One thread that weaves predominantly throughout American history is a seemingly endless array of non-mainstream religious groups. This is true in the modern era — with radicals like Jim Jones — and it was extremely prevalent in country’s early years — especially during the Second Great Awakening.
It was during this era when many of the religious leaders returned to a more Calvinistic focus of doom and gloom, often scaring wayward souls back into the fold. Sometimes, though, the fold consisted of only a handful of believers who embraced a cult-like set of doctrines.
Such is the case of Prophet Matthias.
Born in 1778 in rural New York, life began in a fairly typical manner for Robert Matthews. The son of a farmer, Matthew was raised in a Presbyterian home. However, when he was around eight years old, tragedy struck and both of his parents died. As was typical in that era — Robert and his nine siblings were raised by family, friends and neighbors.
By the age of 30, Matthews is doing well. He owns a successful business in Cambridge and the only stain on his character is an accusation of assault — but he was never arrested or charged with any crime. He marries and starts a family and, for some reason, his luck begins to change.
First his business goes bankrupt — forcing him to move the family back to New York. He revives his carpentry skills so he can find work to pay the bills. He plugs along this way for several years — until 1830 — when he has a vision from God that changes his life.
The Father’s Kingdom
After his vision, Robert changed his name to Matthias the Prophet, abandons his family and begins preaching about the Father’s – not the Son’s — Kingdom. Whether by luck or divine providence, Matthias converts three wealthy men to his cult. The men — Sylvester Mills, Benjamin Folger, and Elijah Pierson — supply him with money and the deeds to two homes.
Once again, life is good, but troublesome times are lurking.
According to Brian Thornton author of The Book of Bastards: 101 Worst Scoundrels and Scandals from the World of Politics and Power,
..Matthias had it all: money he hadn’t earned, women drunk on his power, and followers from all walks of life who showed up just to hear him speak. It couldn’t last.
His downfall begins when one of the wealthy men, Pierson, becomes ill.
Matthias refuses to let any doctors examine the sick man, declaring Pierson is demon possessed — demons Pierson must conquer to survive. Matthias says. When Pierson dies shortly after eating a plateful or two of blackberries, officials suspect foul play. Matthias and his housekeeper, Isabella Van Wagener, are charged with murder.
The charges don’t stick and both are acquitted.
Hard Luck, Bad News
Despite his acquittal, Matthias’ legal woes are not over. In an unrelated case, Matthias is charged with beating his daughter and spends 30 days in the slammer. After his release Matthias leaves New York, stops by Ohio and preaches at Joseph Smith’s fledging congregation.
But, bad luck once again plagues Matthias.
Smith and Matthias have a falling out — both claiming the other is doing the work of Satan. So, Matthias travels west to the Iowa Territory where he dies in obscure poverty in 1818. Prophet Mathias is forgotten, but history remembers his housekeeper and Joseph Smith.
Smith, of course, founds the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Matthias’ housekeeper, Isabella, changes her name to Sojourner Truth and becomes a leading figure in the Abolitionist movement.