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At a healing, the lame must walk, the tubercular breathe, or at least some of them, otherwise the faithful could become disillusioned — especially those who failed to mend — and the preacher castigated. “There is no job in the world so thankless as praying for the afflicted,” McPherson wrote years later. “But I have been forced into this sort of thing by public demand.”

Historian Carey McWilliams, McPherson’s longtime neighbor and friend, admired her “goodness and kindness,” and refusal to face negativity, but deplored her literal-mindedness and reactionary politics. He saw two sides to her ebullient spirit. “Being in love with her must have been rather like living in a one-room apartment with a radio going full blast night and day.” At the same time, “The most important factor in her success was the way she substituted the cheerfulness of the playroom for the gloom of the morgue.

“Seemingly quite by accident,” McWilliams added, “she had discovered that healing sessions were immensely valuable as attractions.”

On January 15, 1921, to increase audiences at Dreamland, McPherson laid hands during the evening service. As people sang “Nearer My God to Thee,” she encouraged the sick and the lame to come forward. “I cannot heal you,” she cautioned, and “If you doubt that He can, you will not be cured.”

One of the first to climb into the ring, William T. Ewing, said he had been deaf since the Civil War. As the audience swayed to “Nearer My God,” and some local ministers prayed, McPherson anointed Ewing’s forehead with oil. She clutched his hands and raised her head. She didn’t command him to heal. Instead, a witness recounted, she “invited him to join with her in total belief.”

Ewing’s eyes popped open, as if alerted by a strange sound. “I can hear!” he proclaimed. “I CAN HEAR!!”

The crowd exploded, waving hundreds of handkerchiefs and shouting “Amen!” The roar, like the cannon-fire that had made him deaf, startled Ewing so much he covered his ears with his hands.

A mother carried an ashen-faced infant wrapped in a dusty blanket to the stage. “She accidentally drank a mixture of gasoline and kerosene,” the woman said, “which burned its way down her little mouth” and closed her throat. She couldn’t eat or drink. After six operations, “doctors gave her up to die.” McPherson prayed. Someone brought a glass of water. The infant took a sip, swallowed freely.

The woman in white rocked back, as if struck by lightning, then exclaimed, “Who could resist a savior such as this?”

“Did Mrs. McPherson aid any of the score of suppliants?” a Union reporter asked the next day. “Emphatically yes, if [their] testimony is to be believed.”

By evening’s end, a pain-wracked horde surrounded the ring and clogged the aisles. Some waved crutches, others bandaged limbs. All pleaded: “Me! Take me!” An exhausted McPherson raised her right hand for silence. Although she’d planned only two more of these sessions, she said, now she would devote the next two weeks to “divine healing.”

During that time, north downtown became thick with cars, some double-parked on the street, some on sidewalks. Discarded crutches and canes leaned against Dreamland’s brick facade. Packed houses crammed both the 2:30 and 7:30 services. On January 20, McPherson added a 10:30. Another 3000 people came, but she was too tired to lead it. She had to sneak away to avoid scores of invalids outside, begging for aid. When she took off her shoes, a witness said, water spilled out.

“As soon as one was healed,” McPherson wrote, “she ran and told nine others, and brought them too, even telegraphing and rushing the sick on trains.” People camped in their cars. Few hotels had vacancies. Dreamland was so stuffed with humanity that every room — including a walk-in refrigerator — became a place of prayer. Overflow crowds went to the Lutheran Church a block away.

As she entered the arena for a service, trying not to trip over wheelchairs in the aisles, extended arms and voices hounded her: “Sister — when — Sister what about — Cancer — tumor — Benny’s rheumatism — mother’s cataract — varicose veins — husband’s paralysis,” McPherson wrote. “A dozen people are all pulling us in different directions and trying to talk at once…each in their trembling eagerness interrupting the other till our heads are whirling with confusion.”

Her only refuge became the place she dreaded: the boxing ring. “Oh those welcome ropes! So now we realize, as never before, why Christ got into a row boat and pushed away from land in order to talk uninterruptedly to the clamoring and needy throng.”

People discovered the friend’s house where she was staying. The phone rang nonstop. Some came to testify. Others spoke only in groans. Mothers thrust babies through her open bedroom window. McPherson moved to a hotel near Balboa Park, where clerks and bellhops promised secrecy in exchange for reserved seats and registration cards for the sick.

One afternoon between services, McPherson was running late. She only had time for a quiet, five-minute meal of steak and potatoes (“to keep up our strength”) at the hotel’s cafeteria. She sat alone. A woman came to the table. “Excuse me,” she said, “but isn’t this Sister McPherson?”

