Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art

The Dream Factory

Celebrities in the Pulpit

Film stars were not the only people capturing the imagination of the American public in the 1920s. Celebrity evangelists were preaching the gospel to crowded churches and revival tents throughout the country. Billy Sunday, a baseball player-turned-preacher, captivated audiences throughout the country, while Father Divine, claiming he was God incarnate, preached a message of peace that attracted thousands throughout the urban North.

In Los Angeles, the city of dreams, one evangelist stood out among the rest: Aimee Semple McPherson. "Sister Aimee," as she was known to her followers, had toured the country spreading her gospel message for years when she decided to build a church in L.A. She dedicated the 5,300-seat Angelus Temple in 1923 and enchanted followers weekly with entertaining performances that included elaborate costumes, music, and scenery. Her voice soon reached a larger audience via her radio station, KFSG. McPherson, who became a celebrity in her own right, also attracted film stars to her church including Charlie Chaplin and Anthony Quinn.

Sister Aimee, however, was not without her critics, particularly following her somewhat dubious claim of having been kidnapped and held against her will in 1926. Though Sinclair Lewis was evasive about his inspiration, most readers saw Sister Aimee as the model for Sharon Falconer, the theatrical female evangelist in his 1927 satire of religious leaders, Elmer Gantry.

Photograph of Aimee Semple McPherson
Photograph of Aimee Semple McPherson
New York Evening Journal

Aimee Semple McPherson remained a news-making figure up until her 1944 death. In this photograph, Sister Aimee prepares to visit the Hall of Religion at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. New York Evening Journal.

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