Little Churches Everywhere: California's Evangelical Conservatism
More so than most figures in the modern evangelical movement, Aimee Semple McPherson, Southern California’s best-known Pentecostal prophet, exists in popular memory as a caricature: a celebrity-addled righteous hypocrite who parlayed an itinerant faith-healing franchise into a global media ministry, and ended her career trying to extricate herself from the fallout of a sex scandal. Even if we don’t actually know McPherson’s story, we feel as though we do—with minor variations, it’s the story of Jimmy Swaggart, Eddie Long and countless other televangelists caught up in sexual imbroglios. But as Matthew Avery Sutton argues in Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, McPherson was more than a punch line in the early twentieth-century culture wars. While she was not a theologian or an original thinker, her story of hardscrabble adversity and simple piety appealed to many other Angeleno transplants drawn to her ministry and grappling with the trials of Christian belief in the modern age. Her story also shows that the curious evolution of the righteous, rightward faith dispensation in the Golden State was not entirely foreordained.
Born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy to a pious Protestant family in rural Ontario, McPherson grew up playing “Salvation Army” in the schoolyards of her childhood, persuading playmates to fall in line behind her as she beat a drum and raised a red banner. Exposed to the writings of Charles Darwin in high school, she found her faith in the literal truth of the Bible sorely tested. But in 1907 she was converted at a Pentecostal revival and fell in love with a preacher named Robert Semple, whom she promptly married. Repairing to Chicago, the couple made plans to travel to China as missionaries; en route, McPherson experienced her own charismatic call to the ministry. She reported a vision in which God had selected her to combat the corrosive forces of cultural liberalism—represented by a group of men “clad in priestly robes and ministerial attire,” crowding out the “Book of light and wisdom” with vain “thoughts and theories.” Her charge, God informed her, was to “go forth, and clear away the debris and the contamination with which they have covered and obscured the light of My Word.”
When the couple arrived in China, however, divine favor seemed to have fled. Semple contracted malaria and died within months of their arrival, and the pregnant McPherson stayed on to give birth to a daughter, Roberta Star. After returning stateside she settled into an unhappy marriage with a middle-class businessman named Harold McPherson and gave birth to a son. But after a bout of seeming neurasthenia, she soon heard another prophetic call, and was miraculously healed from a series of undiagnosed ailments that physicians had treated with everything from an appendectomy to a hysterectomy. In her later account, a heavenly voice appeared to her when she was on the verge of death, demanding: “now—will—you—go?”
Go she did—taking the two children and abandoning her husband to launch an itinerant Pentecostal ministry, touring the country in a “Gospel Car” painted with the legend “Where will you spend eternity?” For McPherson, the answer was to be Los Angeles. In an early 1919 revival, a woman leapt up to report her own oddly specific vision of obtaining a tract of land in suburban Los Angeles to build a house for McPherson and her kids. Before long, McPherson was having visions of her home of the spirit—a temple in the Echo Park neighborhood that she funded via appeals at her sensational faith-healing revivals. Playing off the stock-market craze of the 1920s, the trend-savvy McPherson offered donors the opportunity to be “chair holders” in a new entrepreneurial temple devoted to mass salvation.
McPherson’s Angelus Temple was a gleaming white, blocklong edifice, variously described as resembling a megaphone, a baseball field and a piece of pie, which was encased by an enormous 110-foot-high dome. The interior, which could seat 5,300 people, was intended to mimic the feel of an open tent revival, with a splashing stream to symbolize the River Jordan and a designated room for disciples to attend the descent of the Holy Spirit. The theatrical setting was ideally suited to McPherson’s so-called illustrated sermons, which depicted many of her personal trials in the light of scriptural parables. When she famously hired an airplane that nearly combusted to expedite a trip to San Francisco so as not to miss Sunday services in Los Angeles, the incident furnished the basis for a homiletic set piece in the Temple, called “The Heavenly Aeroplane.” Even a mundane personal setback like an arrest for speeding became raw material for a sermon, replete with McPherson done up in an arresting officer’s outfit. (Sometimes, however, the dramaturgy could backfire, as when an Angelus production staffer rented a macaw to lend authenticity to a Garden of Eden skit, and the bird recited an inopportune gloss on the scene—“Aw, go to hell”—courtesy of its usual master.) Such performances might seem odd for a preacher called to defend the true faith against modern culture, but McPherson justified them in the same terms favored by earlier generations of mass revivalists. Like Jesus, she was meeting believers where they lived, and speaking to them in language that resonated in their everyday lives. “If Christ were alive today,” she announced, “I think he’d preach modern parables about oil wells and airplanes, the things that you and I understand. Things like being arrested for speeding.”
While McPherson—by all accounts one of the most charismatic figures of 1920s America—seemed all but divinely appointed as a Southern California prophet, in other respects her ministry marked a striking departure in conservative Protestantism. In a religious culture still steeped in Victorian notions of gender and family, she was a scandal—a divorced woman who had built a successful media empire, including radio broadcasts and motion-picture deals with major Hollywood studios. While her performative self dominated the Angelus pulpit, McPherson’s church displayed a degree of racial tolerance and social outreach that far surpassed that of most mainline Protestant denominations of the era. In some ways, this was a natural posture for a house of worship so close in time and space to the original Azusa Street Pentecostal revival; in other ways, it was an extension of the Salvation Army–style social activism practiced by McPherson’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, who continued to live with her daughter and to help manage her business interests throughout much of her adult life.
However, as Dochuk shows, many midcentury successors to McPherson in the house of California Pentecostalism wasted little time in distancing themselves from the religion’s poor and nonwhite origins in the West. It’s true that Angelus set up separate and segregated areas of worship for black and Hispanic parishioners, and that in McPherson’s later career, the Ku Klux Klan would count itself among her defenders. Nevertheless, mainline faiths like the Baptists and Methodists experienced schisms on the question of racial inclusion, so by the standards of rival denominations, worship at Angelus was racially enlightened. Unlike many mainline white religious leaders of the age, McPherson pushed to reintegrate worship at her temple, hailing in one 1936 sermon the original Azusa Street revivals and “the strange sight of black faces intermingled with white”—a reminder, as she put it, that “Saints who were once smelted together in the fires of Pentecost are being re-united, re-welded, and rejuvenated.”
The Angelus Temple also engaged with gender issues at a far deeper level than the mere symbolism of McPherson’s ministry. When most respectable Protestant denominations shunned unwed mothers, McPherson would seek them out after her sermons—and took at least half a dozen such women into her home, where they shared her daughter Roberta’s bedroom. When the pregnancies came to term, McPherson would provide the mothers with lodging and childcare assistance, ingeniously pairing them with “lonesome” widows in her congregation. What’s more, Sutton notes, “never bringing attention to her actions, the evangelist also helped women struggling with issues of rape, incest, and physical abuse,” struggles that went all but unspoken of at most mainline denominations of the era.