How Los Angeles Helped Make the U.S. an Evangelical Nation

Carey McWilliams once called Louis Adamic Los Angeles’ greatest “prophet, sociologist and historian” of the 1920s. Adamic loved California not so much because of the famed climate, though that certainly didn’t hurt, but more because he found it a source of endless entertainment and absorption, and not always toward the good. “Actually, and in spite of all the healthful sunshine and ocean breezes, it is a bad place … full of curious and wild and poisonous growths.” For the skeptical Adamic, “decadent religions and cults” served as warning of such perils. “Hardly a day passed … that I was not stopped in the street and handed a religious tract,” he noted. L.A. might be “the essence of America” but it was a cacophony of faiths, a veritable ecclesiastical jungle.[1]

By the 1920s, Los Angeles hosted a particularly fervent strain of Christianity today referred to as evangelicalism, but it took decades to develop before reaching a true mass audience through the likes of Aimee Semple McPherson, Bob Shuler, and Los Angeles native Charles E. Fuller. The rise of Pentecostalism in the Azusa Street Revival during the first decade of the 20th century, the establishment of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (Biola) near its second, and the ascension of the famed Aimee Semple McPherson and her Echo Park Angelus Temple in the century’s third decade, the 1920s, demonstrate this arc.

Of course, none shone brighter than McPherson. “The first religious celebrity of the mass media era,” historian Matthew Avery Gordon writes, “she mastered, print, radio, and film for use in her evangelical mission. Her integration of the latest media tools with a conservative creed established precedents for the century’s most popular ministers from Billy Graham to Oral Roberts to Pat Robertson.”[2] McPherson embodied the contradictory impulses of modernism and tradition in her creed and through her showmanship. Yet to focus solely on McPherson ignores the longer trajectory of evangelicalism and Los Angeles’ mighty contribution to its cultural and political power.

2016 marks the 90th anniversary of McPherson’s most notorious scandal and that which brought her to national fame: her alleged 1926 kidnapping, which drew the country’s attention and captivated the city’s populace. However, the fame she enjoyed might not have been possible without the city’s general religious diversity, which gave room for more fervent strains of Christianity outside mainline Protestantism.

Undoubtedly, Los Angeles has shaped and contributed mightily to the worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism (500 million adherents and counting), the numbers of American evangelicals nationally, the rise of mega-churches, and the evolution of celebrity religious leaders like Pat Robertson. While McPherson deserves credit for her pioneering efforts and her cultural influence, understanding the context in which she emerged provides greater insight into the countervailing forces of demography, modernity, and religion at the heart of the Los Angeles of the 1920s and today.

Congregants raise their hands inside Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
Congregants raise their hands inside Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Angels of Varying Faiths All Around Us

“The multiplicity and diversity of faiths that flourish in the aptly named City of Angels probably cannot be duplicated in any other city on earth,” noted the authors of the Works Progress Administration’s guide to the city in 1940.[3] Alongside evangelicalism, congregations dedicated to mainline Protestantism, Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and even the occult existed simultaneously.

More traditional religions celebrated their respective beliefs knowing that more esoteric ones did so as well. “The cosmopolitan populace of Los Angeles became known far and wide for its susceptibility to the teachings of sects and cults embracing such philosophies as divine healing, occult science, spiritual and mental phenomena, reincarnation, and astrological revelations,” concluded the guide’s writers.[4]

Religious diversity is what differentiated Los Angeles from places like San Bernardino, where, as Joan Didion once wrote, it was “possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-a-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.”[5]

To a certain degree, Los Angeles’ multiplicity of faiths in the 20th century can be attributed to its diverse and expanding population; its strain of fundamentalism a function of and reaction to this growing racial and religious diversity.[6] It fueled the sense among L.A.’s evangelical set that they must spread the word further and with greater zeal, lest mankind’s soul be lost. “Clearly, the social and cultural transformation of Los Angeles during the 1920s drove local fundamentalists’ fears as much as any doctrinal debate did,” historian Philip Goff notes.[7]

In 1900, the homogeneity of Los Angeles earned the city the nicknames like “Iowa by the Sea” and “Double Dubuque.” Of its over 100,000 citizens, most derived their ethnicity from Europe and many had migrated from the Midwest.[8] To be clear, pockets of African-American Protestants, Mexican Catholics, Jewish congregants, Native Americans practicing indigenous faiths, and Chinese and Japanese residents, many followers of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, existed. Yet in 1900, the city consisted predominantly of white mainstream Protestants.

