To make sense of Gospel Music, the starting point should be in Africa prior to the slave trade. This would be required to gain an understanding of the many African musical cultures, rhythms, cadence and spiritual roots. I have no good source material on this topic and admit to having no first-hand knowledge or experience to draw upon. Therefore, let’s start on this side of the ocean following the first waves of slaves on American soil.

Despite slaves being viewed as property, their captors still appeared to feel that their souls were worthy of saving. The missionaries of the day, perhaps by conflicted conscience, tried from the start to bring the slaves to Jesus. On some level, the heathen souls needed to be redirected away from their pagan rituals and irrational fears. On another (very conscious) level, their spiritual souls needed to be controlled like all other aspects of their lives. God fearing and Master fearing had a synergistic coexistence in the same teachings. On a practical level, slaves could not be allowed to gather without oversight. Gathering for spiritual needs had to be under the watchful eye of the benevolent Master. This was easy if all spiritual gatherings were together under the banner of Christianity. The slaves were encouraged to worship with the Master. The teachings of Christianity were quite clear: the next life will be a much better one. Readings were favored by St. Paul who outlined the necessity of being good servants and loving, obeying and trusting one’s Master.

Music is the universal language. It does not require the ability to read or any special education to get the message. Christian hymns are relatively easy to understand – the melodies are simple and repetitive. The harmonies can be quite complex but the melody is easily identified. Spiritual music, if lifted by many voices can be inspirational and impressive. It shows a common purpose and encourages participation by all – a way to feel a part of something larger than the self. Christianity had a special appeal to those enslaved: it speaks of the common interests of all men in this life and the next. It is about how all people are the same – a rather hopeful message – if only in theory.

Music can be viewed as a symbolic bond: the universal appeal, the common ground. Working in the fields, to pass the time, and to maintain an identity as a group, a call-and-response type of musical cadence emerged. You don’t need to know the words if someone is providing them and waiting for a response. Everyone can have a voice, everyone can participate, a sense of common cause in every line. The tunes could be simple and based on the melodies heard in the Master’s services. The themes could be the same or different. Jesus could be applied to the life of the moment, right there in the field with you, working side-by-side.

Emerging from the 1700s was an oral tradition. If you needed to say something, lay it between the lines and sing it in the form of praise. This was publicly acceptable: a way to be heard by God and your Master – even if neither fully understood what you were trying to say. Hymns created the melodic base to work from. The rhythm of life and African traditions provided the structure to interpret the Christian melodies.


Christian worship was changing throughout the South during the 1800s as new waves of white immigrants were flooding into urban and rural regions. Catholic and Protestant congregations were under pressure by new Pentecostal and fundamentalist groups. With each wave of immigration in the great melting pot that is the American Experiment, new traditions arrived and conflicted with existing traditions and local fashions. With each disagreement between factions came the insecurity that souls were being lost. Traveling Revival Meetings became popular. Some were pointedly denominational, some entirely non-denominational. The idea was to whip up the congregants into such religious fervor that they would flock back to Christ and the church both in spirit and by financial proxy. Tithing was the norm and needed to be maintained and encouraged. To encourage a back-falling population required a high level of theatrics and startling entertainment. Music was a big part: the songs needed to be popular and immediately compelling. They had to work on the spot and work with an illiterate crowd. The way to do it: call-and-response with lots of repetition. Loud, energetic and compelling choirs in matching flowing robes of theatrical impact. The choirs needed to look like they really meant what they were singing. They swayed and choreographed their works, starting slowly and working up to a fevered crescendo. If they could engage all the voices in the revival tents, it must have felt as if they were raising the roof. People were freely encouraged to participate physically – to show their commitment and demonstrate involvement with the Lord. To shout, scream, dance and even fall to the floor and speak in tongues.  All for the Glory of the Lord. To the simple lives of the rural working folk, these meetings must have impressed the hell out of them – as they did seem to win many souls back to the Glory of the Lord!

During the reconstruction following the Civil War, most black churches were small. It was safer that way since large gatherings of Blacks seemed to make the local white populace a tad nervous. Most of the churches did not have musical instruments. There may be banjos or guitars and tambourines available from time to time. Church choirs hadn’t formed yet, and pianos were far too expensive. Most singing was a cappella. This tradition actually continues in some fellowships such as the Church of Christ.


Revival meetings, or “Gospel Crusades”, grew in popularity through the 1800s. They were Christian religious services held to inspire active members of a church body, to raise funds and to gain new converts. These meetings were predominantly arranged by American Protestant churches. They were also involved with missionary work, conducting revivals in Africa and India.

Revival meetings consist of several consecutive nights of services in a single location. They may be in an existing church or related meeting house unless more space was needed. If necessary, a secular assembly hall was rented to provide a comfortable setting for non-Christians. To reach a community where there are no churches or large public spaces, tents were used and occasionally still are.

The length of meetings varied. They may last a week or more, especially in the Southern United States. 3 or 4 days is also normal; though some are still held, especially in Pentecostal groups, “according to Holy Spirit time”: until the positive results seem to slow or attendance dwindles.

Most groups holding revival meetings tended to be conservative or fundamentalist, though mainline churches, referring to them as “crusades”, were also common — especially when a noted speaker like Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham or Oral Roberts was involved. In the Churches of Christ events were referred to as Gospel Meetings rather than revival meetings. Aside from the spectacular “crusade” events, most American Protestant groups (other than Baptists and Pentecostals) have held fewer revival meetings in recent years, but there have still been similar activities hosted by nondenominational community churches, most of which are conservative in theology. Many revivals are attempts to catch the flavor and fervor of the original camp meetings.

