She was the first real celebrity evangelist America encountered - Aimee Semple McPherson and oddly enough she was a Canadian, born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on a farm near Ingersoll, Ontario, just east of London. But she didn't stay there. In high school she was taught about Charles Darwin and that Evolution stuff, and began to quiz local pastors about faith and science. She didn't like the answers she got and was soon writing to the national newspapers asking why taxpayers supported public schools teaching evolution. And that sort of became a life-long passion. And she became an evangelist the first and most famous, in the days of revival meetings and tent meetings and marching band and all the rest:
In 1913, she embarked upon a preaching career in Canada and the USA. In June 1915, she began evangelizing and holding tent revivals, first by traveling up and down the eastern United States, then going to other parts of the country.
Her revivals were often standing room only. One of these was held in a boxing ring, with the meeting before and after the match, throughout which she walked about with a sign reading "knock out the Devil." In San Diego, California, the National Guard was brought in to control a crowd of over 30,000 people. McPherson had practiced speaking in tongues but rarely emphasized it. She was also known as a faith healer and there were claims of physical healing, although this became less important as her fame increased.
In 1916, with her mother Mildred she made a tour of the southern United States in her "Gospel Car," a 1912 Packard touring car emblazoned with religious slogans. Standing in the back seat of the convertible she gave sermons over a megaphone. On the road between sermons, she sat in the back seat typing sermons and other religious materials. By 1917 she had started her own magazine, The Bridal Call, for which she wrote many articles about womens roles in religion and the link she saw between Christians and Jesus as a marriage bond.
And she ended up here in Los Angeles, of course, and founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel with its impressive temple. And there were her compelling personal sermons, and demonstrations of speaking-in-tongues and faith healing and she kept a museum of crutches, wheelchairs and other paraphernalia from that. And there were her radio shows on her own radio station, and Hollywood was just up the street. She had it made:
By early 1926, McPherson had become one of the most charismatic and influential persons of her time. According to Carey McWilliams, she had become "more than just a household word: she was a folk hero and a civic institution; an honorary member of the fire and police departments; a patron saint of the service clubs; an official spokesman for the community on problems grave and frivolous." She was influential in many social, educational and political areas. McPherson made personal crusades against anything that she felt threatened her Christian ideals, including the drinking of alcohol and teaching evolution in schools.
And of course she became a strong supporter of William Jennings Bryan during the 1925 Scopes Trial Bryan and McPherson had worked together in the Angelus Temple and believed Darwinism had undermined students' morality, and they wanted to stop people from teaching that nonsense. After all, McPherson had said evolution "is the greatest triumph of satanic intelligence in 5,931 years of devilish warfare against the Hosts of Heaven. It is poisoning the minds of the children of the nation" She sent Bryan a telegram saying all ten thousand members of her Angelus temple and her millions of radio church members "send grateful appreciation of your lion hearted championship of the Bible against evolution and throw our hats in the ring with you." And she organized "an all night prayer service, a massive church meeting preceded by a Bible parade through Los Angeles." Good times.
It's hard to overemphasize how influential she was compared to her, Billy Graham was a piker and Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are mere blips on the cultural radar. Yes, she was a widow who remarried twice, and both those marriages ended in divorce, and there was that reported kidnapping (she seems to have run off for a month with the engineer of her radio station) and that brief, nasty and torrid affair with Milton Berle (or so he says). And there was her death an overdose of Seconal, which had not been prescribed for her by anyone. But that was ruled an accidental death, the sort of thing that happens with celebrities out here all the time now.
But she was one of kind, a true original. Or maybe she was the first of a kind, paving the way for all the televangelists of today, showing them how it's done.
This is part of the collection of her memorabilia in the parsonage at Angelus Temple of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, just down Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park.