Aimee as Actress
AIMEE AS ACTRESS

From childhood, Aimee Semple McPherson dreamed of being an actress like Sarah Berndhardt, but she was not destined to be the same type of Hollywood icon. Instead, she "turned the gospel into a Hollywood show." (Blumhofer)

In the 1920s, Aimee fit perfectly in to a society crazed for celebrities and stardom. She "rocketed to public attention as a religious celebrity not unlike other cultural icons" like Babe Ruth, Amelia Earheart, Charles Lindbergh, and Mary Pickford (Blumhofer). One person attending one of her sermons declared: "Sometimes Sister's such a cutie I think she'd leave Mary Pickford behind if she'd give up religion for the screen!" (Comstock 1926)

Aimee was not only gifted in theatrical instincts, but she knew the impact of her talents on the audience. "She knows the drama, the human reaction, the glow of reward that a few well-chosen words with personal application can achieve," wrote one newspaperman in the 20s (Thomas). First of all, Aimee realized that incorporating Hollywood into the gospel would keep her audience coming back to the Temple, as church became, to some degree, entertainment. In addition, she likely saw that techniques incorporating entertainment could often make the Bible more accessible to her congregation.

Sister Aimee preaches on the Rose of Sharon in a display of virtuosity.
(Photo From Storming Heaven)

Aimee's "illustrated sermons" (often called "vaudeville of the church") offer the most vivid example of her attempt to use theatrical techniques to appeal to her audience. As Sarah Comstock wrote in Harper's Weekly at the time:

"It is in what she terms 'illustrations' that she gives full vent to her showman's genius. These are her master effort, a novel and highly original use that she makes of properties, lights, stage noises, and mechanical devices to point her message. Heaven and Hell, sinner and saint, Satan, the fleshpots of Egypt, angels of Paradise and temptations of a bejazzed World are made visual by actors, costumes, and theatrical tricks of any and every sort that may occur to her ingenious mind-a mind which must work twenty-four hours to the day to pave the way for the lady's activities."

Aimee used several illustrated sermon routines, from "The Green Light is On," which featured Aimee roaring down the aisle on a motorcycle, to "The Merry Go Round Broke Down" with Aimee as the mechanic who saved the day. In "Throw Out the Life Line!" a dozen nightgowned maidens, clinging to the Rock of Ages amidst crashing thunder and flashing lightning, were pulled across the stage to safety by sailors of the Lord.

Aimee the Actress was at the heart of every service and of the Four Square Gospel, and the religious content came second. As Roderick Nash writes in The Nervous Generation, she appealed to Americans because "She gave them the best of both worlds—a simple, hopeful, authoritarian faith and 'whoopee' salted with just the right amount of sex."

Aimee's followers thrived on news of Aimee's risqué personal life and at the same time joined her in deploring jazz age morality. "Aimee put sex and spectacle in a safe container where people who did not quite dare to be modern could enjoy them. She dressed old ideas in new clothes. She was grandmother and flapper simultaneously. Characterizations of her as the "Barnum of the religion" and 'the Mary Pickford of revivalism' hit the mark precisely. She rose to popularity on the wings of public ambivalence." (Nash)

As Blumhofer writes succinctly, "The public adored this woman who brightened their lives without apparently compromising their souls."

"Sister made much of her life as a story. She shaped the memory of that story, dramatized it, saw narrative possibilities everywhere. In a real sense, after 1915, her life was a story, acted out on stage before an adoring public. She saw the gospel as the ultimate story, a timeless, powerful, fundamental drama. Nearby Hollywood directors gave actresses lines that briefly touched people's emotions; the gospel gave Sister power to reshape lives." (Blumhofer 392)

Finally, Sarah Comstock of Harper's offered a description of one of Aimee's legendary services:

"It is not a famous prima donna's opening night. It is not the entrance of a world-renowned tragedienne or of a queen of the flying trapeze or the tightrope. It is she who outstrips all of these. It is 'Sister… In this unique house of worship called Angelus Temple in the city of Los Angeles, the Almighty occupies a secondary position. He plays an important part in the drama, to be sure; but center stage is taken and held by Mrs. McPherson… Aimee Semple McPherson is staging, month after month and even year after year, the most perennially successful show in the United States." "She is playwright, producer, director, and star performer in one; she keeps all her assistants, from call-boy and property man up to her leads, on their toes; and, in their midst, she plays her own role with an abandon that sweeps her hearers by hundreds to the altar… Her Sunday evening service is a complete vaudeville program, entirely new each week, brimful of surprises for the eager who are willing to battle in the throng for entrance."

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This page was constructed in 1999 by Anna Robertson, an undergraduate American Studies student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. To contact Anna, please send e-mail to asr4c@virginia.edu or check out her home page.