The events were intended to be fun and entertaining. They needed to be grand in scale and the type of event that had a powerful impact on a town or county – they needed to be the kind of event that nobody could afford to miss. There was the excitement generated in advance of a revival: press coverage, pulpit announcements and encouragement, promises of music and entertainment. In some ways, the advance press had been carefully borrowed from the circus industry. Each event was billed to be the biggest event to ever come to town. The Evangelist was billed to be a remarkable man (or woman) of the Lord, with speaking abilities renowned throughout the world. Wonderful mythology was spun around the spiritual status of the speakers and their remarkable abilities to touch the spiritual souls of the hardest hearts. In some cases they were said to have the power of healing and the ability to channel the love and faith of Jesus Christ. Who, in their right mind, would want to miss such an event?

Music played an important role. Large choirs of powerful voices and ornate robes were equipped with sophisticated musical vocal arrangements from some of the best talents of the day. The traveling groups were well rehearsed in the theatrical art of building tension and choreographing each piece of music to the timing and message of the Evangelist. It was marvelous and inspirational musical theatre, on a scale seldom experienced in small towns and rural regions of the country. If nothing else, a revival meeting made for a great evening of music and entertainment: memorable, catchy and easy to understand but delivered with the subtle sophistication of the New York Philharmonic.

To be sure: anyone that hears that level of performance leaves with a new appreciation of what’s musically possible. After seeing and hearing those tunes and their delivery, the small church choir probably didn’t sound quite the same. The existing hymnal arrangements may have appeared a bit flat and in need of updating. This would be especially true in parts of the country where other powerful musical traditions were growing – like the Mississippi delta and all the towns and regions along the mighty rivers banks (and tributaries) all the way to Chicago. New Orleans had been the hotbed of Jass music (to become known as Jazz) and the new forms of Jazz and Blues were cross-pollinating wherever they were heard. They were inspirational, meaningful and fundamentally spiritual in their raw ability to make a person want to move. They were easy to orchestrate and were not tied to any prescribed instrumentation. It worked with tambourines, banjos, guitars, mandolins, pianos, organ and whatever else was available. Most importantly, it worked with voices. The voices worked both as instruments and with lyrics. The lyrics, in their repetition, raw truth & simplicity, could touch the very soul.

The 1920s and Radio

The advent of radio in the 1920s increased the audience for Gospel Music. Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson was the 1st women to broadcast Gospel Music and a radio sermon in the early 1920s. Music publisher James D. Vaughan used radio as an integral part of his business model; which included traveling quartets to publicize the Gospel Music books he published several times a year. Virgil O. Stamps and Jesse R. Baxter studied Vaughan’s method of doing business and by the late 1920s were competing. The 1920s also saw the emergence of gospel records by groups including the Carter Family.

The first person to introduce the ragtime influence to gospel accompaniment as well as to play the piano on a gospel recording was Ms. Arizona Dranes.


Gospel quartets developed an a cappella style in African-American music following the earlier success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The 1930s saw the Fairfield Four, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Five Blind Boys, the Swan Silvertones, the Charioteers, and the Golden Gate Quartet. While racism divided the nation; these groups were best known in the African-American community, but some gained an appreciative audience among whites. There were many other relatively unknown black gospel musicians performing at the same time.

Fisk Jubilee Singers
During the 1930s, in Chicago, Thomas A. Dorsey (best known as author of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”), who had spent the 1920s writing secular music, turned full-time to Gospel Music. He established a publishing house and is credited with inventing the black gospel style of piano music. Dorsey, son of a Baptist minister, learned piano from his mother. He gained an appreciation of the blues when he moved to Atlanta GA. Dorsey is credited with developing the musical careers of many African-American artists, including Mahalia Jackson.

The National Baptist Convention first publicly endorsed the use of Gospel Music for worship at its 1930 meeting. Meanwhile, radio continued to develop the audience for Gospel Music. This notion was commemorated in Albert E. Brumley’s 1937 song: “Turn Your Radio On”.


Following the 2nd World War, Gospel Music concerts became more elaborate. In 1950, black gospel was featured at Carnegie Hall when Joe Bostic produced the Negro Gospel and Religious Music Festival. He repeated it the next year with an expanded list of performing artists, and in 1959 moved to Madison Square Garden. Today, black gospel and white gospel are distinct genres, with distinct audiences. In white gospel, there is a large Gospel Music Association and a Gospel Music Hall of Fame, which includes a few black artists, such as Mahalia Jackson, but  ignores most black artists. In the black community, James Cleveland established the Gospel Music Workshop of America in 1969.

Gospel as Influence

Towns along the Mississippi like Memphis TN, whose lifeblood flowed from commerce on the river, were flooded with these new musical and cultural influences. The Pentecostal churches swelled with Jazz and Blues infused Gospel music. The choirs filled with the enthusiastic communities and the local musicians contributed their talents on guitar, bass, and percussion. With the advent of electrical amplification, the instrumentation evolved to electric guitars and bass, drums, Hammond Organs and whatever other instruments were well played by willing parishioners. In rural communities, it was something for the young to do to stay out of trouble. Being a part of the church’s musical establishment was considered to be a grand and holy endeavor. Parents could be proud of their children’s participation and encourage it. This was true common cause, where the whole community came together. The South was still deeply segregated but everyone could appreciate the musical contributions of all races and social backgrounds. Talent was talent, and good music was understood by all. If the music moved you, it was art. It was full of soul and clearly spiritual in content then it must be Heavenly ordained.

