Sunday, May 24, 2009

Aimee Semple McPherson-Fundamentalist Queen

Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, by Matthew Avery Sutton (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Long before megachurches and names like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen became commingled with American Christianity, Aimee Semple McPherson was America’s key religious figure, representing fundamentalism and old-time religion in America between the two World Wars. She was America’s most famous and certainly flamboyant minister, during the 1920s, 1930s, and even into the early 1940s. Given the scope of her influence, and thorough remaking of the country’s religious landscape, it is unfortunate that so few within, and without the confines of American Christendom know about “Sister Aimee” today.

While there have been books detailing McPherson’s life before (both Edith Blumhofer and Daniel Epstein produced solid works about McPherson) Matthew Avery Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America is the first book that places her firmly within the cultural, political, and religious milieu of her era.

The book, which came out in 2007, avoids some the traps of previous treatments of McPherson’s life—the stereotypes and caricature so often attendant with this early 20th century religious icon.

Avery does an excellent job of highlighting the context of the period when McPherson’s star began to rise. From simple beginnings on a farm in Ontario, McPherson would utilize the new media of her day, particularly radio, to draw upon the burgeoning appeal of popular entertainment, and the development of modern day Hollywood.

Raised by a strict mother, McPherson’s religious underpinnings were forged by the conservative theology of the Salvation Army. Later, she would meet an itinerant Pentecostal evangelist and fiery preacher, Robert Semple, when he came to Ingersoll, her hometown, for a revival. Later, the two married and after a brief time in Chicago, the newlyweds were off to the mission field in China. Semple later contracted malaria, and died, leaving Aimee stranded with her young daughter. She would return to the States, enter into another relationship leading to marriage to Harold McPherson, a successful businessman. This one would fail mainly due to McPherson’s inability to forego preaching, for domestic chores and duties.

It was as an evangelist that McPherson began to find her true religious calling. After a transcontinental journey in her “Gospel Car,” which was painted with the slogan, “Where will you spend eternity?” and holding meetings from the farflung reaches of the northeast in Maine, down the eastern seaboard into Florida, and across America’s heartland, in the Midwest. From there, McPherson headed west, arriving in Los Angeles in December, 1918, with mother and children in tow.

While there is no doubt that McPherson would have attained a measure of fame and notoriety regardless of where she put down roots, the city of Los Angeles during the 1920s was the perfect place for someone with McPherson’s gifts, charisma, and sexual aura to be living. It is Avery’s ability to place McPherson within this context, and his understanding of its importance that makes his book the standout that it is.

Los Angeles in the 1920s had been transformed from a sleepy agricultural town, to the place where 500,000 Americans descended over the next decade, lured by train to an Edenic paradise with its fabulous climate, marketed by legions of real estate developers and other civic opportunists. Score of Midwesterners—retired farmers, grocers, Ford agents and others—would sell out their farms and businesses to settle in California, and in particular, the “City of Angels.” It was from the bulk of these folks that McPherson would build her following from.

Civic leaders were thrilled that McPherson chose to build her magnificent Angelus Temple in sunny Los Angeles. They saw her choice as vindication of their city, and would serve as a magnet for tourists, and it wasn’t long before these leaders saw the economic bump that McPherson provided.

The Temple was located a few miles from downtown, at the corner of Sunset and Glendale Boulevards. I visited the church a few weeks ago, when in Los Angeles, and it is a magnificent building even today. It had to have been a spectacular attraction nearly 90 years ago, when first built. Avery points out that famed California journalist and historian Carey McWilliams believed that McPherson’s timing for establishing her church, and its location “were perfect.”

McWilliams wrote, “The postwar period, so full of restlessness, with its craze for entertainment and passion for frivolity, had already given birth to the Jazz Age. The flapper had arrived, a little tipsy, with short skirts and bobbed hair. It was time for petting and necking; for flasks and roadside taverns; for move ‘palaces’ and automobiles…and Aimee was determined to lead the parade on a grand detour to Heaven.”

Attendees would parade to the Angelus Temple en masse during McPherson’s heyday, with church officials counting weekly attendance at between thirty and fifty thousand people, as the church was packed almost nightly and on weekends. They came to hear McPherson’s sermons, and theatrical delivery of her biblical message.

Avery clearly makes the case that it was McPherson who deserves credit for the megachurch movement, and the political strength exhibited by the religious right, and figures such as James Dobson.

Eighty years ago, fundamentalism was floundering. It was on the ropes, after taking an uppercut to the jaw from the Scopes Trial, and repeated attacks from liberal theologians like Fosdick, making claims that modern science invalidated the fundamentalist theology. McPherson and her allies reshaped the “old-time religion” and found new ways to promote it and connect it to changes happening in mainstream American culture.

Avery’s book is well-researched, without being overly pedantic, or unnecessarily scholarly. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t hold up well as a strong source of historical documentation.

He takes a very even-handed approach to an important 20th century figure, one that is sadly underrepresented in the 21st century, and should be, given the importance of who she was, and what she represented, particularly her role model for women, as a religious and cultural pioneer.

The book should appeal to anyone wanting to broaden their understanding of America and early 20th century history. It also is a very strong work on the phenomenon of urban growth in the last century, particularly Los Angeles, and its ascendancy to becoming one of the nation’s great cities.



Blogger sage said...

How did I missed this book when it came out? I've read Blumhofer's book on McPherson.

Western Church history has been one of my passions--Michael Engh, SJ has a good book on the early religious development in LA: Frontier Fatihs: Chruch, Temple and Synagogue in Los Angeles, 1846-1888. Although i criticized it in a review, Sandra Sizer Frankiel's "California Spiritual Frontiers: Religious ALternative to Anglo-Protestantism" has the right concept, I think, in how the Golden State was "fruitful" for various splinter groups.

Thanks for your comments on my review of "The Cape Fear"

5:44 PM  

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