriage required sexual initiation by their elders of young people who had attained puberty, something which would be regarded as abusive today. Access to some documents relating to sexual politics at Oneida, and particularly accusations of sexual misconduct brought against Noyes, is still restricted, leading one to wonder what dark secrets may be thus concealed.
Bible Communism did not survive the second generation at Oneida. Despite the careful breeding intended to create a race of spiritually superior individuals, the children of the founders were less than enthusiastic about their parents' way of life. In 1879, after a lengthy struggle over leadership and a rumored plot by a group of clergymen to arrest him on unspecified criminal charges, Noyes secretly left Oneida for Canada, where he would remain with a few faithful followers until his death seven years later. Shortly after Noyes's departure, the practice of complex marriage and eventually communism itself were dropped by the community. At the end of 1880, Oneida became a joint-stock company which continues to this day as one of the world's leading manufacturers of tableware.
Cultic deviations from orthodoxy need to be examined in the social, as well as religious, contexts in which they arise if we are to have any hope of understanding them. The authors of The Kingdom of Matthias and Without Sin have done cult observers a service in providing balanced, well-written accounts of two very different groups with a common origin in the religious ferment of their time, groups which have more than a few parallels to those of our own time.
James C. Moyers, M.A., M.F.C.C.
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1995