By Lisa Mullen
Although COVID-19 has felt like the end of the world to some, pandemics are nothing new here in the United States. In February 1918, the world went through the Great Spanish Flu pandemic with 500 million people contracting the disease worldwide.
Nearly 50 million people total died with 600,000 here at home losing their battle with the flu before it ran its course by April 1920. Just as it is now, people were ordered to wear masks.
Schools, theaters and businesses were also closed back then.
During the height of the Spanish Flu pandemic, Aimee Semple McPherson, a young Canadian evangelist, began a cross-country journey visiting cities on the West Coast on a mission to help bring a bit of light to those who were suffering during the epidemic.
McPherson earned a reputation as a healer. She would move through cities devastated by the flu, stop on street corners and began to minister to people, drawing crowds wherever she went.
She spent hours praying with flu victims and spreading gospel. As her reputation as a healer grew, she was met by larger crowds looking to be healed.
When McPherson, or Sister Aimee as she became known, arrived In Los Angeles in December 1918, she gave a series of meetings which began to make her famous. Eventually, so many people wanted to hear her speak that there weren’t big enough auditoriums to hold the masses who wanted to see her.
By using the donations from her followers, McPherson built her first Foursquare Church in Los Angeles, the $1.5 million Angelus Temple, solving the problem of having a large enough place for her followers to hear her sermons. On Jan. 1, 1923, McPherson dedicated the Angelus Temple with a ceremony that included thousands of her followers.
The temple could hold 5,300 worshippers and it served as Sister Aimee’s home base for 20 years. She led many relief efforts including opening the Angelus Temple Commissary in August 1928, helping to feed more than 1.5 million people during the Great Depression.
When a devastating earthquake struck Long Beach, Calif. in 1933, Sister Aimee mobilized people to donate food, emergency supplies, clothing and blankets to help the earthquake victims. She then persuaded fire and police departments to help her distribute all the donations to the people who needed them.
By using the radio for religious services and incorporating an element of entertainment into her sermons, McPherson grew her flock going from her first church in 1923 to over 100 Foursquare churches by 1927.
Her church was one of the first megachurches.
Presently, McPherson church has over 8.8 million members in over 90,000 churches in 146 nations.
McPherson’s life wasn’t without controversy. On May 18, 1926, she disappeared while swimming at Ocean Park Beach in Santa Monica, Calif. Searchers feared she had drowned and continued to look for her for weeks.
After five weeks, she showed up in Mexico and stated that she had been kidnapped by a man and woman and held for ransom. This led to claims that her disappearance had just been a publicity stunt or used as cover so she could meet a lover in secret.
Los Angeles prosecutors brought Sister Aimee up on charges of criminal conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice with a jury trial scheduled, but all charges were dropped in the end.
She continued to preach until her death on Sept. 26, 1944 but her popularity never quite recovered from the disappearance scandal of 1926.
Hardly known today, during her heyday, Sister Aimee’s name could be found on America’s leading newspapers regularly. She was a pioneer in her use of the media to reach as many people as possible with her religious messages.