Segment from Born Again

Dialed In

Scholar Tona Hangen shares the story of Aimee Semple McPherson, a Pentecostal evangelist who achieved celebrity when she took the good word to the airwaves.

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BRIAN: This is “BackStory.” I’m Brian Balogh, here with my fellow sinners, Peter Onuf’s one ofthem.

PETER: Oh, oh, Brian, and I’m here.

BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is the other.

ED: That’s me.

PETER: Today on the show, we’re exploring the history of Christian revival in America. We’veconsidered a couple of prominent 19th century revivalists. Now we’re going to turn the page tothe early decades of the 20th century.

ED: It was then that a new religious movement cropped up in the Midwest among Christianswho had had it with the rigid formality of middle-class Protestant churches. Pentecostalism, asit came to be known, encouraged raucous and joyous worship practices, inspired by theearliest days of the Christian church.

Its inherence longed for converts to speak in tongues and to practice faith healing, just as theapostles had done in the New Testament account of the Pentecost.

The resurgence of these divine acts, Pentecostals believed, was evidence that the return ofChrist was imminent.

PETER: By the 1910s, Pentecostal camp meetings were cropping up across the country. And itwas on this revival circuit that a young woman from Ontario named Aimee Semple McPhersonbegan to make a name for herself. Charismatic and entertaining, the young woman quicklybecame a star of the circuit.

TONA HANGAN: I think she was a born religious leader in a time when that was not a commonlife story for women.

BRIAN: This is Tona Hangan, a historian who has written about McPherson. Hangan says thatfrom the earliest days of her ministry, McPherson knew how to use unorthodox means tospread the good word.

TONA HANGAN: She had this battered black car that she called the gospel car, and she wouldput slogans on the side of it, “where will you spend eternity?” Or “judgment day is coming, getright with God.” And she and her kids and her mother went up and down in small towns,tobacco fields, camp meetings all along the year.

BRIAN: McPherson, known by her followers as Sister Aimee, eventually settled in Los Angeles,where in 1923 she built her own version of what today we’d call a mega church. But shequickly discovered an even more effective means of spreading the good word, a means that alot of you listeners can probably appreciate today, radio.

AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: Come unto me, all ye that labors, and are heavy laden, and Iwill give you rest. Come, come, come.

BRIAN: For Sister Aimee, the combination of the Christian gospel and the radio airwaves was amatch made in heaven.

TONA HANGAN: She, I think, had always had an affinity for media, as the bumper stickers onher car suggests, that she was always looking for more ways to amplify her voice and to makethis revivalism message have a broader appeal.

So in Los Angeles, like any other big city in the early 1920s, radio was just beginning to takeoff. There were a few people, a few hundred, thousand people with radio sets. There were afew broadcasters.

And she imagined as an extension of her ministry and of this congregation that she wasforming there that she could, again, amplify this message by using radio. And she’s trulyvisionary in seeing the possibilities.

BRIAN: And how did she go about that? It’s one thing to want to use radio. It’s another thing toget access to radio in those days, I would imagine.

TONA HANGAN: It is. This is before the Federal Radio Commission, which is the predecessorof the FCC. There’s no regulatory body. So you can get a radio license– that’s not the hardpart. And then you build a receiver and a transmitter in a studio. That’s the hard part.

So she sets off on a fundraising campaign that takes about a year, 1923 to 1924. She’sproduced a magazine by this point that goes out to her various followers around the country.

And she asks for donations by pointing out that, as she put it, “The world had already capturedthe moving pictures.” And she said, “Shall we let them have the radio too, or shall we say–“this is her speaking– “No, this his Father’s air and earth, and we will send the message uponits breezes to spread the gospel in this wholesale and miraculous manner.”

And over a period of about a year she raised $25,000 and constructed a huge 500 wattbroadcasting facility, with its radio towers mounted on the top of this domed temple that shehad built.

And it became one of the very earliest radio stations in Los Angeles. It’s probably within the topfive. And she’s one of the first women, if not the first woman, to hold a radio station license.

BRIAN: Now, I assume there were other preachers using the radio at this time?

TONA HANGAN: There were people preaching on radio using borrowed or purchased time,sometimes just for a portion of a Sunday. What she envisioned was something different. Shepioneered a station that would be fully owned by a church and that would be on air all the time.That’s the new piece.

