Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hot Gospel: The Literary Life of Aimee Semple McPherson

Sister Aimee and her Angelus Temple have come to epitomize the chicanery that marked L.A. religion 1920s-style. In her heyday, McPherson held multiple services daily delivered to thousands of parishioners, complete with an illustrated sermon/spectacle on Sundays, in one of the most vibrant businesses in Los Angeles at the time. In some ways, Sister Aimee has become the anecdotes that survive her. In the early days of the automobile, Charles H. Lippy describes how McPherson “purchased a car that she dubbed the ‘Gospel Auto’ and drove from town to town on her evangelistic rounds” (178). Other accounts have McPherson riding into a chapel on a motorbike, proclaiming a sermon on the futility of seeing salvation as a one-way street.

When McPherson was accused of faking her own kidnapping in 1926 to run away with an employee in her radio station, she was caught up in the histrionics of newspaper headlines and the Los Angeles court system, and she virtually never emerged until her death in 1944. McPherson captured the popular imagination with her eccentric approach to traditional religious worship, and while we shall see her actual biography is much more complex than widespread opinion dictates, she came to represent the power and calamity of religion that strays from convention.

McPherson effectively practiced a mainstream religion – Protestant Christianity – but her choice to practice outside of the tenets of her more traditional brethren, her sensational approach to observance, and her reputation as an embodiment of the liberties Los Angeles took with religious custom all contribute to her importance in a discussion of the city’s alternative religions. Raised as a soldier for The Salvation Army in Canada, Aimee Kennedy embraced Pentecostalism upon her marriage to handsome young evangelist Robert Semple.

Founded by Charles Parkham in 1901, modern Pentecostalism was based on the belief that “all Christians should have an empowering religious experience…called the baptism with the Holy Spirit” (Blumhofer, 69). Evangelism was employed to reach as many Christians as possible, and their empowerment could take the form of the “four major charismata, or gifts of the spirit, as defined by the Pentecostalists: glossolalia (speaking in tongues), prophecy, interpretation of tongues – and the power of healing” (Epstein, 57). Pentecostalism itself was an alternative version of Christianity, and while McPherson can be placed within the American revival tradition, she did not fit neatly or permanently into any denomination.

Denominational loyalties were lightly held in those days, especially in Holiness and pentecostal circles. It comes as no surprise, then that while Aimee had credentials with the AG [Assemblies of God], because of her popularity she was granted credentials by others even when she did not seek them herself. In December 1920, for instance, she received membership in the Philadelphia-based C.C. Hancock Memorial Church of the Methodist Episcopal Church….on March 27, 1922, she was ordained by the First Baptist Church in San Jose, again at their encouragement (Burgess, 857).

Essentially, McPherson did not truly “belong” to any denomination until she founded her own church within the Angelus Temple, The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Here, she was able to concentrate her energies, those not drained by court appearances and financial infighting, on the very specific sect of Sister Aimee. “’The power of McPhersonism resides in the personality of Mrs. McPherson,’ one observer commented in 1928. ‘The woman is everything, the evangel nothing.’” (Blumhofer, 385). The cult of personality was very much at play here, and the performative nature of her sermons drew in thousands of parishioners, distinguishing McPherson from her fellow preachers.

After an initial evangelical journey to Asia following her marriage to Robert Semple in 1908 (the site of Semple’s premature death in 1910, one month before the birth of their daughter Roberta), Sister Aimee began traveling throughout the U.S. and Canada, conducting religious revivals wherever people would have her. Eventually expanding her scope to Europe and Australia as well, McPherson spent the years from 1911 through 1923 (the year she set up shop in the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles) on constant tour, becoming known throughout the world for her healing powers. Tens of thousands of sick and disabled visitors to her tents claim to have been cured under the hands of the evangelist. Once she settled down at the Angelus Temple, McPherson was trying to focus more intently on conversion rather than healing, and to do so, she employed every theatrical trick in her repertoire.

In addition to relentless proselytizing, publishing, radio broadcasts, social services, and lectures at the Angelus Temple’s L.I.F.E. Bible College, McPherson also put on one of the most regularly attended dramatic performances in the city each Sunday. In 1927, Sarah Comstock of Harper’s Monthly referred to it as “the most perennially successful show in the United States” (cited in Blumhofer, 260). The “illustrated sermons” would use fairy tales, popular movies, biblical tales, and various other scenarios, change the text to send a spiritual message, transform the temple stage into a detailed set depicting the narrative, and find Sister Aimee dressed up in the costume of L’il Bo Peep one day, the Virgin Mary the next. Starlets like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Jean Harlow would attend the sermons and study McPherson’s techniques. Whether the location of the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles was an intended correlation or a fortunate coincidence, there was a powerful connection between the Foursquare Gospel and the silver screen:

Her years on the tent-show circuit had taught her that a religious service is sacred drama, a species of nonfictional theater, pure and simple. The problem with denominational churches, said Aimee, was that they had given in to their profane competitors – vaudeville, movies, and “legitimate theater” – and thereby had lost the attention of their congregations, who took their excitement wherever they could find it (Epstein, 252).

