Kid Smith was disgusted. For three rounds, the iron-jawed middleweight took the fight to Jimmy Meyers, but their bout ended in a draw. After a monster right almost cracked his ribs, Meyers steered clear, and his timidity put the packed house at Dreamland Boxing Arena in a foul mood. The week before, they’d paid top dollar to watch two heavyweights wallflower for ten rounds. The 3000 fans cursed as Meyers left the ring and promoter Jack Keran — who promised gladiatorial fury in every match — climbed in, followed by, of all things, a woman. She was maybe five-foot-three, a tad stocky, with auburn hair piled high. Her starched, white muslin outfit and high-button shoes made her look like a nurse.
Standing in the center of the sweat-and-blood-smeared canvas, the woman — late 20s, early 30s — looked nervous. So did Keran, who forgot to remove his hat in her presence. When the crowd quieted down, he announced her as an evangelist — Mrs. Aimee Semple McPherson — and shook as he spoke.
“San Diego needs a revival!” she shouted in a frayed, contralto voice.
The pent-up mob erupted. Waves of boos and hoots hit her like flurries of punches. Someone shouted, “Heaven peddler!”
The woman announced that starting the next day — Thursday, January 6, 1921 — she would hold revival meetings at the arena. Everyone should come and “bring the worst sinner in San Diego!”
At those words, the Union reported, “many of our prominent citizens ducked their heads.” People yelled familiar names. “Hard-faced women,” smoking cigarettes and chewing gum, pointed at their escorts. “And for a few seconds” Dreamland became “squirmish and uncomfortable.”
Then a man in the back row nominated Roseben, the great thoroughbred who’d lost — some said tanked — his last three stakes races. The crowd roared approval.
Alert to the moment, the woman changed her tune. She would battle Satan and, raising her fists, said, “I certainly shall thump him hard!” Many cheered, and the woman left the ring feeling, she wrote later, that she had met “the Devil on his own ground.” Back in the car, she confessed relief, not knowing “whether to laugh or cry.”
When she appeared at Dreamland, Aimee Semple McPherson had yet to become a household name. “The San Diego meetings,” writes Edith Blumhofer, set the tone for the year.” By the end of 1921, “a succession of such crusades made Sister a national phenomenon, headline news everywhere.”
McPherson scheduled a three-week run at the arena, but stayed for five, and held two days of revivals at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. While in San Diego, she discovered how to draw huge numbers. Her goal was saving souls, but the lure became “healing services,” laying hands on the sick.
When she arrived, McPherson saw “a dear little city…the ‘joy of the whole earth’ might well be written on its portals.’ ” San Diego, however, “needed a revival if ever a city did.” Satan lurked in “this harbor and port, wrecking the bodies and souls of hundreds of young men and women upon the rocks of immorality, gaiety, dancing, smoking, gambling, drinking; for Mexico is but 18 miles away, and Tia Juana [its] Monte Carlo…eats like a festering sore into the purity and morals of them whom the Devil tempts.”
McPherson found Dreamland, at the corner of First and A streets, north of the train depot, to be doubly iniquitous. The two-story structure had a boxing arena downstairs, and the Dreamland Marina Dance Hall, where they played the devil’s music, upstairs.
Overnight, McPherson’s crew converted the arena. Palm fronds and pepper-tree boughs hung from pillars and posts. They replaced the overhead shade with one advertising Jesus. They hoisted a grand piano into the ring, which they scoured as white as McPherson’s simple dress, and wove carnations, orange blossoms, and calla lilies into the ropes. McPherson fretted about having to speak in-the-round for the first time, since the audience sat on all four sides. “Will we ever be able to make them all hear?” she asked, in a time before microphones.
For the first meeting, it didn’t matter. The ringside seats were full, the bleachers behind them empty. Jesus came to San Diego, she proclaimed, “and was astounded at the many evils…card parties, theaters, and…” — her gaze rose upward — “dance halls, of girls and houses of sin…and beneath the velvet and paints of the wealthy, he saw their evil too.”
McPherson mentioned healings during her six years on the tent-and-sawdust circuit: a blind man recovering his sight in Philadelphia; a girl cured of spinal trouble; prostitutes mending their ways on the Barbary Coast. The service — which a biographer called “a fluid form of religious theater” — included rousing gospel songs, McPherson banging out the beat on a tambourine. That old-time religion, she sang, “is good for San Diego / And it’s good enough for me.”
She conducted meetings twice daily, an afternoon “teaching service,” and an evening revival. Audiences remained small.
Across America in 1921, female evangelists were a contradiction in terms. In San Diego, however, they were practically a tradition. Katherine Tingley, “the Purple Mother,” had set up her Theosophical Society at Point Loma. In 1905, Teresa Urrea, the “Saint of Cabora” and icon of the anti-Díaz Mexican revolt, came to San Diego and performed healing wonders. As did 72-year-old Maria Woodworth-Etter, her voice barely audible from decades of preaching, in 1916. In effect, San Diego was more than accustomed to female evangelists. From them, it expected miracles.
McPherson had a “something,” a gift she couldn’t explain any more than could Urrea, or Woodworth-Etter, or James Moore Hickson, the internationally renowned Episcopalian faith healer whose cures, unlike most, often lasted well beyond the service. McPherson never took credit. “If the eyes of the people are set on me, nothing will happen…. I am not a healer. Jesus is the healer. I am only the little office girl who opens the door and says, ‘Come in.’ ”
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.
“How did the Apostles manage their crowds?” McPherson pondered. Then it dawned on her: since San Diego had no building to house so many, why not hold “outdoor services under the canopy of God’s blue sky?” But wasn’t religion an indoor affair? Didn’t it need a church or, in the outskirts, a large canvas tent?
“Never having heard of such a thing being done in modern days, we hesitated a little — ‘What would the people think?’ Could we do it? Where? When?”
Next time: the Organ Pavilion revivals.
1. Carey McWilliams: The San Diego revivals “catapulted [McPherson] into the floodlight of unbearable fame.”
- Edith L. Blumhofer: “The same people who professed a longing for Christ’s return and the bliss of heaven eagerly pursued God’s miraculous intervention whenever physical ailments beset them. They wanted to go to heaven, but wanted to go without pain or suffering.”
- Anthea Butler: “There’s nothing worse for an evangelist to think than ‘If I pray for this person and nothing happens, they’ll run me out of town on a rail.’ ”
Blumhofer, Edith, Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister, Grand Rapids, 1993.
Epstein, Daniel Mark, Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson, New York, 1993.
McPherson, Aimee Semple, This Is That, Los Angeles, 1923; In the Service of the King, New York, 1927.
McWilliams, Carey, “Sunlight in My Soul,” The Asprin Age: 1919–1941, ed. Isabel Leighton, New York, 1949.
Middleton, Robert, “Fresno Staff Reporter Writes,” The Bridal Call, August, 1921.
Parker, Dorothy, “Our Lady of the Loud Speaker,” The New Yorker, February 25, 1928.
Sutton, Matthew Avery, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, Cambridge, 2007.
Thomas, Lately, Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson, New York, 1970.
…articles from the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, and the Los Angeles Times.
GO TO When Sister Aimee Came Town, Part 2