Religious Celebrities – Aimee Semple McPherson and William Ashley “Billy” Sunday

Evangelical preachers, with their staged revivalist performances in tents and on radio, abounded all over the country in the Twenties. Two of the most well-known of the religious celebrities were Aimee Semple McPherson and William Ashley “Billy” Sunday.

Aimee Semple McPherson, also known as “Sister Aimee” or simply “Sister”, was a Los Angeles based Canadian-American Pentecostal evangelist, faith healer and media celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s. She started doing traditional tent revivals, with the laying of hands, speaking in tongues, etc. She toured the country by train, attracting audiences in the thousands.

Her popularity and the resultant financial success led to building of a permanent structural base in Los Angeles for her activities – The Angelus Temple. The Temple, completed in 1923, sat 5,000 worshipers. It was the center of McPherson’s International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, aka “Foursquare Church”, where she held theatrical services that blended contemporary culture with fundamentalist religious teachings. The Foursquare Church was America’s first mega church.

McPherson desired to avoid the dreary church service where, by obligation, parishioners would go to fulfill some duty by being present in the pew. She wanted a sacred drama that would compete with the excitement of vaudeville and the movies. The message was serious, but the tone was more along the lines of a humorous musical comedy. She became the first woman evangelist to adopt the whole technique of the moving picture star.

McPherson came up with the concept of illustrated sermons. She employed a small group of construction people to set up the stage for her productions. They built the sets, just like sets for movies, for the sermons. There were artists, electricians, decorators and carpenters. The productions were accompanied by an orchestra music. She also introduced jazz music into the church. One production, The Iron Furnace, based on the book of Exodus, told of God’s deliverance as the Israelites fled slavery in Egypt. Some Hollywood movie stars even assisted with obtaining costumes from local studios. The cast was large, perhaps as many as 450 people, but so elaborate and expensive, it was presented only one time.

McPherson became a strong supporter of William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes trial. Bryan and McPherson had worked together in the Angelus Temple, and they believed Darwinism had undermined the morality of the populace. According to The New Yorker, McPherson said, evolution “is the greatest triumph of Satanic intelligence in 5,931 years of devilish warfare, against the Hosts of Heaven. It is poisoning the minds of the children of the nation.” She sent Bryan a telegram indicating that the thousands of members of The Angelus Temple along with the millions of radio church listeners appreciated his defense of the Bible against evolution.

Dorothy Parker of Algonquin Round Table fame mockingly stated about McPherson: “Well, Aimee Semple McPherson has written a book. And were you to call it a little peach, you would not be so much as scratching its surface. It is the story of her life, and it is called In the Service of the King, which title is perhaps a bit dangerously suggestive of a romantic novel. It may be that this autobiography is set down in sincerity, frankness and simple effort. It may be, too, that the Statue of Liberty is situated in Lake Ontario.” Source: Dorothy Parker, “Our Lady of the Loudspeaker” in The New Yorker, Feb. 25, 1928.

A sermon by Aimee Semple McPherson, “The Power of Faith”, can be found at

“Priestess Of The Promised Land“, Words & music: Stan Ridgway, This song mentions the disappearance of McPherson, which was a huge story of the day, and is dealt with in greater detail in the following song by Peter Seeger.

Ceilings of silver, windows and glass
Alter is golden, baskets they pass
She’s got a headache
So make it all paper today

People are hungry, helpless and sad
Aimee will make them not feel so bad ​
Then she’ll run off with a lover to old Mexico

As a girl she heard voices in her head
All those lost souls to be led
By her

Aimee Simple McPherson
Priestess of the Promised Land
She came to California
Built a temple
Mighty and grand

Radio angel, she’ll take you there
Past every problem, past every care
Choirs will lift them as coins will be
Dropped in the box

One night she vanished, down by the sea
People were praying this cannot be ​
Rumors were shared in the temple
Until her return

As a girl she heard voices in her head
All those lost souls to be led
By her

Aimee Simple McPherson
Priestess of the Promised Land
She came to California
Built a temple
Mighty and grand

“The Ballad of Aimee McPherson”, sung by Pete Seeger, provides some pertinent biographical facts about the celebrity preacher. Prominent in this song is the story of her disappearance. Some said it was true; others said it was a publicity stunt. ZS5aN6s_2c

Did you ever hear the story of Aimee McPherson?
Aimee McPherson, that wonderful person
She weight a hundred eighty and her hair was red
And preached a wicked sermon, so the papers said


Hi dee hi dee hi dee hi
Ho dee ho dee ho dee ho

Aimee built herself a radio station
To broadcast her preaching to the nation
She found a man named Armistead who knew enough
To run the radio while Aimee did her stuff

She held a camp meeting out at Ocean Park
Preached from early morning ’til after dark
Said the benediction, folded up her tent
And nobody knew where Aimee went

When Aimee McPherson got back from this journey
She told her tale to the district attorney
Said she’d been kidnapped on a lonely trail
In spite of all the questions, she stuck to her tale

Well, the Grand Jury started an investigation
Uncovered a lot of spicy information
Found out about a love nest down at Carmel-by-the-Sea
Where the liquor was expensive and the loving was free

They found a cottage with a breakfast nook
A folding bed with a worn-out look
The slats were busted and the springs were loose
And the dents in the mattress fitted Aimee’s caboose

Well they took poor Aimee and they threw her in jail
Last I heard she was out on bail
They’ll send her up for a stretch, I guess
She worked herself up into an awful mess

Now Radio Ray is a going hound;
He’s going yet and he ain’t been found
They got his description, but they got it too late
Sin they got it, he’s lost a lot of weight

