Cathedrals of the Air: Sister Aimee, Fighting Bob, and Early L.A. Radio | KCET
Cathedrals of the Air: Sister Aimee, Fighting Bob, and Early L.A. Radio
The softly glowing dial of a radio receiver illuminated nearly every middle-class living room in 1920s Los Angeles. Crooners and dance bands came over the airwaves. So did exercise routines and household hints. Recorded concerts played on weekday evenings. Sunday mornings were set aside for local pastors whose sermons were a little dull, like the ones that listeners had heard “back home.”
“Back home” was still very real for the majority of Angeleños. Nearly half a million new residents had arrived in the decade of the 1920s, almost doubling the city’s population. It had already doubled in the previous decade. Many of the newcomers were the chronically ill or retirees from the Midwest cashing in on the prosperity that the post-World War I boom had brought them. These new Angeleños would be described later, somewhat unfairly, as lonely and troubled. A better description would have been unsettled.
Saving Radio from Satan
Aimee Semple McPherson – Sister Aimee to these unsettled Angeleños – found them a place in Los Angeles. Originally an itinerant revivalist traveling with her formidable mother, McPherson was fundamentalist in theology; the Old and New Testaments were literally true. But she was Pentecostal in practice; divine healing, speaking in tongues, and being “slain by the Spirit” were essential to her faith. She began calling her message the Foursquare Gospel.
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If her theology was backward looking, her practice was thrillingly new. Pentecostalism, brought to Los Angeles in 1906, was non-denominational and welcoming. It cut across racial and class divides, at least initially. It promised as great a renewal of the spirit as Los Angeles promised heath of mind and body. Pentecostalism did not call on history or a sectarian creed for justification; salvation only required intensity of conviction.
At the urging of her mother, McPherson settled in Los Angeles 1918 and thrived. She moved her revival services from a rented church to the 3,000-seat Philharmonic Auditorium and repeatedly filled it. By 1922, McPherson had raised enough money to build her own church. On January 1, 1923, the Foursquare Gospel float in Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade guided McPherson’s followers to Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park and to the dedication of the 5,300-seat Angelus Temple. McPherson filled it three times each day, seven days a week. She made certain her sermons were never dull.
Those who attended services at Angelus Temple, with its “full orchestra, choir, Holy Ghost Revival,” came for the costumed spectacle of “Aimee Semple McPherson – Lady Evangelist.” McPherson’s theatricality did not disappoint them, but she had larger ambitions, tied to the new medium of broadcast radio.
Radio was still so new in 1923 that it was possible for almost anyone to acquire a broadcast license from the U.S. Commerce Department. License holders were required to operate in the public interest, but that was broadly interpreted. McPherson, telling the faithful that radio must be saved from Satan, had no difficulty in raising $25,000 to install a first-class broadcast facility above the Angelus Temple auditorium. Bracketing its white dome were two, 250-foot towers. They glowed with the station’s call letters – KFSG, an acronym for Kall Four-Square Gospel.
On February 6, 1924 at 8:00 p.m., McPherson stepped before a microphone and spoke, not to thousands but to tens of thousands, and not just in Los Angeles but across the West. Her voice by then was reedy, sounding strained from decades of unamplified preaching in revival tents. Her cadence was faintly singsong, a vestige of the “country” preaching style she (and her audience) knew well. Her enunciation was overly precise, but she spoke in an era of two-tube radios with very low fidelity.
She was probably the first woman to be issued a broadcast license for a religious radio station and the first woman to preach on radio. She had nothing new to say. She supported Prohibition. She denounced the teaching of evolution. Jazz was an instrument of Satan to snare the young. The world was about to end. The city’s police took payoffs from bootleggers and brothel keepers.
She warned of Catholic influence and the uncertain loyalties of foreign-born citizens. She appealed to the Ku Klux Klan for support, at least initially. She was sure that America was a Christian nation.
It was not what she said that made McPherson such a presence but where she said it. She spoke in the homes of her listeners, at their side, with folksy humor and up-to-date cultural references, sharing their prejudices. This world was speeding toward Judgment Day, but her radio listeners, she said reassuringly, need not fear hell or damnation. A loving Jesus reserved those torments for heartless, unfeeling people. McPherson’s alluring presence was both modern and old-fashion.
Although caricatured by Time, The New Yorker, and other critics as the bewildered “booboisie,” McPherson’s congregants were actually a cross-section of typical Angeleños – educated and not, well off and struggling, working men and women and retirees, seekers after something new or those fearing what they had lost.
Writing in the voice of the radio that magnified her already wide influence, McPherson celebrated the universalism that broadcasting might create:
The radio experience – in its intimacy and its isolation – permitted McPherson to be as accepting of difference as this. And when the story of her “kidnapping” in 1926 began to fall apart, radio allowed her to speak as loud as her critics.
Fighting Bob vs. McPhersonism
Radio became a leveler of differences, uniquely the difference between traditional religious expression and the faith of outsiders like McPherson. She wasn’t the only radio voice seeking to change hearts in Los Angeles. Swami Paramananda (born Suresh Chandra Guha-Thakurta) broadcast a message of highly westernized Vedanta on KHJ, a station bought by The Los Angeles Times in 1922. On radio KGFH, broadcasting from Glendale, Paramananda and members of the Ananda Ashram performed piano recitals, sang French chansons, and gave poetry readings. The Rev. Swami Paramananda (as the newspapers named him) often included Christian pastors in programs that presented a non-judgmental, non-sectarian message.
