Sister Aimee’s Temple
As a fledgling evangelist in the 1910s, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson was not sure why God had called her from the midwest to sunny California. As often happens with the prophets, the matter was settled by revelation.
“Eventually God gently but unquestionably began to show me that he had led me to Los Angeles, to ‘build a house unto the Lord,'” Aimee wrote in her autobiography. “His message encouraged, ‘Shout, for the Lord has given you the city.'”
“One day in the summer of 1920 the call rang so urgently in my heart that I climbed into the automobile and with my mother and set out in search of land. Reaching the corner of Figueroa and Third Street, where we usually turned into the heart of the city, I was strangely impressed to drive on another block and then turn toward Glendale Boulevard. I had never been in this section of Los Angeles before. In just a few minutes we reached Echo Park. ‘Oh, this is heaven!’ I cried, ‘the most beautiful spot for a house of the Lord I have ever seen. It’s right in the city, yet so restful.'”
Construction on the Echo Park Revival Tabernacle took three years and $1.5 million. On January 1, 1923, the house of worship was christened the Angelus Temple, and its cinema-style folding pew chairs seated their first congregation.
The house that Aimee built still sits on the corner of Glendale and Park. When I got there the doors were locked, but the lady in Ye Foursquare Bookshoppe next door let me in to wander free. The temple is under renovation because of earthquake damage, so I sneaked around scaffolds and dropcloths to look around. The best part was a mini-museum of religious relics. Mounted in a glass case were a dozen or more archaic casts, splints and crutches. Many were toddler-sized; they looked like an exhibit of ancient torture devices. Each had a placard that gave the name and address of the afflicted, and told briefly about the day on stage with Sister Aimee when they?d shed their braces forever. It was creepy.
I decided I wanted to get on the stage, so I went back to Ye Bookshoppe and impressed the lady by buying a Jesus comic book and some Jack Chick pamphlets. Soon enough, a balding man called Neil who was some sort of official at the church offered to show me around. I guess it gets pretty slow in that bookstore sometimes. He took me down the corridor and unlocked a door onto the stage. It was marvelous down there, deep in a canyon of red velvet chairs, piano to the left, drum set to the right, a massive pipe organ behind. Neil told me the temple was modeled after the Royal Albert Music Hall or maybe the Globe Theater, I can’t remember which, and I wasn’t taking notes for fear I’d blow my cover as a potential convert. The concrete dome roof, designed by Aimee, was the world’s biggest when it was built.
Neil gave me a couple other tidbits. Temple services are still broadcast over the church’s station, KFSG, Radio Foursquare Gospel. When Sister Aimee started the station in the twenties it had the strongest transmitter in California. An organ teacher in San Francisco would have her students tune in for musical tips, and it was believed that the festive broadcasts were heard as far away as Australia. I asked my host about the artifacts displayed in the hall and he said that the cast collection had been missing for decades and presumed lost until renovation crew found them stuffed in the mezzanine crawlspace. It must have felt like King Tut’s tomb in there. Neil also told me that Aimee’s immigration to California in the Buick 8 was the first ever recorded cross-country drive by a woman.
The temple was rich with history. On this stage Aimee invented a new type of religion based as much on theatrics as on theology. California historian Carey McWilliams wrote, “From the platform of Angelus Temple, Sister Aimee gave the Angelenos the fanciest theological entertainment they have enjoyed. I have seen her drive an ugly devil around the stage with a pitchfork, enact the drama of Valley Forge in George Washington’s uniform, and take the lead in a dramatized sermon called ?Sodom and Gomorrah.?”
It’s sort of a beautiful, innocent vision. Before the heyday of movies, television, and other virtual entertainment, people actually looked to other living people for entertainment and company. Sister Aimee brought thousands of people together, many times a week, with just her old-time religion and vaudeville hijinks. She must have been good.