On Tuesday, December 4th, 1956, Elvis Presley was home for Christmas. Thirteen months earlier, Sam Phillips of Sun Studios, in Memphis, Tennessee had sold his contract to RCA. Elvis dropped in, unannounced, to visit Sam at Sun Studios where his success had begun. Carl Perkins was there that day, trying to work out something to follow the success he had with the release of “Blue Suede Shoes” earlier that year. He was working with studio piano player Jerry Lee Lewis. Lewis had released his first record just three days before and was pretty sure he would rise the to prominence of the other two. The three had never worked together and had no real knowledge of each other. There the three musicians were, in the one-room studio with a variety of instruments. They decided to try and jam for fun. Sam Phillips knew he couldn’t record the session as he didn’t own Elvis’ contract anymore, but he secretly started the tape machine anyway, figuring he sit on the tape forever. Who knew, he may find a use for it someday.

The three probed for common musical ground and randomly tried a few Christmas carols followed by a few of Elvis’ hits. Nothing special appeared to be happening until one of them started “When The Saints Come Marching In.” The sparks began to fly as each had deep roots in Gospel music. They each grew up in the same region with similar church music, each sang and performed in church, and each thoroughly understood Gospel music’s structure and harmonic possibilities. They suddenly had common ground and each individual talent shined. Their musical roots were crystal clear. The new music they were playing, Rockabilly, had matching genetic origins: Gospel, Jazz & Blues.

The Evangelists

The following represents a few of the many traveling Evangelists of the 19th and 20th century in America. There were others and there are still some today. These are outlined to help establish the feel or flavor of the times and their impact on the culture and music of the day.

Dwight L. Moody (February 5th, 1837 – December 22nd, 1899)

Following the American rural/frontier history of revival and camp meeting songs, the urban mass revival movement started with evangelist Dwight L. Moody and the Holiness-Pentecostal movement. Moody met musician Ira D. Sankey in 1870 and collaborated to make changes to the form of the gospel hymn. They reshaped it to suit Moody’s vision of a more exciting music, better suited to the success of his revival meetings. They employed popular singers and song leaders who used songs by writers such as George F. Root, P. P. Bliss, Charles H. Gabriel, William Howard Doane, and Fanny Crosby. The 1st published use of the term “Gospel” to describe this kind of music was in the 1870s. In 1874, P. P. Bliss edited a collection titled ‘Gospel Songs’, and in 1875 P. P. Bliss and Ira Sankey expanded their collection by issuing ‘Gospel Hymns, No’s. 1 to 6’. Sankey is quoted as saying: “Before I sing I must feel.”

Following the successes of revivals in England, Moody brought his methods to American cities. He was well-received and ultimately expanded into the rural areas of America. The efforts were Grand and profitable bringing wealth and notoriety to himself and spanning a crop of others who felt they could cash in on these new methods of bringing souls to the Lord.

The popularity of revival singers and the openness of rural churches to this type of music led to the late 19th and early 20th century establishment of Gospel Music publishing houses including Homer Rodeheaver, E. O. Excell, Charlie Tillman, and Charles Tindley. These publishers were in the market for large quantities of new music, providing an outlet for the creative work of many songwriters and composers.

The holiness-Pentecostal movement, or sanctified movement, appealed to common folk not attuned to more sophisticated or traditional church music. Instrumentation was provided by whatever the congregants had at their disposal – notably, what they knew how to play. These included: tambourines, drums, banjos, mandolins, guitars, electric guitars (and bass), horns, etc. Pentecostal churches readily adopted and contributed to the gospel music publications of the early 20th century. Late 20th century musicians such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mahalia Jackson, Andrae Crouch, and the Blackwood Brothers either were raised in a Pentecostal environment or acknowledged the influence of that tradition.

Billy Sunday (November 19th, 1862 – November 6th, 1935)

William Ashley “Billy Sunday” Sonntag was a popular outfielder in the National Baseball League during the 1880s, who eventually became one of the most celebrated and influential American evangelists of the first two decades of the 20th century.

Billy Sunday was born near Ames, Iowa as the son of German immigrants, who anglicized their last name to “Sunday” when they settled in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. His father died of disease five weeks after Billy’s birth. His mother: Mary Jane Sunday and her children moved in with her parents for a few years, and young Billy became close to his grandparents and especially his grandmother. Mary Jane Sunday later remarried, but her second husband soon deserted the family. When Billy Sunday was 10 years old, his impoverished mother sent him and an older brother to the Soldiers’ Orphans Home in Glenwood, Iowa, and later to the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Davenport, Iowa. At the orphanage, Sunday gained orderly habits, a decent primary education, and the realization that he was a good athlete.

By age 14, Sunday was fending for himself. In 1880, he relocated to Marshalltown, Iowa, where he was recruited for a fire brigade team. In Marshalltown, he worked odd jobs, competed in fire brigade tournaments, and played for the town baseball team. In 1882, with Sunday in left field, the Marshalltown team defeated the state-champion Des Moines team 13-4. Sunday was an impressive runner and joined the Chicago White Stockings as a professional player on May 22nd, 1883. As a professional player his stats were: Batting average: .248 over 499 games, Home runs: 12, Runs batted in: 170, Stolen bases: 246. Teams: Chicago White Stockings (1883-1887), Pittsburgh Alleghenys (1888-1890), Philadelphia Phillies (1890). Career highlights and awards: National League Pennant: 1885 & 1886.

