by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A post last year inspired by a Los Angeles Times editorial focused on the centennial of the arrival in Los Angeles of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), who went on to have a remarkable quarter-century career in the city as the head of the Foursquare Gospel Church centered at the Angelus Temple in Echo Park.
Today, the museum’s Fiction Book Club met to discuss Brian Sutton Avery’s book Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America and, as I have frequently done, I came in at the end of the meeting to discuss artifacts in the Homestead’s collection relating to this fascinating and controversial figure.
My contribution to the proceedings included a brief nod to the last post here about Clara Shortridge Foltz, a woman who, like McPherson, challenged existing notions of what women could or could not do in male-dominated professions. I also mentioned that early 20th century Los Angeles was fertile ground for newer approaches to religious and spiritual belief and expression. Traditional churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, were dominant in the prior century, but there was competition of sorts from all manner of “challengers” in the realm of religious and spiritual practice.
Christian Scientists, Pentecostalists, free thinkers, street preachers, revivalists and many more found larger audiences in a rapidly growing Los Angeles that, some wags suggested, was the “Land of Fruits and Nuts” not just in agriculture but in a different kind of cultivation, that of the spirit.
In 1918, Aimee Semple McPherson arrived in the city just in time for the end of the horrors of the Great War and the onset of a worldwide flu epidemic and the beginning of a new decade of energy, enthusiasm and a heady mix of hedonism, liberal social practices and general political conservatism.
How much of what Sister Aimee, as she was commonly known, tapped into the angst and anxieties of a burgeoning urbanization, commercialization, and industrialization and the spiritual voids that opened up as a result of these, is interesting speculation and conjecture.
There is no question, however, that her ministry, filled with positive thinking, exhortations of the joy of Christian fellowship, with musical soundtracks at the Angelus Temple and spread skillfully through media, including the new electronic pulpit of radio, was carefully calibrated for new audiences in new ways.
As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated world, McPherson harnessed her considerable talents as a communicator, buttressed with allegedly divine skills in speaking in tongues and the laying on of hands as a faith healer, to quickly amass an enormous following.
In 1923, she built the massive Angelus Temple, a distinctive center of worship, that she filled with thousands of followers and curious onlookers every Sunday and the question of what would denote a cult of personality, much less a cult (as critics labeled the Foursquare Gospel church), became more and more raised to the fore as her success grew.
Sister Aimee’s sudden disappearance in 1926 and dramatic discovery, attributed initially to kidnapping, but more likely done for romance (shades of Jussie Smollett—maybe?), was the first major chink in the armor of invincibility that she seemed to wear as her ministry mushroomed. The following year, a very public spat with her mother, known to the faithful as “Mother Kennedy” was a further instance of the foundations being worn away. In the Great Depression years, damaging lawsuits were also a challenge, though the ministry continued.
McPherson had a bit of a rebound in the World War II years as she aligned herself with the patriotic and, as she portrayed it, religious crusade of America’s battles with fascism in Europe and Asia. While there were questions about how closely she linked religion with militarism, her sudden death from what was ruled an accidental overdose of pain medication (bearing resemblance to recent outbreaks of opiate overdoses) in September 1944 brought an abrupt end to her amazing life at age 53.
I shared several of the few dozen or so artifacts in the Homestead’s holdings related to Sister Aimee and her ministry. A couple of these were highlighted in last year’s post but are worth revisiting, because they shine a light on the question of that “cult of personality” issue briefly mentioned above.
For example, there is a baptismal certificate for a parishioner of the Foursquare Gospel Church at Angelus Temple, but, instead of, say, an image of Christ or the cross, there is an image of Sister Aimee. Another fascinating artifact is a poster advertising for the return of two young sisters who vanished in Los Angeles (and sadly were found to have been murdered). Yet, instead of the heading of “REWARD”, the dollar amount offered, and the names and photos of the missing children atop the artifact, we find Sister Aimee’s name and mention of her church and radio station KFSG.
Also shared were a quartet of photos including two of the distinctive Angelus Temple with banners and a marquee advertising McPherson as the “star of the show,” as well as a pair of press photos. One of these shows adoring crowds welcoming Sister Aimee as she returned from a train trip in late June 1926 after her “vanishing act,” if that is what her disappearance was.
Another, from September of that year, shows a trio of newspaper sellers holding up the 29 July 1926 edition of the San Diego Herald, which featured the provocative headline: “Those Women of the Days of Helen of Troy Differed Little from Aimee and Her Kind.” This reference to her disappearance reflected a more hostile media treatment of McPherson that she was generally used to before the debacle of that year.
Whatever her legacy, given that the Foursquare Gospel is still in operation, though with a larger international presence than in its home nation, Aimee Semple McPherson, for all the controversy and complexity surrounding her, is a signal figure in early 20th century Los Angeles history. While she may largely be forgotten, those of us who deal with the region’s often colorful past should remember to include her among notable religious and spiritual figures, if not those generally of social importance.