by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As several posts on this blog have previously noted, the phenomenon that was Aimee Semple McPherson in Roaring Twenties Los Angeles was unmatched in religious circles at the time in the Angel City. The Canadian-born preacher and pastor harnessed the power of Scripture, media savvy, personal magnetism and other forces to build a significant following in her adopted hometown in short order, with the culmination being the opening, on New Year’s Day 1923, of the massive Angelus Temple, the headquarters of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, under the auspices of her Echo Park Evangelistic Association.
The edifice could seat 5,000 people and did, consistently, with ornate décor, orchestras, choirs, guest speakers and, of course, Sister Aimee and her enthralling and energetic evangelism stirring her flock through her scintillating sermons. This was supported by a knack for the application of effective media presentation, in print, such as advertisements and articles in Los Angeles newspapers, and her early embrace of radio, with the Temple’s own station, KFSG, distributing her messages and her brand to listeners.
There was basically no product issued by the Association that did not bear the likeness of Sister Aimee, including the highlighted artifact from the Museum’s collection for this post, a certification card that recorded the baptism of Mary Brown of Glendale on 28 May 1925. The object has a quartet of scriptural references from the New Testament books of the Acts, Matthew and Romans, a preprinted likeness and signature of McPherson, a space for the recipient’s photo (which was not applied in this case), the name of the recipient and the date with the notable phrase that Brown “was buried with Christ in baptism by immersion upon confession of faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Baptisms like that of Mrs. Brown were conducted each Thursday at the Temple and, in a smart move, these were broadcast over KFSG, so that listeners who were not part of the Foursquare Gospel congregation. In fact, the adroit and adept use of the relatively new medium (the first radio stations began operation in the early Twenties) was noted in the 25 May edition of the Monrovia News, in which Charles Mack, who owned a music store in town, wrote about the increasing influence of radio in American life under the headline of “Radio Becoming More And More Like Newspaper To The Family.”
In observing that “the old order changeth” as the early days of experimentation transitioned “into a definite position in the every day life of the American family,” Mack discussed such prominent local stations as KHJ (launched by the Los Angeles Times), KFI (founded by prominent car dealer Earle C. Anthony), KNX (birthed by the Los Angeles Express), and Warner Brothers’ KFWB and summarized their varied programming approaches. When it came to Sister Aimee and her station, however, the writer described something unusual:
In KFSG, Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple, I consider that we have a station that cannot be duplicated any place in the world. It is positively unique in broadcasting circles. She has built up an almost unbelievable following in Southern California, not only among those who actually attend her Temple, but those who hear her through the air, and many hear her both ways. I have placed a number of sets [in homes], which were secured for the sole purpose of hearing Mrs. McPherson.
Another recent example of the impressive adoption of radio was a “sacred concert” performed at the Temple and aired twice on KFSG on the evening of the 3rd featuring the employee ensemble of the Santa Monica Dairy Company. Pieces included “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Joy to the World,” and five other pieces and these broadcasts served the purpose of evangelizing over the airwaves through music in a way that could not otherwise be done and amplified Mac’s point about the uniqueness of Sister Aimee’s approach. The same evening, the Foothill Four, a Monrovia-based group who sang on KFI broadcasts and were heard by McPherson, sang in between the Santa Monica group’s performance and this was trumpeted in the Monrovia News.
In person performances at the Temple, however, were also often different and drew significant media attention. For two nights, the 12th and 13th, the Church hosted an unusual ensemble of 55 harpists, students of Hubert Graf, who performed with symphony orchestras, as conductor and soloist and assisted by Julie Keller as one of the harp players and Lucille Gibbs, a well-known local soprano as featured singer.
An ad by the prominent Birkel Company promoting the performance and which supplied the harps also mentioned that Sister Aimee’s daughter, Roberta (1910-2007), who was fourteen years old and recently began studying the instrument, was part of the ensemble. A photo in the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News in its edition on the 15th showed the impressive arrangement of performers and their instruments along with the choir at the level above and stated that McPherson was part of the 50-member choir. It was also noted that thousands of persons were turned away from the sold-out concert.
A further example of media-savvy efforts by Sister Aimee and her church was its participation in mid-May in the Baby Review competition offered by the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News. Under the banner of “Serene Maiden Acts as Angelus Temple Envoy,” the paper reported that “two lilies represent the Angelus Temple” and asked “what pose could more appropriately represent that institution” than the angelic countenance of Lorna Jeanne DeBard (1918-1997.)