McPherson’s approach to marketing was unusual in 1920s America, but perhaps not quite as unusual in 1920s Los Angeles. However, her immense popularity thrust her into a spotlight, under which her unorthodox methods were judged and satirized, especially after her alleged kidnapping. As we shall see, she captured the imagination of many literary figures of the time who used her in their explorations of Los Angeles and alternative religion.

Headlines & Hokum: Aimee Semple McPherson’s Attractions and Detractors

James Malloy, the main character of John O’Hara’s 1938 novel Hope of Heaven, is working in his studio office as the story begins, but he is fired by page seven. The rest of the novel involves Malloy’s pursuit of a woman whose estranged father has returned to town with deadly results. Malloy’s romantic rival, Herbert, describes the local impulse to start writing fiction about the city that no longer deals with the film industry: he is writing a book “about Los Angeles, present-day Los Angeles. The Angelus temple. This fellow that killed his wife with the box of rattlesnakes. The neon signs. The health people. No movie stuff. I’m going to ignore the movies” (52). O’Hara doesn’t exactly follow this prescription, but he does pick up on an important move away from the isolated setting of the studios into the streets of Hollywood.

When Los Angeles writers (and writers visiting Los Angeles) turned from the topic of the movies to cultural events in the city at large, the topic that garnered the most attention was the young female evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson. In fact, she was often the reason that writers like H.L. Mencken were visiting the city in order to report back to their Eastern periodicals about the latest Hollywood scandal, made more culturally relevant by McPherson’s occupation. She was not a mere starlet in trouble, but a religious and commercial force.

By the time McPherson began to appear in the city’s literature, her reputation had already been irreparably damaged by the kidnapping incident and subsequent trial for corruption of morals and obstruction of justice. In novels such as Don Ryan’s Angel’s Flight (1927), Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (1927), Myron Brinig’s The Flutter of an Eyelid (1933), and Eric Knight’s You Play the Black and the Red Turns Up (1935), Sister Aimee appears in various guises, but in each, she is thoroughly identifiable, even when dressed up in drag, as in Sinclair’s novel.

In 1926, H.L. Mencken traveled to Los Angeles for the purpose of writing an article on Aimee Semple McPherson for the Baltimore Evening Sun. McPherson’s trial was underway, but she was still delivering sermons at the Angelus Temple. As Mencken observed, “the whisper had gone around that Aimee was heated up by the effort to jail her, and would give a gaudy show” (128). Mencken is disappointed in what he finds and describes it as “an orthodox Methodist revival, with a few trimmings borrowed from the Baptists and the Holy Rollers” (128). The only thing that separates McPherson from other evangelists, in Mencken’s view, is her wealth, but he does not credit the showmanship and allure that has led to these riches. He gives the Evening Sun readers a glimpse into the set-up of the Angelus Temple and the outlines of McPherson’s sermon, but most of his article is focused on his impression of the evangelist as “the madame of a fancy-house on a busy Saturday night” (cited in Ulin, 65).

Mencken goes on to ascribe Sister Aimee’s eminence to the fact that “there were more morons collected in Los Angeles than in any other place on earth,” hardly a profound analysis of America’s most popular religious figure at the time (130). Mencken pigeonholes Iowans as stereotypical of those most susceptible to McPherson’s charms: “The Iowans longed for something they could get their teeth into. They wanted magic and noise. They wanted an excuse to whoop” (130). However, Mencken doesn’t explore what it might be about this particular California phenomenon that draws the average American in droves. He wraps up the article by saying he placed a bet on the outcome of McPherson’s trial. “It will be a hard job, indeed, to find twelve men and true to send her to the hoosegow. Unless I err grievously, God is with her” (131).

