CityDig: For This 1920s Radio Preacher, Serving God and Being a Jerk Went Hand in Hand

Robert P. Shuler described himself as “scrapper for God,” which is certainly one way of putting it

Trinity Methodist Church once stood at 1201 S. Flower Street, a block from where the Staples Center is today. It was there that Reverend Robert P. “Fighting Bob” Shuler set out to cleanse the city of impurity with a biting brand of evangelical Christianity and a willingness to play fast and loose with political truth. The mild-looking Shuler grew up in Tennessee, where he received his degree in divinity from Emory and Henry College. He worked as a pastor in Virginia as well as Texas before settling in Los Angeles.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlas, Volume 1 Sheet 74, 1935 and 1950
Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlas, Volume 1 Sheet 74, 1935 and 1950

View a larger map

While 1920s L.A. was a city of many churches, it was just beginning to experience the bombastic preaching of the word via the radio. A trailblazer in this new form of outreach, Shuler started the station KGEF—“Keeping God Ever First”—from his church to broadcast his demagoguery to the entire city. He kept it up from 1920 all the way through 1953, reaching an audience of over 600,000 listeners.

With KGEF up and running, Shuler went straight to work, verbally demolishing bootleggers, grafting politicians, and corrupt police forces around the Southland. He was an old-time-religion, fire-and-brimstone preacher with little room for materialism and worldliness. But he wasn’t above casting stones at those he felt were wiping their brows with the devil’s kerchief, among them Catholics, African-Americans, Jews, anyone who stood in the way of his fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, and his arch-enemy—inimitable fellow radio preacher Aimee Semple McPherson.

The newspapers and politicians hated Shuler, but the naïve public revered him. In their eyes, he was a plain-speaking, commonsense folk hero. His constituency was largely the disenfranchised common people who were looking for scapegoats for their struggles in life. Shuler lauded the Ku Klux Klan and even used materials from the gossip columns in his tirades. Before long, he became involved in sleazy politics himself.

Mixing politics and religion, Shuler voiced his vehement objection to Roman Catholic Al Smith running for president in 1928, claiming that the papists were planning to murder Protestants in their beds if they took power. He also ripped the president of USC for allowing evolution to be taught, and he scorched the Los Angeles Public Library for having books “not fit to be read” by good Christians. Shuler even excoriated the YMCA for holding dances on Saturday nights. He spent plenty of time in courtrooms being sued for comments he made on his radio sermons.

Shuler’s broadcast license was revoked by the Federal Radio Commission in 1931, but he did not lose his popularity amongst his loyal followers. (Ironically, H.L. Mencken—no lover of organized religion—voiced his support of Shuler’s right to speak freely on the airwaves.)

In 1932 Shuler ran for Senate on the Prohibition ticket. Despite having once called him a “blatherskite,” one Los Angeles newspaper actually endorsed him in the race. When Shuler failed to win the election after garnering 500,000 votes, he was so incensed he placed a curse upon the city. When the Long Beach earthquake of 1933 struck with great devastation, there were many who believed Shuler’s curse had brought about the destruction.

After licking his political wounds, he ran for office again in 1942, this time for Congress. He was defeated again, this time by Jerry Voorhis by a mere 13,000 votes.

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.