Matthews, Reverend Mark (1867-1940)

  • By Dale Soden
  • Posted 1/13/2007
  • Essay 8049
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If one person in the history of Seattle reflects the significant way in which religion infused itself into the social and political life of the city, it would be the Reverend Mark Matthews. Matthews pastored Seattle’s First Presbyterian Church for 38 years, from 1902 to 1940. He built his congregation into the denomination’s largest, with nearly 10,000 members at its height -- a remarkable accomplishment in the Pacific Northwest, which was then (and is today) the least-churched region of the country. He spearheaded social projects and helped create new institutions such as Seattle Day Nursery, which evolved into Childhaven, one of the state’s most successful institutions to treat child abuse. He helped lead the effort to establish Harborview Hospital. But for the first four decades of the twentieth century the Presbyterian minister also played controversial roles. He was a bitter foe of mayor Hiram Gill (1866-1919) and Seattle Times editor Alden Blethen (1845-1915). He was the unlikely friend of labor leader Dave Beck (1894-1993) and a frequent correspondent with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson during Wilson's presidency. Throughout Matthews's career he took controversial positions including support for Prohibition and opposition to woman suffrage. Filled with paradox and irony, his colorful career reflects many of the most important social, political, and religious forces at work in the history of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

Early Years in Georgia

The roots of Matthews’s evangelical religion and social involvement can be found in his native Georgia.  Born in Calhoun on September 24, 1867, he was the son of a carriage maker who experienced great hardships after the Civil War.  Matthews’s childhood poverty encouraged an ethical outlook that relied on hard work and traditional moral values.  His moral orientation and piety were further influenced by the environment of Southern revivalism with its standard fare of itinerant preachers, tent meetings, and fiery sermons.  He was exposed to radical agrarian politics of the post-Reconstruction period.  He experienced religious conversion at age 13, and began to prepare for the ministry as a career.  He never went to seminary, but received his theological education largely through efforts of a local pastor in his hometown. 

By 1886, when he was 19 years old, Matthews had begun to preach in his hometown and surrounding communities.  First in Calhoun, and subsequently in Dalton, Georgia, and Jackson, Tennessee, Matthews established a pattern that he would bring to Seattle in 1902.  He attracted new members to his church, developed a number of social ministries around unemployment and health care, and took on local politicians whom he believed were corrupt. 

In 1904, Matthews married Grace Jones. They had two children, Gwladys and Mark Jr. 

Moving to Seattle

When first asked to consider moving from Tennessee to Seattle, Matthews resisted.  But gradually he changed his mind as he began to see Seattle as a strategic city in terms of modeling the way a community dominated by Christian values might look.  He believed that Seattle was perfectly positioned to send missionaries to Asia as part of an effort to bring Christianity to the world.  Matthews believed that religiously orthodox individuals should exert their influence on the public square.

At six-foot, five-inches tall, Matthews cut quite a figure on the streets of Seattle with his long hair and Southern-style frock coat.  Within three months of his arrival, one reporter described him as “without question the best orator in the city.”  Other journalists would later depict him as “a master of smashing similes that stick and scald and burn.”  Matthews preached on topics ranging from “the gospel of soup, soap, salve, and salvation” to “Christian Socialism.”  He berated the church for not paying taxes and chastised women for being more interested in displaying their hats than in strengthening their Christian faith. 

A Reformer of the Progressive Era

On a typical Sunday one could expect to hear a sermon that emphasized three things:  first, an exhortation to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior; second, a demand to forsake traditional vice -- most notably alcohol and gambling; and thirdly, an admonition to become engaged in Seattle's social and political issues.  This transplanted Southerner drew from eclectic sources to put teeth into his social agenda. At times he supported the Populism of William Jennings Bryan; at others he sounded like Social Gospel advocates Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden. 

Matthews embraced many of the typical Progressive reforms of the day; he frequently attacked business monopolies that “combine to extort money from the common people” and meatpackers and wholesale merchants who in his opinion exploited both worker and consumer. Sermons criticized an ambulance system that was improperly run, a factory that produced chemically impure catsup, and a variety of other threats to public health in an unregulated business environment.  But he also opposed woman suffrage, fearing that giving women suffrage would undermine the sanctity of the home.

Seattle's First Presbyterian

Seattle's First Presbyterian Church (founded in 1869 by Rev. George F. Whitworth) became a model for institutional churches across the country.  In order to assist working mothers, it operated a day nursery and the first successful kindergarten in the city. First Presbyterian ran an unemployment bureau and educational classes at night.  At a time when discrimination against Chinese and Japanese was widespread, First Presbyterian funded a Japanese minister and provided language classes.  The church's gymnasium was in constant use, as were its reading rooms. 

The church actively pushed for a juvenile court and was one of the first groups to address effectively the problem of tuberculosis in Seattle.  In fact, First Presbyterian deserves credit for establishing the first anti-tuberculosis tents in the city -- precursors of Firland Sanatorium.  Active in the Humane Society, Red Cross, and White Cross, as well as the chaplaincy program at the county and city jails, Matthews was involved with as wide a variety of projects as anyone in the city.

