Democratizing the Religious Experience
This paper was written for HIUS 358: American Intellectual History, and it attempts to link Daniel Boorstin's The Americans: The Democratic Experience with the character of Aimee Semple McPherson.

AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON:
DEMOCRATIZING THE AMERICAN RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

In his book The Americans: The Democratic Experience, Daniel Boorstin situates democracy as an "experience" that affects Americans' everyday lives. The life and career of Aimee Semple McPherson, the most famous female evangelist of the 1920s and 30s, offers an example of someone who, in Boorstin's words, "democratized" the American religious experience. Through her specific religious message and her intuitive religious marketing technique, McPherson simultaneously satisfied Americans' hunger for both spiritual fulfillment and sensationalism. By setting up an organizational structure of her churches throughout the nation, McPherson created a type of "consumption community," in which Americans paid and devoted themselves to her ideology and personality.

McPherson, a traditional farm girl born in 1890 and raised by a Salvation Army mother, devoted herself to religion at a young age-except when Darwin's evolutionary theory entered her school and challenged her religious beliefs. Preacher Robert Semple, helped her revalidate her Christian beliefs, as the two fell in love and traveled to China as missionaries in 1907. After his quick death of dysentery, McPherson returned to the United States and set off down the Atlantic Coast as a traveling evangelist. Already anticipating how to "market" her message, she drove in a touring "Gospel Car" with the words: "Jesus is Coming Soon-Get Ready" written on the side. In 1918, she traveled West with her mother (which is believed to be the first time a woman traveled across the country in an automobile.) Meanwhile, McPherson's sermons, unique style, and "faith healing" were becoming popular across the country.

In June 1923 and with followers numbering 500,000, McPherson opened the $1,500,000 Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, a "city of strangers; more than a million and a quarter newcomers entered the country during the decade." (Hamilton 63) The Temple accommodated 5,000 worshipers and formed a community around the "Western center for evangelism." A broadcasting station, KFSG sent the Foursquare Gospel messages beyond the Temple in 1924, and a "Miracle Room" displayed stacks of crutches, wheel chairs and braces from faith cures. Over the next few years, she created a crusader magazine called Bible Call (monthly) and The Foursquare Crusader (weekly). She reorganized her church as a "Salvation Navy," establishing over 400 branch churches, or "lighthouses," and sponsoring 178 mission stations throughout the world.

On May 18, 1926, McPherson mysteriously disappeared after she had been swimming in the ocean. Immediately her followers plunged into a state of panic, camping on the shore of the beach where they believed that she had drowned in the ocean. Boats patrolled the water, one heartbroken girl dove to her death in the water, and scuba divers searched for her body underwater. But 32 days later, McPherson reappeared, claiming she had been kidnapped and taken to a shack in the Mexican desert. Skeptics thought—and still believe—McPherson faked her own kidnapping in order to run off with the engineer of her radio station. However, a crowd of at least 50,000 people greeted her on June 23, 1926—the largest crowd that had ever gathered to greet anyone arriving in Los Angeles, including sports figures, presidents, politicians or movie stars.

McPherson's mysterious—and still unresolved-disappearance was not the only source of controversy in her life. There were also several rumors that she had her face lifted and her legs slimmed. She was married three times, widowed once, divorced twice, and a total of 55 suits were entered against her for a variety of damages. But regardless of these controversies, the public continued to come to her Temple, listen to her radio broadcasts, and attend services around the world until her death on September 27, 1944 due to an overdose of sleeping pills, which was ruled to be "accidental."

McPherson is not included in Daniel Boorstin's The Democratic Experience, and he limits his discussion of religion only to areas in which religion complemented Americans' democratic values. Firstly, McPherson's religious message served to democratize religious experience. She tried to make her creed appealing to anyone, substituting a "sunnier religion" of "uninhibited joyfulness joined with religious exultation" in place of a "gospel of fear" like the other famous revivalist of the day, Billy Sunday (Lately 1970). A strict, old-fashioned Bible-Christian, McPherson called her creed the Four Square Gospel "a perfect gospel. A complete gospel for body, for soul, for spirit, and for eternity." The four pillars of her creed fit practically within the framework of Americans' lives: God, home, school, and government. "Remove any of these," she warned, "and [civilization] topples, crumbles." McPherson's religion offered anyone the chance of individual salvation through the idea that through will and hard work any man could remake his life along godly lines.

But McPherson's religious message represents only part of her way of democratizing religious experience. Not only did she need a marketable message, but she needed techniques to spread her religion to as many people as possible. As Boorstin shows through his discussion of John Stuart Mills, the "founding father of American foreign missions," missionary trips served to spread religious and democratic ideals worldwide (Boorstin 560-1). McPherson, like Mills, recognized the importance of foreign and domestic missions, conducting over 250 foreign missions throughout her lifetime. Domestically, McPherson drove in her "Gospel Car," with phrases like "Where Will You Spend Eternity?" along the side. In order to spread her message, she visited infamous speakeasies, rode around on fire engines, practiced faith healing on an elephant at a zoo, and spoke at fraternity houses (Thomas 1970). Like Mills and his followers, she wanted to spread her religious message as far as possible and to as many people as possible—she wanted to "democratize" religion so that everyone, anywhere, could be saved.

