Little Churches Everywhere: California's Evangelical Conservatism
The reformist strain of McPherson’s ministry—and much else about Angelus’s role in the community—would soon be overshadowed by the media sensation around her alleged kidnapping in 1926. On May 16, McPherson had adjourned to Venice Beach in the company of her secretary, Emma Schaffer. After the women had checked into the Ocean View Hotel, McPherson worked on a sermon and then swam in the ocean, trying to goad her employee into joining her. Schaffer declined, and periodically scouted the water for her boss as she sat in a beach chair, reading her Bible. Late in the afternoon, however, she couldn’t see McPherson in the surf and alerted the hotel staff to her disappearance. The initial wave of frantic media speculation assumed that McPherson had drowned, though some newspapers also suspected foul play because she had recently waged a high-profile (if unsuccessful) campaign to ban dancing on Sundays in Venice’s music halls. As the speculation mounted, an earlier rumor about McPherson’s alleged romantic involvement with her married radio engineer, Kenneth Ormiston, began to gain traction—but the leading female journalists in Los Angeles closed ranks to denounce it, citing the high profile of Angelus within the community as something too valuable to waste on a sordid affair.
The media sensation was just beginning. A little more than a month after disappearing, McPherson resurfaced in the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta, with a wild tale about being kidnapped. She claimed that a man and woman had approached her at Venice Beach with a story about a sick child, and that when they took her to their car, they knocked her out with an anesthetic. There were three kidnappers in on the caper; they detained her in a shack in the Mexican desert and threatened to sell her into white slavery at the behest of a shadowy villain named Felipe if the Angelus Temple didn’t meet their ransom demands. McPherson claimed to have used the ragged end of a tin can to cut through the rope binding her wrists when her captors left her alone—at which point she leapt out a window and trekked across the desert to Agua Prieta.
No one ever has, or likely ever will, determine the truth of the whole affair. Once efforts to locate the alleged kidnappers came up empty, McPherson’s detractors—including Los Angeles district attorney Asa Keyes, who sought to indict McPherson on criminal charges—alleged the kidnapping was a hoax concocted to cover up a romantic getaway with Ormiston. The ensuing grand jury hearing featured inquiries into the question of whether McPherson sported her hair in a bob cut—a telltale sign of loose, flapper-esque sexual morality—and whether she had spent $2,500 on luxury undergarments (a charge that surfaced courtesy of Alameda County district attorney and future Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren). McPherson was cleared of the charges, mainly because the prosecution’s chief witness, who claimed that McPherson was the mysterious “Miss X” spotted in the company of Ormiston, who had left his wife for an impromptu Carmel vacation at the time of McPherson’s disappearance, was mentally unstable.
But while McPherson was vindicated in court, she floundered in the balance of her public career. The kidnapping scandal soon became the stuff of pop-culture fable. Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel Elmer Gantry features a hysterically repressed yet sexually manipulative preacher clearly modeled on McPherson—and its composition before the kidnapping just made Lewis seem prophetic to his secular liberal readership. Upton Sinclair’s California political potboiler Oil!, also published in 1927, did feature an evangelist staging a mock kidnapping to cover up a sexual dalliance, but Sinclair, who had campaigned with McPherson on behalf of Prohibition, made the preacher in question a man.
McPherson returned to her duties at Angelus, and had a final short and unhappy marriage to an actor named David Hutton, who’d been cast in the part of Pharaoh in an opera McPherson composed about the Hebrews’ captivity in Egypt, The Iron Furnace. She grew increasingly estranged from her mother and became besotted with the trappings of a Southern California celebrity lifestyle, investing in a secluded suburban manse, high-fashion attire and—so reports had it—plastic surgery, which together with an apparent new diet and exercise regime made the formerly zaftig preacher resemble a willowy starlet in the Louise Brooks or Gloria Swanson vein. She also was reportedly in discussions with major studios to produce a movie based on her life story—including, of course, the infamous kidnapping episode.
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With the onset of the Great Depression, however, Angelus redoubled its social work activism, converting a former Yellow Cab warehouse into a downtown soup kitchen and commissary. McPherson also resisted a county ordinance forbidding publicly funded charities from giving assistance to either out-of-state migrants or Mexican immigrants. But not even McPherson could ward off the contradictions convulsing the wider dreamscape of Southern California—the preaching of a primitive Christian faith against the backdrop of a mogul-dominated oil, agriculture and entertainment economy; the desire to manipulate a celebrity-obsessed media culture toward some higher meaning; the honorable effort to assert a unified cross-racial humanity in the face of the Los Angeles region’s bitterly class- and race-segmented residential and labor markets.
Much like the later cohort of evangelical conservatives chronicled in Dochuk’s study, McPherson sought to resolve these contradictions in the higher synthesis of a dogmatic Americanism. Whereas the early career of McPherson and her church combined a conservative theological outlook with a striking commitment to social gospel–style activism, the sense of a moment of national reckoning in the face of a looming war—reinforced by America-centric readings of biblical prophecy—turned McPherson into another crypto-racist preacher of a nationalist gospel. “By the late 1930s,” Sutton writes, she “no longer concentrated simply on rooting out theological subversives, who were most often elite white men, but instead began to focus on non-Protestant immigrants, many of whom were darker-skinned Catholics and Jews, as potential agents of the Antichrist.” As World War II approached, McPherson’s preaching took on a raw, xenophobic edge: “We have no room for a communistic, Moscow-led people in the United States of America. We have no room for any ism but Americanism.” In the grip of a mounting distrust of the fallen outside world, McPherson asserted a forceful identification of the national interest with the handiwork of the church militant: “America will carry the gospel to the millions,” she pronounced. “The flag of America and the church stand for the same thing…. They stand or fall together!”
McPherson died abruptly in 1944, of an apparent drug overdose, so there’s no way of knowing how fully her career would have fallen in line with those of her fellow Southern California conservative Protestants during the cold war and afterward. As Sutton notes, however, McPherson’s Foursquare Gospel movement continues to go strong—defying the celebrated Max Weber stricture about the ritual ossification of a faith after it survives its charismatic founder. Breaking with hard-core evangelicals, former Foursquare president Jack Hayford has aired some public doubts about overenthusiastic prosecution of the culture wars during the Clinton years, even going so far as to apologize to Bill Clinton for the excesses of his peers. Meanwhile, Pentecostal devotees of the “prosperity gospel” such as Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar have capitalized on the celebrity side of McPherson’s legacy in order to peddle a grotesquely complacent and materialist gloss on the hardscrabble, experiential traditions of the Azusa Street faithful. Today’s Pentecostal scene bears few discernible marks of McPherson’s career, save one: it’d make a hell of an illustrated sermon.