The Woman who Brought us Fundamentalism
Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America
by Matthew Avery Sutton
Review by Jane M. McCabe
Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England 2007
In parts the life story depicted in Aimee Semple McPhersom and the Resurrection of Christian America reads like a harlequin romance (not that I read them) replete with a still-famous kidnapping and a trial that provided daily fodder for the news media, particularly in her home town of Los Angeles. But really, McPherson, one of America’s early 20th century charismatic evangelists, left her legacy in more lasting ways. She virtually set the template for the kind of right-wing gay-bashing fundamentalism that has grown into a voter faction.
This is the first book by Matthew Avery Sutton, who teaches 20th century United States history, cultural history, and religious history at Washington State University. It won the Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize from Harvard University Press, awarded annually to the best book in any discipline by a first-time author. The book also served as the basis for the Public Broadcasting Service documentary Sister Aimee, part of PBS’s American Experience series. As a film, her life story has no shortage of visuals, many of which appear in the book in still photos: Aimee as a child preaching to her dolls, Aimee next to her “gospel” car, the exterior of her unique mega church, the Angelus Temple, in Los Angeles, McPherson and William Jenning Bryan, both anti-revolution crusaders, Aimee dressed in her milk maid outfit that she used when preaching one of favorite sermons, “The Story of my Life,” and so forth.
She was born in 1890 and died in 1944. During her 54 years she probably accomplished more towards resurrecting Christian America than any other evangelist. After her first husband, Robert Semple, also an evangelist, died, and after several years of traveling back and forth across the country to revival meetings, she and her mother decided to settle down and buy a piece of property on which to construct a tabernacle. They recognized that Los Angeles had become a tourist attraction and so purchased a piece of property on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park. That property eventually gave rise to the Angelus Temple, with its sloping domed roof, “half like Roman Coliseum, half like a Parisian Opera House.”
Religious movements were blossoming all over post-World War I Los Angeles, and McPherson took the city by storm. Soon the Angelus Temple was one of the “must-see’s” in Southern California.
Dazzling religious theatrics and a penchant for publicity made McPherson one of the most famous American personalities of the interwar years, and evangelicalism, with its integration of cutting-edge technology, patriotism and social conservatism became an influential force in United States history. McPherson couldn’t have chosen anywhere better for her dramatic flair to flourish.
She used the stage at the temple as platform for her dramatic sermons. Most often dressed in virginal white, McPherson would appear as an angel of God. A superb director and producer with an uncanny dramatic instinct, she used animals on stage—lions, camels, monkeys—motorcycles, touching the Angelenos’ loneliness and drawing them to her temple. In so doing she won the hearts of the community and soon even well known celebrities were among her audience. When she was in Paris and looked up Charlie Chaplin, they became instant companions.
McPherson also recognized that the new technology of automobiles, highways, airplanes, radio, and motion pictures could be used to bring more lost souls to her doorstep. “If Jesus were alive today, I think he would preach parables about oil wells and airplanes,” McPherson commented. The advent of radio provided an unparallel opportunity to convert the world and reach those who could not leave their homes to attend church and those who chose not to. What broadcasting jazz can do for the feet, broadcasting the word of God could do for the heart. Soon McPherson had her own radio station. She used airplanes flying over the city to drop leaflets.
By the summer of 1925 the famous “monkey trial” was being conducted in Tennessee, and William Jennings Bryan was working to convict high school teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution in his classroom. McPherson, who had a deep abiding hatred for evolution organized all night prayer services to pray for his conviction.
Then came the alleged kidnapping. On May 16, 1926, McPherson and her secretary, recently returned from a nationwide crusade to establish the foundations of Christian fundamentalism, checked into the Ocean View Hotel in Venice Beach for a rest. McPherson went swimming and disappeared.
Newspapers called it the biggest Los Angeles mystery in years. Some speculated that it was another of her publicity stunts. The Los Angeles Times noticed that her radio engineer, Ken Ormiston, whose wife was divorcing him, had also disappeared, not reappearing in Los Angeles until late May.
In the early hours of June 23rd McPherson appeared in the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta with marks of torture on her, telling a story of having been kidnapped from Venice Beach. She said a man and woman had met her when she came out of the water and begged her to go to their car to pray for their dying baby, but once there they had shoved her in and given her an anesthetic that rendered her unconscious, then tried to secure a ransom from the Angelus Temple. They held her hostage, she said, until one day she managed to break free, jumping out a window and trekking across the desert to Aqua Prieta.
No one ever found either the captors or the hideaway. When McPherson arrived back in Los Angeles, 30,000 people greeted her at the train station, more than had turned out for President Wilson’s visit to the city. Fans called for a full inquiry and on July 8th, 1926, McPherson made her first appearance before the Los Angeles grand jury. As the trial went on and on, the correspondence received by the newspapers revealed a divided public. On July 20th the grand jury issued its decision: 14 of 17 jurors did not believe her story, because no hard evidence had been produced.
The papers confirmed that Ormiston had been in a Carmel cottage with an unknown, heavily-disguised woman, referred to as “Miss X.” McPherson was vilified by many, who saw her as sex-starved and felt sure she was the Mysterious Madame X. The liberated young flappers of the era rushed to McPherson’s defense, as they saw in her an advocate for women’s rights. McPherson herself blamed the devil for her troubles —it was Satan’s plot to undermine one of the most extraordinary religious movements in history.
On January 20, 1927, all charges against her were dropped. In the 80 year since, the general consensus among those familiar with the case has been that she had an affair with Ormiston. Speculation continued in novels, films and songs.. Upton Sinclair wove McPherson’s story into his novel, Oil, and Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry has a character based on McPherson, Sister Sharon Falconer, whom Lewis portrayed as beautiful and eloquent, but a promiscuous hypocrite..
McPherson had emerged from the kidnapping a superstar, but she was exhausted and took refuge in her exotic new home on Lake Elsinor, southeast of Los Angeles. She remarried, this time to the man who had played the Pharaoh in her movie (she also tried to make some religious films) about Hebrew captivity, The Iron Furnace, but the marriage was unhappy and short-lived. When it ended in divorce, McPherson never found love again. She threw herself back into her work, returning to her Pentecostal roots, and in so doing earned her salvation.
After the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Depression, the Angelus Temple put the gospel into practice by opening a dining hall, a soup kitchen, and a commissary to serve the city’s indigent.
As for McPherson, she continued her crusade against evolution, believing that Charles Darwin’s findings were the biggest threat that existed to American Christianity; producing, she claimed, a brutal, inhumane advocacy of survival of the fittest and thus making social reform and charity work pointless. She also remained committed to Prohibition and believed that Depression-era strikes signaled the infiltration of Communism – the philosophy of the Antichrist – in the labor movement..
The Angelus Temple has been made a historic landmark and it still holds weekly services. Recently I was in Los Angeles and made a point of going there.
Pastor Matthew Barnett, well known himself in gospel circles as author of a book called The Church That Never Sleeps, was dressed in a blue shirt, blue-jeans and spiffy grey sneakers. Surrounding him was a band with an electric keyboard, guitars, drums and a piano. Beyond them was a curtain containing a neon light assemblage suggesting Los Angeles. The preacher’s image could be seen on several open circuit TV screens. On the screen was written, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” –Hebrews 13:8. “Greater things are yet to come,” Pastor Barnett declared. After reading about his long-ago predecessor, I was skeptical. I can’t imagine any high tech sound and light show matching the electric personality of the woman who once preached on this same spot.