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Megachurch pioneer

7 December 2008

I’ve just been reading about Aimee Semple McPherson, who seems to have been a pioneer of the neopentecostal megachurches that have been so popular in the last 30 years or so.

It was in a book that I bought on a second-hand bookstall a few years ago, but have only now begun to read, The aspirin age, a collection of essays on America in the 1920s and 1930s, edited by Isabel Leighton.

She was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in 1890, and grew up on a farm in Ontario, Canada. She married a Pentecostal minister, Robert Semple, and they went as missionaries to China, where Robert died soon after their arrival. She then travelled the USA as an itinerant evangelist, with her mother, two kids, and a tent.

After a successful healing ministry in San Diego she decided to settle in California, and in 1923 her Angelus Temple opened. The book describes her method:

The basic elements of her formula were: a simple, easily-remembered, four-point gospel; lively and unconventional preaching methods; and extraordinary flair for publicity; the familiar technique of self-dramatization in the role of a messiah; and an inexhaustible skill in improvising things for people to do. But the most important factor in her success was the way in which she ‘substituted the cheerfulness of the playroom for the gloom of the morgue’. She completely abjured the hell-fire techniques of old-style evangelism.

And much the same thing could be said of many of the neopentecostal megachurches today.

Her initial success was also because she had come to the right place. Missiologists have discovered that evangelism is often most successful in places where people have moved into new homes. They’ve already made one big change in their lives, they are therefore open to others.

She had come, of course, to the right place to launch and evangel of joyousness. In the decade 1920-30, 1,270,000 new residents swept into the County of Los Angeles, with the peak of this movement being reached in 1923, the year the Temple was founded. In most instances, newcomers could not find the church of their childhood; or, if they did, there was something about the impishly impious sunlight of the region that undermined their interest in ‘the old-style religion’. Migration severs allegiances and weakens old loyalties. It creates the social fluidity out of which new cults grow and flourish. Nine out of ten of Aimee’s followers were converts from the orthodox Protestant creeds, migrants from small town and farming areas in the Middle West. Full of nostalgia for the corn belt but mighty intrigued by sunny California, aching with loneliness and the feeling of ‘wanting to know someone’, they found their heart’s desire in Angelus Temple, Sister Aimee, and the Shared Happiness of Kindred Souls.

With rare ingenuity, Aimee kept the Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds of religion going day and night. Her showmanship was superb; her timing matchless; her dramatic instinct uncanny. When, at the close of her sermon, she asked the sinners to come forward and be saved, her voice was low, compassionate and tender; the lights were dimmed, the music mournful and pleading. Then, as the slow, sad, solemn procession started down the aisles, she would suddenly shout, ‘Ushers, jump to it! Turn on the lights and clear the one-way street for Jesus!’ As the lights blazed on and the organ boomed, the meeting would suddenly start to bounce and jump.

It’s a formula that has repeated many times since. Perhaps the only change has been electronic amplification.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 December 2008 12:34 am

    If you ever get the chance I’d recommend Edith Blumhofer’s biography of McPherson, “Everybody’s Sister”. While, like you she locates modern mega-church revivalism with Blumhofer’s theatrics she also paints a sympathetic picture – McPherson was, for example more interested in social justice, no doubt due to her Salvation Army roots, than many pentecostals then or now.

  2. 8 December 2008 8:24 pm

    I’ve got a biography of her at home, and she is a fascinating woman. Unlike the one Richard read, the one I have is more a historical study, including several scandals she was involved in and her early adoption of new technologies such as the automobile and radio.

    The church she founded has gone international, it is the Foursquare Gospel church.

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