by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Several posts in this blog have covered the remarkable and power Sister Aimee McPherson, the charismatic and controversial founder and minister of the Foursquare Gospel Church at its Angelus Temple in Los Angeles for many years. McPherson, a rare example of a woman at the head of a religious organization of considerable size and influence, was also a compelling media figure, both in terms of utilizing forms of media, such as the radio, to build her church, as well as a magnet for journalistic coverage, some of it sensationalized and some hostile.
Her rise in Los Angeles, a city of new beginnings for those looking for reinvention and opportunity and a place with a mixed reputation openness for all manner of spiritual expression, was, by any standard, meteoric and spectacularly successful. Within five years she built the Angelus Temple and it was reputedly the largest church in America, with a capacity of well over 5,000—truly a template for today’s evangelist megachurches.
Her sermons were mesmerizing and her flair for drama, including faith healing and a modicum of speaking in tongues, sent her parishioners into frenzies, but services were wide-ranging and large-scaled presentations including an excellent orchestra and fine massed choirs and she used radio, through her KFSG station, and print to particularly successful effect. She established the LIFE Bible College as part of her growing religious empire.
McPherson also built up a substantial charity element to her work. including local support for the needy and international disaster assistance. The Four Square Gospel Church had branches throughout the region and nation and she had every appearance of being the epitome of a religious leader of seemingly unlimited potential to take her message and save souls wherever and whenever she wanted.
In the first part of 1926, Sister Aimee took an extended trip to the Holy Land, but this was only after rumors of an affair between the long-divorced evangelist and Kenneth Ormiston, a KFSG engineer, created a major scandal. McPherson left Los Angeles on 11 January and spent an extended period in other parts of America and in Europe before visiting the Holy Land in what was branded a “vacation tour” and featuring plenty of preaching and ministering.
During her three-month absence, which ended in mid-April, Sister Aimee’s stand-in at the Angelus Temple was Paul Rader (1879-1938). Born Daniel Paul Rader in Denver to a Methodist minister and his wife, Rader was said to have been a cowboy, football player, and boxer, all of which contributed to his masculine mystique as a mesmerizing evangelist. Being an imposing 6’4″ and 220 pounds certainly didn’t hurt with his image!
Educated at the University of Colorado and a Methodist college, Hamline, Rader was ordained as a Congregationalist minister early in the 20th century before he left the profession after a few years and went into business. He then joined the Christian and Missionary Alliance after attending a New York preaching meeting and found his footing in evangelism, rising to fame at the Moody Memorial Church in Chicago between 1915 and 1921.
He founded and built the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle, leading it for a over a decade. From 1921-23, he was president of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Like McPherson, he was particularly adept at using radio to its full advantage and was renowned for sending missionaries worldwide and for mentoring many men to become evangelists and pastors through his World-Wide Christian Couriers organization. He was also a gospel songwriter and one of his compositions was covered by none other than Elvis Presley.
Rader’s tenure in Los Angeles included advertisements of his manliness at the pulpit and a Sunday parade tendered by Angelus Temple parishioners and services often included readings of cables from Sister Aimee on her travels. McPherson’s shoes were mighty big to fill, figuratively given Rader’s impressive physical stature, but he was a powerful orator and preacher who seems to have more than held his own as her surrogate.
A 10 January 1926 article in the Los Angeles Times reported that Rader stated that 5,000 promised to see McPherson off at the train station for her tour and called it “the greatest farewell ever accorded a departing Angeleno.” The sendoff was to last an hour before the train departed from the Santa Fe station, generally known as the Arcade. Not surprisingly, the Angelus Temple band and a choir of 150 were to perform while Rader was to give a short sermon. Sister Aimee would then make a farewell address from the observation platform before the train pulled away.
Rader had been in the city for some time and given a number of sermons at the Temple prior to McPherson’s departure. The Times observed that Rader built the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle “from a small handful of followers to a great gathering of believers” and that “he is noted for the force and vitality of his sermons and brings to Los Angeles all of the ideas which made him one of the leading evangelical speakers of Chicago.”
About a month later, one of the Angelus Temple advertisements proclaimed “Here’s a Tip, Take a Trip with Paul Rader Around the World” and added “Sure Enuf ‘He-Man'”. This typically snappy style included more examples like “Sunshiny, Satisfying Services” for what was noted to be a “Continuous Holy Ghost Revival” that was both “Instructive” and “Constructive.” No Temple ad could forego mentioning the famous founder, so readers were encouraged to “Read Foursquare Gospel Publications by Aimee Semple McPherson.”
The parade that took place a week prior included what was to reportedly be thousands of parishioners from the main temple and branch ones, along with the 50-piece temple band and the singing of patriotic and sacred songs. After 45 minutes, Rader was to deliver a “dispensational message” relating to the gradual stages of revelation of God’s plan in biblical history and then continue a serialized autobiography at the evening’s service.
At the end of March, Rader returned home to Chicago to plan for a summer campaign of the Tabernacle including the construction of a suburban structure for services, but returned to Los Angeles until McPherson’s return.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection is a press photo from late March 1926 of a portion of Angelus Temple with a banner advertising Rader’s twice-daily sermons. Specifically it represented how the evangelist “Captures Los Angeles” by trading on his tough cowboy image by showing the evangelist on a reared-back horse while a lasso circles a rendering of Los Angeles.
Once McPherson returned home, another massive controversy developed when she vanished in mid-May. Her mother first stated that the evangelist drowned at Ocean Park next to Santa Monica and Venice, but attempts to find her body (including the death of a diver) were fruitless.
Later, McPherson was located in Mexico where she claimed she was abducted for ransom and it was largely believed she actually ran off with Ormiston again, with her earlier trip apparently an attempt to wean her off her infatuation with him.
Charges of obstruction of justice were filed by District Attorney Asa Keyes (who later went to San Quentin for a bribery conviction involving another evangelist of sorts, oil entrepreneur, C.C. Julian), but dropped.
Although McPherson’s fame and notoriety were considerably lessened after the disappearance, she continued her ministry for nearly two more decades. In 1944, Sister Aimee was in Oakland to preach and took too many sleeping pills before retiring one evening and died of an accidental overdose.
As for Rader, he continue his work at Moody in Chicago until 1933, but the Great Depression led to a financial failure of the tabernacle. The evangelist, who purportedly was in negotiations at one point with McPherson to buy Angelus Temple, moved from gig to gig in the next few years, but had a massive stroke and died at a Hollywood hospital in the summer of 1938, aged 58.
This photo is an interesting conjunction of two of the more remarkable and notable evangelists of the 1920s and is an “instructive” and “constructive” artifact as part of the wildly diverse religious history of the City of Angels.