The Reverend Robert P. “Fighting Bob” Shuler preached a sterner gospel. A successful Southern Methodist pastor in Texas, Shuler had made a name for himself as a “hell fire” preacher, an ardent Prohibitionist, and a critic of Texas Governor James E. Ferguson. He was controversial in other ways. When two black men were murdered by a white lynch mob, Shuler denounced the killings from his pulpit. But Shuler also supported the Ku Klux Klan.
Shuler was sent by his denomination in 1920 to lead the failing Trinity Methodist Church in Los Angeles, “the one city in the nation,” he later claimed, “in which the white, American, Christian idealism still predominates.” He retired the church’s debt, grew the congregation from 900 to several thousand, and turned his scourge on the moral failings of Angeleños.
Shuler was against divorce, gambling, liquor, jazz, movies and movie stars, the “Jew-owned industry” that made the movies, Catholics (especially the foreign born), crooked politicians, lawyers, and anyone else who backslid from Shuler’s uncompromising views.
To reach a wider audience, he published Bob Shuler’s Magazine, “Devoted to Religion, Education, Civic, Social and Moral Reform.” From the start, one of Shuler’s principal targets for reform was the Foursquare Gospel of Aimee Semple McPherson and the way McPherson’s gospel was received by her followers. “(J)abbing and working themselves into a physical intoxication of sensual and nervous ecstasy,” Shuler fumed, “amounting to a voluptuous and sensual carousal …” He began calling Sister Aimee’s Foursquare Gospel “McPhersonism” and thought it was as bad as bootleg liquor.
In 1927, with the help of oil heiress Elizabeth Glide, Shuler reached out to the Los Angeles radio audience using many of the program formats that McPherson had pioneered. Radio KGEF – Keeping God Ever First – offered inspirational chats and old-time hymn singing, but listeners came primarily for blistering sermons that blended a Fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible with gossip about Hollywood sex scandals and attacks on city officials he called “criminals who spoil paradise.” The newspapers, happy to have another celebrity preacher, named Shuler “Fighting Bob.” Like Sister Aimee’s, Fighting Bob’s sermons were never dull.
Shuler broadcast rumor and innuendo, but he was right about the moral condition of City Hall. The mayor’s office and police headquarters were as corrupt as any in 1920s America. His targets sued Shuler for libel, but juries were reluctant to convict him. He once spent 15 days in jail for contempt, the result of his scathing commentary on a bribery trial that involved the district attorney. He turned the judge’s sentence into two weeks of newspaper headlines.
Shuler was bigoted, but his radio voice commanded attention. He was said to control as many as 60,000 votes in city and county elections. “That he is an important figure in the affairs of running the city cannot be denied,” wrote one national magazine. “The amount of space he gets in the newspapers is rivaled only by that of the woman evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, and the movie actress, Clara Bow.” The Los Angeles Times feared him and his crusades. One mocking headline read “Champion 'Ag'inner' of Universe Is Shuler: Belligerent Local Pastor Holds All Records for Attacks Upon Everybody, Everything.”
Shuler was a contradiction, proud of his rural background (like many of his listeners) and practiced in sophisticated media promotion. His nightly radio broadcasts might include a defense of the KKK and dark suspicions about Jesuit plots, but he also might vigorously support reform of the police department and prosecution of those who protected bootleggers and pimps. As much as they might have wished otherwise, supporters of good government in Los Angeles recognized Shuler as their most vocal leader. Protestant church leaders in Los Angeles made him head of their Ministerial Union.
Ultimately, Shuler's intemperate rants (and his antagonism of both the conservative Los Angeles Times and anti-Prohibition progressives) took him off the air. In November 1931, the Federal Radio Commission revoked Shuler's broadcast license, and KGEF fell silent, having failed in the commission’s judgment to operate in the public interest.
Cathedral of the Air
Being in Los Angeles, where religious elites had not become entrenched, set McPherson and Shuler free. Radio, whose power was not understood in the early 1920s, gave both of them a platform for their intersection of faith and politics. Neither invented radio religion, but they did create templates that still guide televangelists today in what they say and how they say it.
Both McPherson and Shuler were believers in an inerrant scripture. They shared basically the same views on social issues and the risks of modernity to Bible believers. Both had similar reactions to the corrupt institutions of city and county government, institutions that The Los Angeles Times protected. Both sought the moral regeneration of Los Angeles, and politics was part of it for both of them. But Shuler, not McPherson, also sought political advantage and got it. Shuler helped engineer the election of Mayor Porter in 1929 and the dismissal of Police Chief James “Two-Gun” Davis, in defiance of The Times.
McPherson and Shuler were antagonists through the 1920s and 1930s. Shuler mocked the manifestations of McPherson’s Foursquare Gospel. McPherson used radio skillfully to deflect Shuler’s criticism of her personal life following her supposed “kidnapping.” He had no difficulty in endorsing the KKK or the politicians that Klansmen supported. She turned away from the Klan. What fully distinguishes Shuler from McPherson was Shuler’s overtly racist framing of the conflict between the world and the Word of God.
Both McPherson and Shuler pushed the regulatory boundaries of early radio, leading to greater federal oversight of the medium. McPherson complained of limits on her broadcast signal; the work of the Lord was more important than radio frequency interference. Shuler antagonized powerful enemies (especially The Times) through his political sermons. Silencing his radio station was an overreach that the ACLU protested all the way to the Supreme Court. The Times, on the other hand, was pleased when the courts refused to vacate the Federal Radio Commission’s order. “The final ruling of the courts putting an end to this nuisance,” The Times said, “is an occasion for general public felicitation.”
The Times was premature. Both Shuler’s and McPherson’s “cathedrals of the air” continued broadcasting faith and controversy. Sister Aimee died in 1944 and Fighting Bob retired in 1953.
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