She was a 6-year old who garnered some attention for, having apparently been called the prior year to evangelism during an attack of scarlet fever the prior year, being an ordained minister in Los Angeles. A Tacoma, Washington paper reported on her expounding on evolution by declaring that, because it was not mentioned in the Bible, it was not true—1925, incidentally, was the year of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee over the teaching of evolution at a public high school.
She, sometimes with the moniker of “The Little Preacher” and also as “Bonnie DeBard” and “Bonnie Jeanne of Radioland,” frequently sang, played the piano and preached, including on local radio stations like KHJ an KFWB, as early as spring 1924 and appeared in a few storybook-themed films in the late Twenties. Later, she gave piano recitals and was listed as a musician in the 1940 census before she married and raised a family.
Yet another instance of Sister Aimee and the Temple tapping into potentially profitable promotion to expand the congregation as well as visibility was when the Shriners fraternal order held a convention in the Angel City at the end of May and early June. With the motto “First in Los Angeles—at Angelus Temple first,” the church hosted Shriners performing groups from Akron, Indianapolis and Oakland.
Shrewdly tying in the convention to programming at the Temple on 30 May, Sister Aimee also made it known that in her fifteen years of evangelization throughout the country, “she was strongly supported by various orders of Masonry,” while also letting Shriners know that “some of you helped to create the beautiful Angelus Temple . . . and many of you belong to our Radio Church of the Air.”
McPherson added that, since the Temple opened, “”the greatest Holy Ghost revival of modern times has centered here” represented by 60,000 congregants attending weekly, 24-hour prayer in the Temple’s Watch Tower, prayer meetings and other activities. Shriners were, she concluded, welcomed at any time at the Temple “for rest, for prayer and for inspiration.”
An advertisement promoted her two sermons and a talk by lecturer and reformer Clinton Howard, chairperson of the World Peace Commission, on “Pearls of Paradise” with the message “Stop War!” attached to it. The ad not only presented the “four-square” elements of Holiness, Health, Happiness and Heaven but the 30 “Angelus Temple Pointers,” including the many features of the edifice, such as its “white tile baptismal pool,” where Mrs. Brown “was buried with Christ in baptism” two days prior; the radio station studio; the unceasing prayer and continual access to the public; musical offerings; and “All Seats Free—Waiting for YOU!”
What was not part of the Temple, however, were church suppers, Dramatic League programs, fairs and bazaars, ice cream socials, agents, solicitors, or personal calls for donations. It was noted that there were nearly 9,500 registered members of the Church (with “Every Member A Worker”), 300 students of evangelism, and more than 100 Sunday School classes in an institution that was “Built by Faith (and lots of hard work)” and was “A Give Church—a ‘Go’ Church.”
Also on the 30th was the third semi-annual convention of the Four Square Gospel Association, which opened in the morning and at which McPherson presided over all the sessions. Dramatically, several thousand delegates from 40 churches and branches throughout southern California, including some 200 from the Orange County seat of Santa Ana, were to gather outside the Temple and “enter in procession, carrying banners. Among the activities at the sessions were oral and written reports from the outlying areas as well as the home church, a picnic at Echo Park and an afternoon business meeting.
A couple of personal stories from the month are also of note. The Los Angeles Record of 28 May reported that, the previous evening, Lewis West wandered into the Temple and sat in during a service. It was reported that, “when the evangelist had finished West suddenly leaped to his feet and startled the audience with a confession.” It was stated that Sister Aimee’s preaching awoke “the small voice of conscience” in West, who was said to have escaped from Folsom state prison where he was serving a 14-year sentence, though he’d actually been paroled in 1921, but violated it a year later. In any case, West was reported to have uttered “Well, it’s a big load off my mind” and was returned to Folsom, from which he was discharged at the end of April 1926.
In its 9 May edition, the Los Angeles Times reported that 16-year old Laura Caldwell, married and with an eight-week old child, “had suffered a nervous breakdown since the birth,” which may be what we now know as post-partum depression, and slashed her throat with a safety razor at the South Los Angeles house where she lived with her child, husband and his family. Ten days later, José Rodriguez, a rare Latino journalist in the Angel City’s press corps, of the Record wrote a highly dramatic account of Caldwell’s situation, noting that her injuries were such that she could not clearly communicate and that this was compounded by her illiteracy.