And so she had a seven day a week schedule of programming unlike anything else that anyoneelse is doing in the mid-1920s. She’s really the only one who’s doing this.

BRIAN: So I understand it was very innovative to have a station devoted entirely to religion.What about the content? Why don’t you compare the way that radio ministry worked to someof those camp meetings a few years before she started the radio ministry.

TONA HANGAN: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think the camp meetings involved audiences a lotmore integrally than her radio ministry did. The radio ministry I think becomes a theater whereSunday morning and afternoon services are happening in the church. She packs that templefull of people, and the performances are simulcast, and so there’s this sense of theater andglamour.

But then she also has programs that are more intimate in scale, that come from the broadcaststudio. Things like a program designed just for people who are sick or shut in that’s sort ofaimed at hospital patients and the like.

A call-in request show of hymns. The Vesper hour, which would be a quieter devotionalreading. In some years she had a weekly travelogue. She had the Foursquare Junior hour forchildren.

And she also offered, which I think is kind of fascinating, she offered weekly dramas, like radiodramas. This is the era of shows like “Superman,” and “The Green Hornet,” and “TheAdventures of Sam Spade.” And she had weekly dramas with names like “The Adventures ofJim Trask, Lone Evangelist.”

And she also did faith healing without direct physical contact. She did that over the radio aswell. She would literally have listeners kneel by the radio and place their hands on it in order toreceive long distance cures. She believed if the Holy Spirit could travel over the airwaves, thatso could the healing power of Jesus Christ.

BRIAN: And was she acknowledged as the leading practitioner of radio? I almost saidtelevangelism– audio evangelism?

TONA HANGAN: I think she’s acknowledged now, but at the time, no. I think she was seen as agimmick by people who didn’t follow or believe her. She was seen as not very serious, as, insome ways, corrupting the message by interweaving all this pop culture to it.

Newspaper commentators at the time roundly dismissed her and her congregation for theirlow-brow pretensions.

BRIAN: What does this chapter about McPherson tell us about the larger religious picture,particularly regarding revivals and evangelicalism?

TONA HANGAN: I think it tells us two things. First, that radio as a new technology ironicallyprevented old-time religion from dying out in the modern century.

People were worried that old-time religion was going to be less relevant, that it was dying out.And I think the message of McPherson’s ministry is that that didn’t happen. As secularismgrows, so does revivalism in response.

I think a second thing we learn is that radio connected religion to the nation’s premierentertainment medium which people consumed in their homes. Revivalists who used media likeradio had sell it. They had to adopt modern marketing, and advertising, and psychology, andbusiness methods. And that was irreversible.

Once media and religion got connected together, and McPherson is really the glue for this,she’s the bridge, they never get separated. And I think we see early radio ministries as a bridgeto later mass media ministries, the Christian broadcasting and marketing juggernaut. And itsslick and its commercial in its own way.

But McPherson did not see it as a fundamental transformation. She saw it as a fulfillment of thegreat commission to preach the gospel in all the world. The same old gospel in new packaging,just reinvigorated with new meaning and new relevance for each generation.

BRIAN: Well, thank you so much for joining us on “BackStory” today, Tona.

TONA HANGAN: You’re so welcome. Thanks for having me.


BRIAN: Tona Hangan is a historian at Worcester State University. She’s the author of”Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion, and Popular Culture in America.”

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Born Again Lesson Set

Note to teachers:

The lesson materials that follow focus on helping students become discriminating readers of text material, learning the value of reading widely and critically in order to frame questions and evidence-based perspectives. The materials are designed to help students learn to write concisely and persuasively. They also give students an opportunity to discover how things change and how they remain the same, often differing more in the words and media used than in the purpose and message.

The materials and activities in this lesson ask students to look critically at the words chosen to convey the message, the context in which information is presented, and the effect these choices have on their understanding and feelings about individuals and their times. As students read critically to discern differences between evidence and assertion and to frame useful questions, they will engage in reasoned debate and evidence-based interpretation. The materials provided include primary sources from the 1920s and 1930s as well as history and biography from 1931 to 2015. Students are asked to consider how these accounts differ in regard to word choice, descriptions of the time period, and the impressions created by the writings. Change over time can be observed in evolving narratives constructed from available sources, cogent inferences, and changing interpretation.