Sunday’s speed was his greatest asset. In 1885, the White Stockings arranged a race between Sunday and Arlie Latham, the fastest runner in the American Association. Sunday won the 100-yard dash by about ten feet. His personality, demeanor, and raw ability made him popular with the fans and teammates. Manager Cap Anson considered Sunday reliable enough to make him the team’s business manager, which included such duties as handling the ticket receipts and paying the team’s travel expenses.

Sunday remained a prominent baseball fan throughout his life. He frequently umpired minor league and amateur games in the cities where he held revivals and attended baseball games whenever he could, including a 1935 World Series game two months before he died.

Holy Conversion

On a Sunday afternoon in Chicago during either the 1886 or 1887 baseball season, Sunday and several of his teammates were out on the town for their day off. They stopped to listen to a gospel preaching team from the Pacific Garden Mission on a street corner. Attracted by the hymns he had heard his mother sing, Sunday began attending services at the mission. A former society matron who worked there eventually convinced Sunday that he should become a Christian. He began attending the fashionable Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church which was convenient to both the ballpark and his rented room. Although he socialized with his teammates and sometimes gambled, Sunday was not a heavy drinker. In his autobiography, he said, “I never drank much. I was never drunk but four times in my life. … I used to go to the saloons with the baseball players, and while they would drink highballs and gin fizzes and beer, I would take lemonade.” Following his conversion, Sunday denounced drinking, swearing, and gambling, and his changed behavior was recognized by both teammates and fans. Sunday shortly thereafter began speaking in churches and at YMCAs.

Taking a Wife

In 1886, Sunday was introduced to Helen Amelia “Nell” Thompson, daughter of the owner of one of Chicago’s largest dairy products businesses. Her father strongly discouraged the courtship, viewing all professional baseball players as “transient ne’er-do-wells who were unstable and destined to be misfits once they were too old to play.” Nevertheless, Sunday pursued and eventually married her. On several occasions, Sunday said, “She was a Presbyterian, so I am a Presbyterian. Had she been a Catholic, I would have been a Catholic — because I was hot on the trail of Nell”. Mrs. Thompson had liked Sunday from the start and supported him. Mr. Thompson eventually relented. The couple was married on September 5th, 1888.

In the spring of 1891, Sunday turned down a baseball contract for $3,000 a year to accept a position with the Chicago YMCA at $83 per month. Sunday’s job title was Assistant Secretary, yet the position involved a great deal of ministerial work. It proved to be good training for his evangelistic career. For 3 years Sunday visited the sick, prayed with the troubled, counseled the suicidal, and visited saloons to invite patrons to evangelistic meetings.

In 1893, Sunday became the full-time assistant to J. Wilbur Chapman, one of the best-known evangelists in the United States at the time. Chapman was well educated and was a meticulous dresser, “suave and urbane.” Personally shy, like Sunday, Chapman commanded respect in the pulpit both because of his strong voice and his sophisticated demeanor. Sunday’s job as Chapman’s advance man was to precede the evangelist to cities in which he was scheduled to preach, organize prayer meetings and choirs, and in general take care of necessary details. When tents were used, Sunday would often help erect them. Sunday was methodically becoming well-versed in all aspects of the evangelical business.

By listening to Chapman preach night after night, Sunday learned the art of homiletics. Chapman took the time to critique Sunday’s own attempts at evangelistic preaching and showed him how to assemble a good sermon. Chapman also encouraged Sunday’s theological development, especially by emphasizing the importance of prayer and by helping to “reinforce Billy’s commitment to conservative biblical Christianity.”

On His Own

In 1896 Sunday struck out on his own. He began with meetings in the small town of Garner, Iowa. For the next 12 years Sunday preached in approximately 70 communities, most of them in Iowa and Illinois. Sunday referred to these meetings as the “kerosene circuit” because, unlike Chicago, most were not yet electrified.

Sunday exploited his reputation as a professional baseball player to generate advertising for his meetings. For example: in 1907 in Fairfield, Iowa, he organized local businesses into 2 baseball teams and scheduled a game between them. He came dressed in his professional uniform and played on both sides. Although baseball was his primary means of publicity at the time, He once hired a circus giant to serve as an usher.

When Sunday began to attract crowds bigger than the rural churches or town halls could accommodate, he rented canvas tents. Sunday did much of the physical work of putting them up himself, manipulating ropes during storms, and seeing to their security by sleeping in them at night. Not until 1905 was he doing well enough financially to hire an advance man.

In 1906, an October snowstorm in Salida, Colorado destroyed his tent. This was a financial disaster because revivalists were typically paid with a freewill offering at the end of their meetings. From that point forward he insisted that towns build him temporary wooden tabernacles at their expense. The tabernacles were comparatively costly to build (although most of the lumber could be salvaged and resold at the end of the meetings). Locals had to put up the money for them in advance. This change in Sunday’s operation brought more attention to the financial details of the campaigns. In the beginning, raising tabernacles provided good public relations for the coming meetings as townspeople joined together in what was effectively a giant barn-raising. Sunday built rapport by participating in the process. The tabernacles also indicated a rise in status for Sunday: they had previously been built only for major evangelists such as Chapman.

