Hollywood Religion: Aimee Semple McPherson, Pentecostalism, and American Culture
University of California, Santa Barbara
Flappers rallying to the aid of fundamentalists and politically progressive newspapers defending theologically conservative churches are not what traditional histories usually reveal about interwar America. Yet this dissertation, focusing on the career of Los Angeles evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, challenges familiar images by uncovering new dimensions in the relationship among religion, gender, sexuality, and power. In molding a revolutionary form of evangelicalism for the modern era, McPherson defied traditional gender hierarchies, appropriated the sensationalist, celebrity creating, tactics of Hollywood, established a mass media empire, challenged Jim Crow, built a state of the art social welfare institution, and laid the foundation for pentecostalism’s enormous growth in the latter part of the century. Using newspapers, magazines, letters, church records, books, sermons, and tracts, the dissertation inverts scholars’ assumptions regarding conservative religion and the “new woman” of the 1920s, it broadens the cast of characters responsible for spearheading the social gospel movement, it offers an original explanation for pentecostals’ interest in right-wing politics, it adds a new dimension to the creation and evolution of Los Angeles, and it places the McPherson kidnapping sensation in a new context that of the controversies ravaging Protestantism after World War I. McPherson’s willingness to engage with American culture ultimately redefined conservative religion in the United States.
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