Why a Legendary East Coast Evangelist Chose Los Angeles for Her Pentecostal Empire

Angelus Temple founder Aimee Semple McPherson saw L.A. as an “opportunity for God”

The following is an excerpt from Gary Krist’s book The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeleswhich details the lives of three people who shaped Los Angeles: William Mulholland, D.W. Griffith, and Aimee Semple McPherson. This section focuses on McPherson’s arrival in L.A. and the birth of Angelus Temple, the still-operational Echo Park church she founded. The book is being released by Crown Publishing on May 15, 2018.

For a charismatic evangelist like Sister [Aimee] McPherson, Los Angeles in the late 1910s offered particularly fertile ground. Despite the decade’s influx of godless movie people and their trailing entourage of wannabes and hangers-on, the city had remained a magnet for aging health-seekers, middle-class snowbirds, and retirees from the Midwest. These were uprooted people with a lot of time on their hands, and their search for a sense of community and purpose had already turned the city, in writer John Steven McGroarty’s words, into “the most celebrated of all incubators of new creeds, codes of ethics, and philosophies,” not to mention “a breeding place and a rendezvous of freak religions.”

The lost souls for whom Theosophy was too outré and social utopianism too woolly-headed and political were a natural audience for Sister McPherson’s message. She knew this better than anyone. “Certainly Los Angeles was ripe for revival,” she wrote in one of her memoirs of this period. “This great metropolis appeared to afford perhaps the greatest opportunity for God of any city in America. Thousands of tourists were coming from every state in the Union, many coming to reside. . . . Their other needs had been provided for in the city—homes, amusements, highways, and parks. But, alas, there were few adequately large buildings where they might hear the Word of God in its blessed Pentecostal fullness.” The Azusa Street Revival had been a good start, but somehow its momentum had tapered off in the last decade, leaving that “dearth in the land.” Now that Sister was on the scene, the city could repair its faith deficit. In a sense, William Mulholland and D. W. Griffith had already seen to the city’s physical, economic, and artistic requirements; now Aimee Semple McPherson was here to minister to its spiritual needs.

Aimee Semple McPherson in 1937

LAPL Photo Collection/Herald Examiner Collection

But all of this would take time. As in Mount Forest and almost every other place she’d ever preached, McPherson had to start modestly in Los Angeles. Her first revival was held at Victoria Hall, a small Pentecostal mission located downtown on the current site of the L.A. Times building. Though the auditorium had a capacity of about a thousand, services had been attracting fewer than fifty people—but that was before the arrival of the much-heralded female evangelist from the East. By the end of her first week, Sister McPherson was already bringing in the multitudes, filling every seat in the auditorium and packing the aisles and hallways besides. On weekends, the demand for seats was so great that she was forced to relocate the services to the 3,500-capacity Temple Auditorium on Pershing Square. The city’s drifting Pentecostal community, which had become anemic and contentious since the closing of the Azusa Street Revival, was instantly reenergized as word of Sister’s gifts spread through the city. Whatever it was that Angelenos were seeking in their spiritual lives, Sister McPherson seemed able to provide it, and they began coming in throngs.

Courtesy Crown

One Sunday evening several weeks after Sister’s arrival, a woman in the crowded auditorium rose during a lull in the service and asked to speak. “The Lord shows me that I am to give a lot to Mrs. McPherson,” the woman announced. “I have four lots of land and do not need them all… . I want to give one of them to Sister to build a bungalow for her babies.”

Aimee was astonished. “How did she know I wanted a bungalow?” she asked herself. “We had told that cherished hope to no one.”

Then a man stood up in another part of the auditorium. “I want to give the lumber to build Sister’s house,” he said.
From there it became—as she later put it—a “popcorn meeting. One after another jumped up, offered to donate the dining-room furniture, the living-room rugs, the kitchen linoleum, until practically a completely furnished home had been promised as a gift from those lovely, warm-hearted people.” As she later told the story, there were even spontaneous offers of a canary and a collection of rosebushes—the very two things that her children had most longed for.

Three months later, the McPherson family had a house of its own—built almost entirely with volunteer labor and donated construction materials—on a quiet street in Culver City. In Sister’s mind, of course, this bungalow was the “swallow’s nest” that God had promised her when Roberta lay deathly ill back in New Rochelle—which was why they called it, from then on, “the House that God Built.”

For the first time in her adult life, Sister now had something resembling a real, permanent home. Not that she would stay put. Over the next four years, she would use Los Angeles as a kind of base camp, leaving the children at home with her mother while she went out into the wider world, building her following revival by revival. She had always imagined herself as a traveling evangelist, never as a resident preacher with a single church and a congregation of regulars, so this arrangement worked for a time. But Los Angeles would gradually change her mind about that. She saw how her children thrived in the more stable environment of home, school, and church, here in a place where, as she preached, “the glorious One had caused the desert to bloom as a rose, and pools to spring forth in the wilderness, and floods [to flow] in the dry land.” She began to conceive a somewhat different image of her future—as the leader of a nationwide or even worldwide ministry, but with a central headquarters in a place her family could call home.

Apparently, God agreed. According to Aimee, he gently but firmly made it known to her that he had brought her to Los Angeles for a particular purpose: “to build a house unto the Lord,” right there in the City of Angels. Exactly what form this house might take would remain un- clear for several years. But Aimee was certain that God would reveal his plan in good time. Los Angeles was to be her Jerusalem, it seemed, and she was to be God’s messenger here. It would prove to be a potent match. In a city full of movie stars, Aimee Semple McPherson was poised to become the biggest celebrity of all.

Excerpted from THE MIRAGE FACTORY. Copyright (c) 2018 by Gary Krist. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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