When told yes, the woman replied, “Oh! I’m so glad,” and waved across the room. “Papa! Come over here and sit down. We can talk to Sister as she eats.”

A man in his late 60s held a brown-stained handkerchief to his neck. “Papa has a cancer. It is so painful — and raw, just like that steak.”

McPherson shuddered and pushed her plate away. She couldn’t eat another bite. For once, her goodness and kindness vanished.

The woman kept describing her father’s agony. Then stopped. “Oh,” she said, “I’m so sorry,” and escorted him out.

The contract concluded after five weeks at Dreamland. But McPherson “had only touched the fringe of that great multitude clamoring for prayer.” In her hotel room across from Balboa Park, she envisioned the unthinkable. The reservation system at Dreamland never worked. They tried to admit only those who hadn’t come before; they devoted nights to specific groups: service men, employees of department stores, various religious denominations. They extended the run twice, even held services at other churches. And still the multitudes grew.

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Comments

rickeysays Sept. 9, 2009 @ 9:05 p.m.

The power of snake oil salesmen to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of people never ceases to amaze me, and it never goes away. It also amazes me how the sight of people enjoying their lives in ways others don't approve of will inspire the most herculean efforts at saving those people from themselves. "The many evils…card parties, theaters,..... “dance halls, of girls and houses of sin.....gaiety, dancing, smoking, gambling, drinking." Sounds like a good time to me.

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helenaf Sept. 10, 2009 @ 7:14 a.m.

Thank you for writing this article!
May the Lord pour out His Spirit on San Diego again with signs wonders and miracles unto the salvation of many!

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David Dodd Sept. 12, 2009 @ 12:29 a.m.

I don't know how far you plan on taking this one, Jeff, but folks not familiar with Sister Aimee are in for a real treat. I offer only one spoiler, that might not be mentioned in what you continue with since it's Los Angeles related, but our blessed Sister Aimee is one of a handfull of women that could have possibly attested to the rumored size of Milton Berle's, um... shall we say, "Ability to entertain?"

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Jeff Smith Sept. 12, 2009 @ 10:58 a.m.

RefritoG McPherson's biographers, including her most recent one, Matthew Sutton, shoot that rumor down. Berle, they say, also had a big mouth. Berle says it happened twice in 1930. But, writes Sutton, "McPherson spent much of 1930 sick and in bed, so she could not have had many opportunities to meet Berle." This is not to say that McP wasn't averse to, um, entertainment. She was the first to claim that she was never a saint.

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steamreader Feb. 4, 2013 @ 6:38 p.m.

"The healings present a monstrous obstacle to scientific historiography. If events transpired as newspapers, letters, and testimonials say they did, then Aimee Semple McPherson's healing ministry was miraculous. ...The documentation is overwhelming: very sick people came to Sister Aimee by the tens of thousands, blind, deaf, paralyzed. Many were healed some temporarily, some forever. She would point to heaven, to Christ the Great Healer and take no credit for the results." Daniel Mark Epstein (p111 Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson).

McPherson was invited back to town after town.

Good luck trying to top that, snake oil salespeople

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steamreader Feb. 4, 2013 @ 6:46 p.m.

Her supposed affairs, there is really nothing to tell, its just the stuff of old ladies leaning on backyard fences. Plenty of gossip, but never a single thing anyone can put their finger on.

As for the supposed story Milton Berle told in his 1974 autobiography of his two occasions of delight with her:

One has to realize Milt was probably telling some sort of an cerebral cougar joke: 1--he is a comedian, that's what he does 2--She was 20 years his elder COUGAR 3--she was sick half the time flat on her back or out of the country on a trip in 1930, 4--yes he tapped that without anyone else noticing, including his public dinner out with her, a--her chauffeur, who supposedly drove Milt to her, twice, but never said anything b--the Milt claimed charity benefit he worked with her at no one could locate on her calendar, or anyone else ever remembered her attending 5--the apartment by the sea daughter Roberta said she never had
6--Crosses yes, crucifixes as Milt described, unlike Catholics she was not comfortable with the dead man hanging off of them. Period Photographs show her with crosses, not crucifixes. If one was used, it was part of the larger illustration when Jesus executed by the Romans. Hers was a glorious resurrected Jesus Christ. 7--Milt waited until she was 40 years dead until he told his tale. An earlier book he published in 1939 has no such claim. 8--a gentleman never Kisses and tells, while Milt told even of women he never kissed. 9--there was more than "a handful of women," if the far more numerous allegations about Milt and his mother are even fractionally true there, there is little doubt the promiscuous Milt remembers a woman whose name is phonetically enounced "Amy," but it was not of the McPherson variety.

Anyway, I thank you for reminding us of all the work she did in helping, healing all those many multitudes of people..

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