Nell Sunday As Administrator

11 years into Sunday’s evangelistic career, both he and his wife had been pushed to their emotional limits. Long separations had exacerbated his innate feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Sunday was a product of a childhood that could be described as a series of losses — he was extremely dependent on his wife’s love and encouragement. Nell, meanwhile, found it increasingly difficult to handle household responsibilities, the needs of four children (including a newborn), and the long-distance emotional welfare of her husband. Sunday’s ministry was expanding and needed an administrator. Nell was ideally suited for the job. In 1908, the Sundays decided to entrust their children to a nanny to free-up Nell to manage the revival campaigns.

Nell Sunday quickly transformed her husband’s organization into a “nationally renowned phenomenon”. New personnel was hired, and by the New York campaign of 1917, the Sundays had a paid staff of 26. There were professional musicians, custodians and advance men; Bible teachers of both sexes, who among other responsibilities, held daytime meetings at schools and shops and encouraged their audiences to attend the main tabernacle services in the evenings. The most significant of these new staff members were Homer Rodeheaver, an exceptional song leader and music director who worked with the Sundays for almost 20 years. Also added to the staff was Virginia Healey Asher, who regularly sang duets with Rodeheaver and directed the women’s ministries, especially the evangelization of young working women. Please remember that the suffrage movement was growing at the time and the ministries were instrumental in creating the environment for political change and gaining women the right to vote.

Larger Crowds and Bigger Events

Sunday was now free to do what he did best: compose and deliver moving sermons. On a normal evening campaign, Homer Rodeheaver would warm up the crowd with congregational singing that alternated with numbers from gigantic choirs and music performed by the professional staff. When Sunday felt the moment right, he would launch into his message. Sunday gyrated, stood on the pulpit, ran from one end of the platform to the other, and dove across the stage, pretending to slide into home plate. Sometimes chairs were smashed to emphasize his points. His sermon notes had to be printed in very large letters so that he could glimpse them as he raced by the pulpit. In messages attacking sexual sin to male-only crowds, Sunday could be quite graphic for the era. Some religious and social leaders criticized his exaggerated gestures as well as the slang and colloquialisms that filled his sermons, but the audiences clearly enjoyed them.

Crowd noise (coughing and crying babies) was a significant problem for Sunday as the wooden tabernacles were so acoustically live. During his preliminaries, Rodeheaver often instructed audiences how to muffle their coughs. Nurseries were provided, infants forbidden, and Sunday sometimes appeared rude in his haste to rid the hall of noisy children who somehow slipped past the ushers. The wooden Tabernacle floors were covered with sawdust to dampen the noise of shuffling feet (and for the pleasant smell and sawdusts ability to hold down the dirt dust). Coming forward during the invitation became known as “hitting the sawdust trail”.

The Big Cities

By 1910 Sunday began to conduct meetings (usually longer than a month) in small cities like Youngstown, Wilkes-Barre, South Bend, and Denver, and then finally (between 1915 and 1917) the major cities of Philadelphia, Syracuse, Kansas City, Detroit, Boston, Buffalo, and New York City. During the 1910s, Sunday was front-page news in the cities where he held campaigns. Newspapers often printed his sermons in full, and during World War I, local coverage of his campaigns sometimes surpassed news of the war. Sunday was the subject of over 60 articles in major periodicals and a staple of the religious press.

Over the course of his long career, Sunday probably preached to more than 100,000,000 people (in person). The great majority of these were done without electronic amplification. Vast numbers “hit the sawdust trail”. Although the usual total given for those who came forward at invitations is an even 1,000,000, estimates the true figure to be closer to 1,250,000. In more realistic terms: Sunday did not preach to 100,000,000 different individuals, but to many of the same people repeatedly over the course of a campaign. Before his death, Sunday estimated that he had preached nearly 20,000 sermons, an average of 42 per month from 1896 to 1935. During his heyday, when he was preaching more than 20 times each week, his crowds were often huge. Even in 1923, well into the period of his decline, 479,300 people attended the 79 meetings of the 6-week 1923 Columbia, South Carolina, campaign — 23 times the white population of Columbia. “Trail hitters” were also not necessarily conversions to Christianity. Sometimes whole groups of club members came forward en masse at Sunday’s prodding. By 1927, Rodeheaver was complaining that Sunday’s invitations had become so general that they were meaningless.

The Cost of Success

An efficient organization and consistently large crowds meant that Sunday was netting hefty offerings. The 1st questions about Sunday’s income were apparently raised during the Columbus, Ohio, campaign at the turn of 1912-13. During the Pittsburgh campaign a year later, Sunday spoke 4 times per day and effectively made $217 per sermon or $870 a day at a time when the average gainfully employed worker made $836 per year. The major cities of Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and New York City gave Sunday even larger offerings. Sunday donated Chicago’s offering of $58,000 to Pacific Garden Mission and the $120,500 New York offering to war charities. Nevertheless, between 1908 and 1920, the Sundays earned over a $1,000,000; an average worker during the same period earned less than $14,000.

Sunday’s notoriety allowed him to be welcomed into the inner circle of the social, economic, and political elite. He included among his neighbors and acquaintances several prominent businessmen. He dined with politicians including Presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and counted both Herbert Hoover and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as friends. During and after the 1917 Los Angeles campaign, the Sundays visited with Hollywood stars and members of Sunday’s organization played a charity baseball game against a team of show-business personalities that included Douglas Fairbanks.

