Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Save Me, Sister Sharon

Aimee Semple McPherson
With the recent opening of Elmer Gantry here at Signature Theatre under the direction of Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, it is time to get into the spirit of the religious revival. The author of the 1927 novel, Sinclair Lewis, was drawn to many characters and personalities present in early 20th century America (as we mentioned in this previous post.) This fascination is evident in the leading female character in both the novel and musical, Sister Sharon Falconer (played by the talented Mary Kate Morrissey here in Signature's production.)

Aimee McPherson, also known as Sister Aimee, was a media celebrity and evangelist in the 1920s and 1930s. After the birth of her first child and death of her first husband, McPherson felt the call to preach tug at her strongly. In 1914, she fell seriously ill, and after a failed operation, feeling that either her life was at an end or she would go preach, McPherson accepted the God’s challenge to preach.

The female Pentecostal preacher was greeted with trepidation by pastors of local churches she solicited. Pentecostals were at the edge of Christian religious society, sometimes seen as strange with their loud, raucous unorganized meetings and were often located in the poorer sections of town.

McPherson, however, kept an order to her meetings that came to be much appreciated. She wanted to create the enthusiasm a Pentecostal meeting could provide, but also wanted to avoid its unbridled chaos as participants started simultaneously shouting, trembling on the floor and speaking in tongues. In contrast to Billy Sunday’s gospel of fear, McPherson spoke of a sunnier religion called the Foursquare Gospel. Her message was one of joyfulness joined with religious exultation.
The appeal of McPherson's thirty or so revival events from 1919 to 1922 surpassed any touring event of theater or politics ever presented in American history. Her one to four-week meetings typically overflowed any building she could find to hold them.

Aimee used the power of new media, like
 radio, to convey her message to people
all across the nation.
Aimee knew exactly how to package her message and sell it to those starving for spiritual fulfillment. Often described as the Barnum of Religion and the Mary Pickford of revivalism, Aimee preached a conservative gospel but used progressive methods, taking advantage of radio, movies, and stage acts throughout her life. (McPherson was one of the first women to preach a radio sermon and be granted a broadcast license.) By accepting and using such new media outlets, McPherson helped integrate them into people’s daily lives.

By early 1926, McPherson had become one of the most charismatic, influential and publicized women and ministers of her time. Her fame equaled Charles Lindbergh, BabeRuth and Rudolph Valentino. She was a major American phenomenon who, unlike Hollywood celebrities, could be admired by their adoring public without apparently compromising their souls.
McPherson's Angelus Temple in Los Angeles
Following her heyday in the 1920s, McPherson carried on with her ministry but fell out of favor with the press.  On September 26, 1944, McPherson went to Oakland, California, for a series of revivals. The next morning, her son found her unconscious with pills and a half-empty bottle of capsules nearby. She was dead. Her body lay in state at her Angelus Temple over the course of three days as 45,000 people waited to file past the evangelist to say a final goodbye.

Elmer Gantry runs from October 7th to November 9th in the MAX Theatre. For more information please visit our website or call the box office at 703 820 977. Follow along with Elmer Gantry on social media with #SigGantry. 


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