Sunday, August 12, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Seattle's reverend of righteousness

Seattle Times editorial writer

Peering through the trees at the southern edge of Denny Park is the bust of the Rev. Mark Matthews, Seattle's political preacher.

From 1902 to 1940, at his pulpit in the First Presbyterian Church, Matthews preached against gamblers, saloonkeepers, John D. Rockefeller and Kaiser Wilhelm. He denounced the 1920s craze for movies, automobiles and Sunday golf.

His aim was to make Seattle righteous in all things. It was an immense ambition and, thank God, he fell short of it.

"The Reverend Mark Matthews: An Activist in the Progressive Era"

by Dale E. Soden
Univ. of Washington Press, $30
That is my verdict, not Dale Soden's.

Soden is a history professor at Whitworth College in Spokane. He has written an academic biography that is well-researched and evenhanded. Soden praises Matthews for attacking Hitler and dings him for opposing women's suffrage. (Matthews condemned suffragists as "advocates of divorce, small families, few household responsibilities and no children, all of which is unwomanly and dangerous.")

But on riskier topics Soden lets Matthews thunder ahead in his own words.

In his heyday, the tall, nervous figure of Matthews, with sharp nose and puff of black hair, dominated many a podium. And if he "was always interfering in other people's business," as the critics grumbled, it was for a righteous reason.

Matthews was a Southerner, raised in the milieu of William Jennings Bryan. Shortly after he arrived in Seattle at age 34, he led a march of Presbyterians through Seattle's red-light district. In 1910 he led a successful drive to recall Seattle's "open town" mayor, Hiram Gill.

Then Matthews hired detectives to dig up dirt on Gill's defender, Col. Alden Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times. A grand jury, whose foreman was an elder in Matthews' church, brought down an indictment of Blethen for having an illegal interest in gambling — a charge later dismissed for lack of evidence.

The Times ran an article pointedly asking whether Matthews was the man who "really runs" Seattle.

Matthews' venture into national politics was as a Northwest correspondent and influence wielder with Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson prepared to enter World War I, Matthews proclaimed it a holy crusade. "We would not accept peace if it were offered to us by the Kaiser and his allies," Matthews said. "We are not fighting for peace. We are fighting for righteousness."

He declared Germany to be a "mad dog" and opposed an armistice. When peace came, he supported the Versailles Treaty. Wilson thanked him by visiting Seattle and attending Matthews' church.

In 1918, Matthews wrote the U.S. attorney general about communist activity in Seattle and asked to be named provost marshal of the Pacific Northwest so that he might have authority to "shoot all violators of the law." The request was denied.

In 1930, Matthews asked Sen. Wesley Jones, R-Wash., for an appointment as national head of liquor Prohibition. Matthews said he wanted to give law enforcement a real test, but never got the chance.

With Matthews, everything was a fight for righteousness. It made him a top-drawer evangelist. He built the largest Presbyterian congregation in the world. As a preacher, he shook the ground. But Seattle accommodated him fitfully as a political leader, and when he was gone, did not replace him.


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