A Nation of Cults: The Great American Tradition

Sean Wilentz teaches history at Princeton and is the co-author of "The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America" (Oxford University Press)

The cult’s charismatic leader called himself Matthias the Prophet and claimed he was the latest incarnation of the Holy Spirit--a descendant of the ancient Hebrew prophets and patriarchs, including Jesus Christ. He lived communally with about 20 of his disciples--men, women and children--in a fine suburban house adjoining a spacious, well-manicured estate. Every day, the disciples listened intently to Matthias’ furious, meandering sermons about the rapidly approaching Doomsday; and they obeyed his every command, including his rearrangements of the group’s sexual pairings. Not surprisingly, the bearded prophet took the prettiest of the women, the wife of a wealthy disciple, as his personal “match spirit.”

Outsiders suspected that awful things were happening at Mount Zion, the name Matthias gave to the commune. But only after a sickly member of the cult died under mysterious circumstances did local authorities apprehend the prophet and confirm some of the worst of the rumors.

The affair quickly became a media circus. Tabloid newspapers reported sensational details about the cult’s sexual depravity and religious brainwashing. Editorial writers bemoaned Matthias’ alluring fanaticism, and commented darkly about the state of the American psyche. And the public eagerly awaited the prophet’s public trial in connection with his follower’s strange demise.

It all could have happened yesterday, in Waco or in Rancho Santa Fe. Yet, the kingdom of Matthias did not rise and fall in some New Age Sunbelt outpost, but in the town of Sing Sing, N.Y., just north of New York City--in the middle of the 1830s. And though he got more attention than most, Matthias was only one of the dozens of American cult leaders who emerged over the decades following the American Revolution.


Evaluations of more recent cults, including the suicidal Heaven’s Gate group, usually slight America’s rich history of religious eccentricity. Some pundits are quick to blame the 1960s counterculture for spawning interest in outlandish religious doctrines. Others blame television and the Internet. Still others hypothesize that the approach of the year 2000 has led to an epidemic of millennial credulity.

Yet, if these present-minded commentaries contain some truth, they also obscure the deeper American origins of religious cultism. Founded by religious dissenters, the United States has long been a hotbed of sectarian enthusiasm. And the current explosion of millenarianism has yet to match the one that occurred amid the so-called Second Great Awakening after the Revolution--one of the most intense outbursts of religious and pseudo-religious invention since the Protestant Reformation.

Most of the early Americans shamans and seers made a quick impression, only to disappear into obscurity--or, as in Matthias’ case, into ignominy. In the 1790s, for example, a former British army officer (his name is lost to posterity) claimed the gift of prophecy and assembled a divinely inspired political movement in Vermont and Massachusetts--but, just as rapidly, the prophet dispersed his group and was never heard from again. After the War of 1812, a band of religious seekers who called themselves Pilgrims migrated from Woodstock, Vt., (where they won at least 100 converts) to the outskirts of Troy, N.Y., and then moved again, by stages, until they reached the promised land of Missouri and faded into the countryside.

At about the same time, also in Vermont, members of a short-lived sect called the New Israelites, led by a man named Justis Winchell, declared that they had the God-given power to discover “vast quantities” of gold and silver, sufficient “to pave the streets of the New Jerusalem.” A bit later, a self-declared divine monarch named James Jesse Strange ruled over a band of followers, mostly women, on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, until he fell victim to an assassin’s bullet.

Some of the early American sects--most notably the Shakers--enjoyed spectacular growth through the middle of the 19th century before fading into near-extinction. A handful of other sects, however, evolved into major religions. The most famous of these, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better known as the Mormons) got its start in upstate New York in 1819, when Jesus and God appeared in a column of white fire to the farm boy Joseph Smith. Twelve years after Smith’s first vision, William Miller, a Baptist minister in Low Hampton, N.Y., announced that Christ would return to Earth in 1843, and attracted untold thousands of believers. The Millerites suffered a great disappointment when their leader’s calculations proved faulty, but a number of them regrouped in the 1860s to help found the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Then as now, the cults were hardly monolithic, doctrinally or emotionally, but they shared some common traits. They attracted a diverse following. Matthias’ little group, for example, included a poor ex-slave woman and an Irish serving girl, as well as some of the most favored young members of Manhattan’s mercantile elite. Cults often enforced discipline among the devout by prescribing some sort of unorthodox sexual regimen, ranging from celibacy to polygamy. Their teachings tended to focus on the attainment of some higher state of human existence, prefatory to God’s destruction of the sinful world. And, as recent historians have shown, they translated into a biblical vernacular the widespread hopes, hurts and apprehensions of a rapidly changing America--a new nation experiencing intense commercial development, the demise of traditional aristocratic patriarchy and the rise of what would become familiar as sentimental Victorian sexual norms.

The most startling difference between today’s cults and their early American forerunners is the modern proclivity for mass suicide. In the 19th century, believers hoped to hasten the coming of God’s kingdom by perfecting human life on Earth; at the end of the 20th, there is a tendency to want to leave Earth altogether--to be transported (perhaps by UFOs, the modern equivalent of celestial angels) directly to kingdom come.

But in other respects, the modern cults are best approached not as some bizarre, turn-of-the-millennium outburst but as the latest in a long line of American millenarian movements. Where they will lead is by no means certain. But it should surprise nobody if one of today’s prophets--perhaps the late L. Ron Hubbard--turns out to have been a latter-day Joseph Smith, the founder of a full-fledged respectable religion. And if the outcome of the Matthias cult’s story, among many others, is indicative, we should learn to expect the unexpected from America’s ever volatile sectarian life.


As it happened, Matthias was acquitted of murdering his follower, though he wound up serving time on some lesser charges. He was last seen preaching to Indians in Iowa Territory in the early 1840s.

Yet, that was not quite the end of the affair. After the prophet’s release from jail, his most loyal disciple, the ex-slave Isabella, heard new commandments from God. Some years later, she became a famous advocate of abolitionism and feminism, under a new heavenly name: Sojourner Truth. But that, as they say, is another story.