Beyond saving souls, McPherson also recognized that she needed mass profits. As the American Heritage History of the 20s and 30s says, "Publicity, sensationalism, and the all-mighty dollar were prime movers in the spiritual zeal of such evangelists as…Aimee Semple McPherson…For the big-time operators, the technique was hard-sell showmanship, mass soul-saving, and massive profits." While Boorstin offers examples of mail order and department stores as consumer-oriented marketing techniques that spread things through the nation, McPherson had her own methods for spreading her religion. In fact, her efforts as businesswoman and advertiser often surpassed her message as an evangelist. (8) As Shelton Bissell wrote in 1928 after attending one of her sessions at Angelus Temple:

It was hopeless as a sermon, but it was consummate preaching. She knew her audience. She knew what she was after, and she got it. She is a superb actress….Aimee is a perfect exponent of the art of how to say a platitude and delude her hearers into thinking that it is a brand-new truth, just minted by her.

Perhaps the most important technique McPherson employed to keep her audience coming back was the incorporation of entertainment into her gospel through her "illustrated sermons" or "vaudeville of the church." McPherson knew that the use of entertainment in her sermons would make the Bible more accessible to her congregation. As Sarah Comstock wrote in Harper's 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.

She used several illustrated sermon routines, including "Throw Out the Life Line!" which featured a dozen night-gowned maidens clinging to the Rock of Ages amidst crashing thunder and flashing lightning, who were pulled across the stage to safety by sailors of the Lord. McPherson knew that her audience would pay to see such elaborate demonstrations.

Through both her religious message and the marketing of her religion, McPherson created her own type of "consumption community" (using Boorstin's rhetoric) based on people's need for spiritual satisfaction-and her need of financial support. As Boorstin writes, "Invisible new communities were created and preserved by how and what men consumed." McPherson's followers consumed her and her religion-and gave money to support investments like the $1,500,000 Angelus Temple. As Sarah Comstock wrote after attending a sermon and interviewing her followers, " 'It's a good show, anyway—we always get our money's worth,' they say. The price is their own. 'Don't stop at nickels and dimes-make it dollars for the Lord!' they are urged. Many small coins do, however, rub elbows with large greenbacks. Nevertheless, the sum total must be very large."

McPherson's particular consumption community fulfilled the spiritual needs of Americans at the time, especially the many "dislocated Midwesterners who wanted reassurance amid life's upheavals and needed a star of their own." (Blumhofer 9) As Boorstin argues, her consumption community was based less on "ideological" concerns and more on the organizational structure (such as the lighthouses and the "McPherson Defense Fund" that raised money to defend her against scandal). In fact, many thought she trivialized the importance of religion. Julian Budlong wrote in The Nation: "The gospel she preaches is the cheapest and least adulterated brand of pre-milleniumism, decorated and elaborated with symbols and illustrations fitted to the easy assimilation of the lowest type of moron; yet her sucessful operation of complex institutions and her capable resources bear witness to her intelligence."

Not only did McPherson satisfy Americans' spiritual hunger, but she also answered their call for sensationalism. As Boorstin writes, "Modern Americans were eagerly, sometimes desperately, looking for unique, spontaneous, and exciting episodes with which to spice their lives of increasingly repeatable packaged experience." In fact, Boorstin argues that the 'sensationalism' of the twentieth century was "a response to a human need-in this case a generalized need for sensation"-and was satisfied through journalism, and sports (Boorstin 402-3). Figures like Aimee Semple McPherson offered other outlets for this need of sensation. As Roderick Nash writes in The Nervous Generation, McPherson 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. They [her audiences] 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. (152-3)
As Blumhofer writes succinctly, "The public adored this woman who brightened their lives without apparently compromising their souls." Her appeal was multi-faceted: she was a motherly figure, a sexual attraction, and a religious model at the same time. Aimee reconciled modernity with the "tried-and-true." In addition, her scandalous life offered great copy to the sensationalist presses of the 1920s. "Aimee's Affair has sex, money, mystery, crime and the invaluable unique aspect, which these others can only envy: religion," Bruce Blivin wrote in The New Republic.

Although Daniel Boorstin, and many other historians, have left Aimee Semple McPherson out of most history books, she illuminates much about the 1920s and Americans during the time. Although she may not have consciously recognized it, McPherson actively applied religion to the "democratic experience," in Boorstin's terms. Her message appealed to any lifestyle and suited the lives of her working-class audience, and her illustrated sermons and use of entertainment kept followers coming back and putting money in the collection baskets. Her organizational "Salvation Navy" made people all over the nation feel that they belonged to a community based around the Four Square Gospel and McPherson's personality. Finally, the scandals of her life as well as her actress-like quality conveniently simultaneously satisfied Americans' need for spirituality and sensationalism. McPherson dedicated her life to her "consumption community" based both on mass salvation-and mass profits.

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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.