Now I’ll end my story in the usual way
About this lady preacher’s holiday
If you don’t get the moral then you’re the gal for me
‘Cause they got a lot of cottages down at Carmel-by-the-Sea

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Billy Sunday was a professional baseball player with the Chicago White Stockings (later the Chicago Cubs) and the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a good field, no hit player, having once struck out 13 times in a row. He was one of fastest and most aggressive base runners in the game. He stole 71 bases in 1888 and a then record 96 bases in 1890, the last year he played. Robert F. Martin, Hero of the Heartland: Billy Sunday and the Transformation of American Society, 1862-1935

Sunday, his real surname, had a conversion and became an evangelical preacher. Shortly after being saved through the outreach of the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, Sunday turned down a $400 per month baseball salary (at a time when the average worker made $480 per year) for a $84 per month ministry position. Ball teams later offered $500/month and even $2000/month, but Sunday remained committed to his ministry. Later in life he was offered $1,000,000 to be in the movies, but again he declined in order to continue the evangelistic ministry God had called him to. (Id.)

He developed a dramatic style of preaching and some said he didn’t preach, he exploded. Billy didn’t stand behind a pulpit. He walked, ran and jumped as he preached. He held some 390 crusades over almost forty years. In 1917, 100,000 people attended his crusades. In one of his sermons he shouted to the audience, while demonstrating with his body: “I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I’ve got a foot and I’ll fight it as long as I’ve got a fist. I’ll butt it as long as I have a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m old and fist less and footless and toothless, I’ll gum it till I go home to Glory and it goes home to perdition.” (Martin, supra.)

Billy Sunday organized his evangelistic staff like a vaudeville business–with advance men, secretaries, a choir, and local volunteers. He raised expenses in advance of his tent meetings. In 1909 he was joined by Homer Rodeheaver, a song leader and trombone player. Billy’s talent for the dramatic drew thousands to see his antics and hear his rapid-fire delivery and pantomimes of fighting the devil. His message was against alcohol, laziness, apathy and immigrants. Roger A. Bruns, Preachin‘ in the Majors: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism, (W. W. Norton)

The prohibition movement gave Sunday a political platform. Sunday’s rise to national prominence really corresponds to the rise of the prohibition movement. Sunday said, ” Whiskey and beer are all right in their place, but their place is in hell.” One of the most popular songs in the Billy Sunday meetings is “De Brewer’s Big Hosses.” It is probably the most effective temperance song that has ever been written or sung. (id.)

Sunday amassed a fortune. He became the richest and most influential preacher of his time, sometimes, according to one disgruntled song leader, by not paying his help.;

In 1927, Sinclair Lewis wrote Elmer Gantry, a satire of 1920’s hypocritical evangelism. In the story, the major character was a traveling evangelist who loved whiskey, women and wealth who was based on Billy Sunday. Gantry’s love interest and companion preacher was Sharon Falconer, a figure Lewis had based on Aimee Semple McPherson. There was a 1960 movie entitled “Elmer Gantry” starring Burt Lancaster, who won that year’s Oscar for best actor, a 1970 Broadway musical based on Gantry and a 2007 opera featuring the same character.

Listen to one of Billy Sunday’s sermons from 1929: Billy Sunday Warns America” –

“Billy Sunday”, written and sung by Leonard Cohen (1979) , one of the great folk song writers of the latter 20th century, tells the story about Billy Sunday in which he describes the evangelist’s concept of an angry, puritanical god.

My name is Billy Sunday
I speak in the name of God.
They call me Billy Sunday
I speak in the name of God
And God is always angry
Just in case you think He’s not
He’s angry at your body
For reasons that are His
He doesn’t like your body
According to reasons that are only His

I’d like you to know He’s very very angry
But that’s just the way He is
He’s angry at the spirit
That is turned away from Him
He’s angry at the spirit
That’s turned away from Him
If He ever gets His Hands on it
He’s gonna tear it limb from limb

They call me Billy Sunday
I speak in the name of God
They call me Billy Sunday
I speak in the name of God
And God is always angry
Just in case you think He’s not

He’s angry at the universe
He drives him up the wall
I could say for a fact
He’s not pleased with this universe
He drives him up the wall
He’s sorry that He ever thought of you and me at all

He’s angry when you’re dying
And He’s angry when you’re dead
And you’re always one or the other
He’s angry when you’re dying
And He’s angry when you’re dead
And He’s furious at me
For everything I’ve ever said
If you feel His anger some night
Let’s say in a hotel room at three a.m.
If you feel His awesome anger
In your hotel room let’s say at three a.m.
It turns out that He’s still very angry
That you took so long to be afraid of Him

They call me Billy Sunday
I speak in the name of God
They call me Billy Sunday
I speak in the name of God
I came here to tell you that God is always angry
Just in case you think He’s not

If you fall asleep some night
Which everybody does
If you have the nerve to go to sleep one tired night
Which most everybody does
And you happen to have some silly dream
To Him it’s very serious.
And if some lonely night you ask yourself
Where all the pretty girls are gone ?
Some night you’re gonna ask yourself
Where are those pretty girls gone
Then He blows away the little scraps of paper
That they write their names and numbers on
Then you find that you get down on your knees
And you want to renounce for all time a woman’s sweet caress
You have some vocation that makes you kneel down
And renounce for eternity a woman’s sweet caress
Then He causes you do touch yourself
As soon as you undress

They call me Billy Sunday
I speak in the name of God
They call me Billy Sunday
I speak in the name of God
And God is always angry
Just in case you think He’s not