by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Whatever anyone makes of Aimee Semple McPherson’s brand of Pentecostal evangelism with its faith healing and speaking in tongues transmitted through her compelling charisma and powerful personality, there is no question that she was a phenomenon in establishing the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Moreover, as a woman in what is a male-dominated profession, Sister Aimee’s success, controversial though it was, is a remarkable, and particularly Los Angeles, tale.
Born in Canada in 1890 and raised by her mother in the environment of the Salvation Army, Aimee Kennedy married a young Pentecostal minister, Robert Semple, and accompanied him to China. One month before giving birth to their daughter, Roberta, Aimee was a widow at 20 when her husband died of malaria. Returning to the United States and to her mother and the Salvation Army, Aimee married Harold McPherson and gave birth to a son, Rolf.
Yet, when she decided to dedicate herself to full-time Pentecostal evangelism, including the healing and speaking in tongues elements and a focus on the imminent second coming of Christ, she and McPherson divorced. Managed by her mother, Aimee traveled the United States and abroad and made strong impressions through her ministry. In 1921, she settled in Los Angeles, which was a dynamic growing city filled with a variety of religious and philosophical organizations and Sister Aimee made inroads quickly.
Within a short time, she built the Angelus Temple through her Echo Park Evangelistic Association, and the distinctive circular-shaped structure, sited at the northwest corner of Echo Park, was the center of a dynamic enterprise built by a woman with keen marketing, public relations, and personal skills. Her services, which incorporated singing and music along with immersive baptism, healing and speaking in tongues, and her spellbinding sermons drew large crowds and church membership skyrocketed during the 1920s. In 1927, she incorporated the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
An early exponent of evangelism by radio and a shrewd student and user of media, Sister Aimee was most infamous for what she claimed was, in 1926, a kidnapping, but rumored to have been a tryst with an engineer for her KFSG radio station that was badly handled. She was also accused of numerous financial improprieties, was involved in dozens of lawsuits, and quarreled with family about church and personal matters. Still, she maintained a large and loyal following and the church expanded widely with over 200 missions and more than 22,000 parishioners. She remained fully in charge of the church until her death in 1944 after an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.
Another side project of the church was L.I.F.E. or the Lighthouse International of Foursquare Evangelism (briefly called the International Institute of Foursquare Evangelism) , which was essentially a training ground for church missionaries and pastors. Opened on 1 January 1923 in what was termed the Echo Park Evangelistic and Missionary Training Institute, the institution had a class of about one hundred students the first term. It developed a college structure and its first class graduated in spring 1925. L.I.F.E. moved three years later to a spacious five-story building attached to the Angelus Temple.
Today’s highlighted artifact is a program from L.I.F.E. for “The First Christmas,” which presented The L.I.F.E. Hallelujah Choir of nearly ninety members and The Angelus Temple Symphony Orchestra of thirty-one musicians, directed by C.N. Tucker, performing a four-part concert that involved the prophecy and fulfillment of Christ’s birth, the conditions of that birth, and what was termed “The World Wide Christmas” in the work of Christians since the time of Christ.
Recitatives and lyrics are printed for ensembles and soloists; there are photos of Sister Aimee, Tucker, the choir and orchestra; and the singers and musicians are listed. The front cover has the institution name within a wreath and bow over which is a star and under which are images of a manger, shepherds, and men (wise?) on camels. The back cover has a drawing of the temple and five-story L.I.F.E. building accompanied by a statement about enrollment for the new term of the institution beginning on 22 January 1929 and a simple coupon to send in for further information.
As for the Lighthouse of International Foursquare Evangelism, known also as L.I.F.E. Bible College, it was a two-year program until the 1930s when a third year was added, followed by the move to a four-year curriculum in the following decade. While it emphasized degrees in theology and religious education, though a bachelor of arts’ degree was created in the 1960s, the institution introduced competitive athletics, music and choral groups and other amenities more like those found in other colleges and universities. Graduates have gone on to work in other movements including the Assemblies of God and Calvary Chapel (whose founder was a Foursquare Gospel congregant).
After sixty-five years in the Echo Park location, it was decided to move to a new campus in San Dimas and the institution reopened there in 1990. The current name of Life Pacific College followed not long afterward, and next year, another change will take place to Life Pacific University. Notably, the image of a lighthouse remains the logo for the institution, which is approaching its centennial in five years. Here is a link to the heritage page of Life Pacific.
The L.I.F.E. “Christmas Greetings” program is reflective of general religious history in 1920s Los Angeles, when a wide array of churches and philosophical organizations operated in the region, emblematic of the remarkable rise of Aimee Semple McPherson, and a seasonal artifact among many in the museum’s collection that relate to the evolution of holiday traditions, religious and secular.