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: The Organ Pavilion revivals.
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.”
Aimee Semple McPherson: “Few people know as I did what it is to be lonely in a crowd.”