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.
By 10:00 a.m., when McPherson finally crossed the bridge and drove under the arch toward the Plaza de Panama, Mrs. Kennedy had distributed over 500 cards.
They parked the car on circular curbing near the pavilion.
Dressed all in white with a blue serge cape — like a military nurse, wrote a biographer — McPherson ascended the broad platform and saw a sea of dark coats and hats that filled not only the pavilion but all surrounding areas. The San Diego Union made a “conservative” estimate of between 7000 and 9000. Police and park commissioners said that “through the day” — as some left and others took their place — 30,000 people attended. In order to see, photographers and reporters had to stand on rooftops, above beige facades filigreed like wedding cake for the 1915 Exposition.
Beneath fleecy clouds and waving date palms, McPherson identified “pale and emaciated faces; some almost skeletons, human bodies in cages of steel and plaster; the children devoured with the results of Tia Juana’s sins.” She heard “no jesting, and very little talking and at first seldom a smile.” She felt guilty she had kept them waiting.
On the platform she joined a choir, a Salvation Army band — piano, coronet, and trombone — and local ministers from many denominations. She raised her hands. The crowd hushed. She knelt. “Dear Lord, here we are, just the same poor, old, heart-broken, sin-stricken world that we were when you walked upon the earth…”
After the prayer, McPherson asked, “How many of you have friends you would like to see healed?” Thousands of handkerchiefs zig-zagged in the air.
“Everybody stand,” she shouted. “Everybody! Everybody who held up their hands!” The assemblage rose to its feet.
“Higher!” she shouted.
The mass stood on tiptoe, faces turned upward, and prayed out loud for two minutes.
The line of sufferers started down the aisle. Those who could held both arms in the air. Ushers, wearing green labeled “Fisher” checked registration cards. And the process began, accompanied by soft organ music.
McPherson dipped her fingers into a silver cup and anointed each forehead with oil. Then she prayed: “Oh Lord, Jesus, in Thy name we command this paralysis [or deafness, or goiter, or cancer] to fall like a mantle that is worn and old.”
Some proclaimed instant healing. One man, a cripple, danced a jig down the platform steps. He threw his crutches into the audience and yelled, “Use ’em for firewood!”
Some claimed relief from symptoms. Others, wrote McPherson, stood “like a piece of wood, while we pray for them.” They have come “to see if we can heal. Of course, we have no power within ourselves and try to get their eyes on Jesus.”
A man in the front row, wearing a three piece suit, stood up and shouted “Weeeee!”
“Sit down, Charles,” his wife fussed, grabbing his coattails, “You’re forgetting yourself! Sit down!”
By one o’clock, McPherson had prayed over 380 sufferers. Dr. Lincoln E. Ferris, of the First M.E. Church, announced that she needed a break. As aides escorted her toward a door at the side of the great organ, the procession stopped. Cries of hurt, anger, even betrayal shot from the line. “Thousands of eyes,” McPherson recalled, “jealously” watched her leave. “Each moment we lose will mean another disappointed one will be sent away without a touch of prayer.”
Drenched, she changed into another starched white muslin dress. Though not hungry, she ate two sandwiches and wondered, “Who would have believed there was so much sickness and suffering in the world!”
“Whether by accident or design,” wrote historian Carey McWilliams, her neighbor in Los Angeles, “Aimee had selected the predestined setting for her emergence as a miracle woman.”
During the late 19th Century and into the 20th, an estimated one in four newcomers to San Diego came for their health. The army sent all soldiers with TB to the military hospital; the navy requested one as well. Sanitariums dotted the landscape. The suicide rate was highest in the country. San Diego became a “jumping-off place,” wrote Edmund Wilson, “where the coroner’s records are melancholy reading indeed. You seem to see the last futile effervescence of the…American adventure.”
Another result, spawned by the devastating flu pandemic of 1918 — which almost took the life of McPherson’s daughter, Roberta — was a distrust of traditional medicine, especially in San Diego, which became known as “the sick man’s paradise.”
Fifteen minutes later, McPherson emerged through the door. The crowd erupted. The procession, on the right side of the platform, moved forward again. For over two hours, she prayed for supplicants.
By 3:30, the sun had fallen behind the pavilion’s 75-foot bandbox and into a cloudbank. “Swaying and dizzy through the long strain and anxiety of knowing that so many cannot possibly be reached in the remaining time,” McPherson sped up her healing. She moved from one to the next in less than a minute. “The day is going,” she told herself between blessings, “yet we have made no great inroads upon the endless rows of sick and crippled.”
She tried not to panic, but read it in “hungry faces.” The once orderly line began nudging forward, punctuated by “cries of distress” from the rear: “Will they get to me?” “Will I ever be able to walk?”
The day darkened. McPherson, who often improvised her performance, made an instinctive move: “Thinking to reach more in a shorter time,” she hopped down the platform steps to “pray from seat to seat.”
At the foot of the stairs, the throng swarmed the white figure — grabbing, shoving her back. As police and marines tried to rescue her, a surge of supplicants trampled invalids and mothers holding infants. Pleading hands tossed barriers and bodies aside, canes and crutches swung like weapons. Breathless, as if drowning, McPherson raised her arms. Police and marines raced to her side, formed a phalanx, and ushered her up the stairs to the platform.
She clung to a banister, “for protection and, incidentally, for support,” still praying for her flock.
Soon after, Dr. Ferris said a closing prayer, and McPherson, “walking as though on the deck of a heaving vessel,” fled to the courtesy car.
Throughout her career, McPherson swore she wasn’t a miracle worker. She wanted to save souls, not cure ailments. “Jesus is the healer,” she repeated often. “I’m only the office girl who opens the door and says, “Come in.” Of the San Diego revivals, which vaulted her into the national spotlight, she wrote: “No wonder that in certain instances where Jesus healed the sick, he commanded them to tell no man of it.”
1. Rolf McPherson: “It was a phenomenon peculiar to the times…Patients had more faith in God because they had less faith in science.”
Charlie Chaplin [to McPherson]: “Whether you like it or not, you’re a great actress [giving] your drama-starved people, who absent themselves from the theater through fear, a theater they can reconcile with their narrow beliefs.”
McPherson: “Few people know as I did what it is to be lonely in a crowd.”
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.
Morris, B. J., “The Revivals of Aimee Semple McPherson,” Pacific Christian Advocate, Oct. 5, 1921.
Sutton, Matthew Avery, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, Cambridge, 2007.
Szasz, Ferenc Morton, Religion in the Modern American West, Tucson, 2000.
…articles from the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, and the Los Angeles Times.
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