Morality and Politics

Matthews believed that political, moral, and social reform went hand in hand.  Like most progressive reformers, Matthews saw an integral tie between the development of a proper environment and political structure.  Consequently, he continued his fight against the machine politician and espoused ways of making public officials more responsive to the general will of the people.  He favored the concepts of initiative, referendum, and recall, but worked particularly hard for the direct primary.  Constantly urging his parishioners to become active in the political process, he organized voters bureaus, published lists of recommended candidates, and sought to publicize particular candidates' positions through newspapers. 

His most famous political adversary was Hiram Gill.  In 1905, Matthews had charged Gill, who was president of the city council, with graft.  Never fully resolved, the “feud,” as it was often referred to in the press, erupted again in 1910 when Matthews and others attempted to organize a recall election against Seattle Mayor Gill for his alleged protection of gambling and prostitution. 

In addition, Matthews hired the William Burns Detective Agency to secretly investigate Gill and Police Chief Charles Wappenstein.  In the end, Gill was recalled, ironically with the added votes of newly enfranchised women. Wappenstein sent to prison on the controversial evidence supplied by Matthews’s detectives. 

In addition to his involvement with Seattle city officials, Matthews, like other Victorians of his day, vigorously fought for Prohibition.  Matthews's memorable remark that the saloon was "the most fiendish, corrupt and hell-soaked institution that ever crawled out of the slime of the eternal pit" left little doubt where the preacher stood on the issue. Matthews was nearly as well known for his attacks on brothels, race tracks, and other establishments that he deemed unhealthy or morally inappropriate. 

His friendship with Woodrow Wilson, a fellow Presbyterian and fellow Democrat (although in his early years Matthews often supported Progressive Republicans), aided Seattle in several ways, but World War I heightened his anxiety over the state of the world.  The Seattle General Strike of 1919 saw him play a prominent role in the effort to negotiate a settlement.

Changing Times

During the 1920s and 1930s Matthews reflected the anxieties of many evangelical Christians.  He criticized the flapper and "screenitis" in the 1920s as he worried about the impact of popular culture on America’s moral values.  Matthews became more nationally involved in the fight between religious modernists and fundamentalists.  Although generally siding with the conservatives in his denomination, he at times played a mediating role in a bitter divide.  He continued to be active in civic affairs, he was elected to be a freeholder in order to rewrite the city’s charter in 1925, and he was urged by many to run for mayor in the early 1930s. 

One of the ways he managed to keep the First Presbyterian Church in the national spotlight was by establishing KTW Radio in 1922 -- the first church-owned radio station in the country.  Built and operated under the supervision of J. D. Ross (1872-1939), longtime head of Seattle City Light, the station allowed Matthews's sermons to reach unprecedented numbers of people.  It was his radio success that in 1924 caused him to be listed among the 25 most influential ministers in America in a national poll of 25,000 Protestant clergymen.  Seattle First Presbyterian continued to grow with the development of branch churches.  One of the most successful branches was the University Presbyterian Church, which would become a major institution in its own right after World War II.

Matthews’s last two decades in Seattle were marked by an ongoing interest in Seattle politics.  He worked closely with teamster and labor leader Dave Beck to help avoid crippling strikes.  He took strong anti-communist positions in the 1930s, and in the same decade was outspoken in his criticism of German policies against Jews.

Mark Matthews's Legacy

Mark Matthews believed he was called by God to come to Seattle and help transform it from a budding seaport shaped by the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 into a community influenced by Victorian values and led by the middle class. In trying to do, so he attracted both critics and supporters, but his influence was unquestioned. His legacy is complicated.  On the one hand, he generated considerable controversy for some of his opinions and some of his actions.  Many Seattle residents believed that he reflected a view of the world that hindered Seattle’s economic development and stunted its trajectory toward becoming more cosmopolitan.  Matthews made enemies in the political as well as the religious world. 

But without question, Mark Matthews was the most influential Protestant clergyman in the Pacific Northwest in the first half of the twentieth century.  He came at the turn of the century with a conviction that Victorian values could and should displace social values that accompanied the young male culture of the mining camp and the seaport. Seattle’s middle class, while not always in agreement with Matthews, drew on his vision of the way in which the city should address issues of health care, education, and overall political values. 

At Mark Matthew's death in 1940, The Seattle Times opined:

“Far beyond the limits of his own congregation ... the death of Mark Allison Matthews is deeply mourned. The shadow falls upon the whole country, for he was personally known in many parts of it, and known by name and reputation in all ... . Dr. Matthews was a fighter from the beginning to the end of his life’s work ... . And it was with no cessation of that fight that he also fought, for the general welfare of his fellow-men; for the physical and economic health of the people; for community decency and civic righteousness.”


Mark A. Matthews Papers, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Manuscripts and University Archives; Dale E. Soden, The Reverend Mark Matthews:  An Activist in the Progressive Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001);  The Seattle Times, February 5, 1940; Dale E. Soden, “Mark Allison Matthews: Seattle’s Minister Rediscovered," Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 74 (1983), 50-58; C. Allyn Russell, “Mark Allison Matthews:  Seattle Fundamentalist and Civic Reformer,” Journal of Presbyterian History Vol. 57 (1979), 446-466.

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