However, the population soon boomed, reaching 576,673 in 1920 and 1,238,000 in 1930, and the new arrivals hailed from more exotic origins than Iowa. Census officials counted 21,598 Mexicans within city limits in 1920 and by 1930 they added another 65,000, for a total of 97,000. Rising numbers of Japanese, African-American, and other arrivals brought greater demographic pluralism such that the only other city in America with a greater percentage of non-white residents was Baltimore.[9]

While many faiths had established at least one local institution before 1900, during this period, residents witnessed the construction of numerous temples, synagogues, and churches across the city. Japanese immigrants brought Zen Buddhism to Los Angeles with the creation of the Zenshuji Soto Mission in 1922. Around the same time, other strains of Buddhism established footholds in the city as well: the Higashi Hongwanji Temple in 1921 and the Hompa Hongwanji Temple in 1917. Boyle Heights’ Jewish Orthodox congregation built the city’s largest synagogue, the Breed Street Shul in 1912 (though to be more precise as one reader notes, what was built in 1912 was a much smaller wooden structure, only later was it enlarged). By the 1920s, wealthier Jewish Angelenos moved west across the city to the Fairfax neighborhood; the Wilshire Boulevard Temple soon followed under the leadership of Rabbi Edgar Fogel. From 1929 to 1930, Roman Catholic Los Angeles radioman Jose David Orozco organized forty chapters of the Santo Nombre (the Holy Name Society). In 1929, Swami Prabhavananda opened the Ventdanta Society of Southern California in Hollywood, where he lectured and provided spiritual counsel based on Hindu and Ramakrishna-Vedanta beliefs.[10]

African-American congregations grew as well. By 1930, the number of black Angelenos had increased from 15,579 ten years earlier to nearly 40,000. Some 33 congregations practiced Protestant Christianity in 1926 Los Angeles; in 1936 “17,296 congregants worshipped in 54 churches,” writes historian Michael E. Engh. According to Charlotte E. Bass, the prominent publisher of the California Eaglethe most respected churches of the time – and coincidentally the favorite of African American elites – were also some of the oldest: the Second Baptist and First African Methodist Episcopal churches. Admittedly, these old-line churches struggled with addressing the spiritual demands of a growing black population. Some like the Second Baptist Church expanded staff, services, and even facilities. In 1926, behind the leadership of Reverend T. L. Griffith, the Second Baptist Church relocated to 24th Street and Griffith Avenue, which was then the center of an expanding black Angeleno community, to better meet the needs of its congregants.[11]

The Fundamentals 

Prior to McPherson’s arrival to Los Angeles in late 1918, two forces drove the emergence of evangelicalism in Los Angeles: the Azusa Street Revival from 1906-13 that popularized Pentecostalism and the creation of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles in 1908.

“L.A.’s most successful export is not Hollywood but Pentecostalism,” the Economist argued in 2006 – and it would be an African-American itinerant preacher that drove its expansion.

William J. Seymour arrived in Los Angeles in 1906. Julia Hutchins and a group of like-minded Baptists had invited Seymour after they had split with a local church over doctrine. Hutchins and the others believed in the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” in which emotionalism and “speaking in tongues” was not only accepted but emphasized. Seymour had studied under Charles Fox Parham who was a leader in what was then known as the “holiness movement” which promoted similar practices.[12]

This building at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles served as ground zero for the Pentecostal movement.
This building at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles served as ground zero for the Pentecostal movement.

