Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
In Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s The Kingdom of Matthias, the two authors analyze a cult-like religious prophet/con-artist and his community of followers who, together, help to illustrate the economic, social, and religious pressures that shaped Americans’ lives in the mid-nineteenth century. With ideals circulating such as the market revolution, inequalities and interactions between genders, as well as religious uncertainty, people were noticing the world’s values were changing directly in front of them. Mid-nineteenth century America was chaotic and fast paced, The Kingdom of Matthias discusses three main pressures that heavily impacted economics, gender roles, and religion. In order to understand the Matthias incident, it needs to be viewed through the social aspects of the community as it is the most revealing and influential.
Occurring approximately between 1800 and the 1840s, the market revolution was a set of continuous transitions and changes that started the movement and migration of the American population. Instead of the majority of people living in the countryside, the majority shifted to cities becoming the area with the highest percent of the population. Americans no longer lived on the countryside working as small farmers or artisan workers, but instead began living in cities and working inside factories. We can assume that the Market Revolution began due to a shift away from local and regional markets to larger areas for more trade like the national markets. In the South, the agricultural explosion allowed for food to be sold and grown at a higher rate. In the West, textile companies began to rake in money hand over hand. In the North, domestic manufacturing. By selling and trading with different American regions, this helped to strengthen the American economy in multiple ways. Not only did it expand the size of our economy, it diversified the areas of major trade. It resulted in a higher pay wage and a lower dependency on foreign imported goods. This quick development and westward expansion caused land speculation and eventually an economic boom for some. This is important because due to the migration of people from rural areas to urban areas, multiple cultures of people from a variety of separate cultures and backgrounds all came together into one place, their convergence leading to different interpretations on morality.
The market revolution affected Matthias’s community because it brought people together. Matthias also had a job for everyone in his settlement. He was the ruler, and nobody was above him. After his endeavors into the market revolution fail miserably, he claims that all money, merchants, and society are for the damned, simply because they remind him of his failure. In reality, Matthias’s kingdom was a revolt from the advancement of society. Matthias was convinced that the market revolution was to blame for his misfortune, so he blasted it with false accusations. He began claiming society was the devil.
In the nineteenth century, the legal rights of women and men were extremely distressed by gender and race. Gender roles were an even larger part of normal life. Back then, it was widely believed that the man of the house was supposed to support the family by working and earning a decent wage. A husband was to provide for his wife just as a father was to provide for his children. During this same time period, women’s roles in American society were merely seen as a lady working at their residence.
The social norm was that women were to be supporting their husbands by cleaning the home, raising the children, and cooking the meals. The reality of motherhood has changed overtime. In the book, the authors helped to describe the lives of regular, as well as irregular, persons of the era. In particular, the authors chose to depict the lives of two females named Isabella Van Wagenen and Isabella Matthews Laisdell. These two women had not only been unfortunately touched personally by effects of slavery, but also by many influences of higher power originating from men. Altogether, Kingdom of Matthias explores many areas of society that are affected by people’s gender.
Isabella Matthews Laisdell was portrayed as a servant, and her husband was depicted more as her owner. Her position within society was very typical of the time period because the social-normal role of women in the United States was to tend to their family’s desires, wants, and needs, as well as support their husband. As a man, Matthias made the rules for his community, so he kept all the women in the houses. Isabella Matthews Laisdell was more-or-less allowed to live a normal married life. Unfortunately, normal for the nineteenth century is not very normal today. This was because she had an outstanding lawsuit against Matthias. Matthias was accused of beating Isabella Laisdell, and the evidence presented was that of bruises and contusions on her body, claimed to be from Matthias. Matthias was found guilty. Furthermore, a large amount of marriages in the nineteenth century were arranged. Matthias full heartedly believed that romantic courting led to complete despair for women in the afterlife. This is shown in the book when Matthias beat his own daughter because she didn’t receive his permission to marry her husband. The man she had married went by the name Charles Laisdell, and he was not who Matthias had wanted her to marry.
