Matthew Avery Sutton
Harvard University Press, 2007
No figure in early twentieth-century Christianity gained as much fame, notoriety, and acclaim as Aimee Semple McPherson. “Sister” McPherson oversaw the rise of an expansive empire—church services, radio, stagecraft, community service, politics, and print media—devoted to spreading her brand of fundamentalism and Pentecostal Protestantism. McPherson herself inspired a massive following, due in part to her charisma and ability to use modern techniques to further her cause of “old-time religion.”
Matthew Avery Sutton, a new assistant history professor at Washington State University, delivers a well-researched and entertaining profile of McPherson. He doesn’t portray her as merely an extremely successful evangelical preacher, but rather as an influential, complex woman and celebrity who creatively blended “Hollywood pizzazz” with simple Protestant messages of salvation and challenged notions of the roles of women in society and religion.
McPherson first rose to prominence traveling the country for Christian revivals, finally settling in Los Angeles in 1919 to establish her Foursquare Church. Her dynamic presentations and gift for spectacle led to the construction of Angelus Temple, a massive monument visited by her faithful, as well as tourists and a parade of famous people in the 1920s and ‘30s. She followed up with publications and a radio station to broadcast her sermons and other programming through California and the West.
“Sister Aimee” became famous for her elaborately produced illustrated sermons that rivaled vaudeville and the burgeoning movie industry—the spectacles included airplanes crashing on stage, live animals, and a police motorcycle. McPherson also received acclaim for her community service work with soup kitchens, the homeless, and aid organizations throughout Los Angeles.
She deftly used journalists to promote her views and build her fame, while fostering cordial relations with powerful politicians and civic leaders. Part of McPherson’s fame came from tackling high-profile causes, such as the battle over teaching evolution in schools. McPherson welcomed William Jennings Bryan as a speaker at Angelus Temple and used her extensive media network to blast proponents of evolution.
As Sutton writes, McPherson also fused politics with evangelical Christianity after a period of separation of religious beliefs from affairs of state, to the consternation of other evangelicals. McPherson took a prominent role in the 1928 California gubernatorial race between Frank Merriam and Upton Sinclair, which McPherson felt showcased an apocalyptic battle for America against Communism and secularism. Her support for Merriam likely aided Sinclair’s defeat, and Sutton points out her influence on political activism among later evangelicals from Pat Robertson to Rick Warren.
McPherson faced a lot of criticism for her showy displays and personal foibles, a fact not lost on Sutton. Many, including rival preachers, felt she was a charlatan and opportunist with questionable morals. Sutton portrays McPherson’s real and rumored scandals and peccadilloes without losing sight of McPherson’s contributions to the rise of evangelical influence in America, and incidentally to the women’s rights movement.
To Sutton, McPherson’s influence extended well past her death by barbiturate overdose in 1944. As Sutton writes, “she had ushered Pentecostalism into the mainstream of American culture… Her efforts to graft old-time religion onto American culture transformed conservative Protestantism, while her defiance of traditional gender norms broke new ground for women.”
For the biography, Sutton won the Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize from Harvard University Press, awarded annually to the best book in any discipline by a first-time author. The PBS series American Experience also based its film “Sister Aimee” on Sutton’s book.
Video: Politics and Religion. Let’s talk about it.
Associate WSU history professor Matthew A. Sutton addresses the issue of politics/religion in a thoughtful, nonpartisan manner through in depth studies on the origins and history of religion and politics in America.