The Sunday family enjoyed dressing well and dressing their children well; they sported expensive but tasteful coats, boots, and jewelry. Nell Sunday also bought land as an investment. In 1909 the Sundays bought an apple orchard in Hood River, Oregon, where they vacationed for several years. Although the property sported only a rustic cabin, reporters referred to it as a “ranch”. Sunday was a soft-touch with money and gave away much of his earnings. Neither Billy nor Nell were extravagant spenders. Although Sunday enjoyed driving, the couple never owned a car. In 1911 the Sundays moved to Winona Lake, Indiana, and built an American Craftsman-style bungalow which they called “Mount Hood.” This was probably a reminder of their Oregon vacation cabin. The bungalow, furnished in the popular Arts and Crafts style, had 2 porches and a terraced garden but only 9 rooms, 2,500 square feet of living space and no garage.

Billy Sunday’s Religious Views

Billy Sunday was a conservative evangelical who accepted fundamentalist doctrines. He affirmed and preached the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, a literal devil and hell, and the imminent return of Jesus Christ. At the turn of the 20th century, most Protestant church members, regardless of denomination, gave assent to these doctrines. Sunday refused to hold meetings in cities where he was not welcomed by the vast majority of the Protestant churches and their clergy. Nevertheless, Sunday was not a separationist as were most orthodox Protestants of his era. He went out of his way to avoid criticizing the Roman Catholic Church and even met with Cardinal Gibbons during his 1916 Baltimore campaign. Also, cards filled out by “trail hitters” were faithfully returned to the church or denomination that the writers had indicated as their choice—including Catholic and Unitarian.

Although Sunday was ordained by the Presbyterian Church in 1903, his ministry was nondenominational and he was not a strict Calvinist. He preached that individuals were responsible for their own salvation. “Trail hitters” were given a four-page tract that stated, “if you have done your part (i.e. believe that Christ died in your place, and receive Him as your Savior and Master) God has done HIS part and imparted to you His own nature.” Sunday never attended seminary and made no pretense of being a theologian or an intellectual, but he had a thorough knowledge of the Bible, and he was well-read on religious and social issues of his day. His surviving Winona Lake library of six hundred books gives evidence of heavy use, including underscoring and reader’s notes in his characteristic all-caps printing. Some of Sunday’s books were even those of religious opponents. He was later charged, probably correctly, with plagiarizing a Decoration Day speech given by the noted agnostic Robert Ingersoll.

Sunday’s homespun preaching had a wide appeal to his audiences, who were “entertained, reproached, exhorted, and astonished.” Sunday claimed to be “an old-fashioned preacher of the old-time religion,” and his uncomplicated sermons spoke of a personal God, salvation through Jesus Christ, and following the moral lessons of the Bible. Sunday’s theology, although sometimes denigrated as simplistic, was situated within mainstream Protestantism of his time.

Billy Sunday’s Social and Political Views

Sunday was a lifelong Republican and he espoused the mainstream political and social views of his native Midwest: individualism, competitiveness, personal discipline, and opposition to government regulation. Writers such as Sinclair Lewis, Henry M. Tichenor, and John Reed attacked Sunday as a tool of big business, and poet Carl Sandburg called him a “four-flusher” and a “bunk shooter”. Nevertheless, Sunday sided with Progressives on some issues: he denounced child labor and supported urban reform and women’s suffrage. Sunday condemned capitalists “whose private lives are good, but whose public lives are very bad” as well as those “who would not pick the pockets of one man with the fingers of their hand” but who would “without hesitation pick the pockets of 80,000,000 people with fingers of their monopoly or commercial advantage”. He never lost his sympathy for the poor and he sincerely tried to bridge the gulf between the races during the nadir of the Jim Crow era, although on at least two occasions in the mid-1920s Sunday received contributions from the Ku Klux Klan.

Sunday was a passionate supporter of World War I. In 1918 he said, “I tell you it is [Kaiser] Bill against Woodrow, Germany against America, Hell against Heaven.” Sunday raised large amounts of money for the troops, sold war bonds, and stumped for recruitment.

Sunday had been an ardent champion of temperance from his earliest days as an evangelist, and his ministry at the Chicago YMCA had given him first-hand experience with the destructive potential of alcohol. Sunday’s most famous sermon was “Get on the Water Wagon”, which he preached on countless occasions with both histrionic emotion and a “mountain of economic and moral evidence.” Sunday said, “I am the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the Liquor Traffic. I have been, and will go on, fighting that damnable, dirty, rotten business with all the power at my command.” Sunday played a significant role in arousing public interest in Prohibition and in the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919. When the tide of public opinion turned against Prohibition, he continued to support it. After its repeal in 1933, Sunday called for its reintroduction.

Sunday also opposed eugenics, recent immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and the teaching of evolution. Further, he criticized such popular middle-class amusements as dancing, playing cards, attending the theatre, and reading novels. However, he strongly believed baseball was a healthy and patriotic form of recreation, so long as it was not played on Sundays.

1935 – Final Days

Sunday’s popularity waned after World War I when radio and movie theaters became his competitors for the public’s interests. The Sundays’ health also declined as they continued to drive themselves through rounds of smaller revivals — but with ever fewer staff members for assistance.