Seymour’s early emphasis on “baptism of the Spirit” and “speaking in tongues” resulted in his congregation’s ouster from a local Baptist Church. They eventually relocated to the former First AME Church at 312 Azusa Street in downtown L.A.

The Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM), as it came to be known, served as ground zero for the Pentecostal movement. Services often started in the evening and occasionally ran into the following morning. Dependent on the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit, services could even go a full 24 hours.

AFM congregants like Arthur B. Shepherd described their experiences in near-death terms. “Slowly, surely my life seemed to ebb away, until at last unconsciousness took place,” he told the Apostolic Faith Newsletter. “How long I lay I do not know, but the first thing I was conscious of was a new life flowing in. Soon, my jaws and tongue began to work independently of my volition and the words came, a clear language.”

Unlike most Christian churches of the day, the AFM welcomed a diverse multiracial and multiethnic following. African-, Asian-, and European-Americans hugged and ululated together. Journalist Frank Bartleman wrote in his diary that through the revival “the color line was washed away in the blood.“ Missionaries from all over the world – India, Africa, and elsewhere – gathered to celebrate at AFM, he noted. People came to Los Angeles to “experience the modern ‘Pentecost’” historian Marne L. Campbell concludes.[13]

Though Seymour never really spoke out against segregation directly, he did suggest that race, class, or social status had little to do with connecting to a higher power: “No instrument that God can use is rejected on account of color or dress or lack of education.” Moreover, the AFM’s diverse gatherings of people shocked many Angelenos who believed such racial mixing should not be taking place. Whites living near the church often called the police or filed complaints with the city.

Some in the media also viewed the AFM skeptically. The Los Angeles Times called AFM congregants a “new sect of fanatics.” Established religion looked on warily, as well, describing Seymour and his fellow Pentecostal leaders as fraudulent and guilty of “play acting.” One rival preacher took his criticism further, labeling Pentecostalism as the “last vomit of Satan.”[14]

In many ways, the AFM’s success would prove its downfall. Internal divisions developed as AFM participants broke away to establish their own Pentecostal churches. Increasingly, the multicultural and multiracial hue of Pentecostalism changed as new churches tended to segregated congregations. By 1913, the AFM was defunct, but Pentecostalism’s roots had spread.

Bible Institute of Los Angeles (Biola). Courtesy of the Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.
Bible Institute of Los Angeles (Biola). Courtesy of the Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

As the AFM was rising to prominence, another Los Angeles institution dedicated to fundamentalist Christianity opened its doors. In 1908, Union Oil Company millionaire Lyman Stewart, who hoped to create a California version of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, funded the opening of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA). When its doors first opened, Biola took up an entire city block at the corner of Hope and Sixth streets with its 4,565-seat Church of the Open Door and 683 dorm rooms. The five boilers that heated the two 13-floor towers also provided steam for ten other buildings in the vicinity that in turn housed restaurants, hotels, and stores.

In addition to committing itself to training Christian men and women in fundamentalism, Biola established a publishing operation that by 1923 had released 42,000 copies of the leading western fundamentalist journal The King’s Business. In 1917, four years after the demise of the AFM and two before McPherson arrived in L.A., Biola led 6,417 evangelistic meetings, conducted 9,912 classes, disseminated more than 17,000 Bibles, Testaments, and Gospels, distributed more than 213,000 religious tracts, and converted 5,000 new believers.[15]

Though Biola used Los Angeles’ climate as a promotion tool, selling it as the most “healthful … in all the word,” it also used the city’s Pacific Rim location and diverse population as means to draw new students. Few places provided access to so many different cultures. Enrolling at Biola offered the opportunity proselytize to nations like Korea, Japan, and China. “This is the critical hour,” its promotional literature announced, “and those who believe in the Bible and its matchless power to influence, not only individuals but also society as a whole, and the commercial life of nations as well as their religious life, should seize the present opportunity at any cost.”[16]

In 1922, it established a radio station, KTBL, through which preachers like L.A. native Charles E. Fuller addressed their flocks. Fuller would become arguably the most popular radio preacher for the next 25-plus years, his voice reaching tens of millions around the world. In 1944, estimates suggested his weekly audiences numbered twenty million.[17] “Is it any wonder,” asks Goff, “that Los Angeles’s six mainline Protestant denominations grew by 64 percent during the 1920s, while those ‘small sets and cults’ garnered a 381 [percent] increase?”

