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Book Excerpt: 'Aimee Semple McPherson'

Matthew Avery Sutton's book on Aimee Semple McPherson is the  basis of a new documentary on PBS.
Matthew Avery Sutton's book on Aimee Semple McPherson is the basis of a new documentary on PBS.


On a brisk fall evening in 1934, six thousand people jammed into the exotic Shrine Auditorium, the largest and poshest theater in Los Angeles. The crowds on this particular night had come to witness the only showing of a spectacular religious pageant like nothing they had ever seen before. At close to 9:00 p.m., the orchestra came to life, launching into a rendition of patriotic songs. The curtains swung open and the show began. America's "Pilgrim Fathers" stepped onto the stage to rousing applause. They reenacted the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock and proclaimed the new nation's foundation on conservative Christian ideals. The Founding Fathers appeared next. They drew up the U.S. Constitution, a document "conceived in prayer and executed by Christian gentlemen." The third scene featured Abraham Lincoln on his knees in prayer, "seeking guidance of his God in the times of national stress." Without a doubt, the Protestant God had blessed the United States.

This harmonious vision of the United States' Christian past began to disintegrate in the next few scenes, however, as subsequent generations of Americans who spent too much time trying to be "modern" forgot "that God founded this nation." They removed the Bible from schools, embraced the concept of biological evolution, and, "determined to blot out the God who had led and nurtured the United States," turned away from the "old-time" religion. At this point in the spectacle the orchestra fell silent and a hush stole over the capacity crowd. The audience tensed, as a sinister villain, an atheist and a communist, appeared on the stage. He began his diabolical work by tiptoeing up to an oversized dollar bill and, using a hammer and chisel, chipped away the words "In God We Trust." Then he sneaked over to a massive poster featuring the lines of the national anthem. He reached down, grabbed a brush, and began splattering red paint across all references to God. The stunned audience "gasped in horror" as the scoundrel obliterated the ideas that had been "the very blood and body of our nation—the very foundation upon which it has stood through the years."

But he wasn't done yet. The curtains opened again for the climactic final scene, revealing the villain's ultimate target—the United States Capitol. Above the Capitol building flew an American flag, while below it stood the "sturdy foundation stones" of "government, order, faith, and home." Miss America was supposed to be protecting these cherished institutions, but she had fallen asleep on the Capitol steps. The fiendish burglar laughed disdainfully as he snatched the foundations of the nation right out from under her. Then he replaced the flag with the red banner of communism. Just when it appeared that the rogue had completely undermined the United States, onto the stage stepped a stunning woman dressed entirely in white—Aimee Semple McPherson. The crowd went wild, cheering and screaming for the radiant cultural icon who had created this show.

McPherson smiled and bowed. Then, in her high-pitched, nasal, singsong voice, strained by decades of preaching without amplification, she shouted, "America! Awake! The enemy is at your gates! They have penetrated your walls! America! You are in danger! An enemy power is penetrating your strongholds! There is death in their hands—the bombs of atheism and of communism and of anarchy! America! Awake! Defend your own!" Responding to her cry, Uncle Sam jumped onto the stage. He sprinted forward and grabbed the villain, issuing him a ticket back home—"a ticket back to Red Russia, a ticket that will take him to the lands where the Stars and Stripes do not wave." At the end of the scene, McPherson approached the Capitol. With the entire audience cheering her on, she removed the subversive's flag and returned Old Glory to its position atop the dome. The crowd again erupted into applause. Thanks to McPherson and Uncle Sam, the Christian foundations of the nation were safe once more.

Although McPherson did not ever identify the villain, her audience knew him well enough. The pageant was performed on 2 November, just a few days before Californians would be going to the polls to elect the next governor of the Golden State. McPherson, along with most religious leaders in the region, favored the incumbent Republican, Frank Merriam. But the governor faced an unexpected challenge in the person of Upton Sinclair, the famed novelist, radical, and now Democratic candidate for governor. Because Sinclair leaned far to the left politically and had in the past been critical of institutional religion, many religious leaders, along with businessmen, journalists, and even Hollywood executives, viewed him as a tremendous threat. As a result, Merriam's supporters did everything they could to undermine Sinclair's campaign. Their crowning effort had been an invitation to McPherson to stage this spectacle at the Shrine Auditorium. They knew that no other religious leader in the nation could weave traditional American patriotism, the old-time religion, and Hollywood pizzazz into such a spellbinding political pageant.