Tragedy marred Sunday’s final years. His three sons engaged in many of the activities he preached against, and the Sundays paid blackmail to several women to keep the scandals relatively quiet. In 1930, their housekeeper and nanny, who had become a virtual member of the family, died. Then the Sundays’ daughter, the only child actually raised by Nell, died in 1932 of what appeared to have been multiple sclerosis. Their oldest son George, rescued from financial ruin by the Sundays, committed suicide in 1933.

Even as the crowds declined during the last 15 years of his life, Sunday soldiered on, accepting preaching invitations and speaking with effect. In early 1935, he had a mild heart attack, and his doctor advised him to stay out of the pulpit. Sunday ignored the advice. He died on November 6th, a week after preaching his last sermon on the text “What must I do to be saved?”

Aimee Semple McPherson (October 9th, 1890 – September 27th, 1944)

Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy was born on a farm in Salford, Ontario, Canada. Young Aimee got her first exposure to religion through her mother, Mildred who regularly volunteered in the local Salvation Army soup kitchen. As a child she played “Salvation Army” and would gather a congregation of her dolls and give them sermons. As a teenager, McPherson strayed from her mother’s teachings by reading novels and going to movies and dances, all of which were strongly disapproved by the Salvation Army.

In high school, she was taught Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and began to question local pastors about faith and science, but was not happy with the answers. She sent a letter to a Canadian newspaper: the Family Herald and Weekly Star, asking why taxpayers supported public schools teaching evolution. While still in high school, McPherson began a life-long crusade against evolution.


While attending a revival meeting in December 1907, Aimee met Robert James Semple, a Pentecostal missionary from Ireland. After a short courtship, they were married on August 12th, 1908. The 2 then embarked on an evangelistic tour, 1st to Europe and then to China, where they arrived in June 1910. Shortly after arriving in Hong Kong, both contracted malaria. Robert Semple died on August 19th, 1910, and was buried in Hong Kong Cemetery. Aimee Semple recovered and gave birth to their daughter, Roberta Star Semple, on September 17th, 1910. She and her child returned to the United States.

While recuperating, Semple joined her mother in New York City, working with the Salvation Army. While there, she met Harold Stewart McPherson, a local accountant. They were married on May 5th, 1912, and had a son, Rolf Potter Kennedy McPherson in March 1913.

1913 – As a Preacher

In 1913, McPherson began a preaching career. In June 1915 she began evangelizing and holding tent revivals while touring Canada and the USA. She started by traveling up and down the eastern US, then expanding to other parts of the country. Her revivals were often standing-room only. One such revival was held in a boxing ring, with the meeting before and after the match. Throughout the boxing event she walked about with a sign reading “Knock Out the Devil”. In San Diego, California, the National Guard was needed to control a revival crowd of over 30,000.

McPherson practiced speaking in tongues but rarely emphasized it. She was also known as a faith healer and there were claims of physical healing occurring during her meetings, although this became less important as her fame increased.

1918 – The Gospel Car

Around 1916, McPherson embarked on a tour of the Southern United States in what she called her “gospel car.”  Traveling with her was her mother Mildred. The vehicle was a 1912 Packard touring car emblazoned with religious slogans. Standing on the back seat of the convertible, McPherson preached sermons over a megaphone. On the road between sermons, she would sit in the back seat typing sermons and other religious materials. By 1917 she had started her own magazine: ‘The Bridal Call’ for which she wrote articles about women’s roles in religion and the link she saw between Christians and Jesus as a marriage bond. The magazine contributed to the rising women’s suffrage movement.

Despite her husband’s efforts to join her on her religious travels; by 1918 he had filed for separation. His petition for divorce was granted, citing abandonment, in 1921.

A battle between ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘modernists’ escalated following World War I, with many modernists seeking less conservative religious faiths. Soldiers returning from overseas had been exposed to all manner of new cultural influences and generally believed in further expansion of their horizons. Fundamentalists generally believed their religious faith should govern every aspect of their lives. McPherson sought to eradicate modernism and secularism in homes, churches, schools and communities and developed a strong following in what she called “the Foursquare Gospel” by blending contemporary culture with religious teachings. The term “Foursquare Gospel” came about during an intense revival in the city of Oakland, California, in July 1922. To a crowd of thousands, Aimee Semple McPherson explained Ezekiel’s vision — chapter one of the Book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel saw God revealed as a being with four different faces: a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. To Sister McPherson, those four faces were like the four phases of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the face of the man, she saw Jesus our Savior. In the face of the lion, she saw Jesus the mighty Baptizer with the Holy Spirit and fire. In the face of the ox, she saw Jesus the Great Burden-Bearer, who took our infirmities and carried our sicknesses. In the face of the eagle, she saw Jesus the Coming King, who will return in power and victory for the church.  It was a perfect, complete Gospel. It was a Gospel that faces squarely in every direction; it was the “Foursquare Gospel”.

From mid-1919 to 1922 McPherson expanded her influence in cities such as Baltimore by way of her impassioned revivals that sometimes lasted as long as four weeks. In December 1919, she went to Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House to conduct seventeen days of meetings. Her appearance caught the attention of the Baltimore Sun, which ran a 1,000-word column on her in the December 6th, 1919, issue. During the interview the Sun reporter asked McPherson how she arrived at the conclusion that Baltimore needed a revival. “As soon as I entered the city I saw the need. Women were sitting in the dining room smoking with the men,” McPherson replied. “I took up the newspapers and I saw card parties and dances advertised in connection with the churches. There was a coldness. Card parties, dances, theaters, all represent agencies of the devil to distract the attention of men and women away from spirituality . . .”  While McPherson had traveled extensively in her evangelical work prior to arriving in Baltimore, it was in Baltimore that she was first “discovered” by the newspapers while sitting with her mother in the red plush parlor of the Belvedere Hotel on December 5th, 1919, a day after conducting evangelistic services at the Lyric Opera House.