Mencken exhibits the common dismissive attitude found in many of his Eastern intellectual contemporaries. In his 1933 essay “Paradise,” Annapolis-born James M. Cain derides the sound of McPherson’s voice within his argument that “good English” is the authentic dialect of Southern California. He blames Sister Aimee’s “dreadful twang” on the fact she comes from Canada (cited in Ulin, 108). He also observes that “[the] whole place is overrun with nutty religions, which are merely the effort of these people to inject some sort of point into their lives; if not on earth, then in the stars, in numbers, in vibrations, or whatever their fancy hits on….[They] are more like pastimes than the religions you are probably accustomed to” (cited in Ulin, 122). Cain claims that the religious pastimes provide a relief from boredom and are easily interchangeable. While Sister Aimee may take up columns in the newspaper, he personally has never met anyone who’s seen her.

However, not all journalists at the time were as flippant in their coverage of Sister Aimee. In his 1931 essay “The City of Our Lady The Queen of Angels,” Edmund Wilson focuses his indignation on McPherson’s mortal enemy, the Reverend Bob Shuler, and his corrupt involvement with the local government. Before delving into this story, Wilson devotes a few words to McPherson’s radio personality, an aspect of her evangelism that also interested Mencken.

In a section on Los Angeles’s “gorgeous business cathedrals,” Wilson writes, “And there is Aimee Semple McPherson’s wonderful temple, where good-natured but thrilling native angels guard the big red radio-tower love-wand and see to it that not a tittle or vibration of their mistress’s kind warm voice goes astray as it speeds to you in your sitting-room and tells you how sweet Jesus has been to her and all the marvelous things she has found in Him” (379).

He compares another of Shuler’s rivals (and former right-hand man), Dr. Gustav A. Briegleb, a less appealing and more staid evangelist, to McPherson and her magnetism: “[She] enchants her enormous audience by her beaming inexhaustible sunshine and her friendly erotic voice. She writes them operas in which ancient oratorios and modern Italian opera are mingled with popular songs and tunes from musical comedies….They adore her and hand her their money. They feel good about their neighbor and themselves” (395-6). In Wilson’s view, there is something redemptive about McPherson’s ministry.

California historian Carey McWilliams examined the plight of Sister Aimee in 1946, two years after her death from an overdose of sleeping pills. “[Not] so much a woman as a scintillant assault,” McPherson arrived in Los Angeles as a single mother with two children, $100 in cash, and the infamous “gospel auto” in 1922 (Brinig, 73 as quoted in Fool’s Paradise, 31). Within three years, she had accumulated more than $1 million and, especially impressive for a woman, she owned $250,000 worth of property. While McWilliams acknowledges that McPherson never recovered from the kidnapping incident and her subsequent return, which garnered 95,000 words of media copy in a single day, he does believe she delivered a positive service to her congregants:

Although I heard her speak many times, I never heard her attack any individual or any group, and I am thoroughly convinced that her followers felt that they had received full value in exchange for their liberal donations. She made migrants feel at home in Los Angeles; she gave them a chance to meet other people; and she exorcised the nameless fears which so many of them had acquired from the fire-and-brimstone theology of the Middle West (33).

McWilliams felt that the fact McPherson was able to recover at all from the kidnapping kerfuffle infuriated the middle-class residents of Los Angeles. The resilience of the evangelist in the face of such scandal may also have irritated those who sought to see her as a caricature of the typical charlatan.

Aimee Semple McPherson: A Reconsideration

As the four novels discussed illustrate [not excerpted here], Aimee Semple McPherson was a literary touchstone for contemporary writers attracted to the scandals surrounding the evangelist. Due to her presence in the media and in literature, McPherson’s legacy is rife with details of indignity and sensationalism. However, the image that exists in the popular imagination is not the full story of the evangelist’s life. In fact, McPherson’s contributions to the role of women in American culture are quite substantial and commonly overlooked. Emphasis on the more salacious elements of her history clouds her accomplishments – a state of affairs that may have much to do with her gender.

Let’s take a look at some facts, remembering that women did not even receive the right to vote in the U.S. until 1920 and many did not work outside the home until World War II. The features of McPherson’s life discussed below have been collected from three primary biographies of Aimee Semple McPherson (listed in order of frequency of use): Daniel Mark Epstein’s Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson (1993), Edith L. Blumhofer’s Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister (1993), and Lately Thomas’s Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson (1970). Thomas’s biography, a sequel to an earlier volume dedicated to the kidnapping affair, was the most thorough discussion of the evangelist until the dual publications in 1993, not counting posthumous publications by McPherson herself. The details below begin to provide a glimpse into how much more there was to the evangelist beyond the grandstanding and criminal trials.