Dazzling religious theatrics and a penchant for publicity made McPherson one of the most famous American personalities of the interwar years. The first religious celebrity of the mass media era, she mastered print, radio, and film for use in her evangelical mission. Her integration of the latest media tools with a conservative creed established precedents for the twentieth century's most popular ministers, from Billy Graham to Oral Roberts to Pat Robertson. Possibly more significant, she brought conservative Protestantism back from the margins to the mainstream of American culture, by arguing that Christians had an obligation to fight for the issues they believed in and boldly proclaiming that patriotism and faith were inseparable. Contemporary evangelical politicians from local school board members to President George W. Bush are indebted to McPherson for convincing the faithful that their citizenship in heaven did not nullify their citizenship on earth, but rather that they should work for a more Christian nation. Finally, with her extraordinary religious fervor and theatricality, McPherson helped shape one of the twentieth century's most explosive religious movements—evangelicalism. And she did it, of all places, from just outside Hollywood.

McPherson's religious revival caught the nation off guard. With rapid urbanization, the discovery of new technologies, the perfecting of powerful forms of mass media, the rise of the modern university system, and the growth of a celebrity-centered culture, many Americans in the early twentieth century predicted the extinction of classic evangelicalism. Yet from her location in the burgeoning show business capital of the world, McPherson changed the way American religion is practiced. She combined the old-time faith, show biz sensibilities, marketing savvy, and passionate Americanism to revive a seemingly dead movement. Rather than wither away, evangelicalism, with its careful integration of cutting-edge technology, American patriotism, and social conservatism, has become one of the most influential forces in U.S. history.

Although many men and women from a variety of different traditions contributed to the regeneration of evangelicalism, none compared with McPherson. As the most famous minister in America during the interwar years, she became the personification of the old-time religion, by transforming a conservative religious creed into something as exciting as a swashbuckling Hollywood adventure. Yet the rapid expansion of this culturally attuned faith was not without its pitfalls, for McPherson constantly blurred the boundary between the sacred and the profane. Many critics despised the seeming irreverence of combining show business with an ancient creed. Others questioned the creation of all-powerful celebritypreachers who marketed little more than their own personalities to the masses. Still others who decried the mixing of faith and politics warned that the First Amendment was under siege. And there was an even darker side to this evangelical culture, fueled by McPherson and her allies' constant search for signs of the impending rise of the Antichrist. Like the Puritans before them, they tended to interpret daily events within the framework of a continuous cosmic struggle between good and evil. Because they never knew when and where the devil might strike, they remained very suspicious of "outsiders." Regardless of how successful such believers became, they saw themselves as a besieged minority, a faithful remnant, charged with holding back the forces of the apocalypse. This ideological commitment, which kept them constantly on the defensive, fueled a nativist tendency that occasionally surfaced in damaging ways. But the greatest controversy affecting McPherson centered not on her religious innovations or her sporadic xenophobia but on her personal life. When, at the peak of her fame, she became embroiled in what appeared to be a major sex scandal, she nearly landed in jail. She discovered that the same publicity tools that had helped her create a religious empire could just as easily destroy her. Ultimately, however, she rebounded from the controversy and returned to the national spotlight during World War II to solidify the marriage between evangelicalism and patriotic politics.

On one level this is the story of the rise, fall, and redemption of one of the most fascinating characters in American history, Aimee Semple McPherson. But it is much more than that. It is also the story of how Americans came to embrace a thoroughly modern form of evangelicalism that had its roots in McPherson's innovations and concerns, one that has flourished to this day. Indeed, the tensions and controversies that characterized McPherson's world have come to define faith and politics in the twenty-first-century United States.

Excerpted from Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America by Matthew Avery Sutton. Published by Harvard University Press.

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Matthew Avery Sutton