Christian apocalypticism has a long and varied history. In his 2014 book American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, Matthew Avery Sutton, Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of History at Washington State University, writes how its most prevalent modern incarnation took shape about a century ago, among the vast network of preachers, evangelists, Bible-college professors, and publishers who established the fundamentalist movement. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, pentecostals, and independents shared a commitment to returning the Christian faith to its “fundamentals.” Their analysis of contemporary events built on a complicated reading of the biblical books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Matthew, and Revelation. They masterfully used the Bible’s most cryptic passages to explain the past, understand the present, and predict the future.
The faithful understood Jesus’s command to “occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13) as an unambiguous call to engage in this world. And occupy they have. Evangelicals’ apocalyptic sensibilities have instilled in them a confidence and a sense of determination that demands constant action. They believe that they have to wield their influence and power as effectively as possible to prepare the world for the end of days. Evangelicalism, perhaps better than competing faiths, provides millions of people navigating a chaotic and seemingly meaningless world with purpose, significance, and incentive for action.
Influential Seattle minister Mark Matthews, part of whose story is excerpted below, demonstrated that fundamentalists and evangelicals have never been indifferent to the world around them. This is why Matthews preached Armageddon while simultaneously asking for Congress to send cash to the Pacific Northwest. His legacy remains as the influence of evangelicals, from Aimee Semple McPherson to Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell, has grown into the twenty-first century. While they felt sure that the global apocalypse is imminent, they believed that it is never too late for the individual, the nation, or the world to be reborn.
EMERALD CITY DIVINE MARK MATTHEWS loved God and he loved Woodrow Wilson. The tall, lanky, Georgia-born minister, who looked more like a stern plantation overseer than a warm cleric, relished the fact that a fellow southerner, Presbyterian, and Democrat had won the White House. Matthews believed that with Woodrow Wilson at the helm the United States would finally return to the sea of righteousness. During the early decades of the twentieth century, Matthews became one of the most powerful religious leaders in the United States. His Seattle congregation was the largest Presbyterian church in the world, with over ten thousand members at its peak. He played an important role in denominational politics and served as moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. In 1924, the New York Times named Matthews in a poll of twenty thousand ministers as one of the most influential preachers in the nation.1
Like so many radical evangelicals of his generation, Matthews saw troubling signs at home and abroad. As European nations armed for war in the 1910s, the minister shifted from postmillennialism to premillennialism. While he had believed in the power of the Social Gospel to bring to fruition the kingdom of God, he now feared that the world was careening toward an inevitable apocalypse. Yet his growing premillennial sensibilities did nothing to curtail his political engagement. He worked closely with community organizers on a variety of issues and he cultivated relationships with state and national leaders, none more important than Wilson.
Matthews routinely wrote the president with advice and to ask for favors for himself and his friends. He even promised Seattleites that through Wilson he would get congressional pork flowing back to the Pacific Northwest. The president occasionally sought Matthews’s opinions as well. Their correspondence demonstrates that Matthews had the ear of the president and that he had no reservations about speaking boldly to men in power.2
The Presbyterian’s messages to Wilson often strayed far from his expertise as a preacher and community servant. Revealing the ways premillennialism had transformed him, some of Matthews’s letters mixed prophecy, politics, and even foreign policy. The cleric believed that the Bible had clearly outlined the United States’ responsibilities during World War I. He admonished Wilson not to “discuss peace any more. The infamous forces against which we are contending,” he asserted, “must be crushed. We do not want peace until they are crushed. We do not want them to break. We want to strike them down.” Then he turned to the Bible to justify his strident, uncompromising militarism. “Prophecy is clear on this question,” he insisted. How it was clear he did not say. He concluded his letter by confiding in Wilson that he hoped to “have the privilege of shooting the Kaiser” himself.3
World War I represented a major turning point for Matthews and for those like him in the growing premillennial movement. For decades, radical evangelicals had believed that contrary to the claims of creedal conservatives, Social Gospel liberals, and political progressives, humankind was not improving. Although premillennialists did not necessarily rejoice over the outbreak of war, they could not help but find some satisfaction in international turmoil. As the British promised to establish a homeland for Jews in Palestine and Wilson consolidated power in the executive branch, premillennialists knew beyond any doubt that the beginning of the end had commenced. The global cataclysm signaled to them that they had read prophecy accurately and that they could offer a viable, realistic alternative to the rosy religion of Social Gospel optimists. While most radical evangelicals believed that the rapture would occur before the unveiling of the Antichrist, they believed that they would see global developments unfolding as the Bible foretold to set the stage for the seven-year, final tribulation. They used the war to promote their gospel and their movement. Their ability to anticipate conflicts around the rapidly changing world with total confidence and to explain their meaning captured the souls of thousands of Americans. At the same time, World War I forced radical evangelicals to reconcile their beliefs about the future with the realities of their obligations to a nation at war. That premillennialism might seem inimical to good citizenship made the faithful politically and socially vulnerable.
1. “8 New York City Preachers among the 25 Voted as Leaders by American Clergy,” New York Times, December 22, 1924.
2. “Political Notes and Comments,” Seattle Argus, March 1, 1913.
3. M.A. Matthews to Woodrow Wilson, March 8, 1918, folder 12, box 4, accession 97-2, Mark A. Matthews Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington, Seattle.
Excerpted from AMERICAN APOCALYPSE: A HISTORY OF MODERN EVANGELICALISM by Matthew Avery Sutton, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.