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G. Vale (Gilbert), 1788-1866
Fanaticism; Its Source and Influence, Illustrated by the Simple Narrative of Isabella, in the Case of Matthias, Mr. and Mrs. B. Folger, Mr. Pierson, Mr. Mills, Catherine, Isabella, &c. &c. A Reply to W. L. Stone, with the Descriptive Portraits of All the Parties, While at Sing-Sing and at Third Street. - Containing the Whole Truth - and Nothing but the Truth
New York: The Author, 1835.


Isabella Van Wagenen (ca. 1799-1883), whose memories provided Gilbert Vale (1788-1826) with the material for Fanaticism (1835), later achieved national renown as the itinerant preacher and public speaker Sojourner Truth. Fanaticism recounts her spiritual development while living in Sing Sing, New York, at the utopian community of Robert Matthews, the self-proclaimed prophet Matthias. First as a Methodist and then as a "disciple of Matthias," Van Wagenen undergoes a dramatic transformation from a newly freed slave whose "early religious impressions were extremely gross" to a woman who "outprayed and preached her compeers" (p. 126).

In 1829, Vale joined many other British expatriates who left London for New York when the English government systematically suppressed calls for religious and political reform after the Peterloo Massacre and under the authority of the Six Acts of 1819, which made any call for radical reform an act of treason. Vale trained for the Anglican ministry but was never ordained and became a leading advocate of the freethought movement after his arrival in America. Freethinkers rejected revealed religion, and Vale wrote Fanaticism to show that the acts of Matthias and his followers "were not the freaks of a madman; they were systematic, and arose from what he thought to be the will of God, as revealed in scripture, or to him, in answer to prayer" (p. 125). Vale believed that the idea of personal revelation gave believers license to substitute their "feelings for divine impressions"; this tendency was "the great source of fanaticism" (p. 18).

Fanaticism, which was published in two parts, relies almost entirely upon the testimony of Van Wagenen. Vale acknowledges the public relations problem inherent in publishing a nineteenth-century expose "on the credit of a coloured woman," and, in order to establish Van Wagenen's reputation, provides a brief account of her eighteen years as a slave for John Dumont (p. 13). Dumont calls her "a good and faithful servant" who was always "perfectly honest," and Vale points out that even after her liberation in 1828, Van Wagenen frequently "paid a visit to her former master" in order to emphasize her continued good standing with him (p. 12, 54). Vale asks his readers to accept Van Wagenen's version of events in the same way they would accept that "white evidence, which the public so much seeks after," but he concedes to public pressure inasmuch as he provides the confirming evidence of white witnesses whenever possible (p. 117).

Vale also returns to Van Wagenen's experience as a slave in order to explain her relationship to Matthias and other members of his Sing Sing "kingdom" or "family" (p. 79). Van Wagenen first credits Matthias's claims to divinity because as a slave she never learns "to read; and judging of Jesus Christ by the pictures in the large family Bibles she had seen, she supposed him a great Man" and believes that she will someday "see Christ in the flesh" (p. 18). When Matthias knocks on her door in 1832 looking "much like the engravings of Jesus Christ in the family bibles," Van Wagenen naturally believes his claim to be "God upon earth" because he looks the part (p. 40, 42).

Matthias moves into the home of Elijah Pierson, where Van Wagenen is employed as a housekeeper, and she devotes herself to Matthias as though she were still a slave. Van Wagenen serves as an unpaid personal maid over the next two years and drains her savings buying furniture for Matthias's use because she believes in his doctrine "of having but one table and all things in common" (p. 41). In Matthias's kingdom, however, equality is relative, and Van Wagenen finds herself "at once the domestic and the equal," consigned to doing "nearly all the hard work" (p. 41, p. 23). When Van Wagenen complains to Matthias, or Father, he promises that "she should be furnished with his and Mother's spirit, so that if they laid in bed, their spirits should be with her, and enable her to do twice the work in half the time" (p. 23). Vale refers to this incident as "a good joke upon a coloured woman" and "a good trick to subdue her dissatisfaction," but Van Wagenen's frustration only grows as she notes the preferential treatment Matthias accords to the community's "Mother," Ann Disbrow (p. 23).

Disbrow is the legal wife of Benjamin Folger, but when she is "instructed by the Spirit that she ought to have Matthias for a husband; that they were match spirits," she leaves Folger for Matthias (p. 68). Folger is outraged until Matthias reveals that his own attractive daughter, Isabella Matthews, will take Disbrow's place. Van Wagenen is one of the few members of the kingdom who never finds a match spirit, which Vale attributes to "circumstances, as much as anything—(she is near forty, not handsome, and coloured)"—not a lack of will (p. 82). Because she is seemingly the only single female in the kingdom, Van Wagenen inherits the tasks of Disbrow and the other women, who increasingly spend their time with their match spirits behind locked doors.

Van Wagenen blames Disbrow for seducing and corrupting Matthias, and when the community eventually breaks up over an argument between Matthias, Disbrow and Folger, she follows Matthias. Folger and Disbrow accuse Matthias and Van Wagenen of stealing their money and attempting to poison them, and Van Wagenen, invoking the name she would later adopt, uses Vale's book to refute the charges: "I have got the truth, and I know it, and I will crush them with the truth" (p. 116).

Between the publication of the first and second parts of Fanaticism, Van Wagenen sued Folger for libel and was awarded $125 in damages. Very few black women won a lawsuit against a white man in the nineteenth century; Van Wagenen won three, and her legal success is a tribute to her reputation as "a powerful and energetic woman" (p. 50).

(For a more comprehensive summary of Sojourner Truth's early life, click here.)

Works Consulted: Allibone, S. Austin, Allibone's Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1899; Burke, W. J., and Will D. Howe, American Authors and Books, 1640 to the Present Day, New York: Grammercy Publishers, 1943; Painter, Nell Irvin, Sojourner Truth, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996; Stein, Gordon, ed., The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985; Wilson, James Grant and John Fiske, ed., Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888-1889.

Zachary Hutchins

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