by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, writer Gary Krist penned a very interesting essay in the Op-Ed section titled “Sister Salvation” commemorating the centennial of the arrival of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in Los Angeles. It happens that Krist’s book, The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles, was published just last month.
The work looks at three visionaries whose marks on the region were transformative in key areas: William Mulholland and the bringing and distribution of the lifeblood of water; D.W. Griffith, whose technical innovations in film have been largely overshadowed by his unabashed racism in movies like Birth of a Nation; and McPherson, whose phenomenal success in Pentecostal religion reflected the rapid rise and diversity of thought in the region.
“Sister Salvation” does begin with Krist’s statement that the explosive growth in greater Los Angeles was marked by a desire among many for “freedom from regimented ways of thinking, especially in the religious realm.” He identifies McPherson as this trend’s “main promoter” through her “idiosyncratic version of Modern Pentecostalism” which emphasized positive thinking and personal salvation, amply seasoned with speaking in tongues, faith healing and the power of prophecy.
Krist notes that Sister Aimee’s flock was largely composed of recent transplants from the American Midwest and East Coast who “were looking for a freer, less conventional kind of life than was possible in the places they came from.” These “snowbirds,” he continued, had enough money to make the move (and, incidentally, contribute liberally to the Foursquare Gospel Church’s ample coffers) to find community and meaning.
Krist also observes that Los Angeles had both a large fraternity of well-established traditional churches of many denominations and a long-standing reputation, well before McPherson’s move to the city in 1918, as a beacon of free thinking, with a panoply of unorthodox religious organizations, Utopian communities. Yet, McPherson concocted something highly personalized as well as charismatic, building what Krist refers to as “arguably the nation’s first megachurch.”
The Foursquare Gospel headquarters, a distinctive round-shaped temple on Sunset Boulevard near Echo Park, teemed with all kinds of activity, including several music ensembles, a radio station (KFSG), a wide range of services, a “prayer tower,” and much more. The Sister’s Sunday sermons were noted for their peculiar sense of the dramatic, befitting the church’s relative proximity to Hollywood, with florid illustrations, an array of costumes so that Aimee could play a college football player, a police officer, and others and get her messages across in an unorthodox but compelling way. Krist points out that “McPherson could fill a 5,300-seat temple several times every day” and this made the Angelus Temple, a tourist draw as well as a place of intense worship.
He adds that McPherson’s outsized personality and showpersonship led to heavy criticism from other religious figures and her personal life occasionally led to controversy. This latter was most sensationally highlighted when Sister Aimee suddenly vanished for several weeks in 1926, showed up at a beach claiming she’d been kidnapped and then was charged with with fraud based on her story. Though the matter was dropped by the district attorney, the incident (which was said to have stemmed from a romantic tryst with her radio engineer gone terrible awry) temporarily damaged McPherson’s credibility among some, though her church continued apace.
Krist avers that “her persistent good works in later years went a long way toward redeeming her reputation in the eyes of many Angelenos” while stating that plenty of her supporters “loved her so much that they could forgive her anything.” This last statement is especially telling when it comes to cults of personality, which, arguably, applied to Sister Aimee. He notes that 50,000 mourners, a huge number, filed past McPherson’s ornate coffin after her 1944 death from an overdose of barbiturates.
He also observes that the Church of the Foursquare Gospel has some six million followers in 50,000 congregations on the planet, “a striking legacy for one extraordinary woman who had the audacity to believe that Los Angeles might indeed become a city of angels.” Yet, Krist also is stymied at how “given how famous she was in her day, it’s remarkable how little McPherson is remembered today.”
Notably, the church’s website page for “2017 U.S. Foursquare Statistics” lists just over 275,000 members and “adherents” at over 1,500 churches and about 300 affiliated “missional congregations,” while global numbers are shown as just south of 9 million members and adherents in over 86,000 churches and “meeting places” in 145 countries.
The dearth of American members may account for some of the lack of recognition afforded to McPherson today, especially as it is obvious the church emphasized global outreach. Additionally, dramatic changes, particularly demographically, that took place in our region in the years after Sister Aimee’s passing perhaps is part of the issue. It also is worth noting that many people in our area don’t know who Mulholland and Griffith are (and once towering figures of regional capitalism like Henry E. Huntington, Norton Simon, and J. Paul Getty are now generally known for their museums, not their vocations), a reminder that immortality in the public sphere is, indeed, a pretty rare commodity.
Krist’s fine essay is also a nice segue to the fact that the Homestead has a small number of historic artifacts relating to McPherson and the Foursquare Gospel church. These includes 1920s-era photographs of Sister Aimee and of the Angelus Temple; a couple of publications related to her work; a 1925 record of baptism for a congregant; and a 1924 reward poster for two children who attended the Angelus Temple. Whether McPherson is much recognized today by the general public, her place in regional history is noteworthy and the Homestead acknowledges that by having objects in the collections connected to Sister Aimee and her ministry.