Sarah Comstock: “Aimee Semple McPherson: Prima Donna of Revivalism” Harper’s
Magazine (December 1927)
Web version: http://harpers.org/AimeeSempleMcPherson.html
There is a blare of trumpets and the murmur of more than five thousand people hushes sharply. A
baton flickers, “The Stars and Stripes” flings itself in long red and white streamers of sound.
Glances swing abruptly toward a staircase which comes down to the flower-decked platform. A
figure descends, plump, tripping, balancing an armload of roses.
“There she is! That’s her!”
The plump one trips forward to center stage, lifts the bouquet, her face wreathed in a garland of
interwoven roses and smiles. Upon it plays the calcium, violet light, pink light, blue light, golden
light. And now the vast gathering rises to its feet, breaks into clapping. The plump one bows to
this side, to that, a focused center of roses, smiles, light, delight, applause, while the band fairly
bursts its brass to hail her.
No. It is not a famous prima donna’s opening night. It is not the entrance of a world-renowned
tragedienne or of a queen of the flying trapeze or the tightrope. It is she who outstrips all of
these. It is “Sister.”
This was my first sight of Aimee Semple McPherson. From it I received the impression,
strengthened on many following occasions, that in this unique house of worship called Angelus
Temple in the city of Los Angeles the Almighty occupies a secondary position. He plays an
important part in the drama, to be sure; but center stage is taken and held by Mrs. McPherson. It
is in her praise that the band blares, that flowers are piled high, that applause splits the air. It is to
see her and hear her that throngs travel, crushed in the aisles of electric cars, thrust, elbow, and
bruise one another as they shove at the doors of her Temple. …All the people are making a
joyful noise… but the primary object of this mighty demonstration is not that of the Psalmist’s.
Rather, it is an ample lady of early middle years, her soft curves concealing muscles like steel; a
lady of flashing eye and quick movements and conspicuous reddish hair and ever-busy smile; a
lady who, gazing forth with satisfaction upon the assemblage come to do her homage, has the
right to honest pride. Sunday after Sunday the same phenomenon is seen. Thousands travel to
Angelus Temple, packing the street cars and mobbing the doors, standing with aching feet in the
hope of gaining admittance. …Aimee Semple McPherson is staging, month after month and even
year after year, the most perennially successful show in the United States.
In the weeks that I spent in Los Angeles and observed her with growing wonder, I probably fell
far short of learning all her accomplishments. But this much I did grasp: that as a show-producer
with unflagging power to draw she knows no equal. …Many a revivalist of the past has played
upon his audience by the old methods of sensational preaching; but Mrs. McPherson has
methods of her own. Her Sunday evening service is a complete vaudeville program, entirely new
each week, brimful of surprises for the eager who are willing to battle in the throng for entrance.
Take a typical Sunday evening. The spectators arrive to find the stage set with an ocean
background, rolling green waves flanked by rocks. …
An hour of orchestral music, then the singers file in, from fifty to a hundred of them, ranging
themselves in a loft over the speaker’s platform, facing the people and creating the illusion of a
heavenly choir just above the inspired one’s head. Their costumes, for this particular evening of
nautical entertainment, are in sailor effect, navy and white, jaunty caps atilt. When at length the
leading lady enters in the role of rear admiral, she is gallant in a swinging cape over a white
uniform, her red-gold coils surmounted by an all-but-official cap. …the program begins. …
The next performer will be a musician who plays upon a tin whistle and a set of chimes, perhaps
a few other instruments. Again the lighthouse door opens, forth he comes, a Gloucester
fisherman in full rubber attire to protect him from the nor-easter of tribulation. While Mrs.
McPherson informs Radio Land upon the microphone (which is her constant care) that, “He’s
got just a little tin whistle, folks, just like a little child’d play on,” ….
But the act must be quickly finished. Rarely is the request for an encore acknowledged by more
than a bow. The director knows the value of rapid movement, of the quick shift that anticipates
boredom. The Gloucester fisherman is hustled off to make way for a sailor boys’ quartette in
which there is much business of tugging at the ropes, climbing the mast hand-over-hand, heave-
hoing, rocking, and rolling. . . . Next an organ solo, a descriptive piece in which a storm at sea is
depicted by creaks, roars, crashes, and groans of the instrument and terrific flashes of electric
lightning. There are more songs by sailors and sailoresses, and at length, when the appetite for
vaudeville is fairly appeased, comes the headliner, the great act of the evening-Sister’s message.
It is in what she terms “illustrations” that she gives full vent to her showman’s genius. These are
her master effort, a novel and highly original use that she makes of properties, lights, stage
noises, and mechanical devices to point her message. Heaven and Hell, sinner and saint, Satan,
the fleshpots of Egypt, angels of Paradise and temptations of a bejazzed World are made visual
by actors, costumes, and theatrical tricks of any and every sort that may occur to her ingenious
mind- a mind which must work twenty-four hours to the day to pave the way for the lady’s
On this particular evening her analogy pertains to the sea.
“Look at the little pleasure boat!” She turns to the background of tossing waves. “Here it comes,
sailing along, having a grand time!”
Forth sails the little boat, which represents the gay and reckless one who ignores the warning to
repent. It crosses the background of painted waves somewhat jerkily, but entirely to the
satisfaction of the rapturous spectators.
“Yes, it’s having a grand time, all right. But here comes the pirate ship- oh, the old pirate’ll get
you, little pleasure boat! I’m sorry for you, but it’s too late!”
And now the pirate ship, emblem of Satan, hurries forward, overtakes the gay craft. A struggle-
then down goes the victim, crashing, capsizing, while a rejoicing mob applauds- the triumph of
Evil, but the triumph of Sister the Showman.
A ship of commerce follows and goes upon the pasteboard rocks. “You men that don’t think
about anything but money, money, can’t you make some more money! Oh, you’ll find yourself
on the rocks!” . . . Finally the submarine; it is compared to those infamous ones who attack
Angelus Temple and its high priestess. Her devoted adherents laugh victoriously as the
submarine fails in its deadliest efforts at destruction.