Laura is beautiful . . . eyes of a clear brown, spaced generously, and balanced in her wide forehead like the idea of the Greeks . . . the lips are full, definitely and subtly curved, and colored as daintily as the finest Chinese porcelain . . . many men travel far, see much, and never behold such beauty.
He went on to note how the family, in straitened financial circumstances, tried to help Caldwell’s mental anguish before it was related that the young mother “suddenly got the idea that Mrs. Aimee Semple McPherson, over at the Angelus Temple, could cure her.” Yet, when she asked to go see the evangelist, her husband, John, age 21 and who dismissed the preacher and work as “bunk” and “tommyrot,” refused to allow it. After repeated attempts to sway her husband, it was related to Rodriguez, Caldwell attempted to take her life.
Caldwell’s mother-in-law, Nellie Stewart, who provided the information to the reporter, added that she went to the Temple to talk to McPherson but was told “you’ll have to see her mother first,” this being Minnie (Ma) Kennedy, who was also the pastor’s key adviser and confidant, and that no one was allowed to see Sister Aimee personally. Rodriguez, whose article featured a direct call for McPherson to demonstrate her powers of faith healing, then wrote of how he visited Caldwell and told her “I am going to ask Mrs. McPherson to see you . . . and get you well” and added,
No tragic actress on the stage or screen ever could have done what Laura did. Her eyes filled with tears—and from an expression of intense terror and anxiety, literally melted into one of supreme confidence and trust.
This change was all the more startling because it took place instantly in a face which for candor, sweetness and marvelous beauty, can hardly be matched in the world.
Adding to the drama, Rodriguez observed that the young woman had no parents and that a foster-father lived a thousand miles away and he ended his piece with the comment that “whether this is crassly sentimental or not—or whether only the emotionally profuse or weak should be allowed the privilege” there were “some very honest and unusual tears shed” over the badly injured patient “by people who never saw her before, and who will never see her again.”
Likely because of Rodriguez’ efforts, Sister Aimee visited Caldwell two days later and the journalist recorded that the evangelist appeared “dressed in her white uniform with blue cape, her red gold hair piled high on head over a fatigue lined face.” McPherson kneeled beside the bed “and uttered a long, eloquent prayer,” after which the patient was quoted as saying, “Please make stop think—think—think—think—hurts—hurts—hurts.”
Repeating that the young patient damaged nerve centers controlling movement and speech when she tried to kill herself, Rodriguez added that doctors felt that the “motor aphasia” Caldwell had “is purely mental, a psychosis, [which] will pass away.” With respect to the family’s efforts to secure her assistance, McPherson told Rodriguez,
I was told nothing of this case. Thousands of people apply daily for my personal help. Consequently, it is quite possible that among them one could not be attended to at once. But I and my workers will leave nothing undone which can be done for this child’s relief and that of her family.
As for the economic problems experienced by the family, the “pretty pastor” noted that “I am building a school next to the temple. I’ll see to it that they get work.” Caldwell’s husband noted that, after Sister Aimee’s visit, his wife seemed better, to which Rodriguez ended his article by observing “the child-mother’s beautiful face, which makes even hospital attaches ponder on the kindliness of God, glowed and radiated with happiness when she saw the evangelist. She clung to Mrs. McPherson’s hands and made little glad cries.”
Four days later, the paper briefly reported that, while the throat wound healed, Caldwell “is merely holding her own” with regard to the “serious nervous disturbances and partial paralysis” from which she still suffered and “efforts by Mrs. Aimee Semple McPherson, noted local evangelist, to heal the child-mother’s mental disease so far have produced no results.” There was one last update from the Record on 8 June, but there was no improvement in Caldwell’s condition, despite McPherson’s vaunted faith healing reputation.
After a meteoric rise to renown, McPherson would end up under considerable controversy and substantial scrutiny almost exactly a year later when she disappeared after going for a swim at Venice Beach. My colleague, Gennie Truelock, will relate the story in a reprise of her Female Justice presentation at the Homestead on Sunday, 13 August, so, if this post whets your appetite for more on the evangelist, join us then!