Biola and the Azusa Street Revival, when combined with the city’s tremendous demographic growth, had created conditions ripe for the arrival of perhaps Los Angeles’ most iconic evangelical voice.

“Sister Christian oh the time has come … ” 

Aimee Semple McPherson arrived in Los Angeles with her mother and two children in December of 1918. Given her marriage to Penetcostalist preacher Robert Semple, her proselytizing in China, and her barnstorming across America in a revivalist movement during World War I, McPherson was no stranger to the life of an evangelical. With the groundwork laid by Seymour and Biola and the expanding Los Angeles economy and population, it should prove no surprise that McPherson frequently cited Joshua 6:16: “Shout for the Lord hath given you the city.”[18]

Benefitting from the charity of local fundamentalists who, by buying land and building her family a home, helped McPherson get on her feet, the newly arrived preacher soon saw opportunity in the growing city. After spotting a prime location for a church in Echo Park, McPherson embarked on a national tour to raise funds. It proved a massive success. Crowds in San Diego grew so large that McPherson had to move the venue to Balboa Park, with her largest crowd reaching 8,000.[19] By 1923, McPherson had accumulated enough money to build what became a city landmark: the Angelus Temple, the center of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Aware of the importance of aesthetics, McPherson designed the temple in the spirit of ancient Rome; its domed roof outfitted with crushed seashells mixed into the mortar so that it resembled “a crown jewel in the sunlight.” Inside, the temple felt much like a theater featuring heavy burgundy curtains along with “oriental velvets and brocades.” Over the entrance, the temple advertised weekly sermons on an electric marquee. Upon visiting the temple, one preacher described it as “half Roman Coliseum, half like a Parisian opera house.” It could seat nearly 5,000. [20]

Much as Biola functioned as an economic engine for its local community, the Angelus Temple did the same for Echo Park. The Times credited it with bringing “new life [to] a neglected district.” McPherson not only gave charismatic sermons steeped in fundamentalism, she also served as a prime advocate for the city. “In a partnership made in heaven, McPherson boosted the City of Angels, while the chamber of commerce made Angelus Temple a top destination for tourists hoping to capture an impression of the L.A. scene,” notes historian Matthew Avery Sutton.[21]

McPhersons's headquarters: the Angelus Temple in Echo Park. Courtesy of the James H. Osborne Photograph Collection, California State University, Dominguez Hills, Archives and Special Collections.
McPhersons’s headquarters: the Angelus Temple in Echo Park. Courtesy of the James H. Osborne Photograph Collection, California State University, Dominguez Hills, Archives and Special Collections.

Recognizing an economic opportunity, McPherson purchased adjacent properties while developers built up neighboring blocks. She was smart to do so; religion as economic renewal was in full swing. Between 1916 and 1926, the value of church and synagogue properties in the city ballooned from $6.7 million to $29.5 million.[22]McPherson might have best exploited the burgeoning religious economy, but without Azusa Street and Biola, one can imagine that her ventures would have proved less profitable. Like Biola, McPherson created a radio station and Bible college to spread her evangelistic message while also publishing Bridal Call for the masses.

