She’d send, she proclaimed, “a message from above.”
On Thursday, January 27, 1921, evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson stood in the cockpit of a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny.” Wearing a leather coat and cap, tinted goggles across her forehead, she gave a sermon at Aviation Field, Jim Hennessey’s training school at the foot of B Street. “I’m taking my fight against the devil to the skies!” she said in a voice scratched by years of shouting. She would drop 15,000 leaflets announcing that her hugely successful series of revivals would conclude with two outdoor events at Balboa Park’s Organ Pavilion.
If she was nervous, people couldn’t tell. McPherson should have been, though. She’d never flown before. The flight, which made the San Diego Union and even the L.A. Times, marked “the first time [that] an airplane was used as a pulpit” (Union).
She climbed into the front seat. Hennessey, who’d donated the ride for free, piloted the biplane. As they rose into an overcast sky, McPherson had a God’s-eye view of San Diego. But she didn’t see rooftops scrolling beneath her, or dark hat brims peppering the sidewalks, or Balboa Park on a green mesa to the east. Everywhere she saw “deception, sorrow, and sin.”
Hennessey banked to the right. As the Jenny soared over Broadway, its engine blaring like a buzz saw, McPherson’s “message from above” fluttered down.
Instead of being afraid, McPherson felt relief, even safety, in the air. This was one of the few times during her five-week stay in San Diego that the pain-wracked masses couldn’t mob her, trail her home, interrupt a meal, clutch her white nurse’s outfit, plead for a cure.
“It isn’t all a bed of roses, this thing of being in a high place as a leader,” McPherson, by then a household name, wrote ten years later. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to carry on the Lord’s work in such a conspicuous capacity.”
She came to San Diego a relative unknown. After her first week of revivals at Dreamland Boxing Arena, she decided that, to attract more sinners, she would hold healing services. Crowds came, then hordes, so many that she needed a much larger venue than the 3000-seat house. Her mother, Minnie Kennedy, suggested that, since no building could accommodate their audience, how about outdoor services at the Organ Pavilion? They could seat two or three thousand, with standing room for thousands more on the slope facing the pavilion.
The idea of an outdoor revival wasn’t original, McPherson wrote, but “such a gathering has never been assembled since the days of Christ upon the earth.” When she asked an audience at Dreamland what they thought, “The response was deafening.”
The initial service, held Wednesday, February 1, jammed the colonnaded pavilion to capacity. When McPherson asked, “How many see God performing miracles here today?” between 4000 and 6000 hands shot into the air. McPherson anointed and prayed over 103 people in succession. Chief James Patrick brought Addie Mendenhall to the park in a police ambulance. An invalid frozen on her back, Mendenhall sat up for the first time in five years. As Dr. Humphrey Stewart played the mighty organ, which could replicate the musical voices of an entire symphony, James Flood testified that his lungs, burned by chlorine gas in WWI, had been purified.
Many weren’t healed. “Perhaps her faith was not sufficient,” wrote the San Diego Sun of one supplicant. “Perhaps she will be cured after.” Six marines carried an elderly woman in a wheelchair up the platform steps. “But she could not unlock her knees, which were set like stone.” She left the stage with a grimace, “still trying to achieve the faith [that] would change her to a well person.”
The service, which began at noon, ran over its 2:30 p.m. closing time. When McPherson finally had to leave, a long queue of human misery unleashed “a babel of voices beating upon us.”
McPherson had mixed feelings about her most spectacular service. She had “cheered thousands of lives,” but, she added, “I would rather face a battery of guns than… the disappointment of those who have sat here all night and day without food or drink, waiting to be prayed for, [when] we leave.”
As part of her farewell revival — Tuesday, February 8 — McPherson asked every Christian in San Diego to “fast and pray for the spiritual and physical healing of the sick and afflicted.” Given the response, they did even more. Every one of them, it seemed, went to Balboa Park.
That Tuesday, McPherson left her hotel on 6th Avenue at 9:45 a.m. Since the revival wouldn’t begin until 10:30, she had plenty of time, she felt, to make the short drive. But a mass of humanity clogged Laurel Street and the Cabrillo Bridge. They looked like refugees fleeing a holocaust: on crutches, in stretchers and wheelchairs, wagons and handcarts. Some carried children on their shoulders, others, babies in their arms. The sightless, heads down, grasped the shoulders of guides. Many were wrapped in bandages, puss or blood seeping through the gauze. Few spoke, though several moaned or made bottomless, tubercular coughs.
The handrails on both sides became repositories for pipes, cigars, and stomped-out cigarettes, signs that, for smokers, the healing had already begun.
McPherson’s driver honked the horn. Marines, who volunteered for the event, rode the running boards and shouted, “Clear the way,” and “Coming through.” But the crowd was so thick the car inched along the narrow bridge. McPherson feared she wouldn’t arrive on time.
Her mother, Minnie Kennedy, had been at the pavilion since dawn. She and a staff of 20 nurses — all in white, with crimson sashes — interviewed candidates, in part to eliminate cranks eager to expose the “heaven peddler” as a fraud. Those without faith would not be healed, she warned, adding that supplicants should “take part in the meetings as though they were going to Mayo Brothers or any great hospital for an operation” and had been “preparing for days, obeying each order.” She handed them numbered cards.