Seen as inferior to males, women were beaten by their dominating fathers and husbands, who’s rights were unjustly higher than their daughters and wives. In the 19th century, both marriage and motherhood were afflicted by gender and race due to the evident fact that females had unequal rights compared to males. Marriages during this time period were becoming based on “mutual affection.” This is the complete opposite of the book. Matthias believed relationships based and built upon desire and lust were unhealthy and unattainable. Men in Matthias’s community controlled basically all of everyone else’s rights, including full control of their daughters or wife. Women were forced to always support the family and the daughters and wife functioned in respect to their father or husband. The book makes out women as already “conquered” by men inside Matthias’s community. Women were supposed to live and serve, do household chores, and function as a housewife, as that was the social normal. Women today have more opportunities in pursuing, but a working woman during this time was “unheard of.” Men believed it could threaten their masculinity of a husband, which could “ruin” the marriage.
The timeline of American history places the story of Matthias directly in the center of the Second Great Awakening. This was a new religious movement that was based loosely on the rejection of European policies. More and more people disliked the rules regarding religion, desiring to respond by changing the social norms. The rejection of this rationalism, as well as the beginning of market capitalism, this partially caused one of the largest mass population religious conversions to evangelism in U.S. history.
The Second Great Awakening was at its height in the 1830s. It started in upstate New York and slowly moving South then West. It took root in Appalachian Mountains heavily before furthering on to the seemingly endless frontier. The Second Great Awakening had a populist point of view, one that more and more Americans started seeing within themselves. People began seeing each other as spiritual equivalents to those seen as “holy,” such as pastors and preachers. These clergymen were only really favored for their sermons. Some minority populations, such as women, slaves, and less wealthy Anglos, were extremely drawn toward this Second Great Awakening. Middle and upper-class white people began to align more with the views of Finneyism. The Second Great Awakening is responsible for the rise of revivalist cults and other groups such as the Seventh Day Adventists, the Church of Christ, the Mormons, the Disciples of Christ and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Evangelists saw the usual problems of the era, such as slavery, greed, and poverty, laying the groundwork for movements to change. This influence from the Second Great Awakening helped to create even greater secular movements within politics. American Christians started progressive movements which were definitely aimed at reform. Some examples include the Abolitionist Movement, the Temperance Society, and the Suffragette Movement. The awakening pulled popularity among women and slaves, due to the emphasizing of every member in society deserving to be treated equally. This was looking past gender, race, or economic status.
Matthias took advantage of this new idea of religion. Matthias flipped the people’s opinions directly upon them and said all other religions were scams. He then continued to match and pair spirits. The thing about the spirits he matched was that they were already married. Religion was whatever Matthias wanted, when he wanted, and how he wanted it. Religion was his shield to coward behind when it all hit the fan. If something seemed off, it was because Matthias created a religion to allow him to break rules and laws. Matthias did this all by claiming it was ok based on freedom of religion, a main founding point of the United States. Those who disagreed left, but the rest abandoned their old ideals of religion and society by pledging loyalty to this cult and its leader, Matthias.
In the end, we see Robert Matthews as the man he truly is, a failed businessman who wholeheartedly resents women and any idea of change that isn’t his own. Like many other false prophets, Matthias declared that only his religion could help people actually achieve salvation, a salvation they only desired due to their search for perfection from the Second Great Awakening. All characters in this book are looking to fill voids in their lives. This allows Matthews to take advantage of religious inclinations among other people. He’d fully control their search for meaning and spirituality, simply because he believed their lives lacked purpose and direction. Matthews convinced these characters that he was the answer to their literal prayers.
Religion was the most influential and revealing aspect of life in Matthias’s kingdom. Due to its hold on all other facets of life, religion was the equivalent of a pair of white knuckles on the steering wheel. With such a firm grasp on Matthias’s community due to the constant propaganda, religious pressures effected the other pressures by building up upon them. Matthias led people to a life that was different, a life he claimed was the path to salvation. Combine this with the Second Great Awakening, a time when a large percent of the population was searching for a way to be perfect and achieve salvation, you get chaos.