Op-Ed: Aimee Semple McPherson: The L.A. evangelist who built the world’s first megachurch
In the early 20th century, Los Angeles made its explosive leap from a largely agricultural town of some 100,000 people to a major metropolis more than 10 times that size. It enticed new residents with open space, mild weather and — just as importantly — freedom from regimented ways of thinking, especially in the religious realm.
The main promoter of this heady combination of sunshine and spiritual seeking was the charismatic faith healer and pioneering radio preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, who arrived in booming Los Angeles 100 years ago in 1918. The Canadian-born evangelist landed in town with only “ten dollars and a tambourine” (as she later liked to claim) but instantly found an enthusiastic audience for her overwhelmingly positive message about finding personal salvation in a place where, as she preached, “the glorious One had caused the desert to bloom as a rose.”
McPherson, who was always known to her followers as “Sister,” offered an idiosyncratic version of Modern Pentecostalism, a renewal movement that sought to put religion squarely at the center of human experience in preparation for the imminent Second Coming. Her always-popular services and revivals featured the full Pentecostal repertoire of tongues-speaking, faith healing and prophecy — all delivered with a personal brand of warmth and humor that made virtually anyone feel welcome.
Given how famous she was in her day, it’s remarkable how little McPherson is remembered today, even in the place she called home.
That Sister McPherson’s ministry found an especially receptive audience in Los Angeles is not surprising. The thousands of new residents pouring into L.A. were not like those migrating to other major American cities — laborers from Europe and African American migrants from the Jim Crow South in need of jobs. Those populations did come to Southern California eventually, but in the early 1900s Los Angeles was drawing from a different reservoir: snowbirds from the Midwest and East. These people were relocating not so much for economic reasons; L.A.’s industrial base remained relatively small until the 1930s and ’40s. Instead, they were looking for a freer, less conventional kind of life than was possible in the places they came from. And since many of them arrived with enough money to afford relative leisure, once they got here they were looking for a sense of community and something meaningful to do with their time.
Even before McPherson’s appearance on the scene, Angelenos were known for their ready embrace of unorthodox religious belief and out-of-the-mainstream social thought. Utopian communities of all kinds cropped up here in the early 1900s. Theosophy, a system of mystical philosophies emphasizing the search for a direct experience of divinity in life and nature, was particularly popular. But there were many other examples. Journalist Willard Huntington Wright observed in 1913 that in Los Angeles “whole buildings are devoted to occult and outlandish orders — Mazdaznan clubs, yogi sects, homes of truth, cults of cosmic fluidists, astral planers, Emmanuel movers, Rosicrucians, and other boozy transcendentalists.”
Plenty of transplants from parts East were perfectly satisfied with old-fashioned Protestantism and churches became so numerous as to convince one contemporary observer that “Christianity ranked as the city’s leading industry after real estate and motion pictures.” But even Christianity’s permutations tended toward the charismatic. After all, Modern Pentecostalism had been born in Los Angeles with the Azusa Street revival, begun in 1906 by an African American preacher from Kansas, William Seymour. “Full of noisy manifestations, shouts, speaking in tongues, [and] moaning,” according to one witness, the Azusa Street services ran three times a day all week for years in what’s now Little Tokyo.
For newcomers, Sister McPherson and her church, later named the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, offered something more extraordinary than the usual Sunday sermon. Her Angelus Temple — built in the early 1920s at the north end of Echo Park Lake, and still in use — became arguably the nation’s first megachurch. Congregants could choose from a smorgasbord of activities and special services, including shifts at the 24-hour “prayer tower,” where volunteers took phone calls from anyone with a sick relative or other loved one needing divine intercession.
The most popular Angelus offerings by far were Sister McPherson’s Sunday night illustrated sermons, which borrowed from the theatrical repertoire of nearby Hollywood. Once she showed up as a USC football player to dramatize a sermon about “carrying the ball for Christ”; on another Sunday she donned a policeman’s uniform and posed with a highway patrolman’s motorcycle to “put sin under arrest.” With these and other services and activities, McPherson could fill the 5,300-seat temple several times every day. Eventually, she and her Angelus Temple became an L.A. institution and a major tourist attraction.
Of course, McPherson’s relationship with L.A. did not always run smooth. Her flamboyant preaching style provoked plenty of scorn from mainstream clergy. Her worst break with the community came in 1926, when she faced fraud charges on suspicion of concocting a false kidnapping story to cover up an unexplained six-week disappearance. (Some said she was having a secret affair with the engineer of her popular radio programs.) Nothing was ever proved, and the district attorney eventually dropped the case (insisting that she was guilty but not convictable). There were even rumors that she and her church had bribed the prosecutor.
But her persistent good works in later years went a long way toward redeeming her reputation in the eyes of many Angelenos, some of whom loved her so much that they could forgive her anything. When she died in 1944 of an accidental overdose of Seconal, over 50,000 mourners lined up to pay their respects.
Given how famous she was in her day, it’s remarkable how little McPherson is remembered today, even in the place she called home. But her work does live on in the mission of the Angelus Temple, which continues to play a vital role in the life of Los Angeles, especially through its enduringly popular Thursday night services and its outreach ministry, the Dream Center, aiding the community’s poor, homeless, addicted and displaced. As for the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel that McPherson founded, it now has more than 6 million members in more than 50,000 congregations around the world — a striking legacy for one extraordinary woman who had the audacity to believe that Los Angeles might indeed become a city of angels.
Gary Krist is the author of “The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles.”
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