Aimee Semple McPherson is credited with an impressive number of firsts. She is thought to be the first woman to cross America in an automobile without a man’s help. She was the first woman to lead a religious service in London’s Royal Albert Hall, the first woman to preach a sermon over the “wireless telephone,” and the first woman to receive a commercial license from the FCC. She founded the first religious broadcasting station, KFSG (Kall Foursquare Gospel), preaching to hundreds of thousands of people daily. McPherson was the first evangelist to bring revivalism into large-scale commercial stadiums, and Daniel Mark Epstein claims, “No one has ever been credited by secular witnesses with anywhere near the number of healings attributed to Sister Aimee from 1919 to 1922” (185). She preached in more than 100 cities and towns from 1917 to 1923 and later alleged that she gave more sermons than any preacher who ever lived. The evangelist was even made an honorary colonel by the U.S. Army.

When McPherson began her religious career, female evangelists were rare and not necessarily welcomed by parishioners. She was fortunate in that she was raised within the Salvation Army community, an organization that was made up of a majority of female soldiers. Edith L. Blumhofer writes, “The prominence of women in the corps – as well as visits of female evangelists to local Methodist churches – accustomed the child [young Aimee] to the notion that in the normal course of things women preached, taught, testified, and sang” (48). However, in Canada – where McPherson was born – and elsewhere, the women of the Salvation Army were subject to sexual assault and prison sentences for disturbing the peace. So while the young evangelist may have had models of women in religious service, she also witnessed their persecution firsthand. This did not deter her, and she went on to provide a precedent for the female religious leaders that followed her.

As Lately Thomas described (with slight exaggeration), McPherson arrived in Los Angeles “with ten dollars and a tambourine,” only to build one of the most powerful organizations in the city within four years (20). As the evangelist herself asked, “Who ever heard of a woman without earthly backing…undertaking the raising of funds and the erection of such a building?” (quoted in Epstein, 203). Sister Aimee delivered 20 or more services a week (in addition to her KFSG broadcasts), and rarely repeated a sermon, while simultaneously writing books and photoplays. She composed three lengthy memoirs – This Is That (1919), In the Service of the King (1927), and the posthumously published The Story of My Life (1951) – as well as Give Me My Own God (1936), a text chronicling the universal subjection of women she witnessed during her world travels. Her first memoir was self-published by The Echo Park Evangelistic Association. Carey McWilliams noted, “Mrs. McPherson founded a magazine The Bridal Call, and established two hundred and forty ‘lighthouses,’ or local churches, affiliated with Angelus Temple.

By 1929, McPherson had a following of twelve thousand devoted members in Los Angeles and thirty thousand in the outlying communities” (Fool’s Paradise, 32). A corps of volunteers prayed round the clock in the Prayer Tower in two-hour shifts, surrounded by telephones and taking requests for prayer recipients. The Angelus Temple’s commissary became the greatest welfare agency in Los Angeles during the Depression, providing services as varied as feeding the poor and helping pregnant runaways. Actor Anthony Quinn credited McPherson with keeping the city’s Mexican community alive for five years. In fact, the church’s “defiance of racial barriers and social class is one of the most remarkable features of Sister Aimee’s early ministry” (Epstein, 128).

McPherson believed Los Angeles would be the perfect home for her ministry, and one cannot argue she found great success – despite the scandal – in her adopted city. As we’ve seen, Los Angeles was an ideal locale for a burgeoning religious interest. In 1924 alone, 62 new churches opened, not counting missions and independent congregations (Blumhofer, 240). The epigraph for McPherson’s chapter in This Is That on traveling to Los Angeles for the first time reads: “Shout: for the Lord hath given you the city. Jos. 6:16” (160). She used this text as the basis for her first sermon in Los Angeles. Blumhofer discusses the connection between McPherson’s accomplishments and her choice for the Angelus Temple location:

The thousands of new arrivals in need of religious institutions made the state a laboratory for evangelism….Southern California in the early decades of the twentieth century (as now) was at once a land of promise and a place that threatened traditional morality. Technological and media revolutions seemed to open limitless opportunities in Hollywood in the 1920s for those with the courage to follow their dreams….As a female evangelistic celebrity, she ably blended nostalgia for the past with the taste of the masses for the modern” (137, 387).

Los Angeles was revealed to be a perfect setting for the rise and subsequent fall of the Canadian evangelist. Unfortunately for Sister Aimee, the masses have as strong a taste for the maudlin as they do for the modern. As we’ve seen in the contemporary novels, sex and scandal sell in ways the groundbreaking cultural accomplishments of one woman will not. McPherson’s notoriety may have as much to do with the public’s discomfort toward a single woman who has accumulated a great deal of power as they do with any actual dishonor. Despite the sensational rumors that are attached to the legacy of Aimee Semple McPherson, it would be unjust to not also recognize her triumphs.