Aimee's Message
AIMEE'S RELIGION

Often called the female Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson was the first major female revivalist in American religious history.

But rather than using Sunday's gospel of fear, McPherson "substituted a sunnier religion" called the Foursquare Gospel. Her message was one of "uninhibited joyfulness joined with religious exultation." (Lately 1970)

Essentially, Aimee called for a return to simple biblical Christianity and "old time religion." A strict, old-fashioned "Bible-Christian," she believed in "a literal Devil presiding over a literal hell, inhabited by card-players, dance-hall frequenters, drunkards, dope-peddlers, wicked women." (New Republic, 11/3/26)

By 1918, Aimee had named her doctrine the Four Square Gospel, which referred to the four cherubim in Ezekiel, representing the Savior, baptism, healing, and the Second Coming. It was, in Aimee's opinion, "a perfect gospel. A complete gospel for body, for soul, for spirit, and for eternity." There were four pillars of her creed: God, home, school, and government. "Remove any of these," she warned, "and [civilization] topples, crumbles." The core of the Four Square gospel was individual salvation and the idea that through will and hard work any man could remake his life along godly lines. It demanded an emotional confrontation of the individual with the Savior.

Aimee participates in a pageant entitled "Cavalcade of Christianity" in January 1935. (Photo From Storming Heaven)
Aimee created branch churches out of the Foursquare Gospel as "soul-saving stations" across the country. She set these stations up in buildings constructed to look like lighthouses, "flashing hope to perishing sinners and guiding the storm-tossed to snug harbors." (Lately 1970) Her newspaper, The Bridal Call, underscored the infallibility of the Bible, the blessings of conversion, faith healing, miracles, and the love of Christ.

Despite an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, Aimee didn't present new or original ideas—it was the delivery that made her successful. She knew how to make Christianity appealing to people, and she preached with a unique power and vitality. She was "less an innovator, and more a popularizer," as Blumhofer writes.

She "ingeniously exploited the ideas and techniques of others—from the Salvation Army to the writers of Broadway spectacles—capturing the mood and reactions of ordinary Americans and addressing herself to their perceptions of things." (8) As Shelton Bissell wrote in 1928, after attending one of Aimee's 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."

Bissell continued by interpreting Aimee's success despite overly simplistic and spiritually devoid material:

"Aimee is Aimee, and there is none like her. A religious message utterly devoid of sound thinking, loose and insubstantial in its construction, preposterously inadequate in its social implications, but amazingly successful after five years of running, and still going strong, judging from statistics, the infallible appeal of churchmen. No American evangelist of large enough caliber to be termed National has ever sailed with such insufficient mental ballast. The power of McPhersonism resides in the personalist of Mrs. McPherson. The woman is everything; the evangel nothing. There is no way to understand how a jejune and arid pulpit output has become a dynamic of literally National proportions but to hear and see the woman. To visit Angelus Temple, the home of the Foursquare Gospel, is to go on a sensuous debauch served up in the name of religion." "Vaudeville at Angelus Temple," Shelton Bissell

But some, like Julia Budlong of The Nation, argued that it was Aimee's simple message that made her so appealing. "Mrs. McPherson, launching a new movement or preaching a new theology, would be a Mrs. McPherson shorn of much of her power and popularity. But by telling the old familiar stories, singing the old familiar hymn tunes, using the old and time-worn phrases, she wins to herself the old familiar responses and deepens the grooves of childlike trust and love through which the emotions of her audience flow. "

Her success also reveals both the optimism of American evangelism during the 1920s, as well as the strong interplay between American evangelism and popular culture. As Julia N. Budlong wrote in a 1929 Nation article: "No phenomenon at present operating in American life so well attests to the state of culture and intelligence of the masses of its citizens as does revivalism. And no figure in revivalism is so interesting and significant as the Reverend Aimee Semple McPherson, pastor of Angelus Temple."

At 51 years old, Aimee wears her Temple uniform with her hallmark corsage. (Photo From Storming Heaven)
Following World War I, Americans sought optimistic and dynamic evangelists like Aimee to allow them to escape the anguish of the war. In the 1930s, Aimee's popularity faded for a number of reasons: the mysterious kidnapping extravaganza had damaged her credibility, but, perhaps more importantly, the depression and the stock market crash had turned people's minds away from religious optimism. In the 1930s, Aimee tried to help Americans combat the depression by leading an extensive relief effort in Los Angeles. Aimee opened her own soup kitchen, offered a free medical-dental clinic, and stepped in with hot lunches for kids.

In addition, Aimee offered her followers the perfect mix of sex and religion, of modernity and the traditional. 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." She bobbed her hair (which was not in accord with the Scriptures) (Thomas 1970). Aimee's Bible, bound in white calf, rests in the vault of Angelus Temple and is opened to her favorite chapter: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever." (SA)

She catered to the blue-collar, powerless, bored, emotionally unstable people. She spoke to rustics, farmers, millhands of the North, and fishermans of south. Many Americans in the Southwest drifted in and out of Los Angeles because they had hear of her, and many of her members were Middle West farmers. As Aimee said, "I bring religious consolation to the great middle class, leaving those below to the Salvation Army and those above to themselves." (Thomas 1970)

"They are, not unnaturally," wrote Bruce Blivin in a 1926 New Republic article, "rather simple people. They incline to the elderly, the Middle Western. Some of them, it is clear, are emotionally unstable, destined from childhood to become fanatic followers of one cult or another. Indeed, it is notorious that some of them are in the habit of shopping around in this cafeteria of creeds, trying theosophy in January, Christian Science in June, raw foods and New Thought in October, Coué and internal baths in December."

Later in her career, a convention of churches in Ohio passed a resolution deploring her recent activities and marriage, and 32 ministers in Iowa and Minnesota severed their connection with the evangelist.(Lately 1970)

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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.