Flashback Fridays – The Foursquare Gospel and Aimee Semple McPherson

Aimee Semple cutting herself a slice of Angelus-Temple-shaped birthday cake.*

Echo Park might not immediately strike people as an evangelist hot spot, but in the 1920s, it was the home base of fiery female evangelist and radio sensation Aimee Semple McPherson. She is the woman behind the Angelus Temple at the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (that giant, white amphitheater-looking building at the intersection of Park and Glendale).

Aimee was born into a farming family in Ontario, Canada in 1890. It was a religious household, but Aimee came to evangelism of her own accord. She began preaching in 1913, traveling throughout Canada and the United States and holding tent revivals. She became known as a faith healer, and became so popular that her gatherings began to fill to over capacity.

In the late 1910s, Aimee decided to settle in Los Angeles with her mother and her two children. She bought a plot of land next to Echo Park Lake which she described as “heaven on earth.” It was here that she decided to build a church from which she would spread the Foursquare Gospel, the name that she gave to her teachings after experiencing a vision.

While preaching in Oakland in 1922, Aimee had a vision similar to the one in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel. She saw a cup, a dove, a crown and a cross and believed they symbolized (respectively) healing, baptism, the Savior and the Second Coming. She believed that these four symbols corresponded to everything that was important in society and in one’s own life. She named her teachings, with their focus on these four pillars of life, the Foursquare Gospel.

It took less than two years to build the church (1920 to 1922), and it was dedicated on January 1, 1923. It was built entirely with donations that Aimee collected from her followers which is believed to have amounted to 1.2 million dollars.

In 1925, Aimee set up a radio station devoted entirely to religious programming, KFSG, which she used to broadcast her Sunday sermons all over the country. In this way, she became a household name. However, some media attention brought her notoriety instead of devoted followers. McPherson vanished one day in May of 1926 and re-appeared about a month later. She claimed to have been kidnapped, but her story didn’t fit with the evidence found. People came up with various stories: that she had run away with a lover, that she had gone away to have an abortion or that she had done it all for attention.

Aimee was not above publicity stunts as a way to get her message out to the people. She was as well known in Hollywood as she was in American revival tents. Pete Seeger wrote a song about her. Upton Sinclair wrote a poem about her. Milton Berle claimed to have had an affair with her. She was a woman ahead of her time and one of the first media celebrities.

*I read a bit of Aimee’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, a while ago and took notes on any interesting factoids that I found. I’m bummed, because now I can’t find said notes in which I wrote down a description of the above cake. If I remember correctly, this was not her birthday cake, but the cake that was made in honor of the opening of the church. It was made using exclusively ingredients mentioned in the Bible. Yummy.

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