Other local preachers drew crowds. Bob Shuler preached fire and brimstone from the pulpit at Trinity Methodist Church on Flower Street in downtown L.A. and across the airwaves on KFEG. No one, however, combined the business acumen, religious fervor, and theatrical presence of McPherson, who would don costumes to deliver her message. “Entering the temple on a motorcycle in a policeman’s uniform, McPherson placed sin under arrest and urged her audience not to speed to ruin,” writes California historian Kevin Starr. In other moments, she dressed as a USC Trojan and “urged her congregation to carry the ball for Christ.”[23]

As a female preacher with her own congregation, McPherson cut a unique figure. Much like Biola and Shuler, she used the latest media to promote a religious message that sought to debunk theories of evolution and fought for prohibition while centering the role of Christianity in mainstream life. The Times credited her with improving the city’s moral compass: “The Temple is bringing thousands of people to Los Angeles and scores and scores of radicals and all kinds of criminals are being converted.”[24]

Unlike Shuler, McPherson – though hardly at the forefront of civil rights – refrained from attacking minorities. She even criticized the Klu Klux Klan at times, though in other moments, she engaged with them. She established a separate temple for black Foursquare Gospel congregants and the Angelus Commissary served all “regardless of race or creed.” McPherson also worked to reintegrate Pentecostalism with Emma Cotton, a leading Pentecostal, and Charles H. Mason, one of the most influential black religious leaders in national history; both were central figures in the Azusa Street Revival.[25]

During the Depression, the commissary served migrants, Mexicans, and African-Americans despite state and regional policies that advised the opposite. A 1936 report from the State Relief Administration highlighted the commissary’s role in relieving poverty. In the late 1920s, she reached out to Mexican evangelist Francisco Olazabal, arguably North America’s most powerful Spanish-speaking Pentecostal. She even established the McPherson Mexicana Mission, a Spanish-language church and commissary in East Los Angeles.[26] Still, in other ways, she never challenged the racial status quo as did Seymour; McPherson never appointed Mexicans or African-Americans into leadership positions.

Her parishioners hailed from the working and middle classes; they consisted of laborers and professionals and, according to membership records there were roughly two women for each man in her congregation.[27] With swarms of newcomers arriving in the city on a monthly basis, McPherson and the Angelus Temple naturally drew new congregants.

McPherson had her critics. Shuler harped at her for paying too much attention to theatrics and not enough to dogma. Some complained her services were too Pentecostal; others argued they were not Pentecostal enough. Moreover, as an independent woman at the head of a large, visible religious organization, her gender challenged norms. McPherson straddled the line imbuing her persona with equal parts Victorian femininity and 1920s “new woman.” She infused her sermons and stage appearances with an undercurrent of sexuality. The Los Angeles evangelist served as a conduit for changing popular notions regarding female sexuality, fashion, and physical appearance.[28]

Aimee Semple McPherson, arms raised. Courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Aimee Semple McPherson, arms raised. Courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Unsurprisingly, McPherson’s charismatic appeal and controversial nature drew celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. She rubbed elbows with political figures like William Jennings Bryan. She even influenced future presidents. As a boy, Richard Nixon and his family attended services at the temple. Her 1926 kidnapping scandal, noted Nixon biographer Evan Thomas, made an imprint on the future commander in chief. “The charges were never proved, but for months the press shrilly sensationalized the story,” writes Thomas. “For the thirteen year old Nixon, avid consumer of newspapers, it was an early lesson in the murkiness and malleability of truth.”[29]

Her scandal might have brought her to national fame, but it also sapped McPherson emotionally. She changed her look in subsequent years, dieting and adopting fancier clothes as she became more “Hollywood.” She established a production company, but her showmanship proved more in line with stage performances than film. Her continuing attempts to “engage conservative Protestantism with modern American culture” persisted; she exhibited a staunch anti-communism and nationalism through the 1930s and into the 1940s. However, in general, during her post 1926 years she “wandered in a wilderness of her own making,” writes Sutton.[30] In 1944, McPherson died of an overdose of the sedative Seconal.

Today the influence of Azusa Street, Biola, and McPherson continue. Pentecostalism has become a growing global phenomena. Though it moved long ago from its original location, Biola still operates today as Biola University. In 2008, 6,000 students passed through its doors and satellite campuses throughout California and in New York City, Thailand, and the Ukraine.[31] Angelus Temple and the Church of the Foursquare Gospel also remain a part of the city’s religious life.