Around this time, Los Angeles had become a popular vacation spot. Rather than touring the United States to preach her sermons, McPherson decided to stay in LA, drawing audiences from a population that had soared from 100,000 in 1900 to 575,000 in 1920 and was still growing. She had understood the potential of the new media — Radio — and reckoned that there is no longer any need to actually travel when the magic of the radio can deliver your message throughout the country.

Wearied by constant travel and understanding the stress it places on trying to raise a family, McPherson envisioned settling in Los Angeles, where she could maintain both a house and a church. McPherson believed that by creating her church in Los Angeles, her audience could consist of the many tourists and vacationers in the area. This made it possible for people to hear her Gospel message and then the tourists would take it back to their home communities. She was planting seeds that could germinate all over the country. To fulfill this vision, she continued to travel for several years to raise the money for the construction of a large church building in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. The church would be named Angelus Temple. Raising more money than she had hoped, McPherson altered the original plans, and built a “mega-church” that could draw many followers throughout the years. The church was dedicated on January 1st, 1923. The auditorium had a seating capacity of 5,300 people and was filled three times each day, seven days a week. At first, McPherson preached every service, often in a dramatic theatrical presentation she assembled to attract audiences. Eventually, the church evolved into its own denomination and became known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The new denomination focused 1st on the nature of Christ’s character, that he was Savior, baptizer with the Holy Spirit, healer and coming King. There were four main beliefs: the first being Christ’s ability to transform individuals’ lives through the act of salvation; the second focused on a holy baptism; the 3rd was divine healing; and the fourth was gospel-oriented heed to the premillennial return of Jesus Christ.

Pentecostalism was not popular in the U.S. during the 1920s, consequently, McPherson avoided the label. She did, however, make demonstrations of speaking-in-tongues and faith healing in sermons. She kept a museum of crutches, wheelchairs and other paraphernalia. As evidence of her early influence by the Salvation Army, McPherson adopted a theme of “lighthouses” for the satellite churches, referring to the parent church as the “Salvation Navy”. This was the beginning of McPherson working to plant Foursquare Gospel churches around the country. McPherson published the weekly ‘Foursquare Crusader’ along with her monthly magazine ‘Bridal Call’. She began broadcasting on radio in the early 1920s. McPherson was one of the first women to preach a radio sermon; and with the opening of Foursquare Gospel-owned KFSG on February 6th, 1924, she became the second woman granted a broadcast license by the Department of Commerce, the agency that supervised broadcasting in the early 1920s.

McPherson preached a conservative gospel but in progressive ways, through radio, movies and stage acts. Advocacy for women’s rights was on the rise, including women’s suffrage through the 19th Amendment. McPherson gained support from women associated with modernism, despite the contradiction of her preaching about the evils of modernity. By accepting and using these new media outlets, she helped integrate her message into people’s daily lives (this also contradicted her disapproval of the modern mass media).

1925 – Never Miss an Opportunity

In August 1925 McPherson decided to charter a plane to return to Los Angeles so she would not miss delivering her Sunday sermon. Aware of the opportunity for publicity, she arranged for at least 2,000 followers and members of the press to be present at the airport. The plane failed after takeoff and the landing gear collapsed, sending the nose of the plane into the ground. McPherson boarded another plane and used the experience as the narrative of an illustrated Sunday sermon called “The Heavenly Airplane”. The stage in Angelus Temple was set up with two miniature planes and a skyline that looked like Los Angeles. In this sermon, McPherson described how the 1st plane had the devil for the pilot, sin for the engine and temptation as the propeller. The other plane, however, was piloted by Jesus and would lead one to the Holy City (the skyline shown on stage). The temple was filled to capacity.

On another occasion, she described being pulled over by a police officer, calling the sermon “Arrested for Speeding”. McPherson employed a small group of artists, electricians, decorators and carpenters who built the sets for each Sunday’s service. Religious music was played by a full orchestra. Biographer Matthew Avery Sutton wrote, “McPherson found no contradiction between her rejection of Hollywood values for her use of show-business techniques. She would not hesitate to use the devil’s tools to tear down the devil’s house.” Collections were taken at every meeting, often with the admonishment, “no coins, please.”

McPherson racially integrated her tent meetings and church services. On one occasion, as a response to McPherson’s ministry and Angelus Temple being integrated, Ku Klux Klan members were in attendance, but after the service hoods and robes were found on the ground in nearby Echo Park. She is also credited with helping many Hispanic ministries in Los Angeles.

During 1925 McPherson received several death threats and an alleged plot to kidnap her was foiled in September of the same year.

Education and Politics

By early 1926, McPherson had become one of the most charismatic and influential women and ministers of her time. According to Carey McWilliams, she had become “more than just a household word: she was a folk hero and a civic institution; an honorary member of the fire and police departments; a patron saint of the service clubs; an official spokesman for the community on problems grave and frivolous.” She was influential in social, educational and political arenas. McPherson made personal crusades against anything that she felt threatened her Christian ideals, including the drinking of alcohol and teaching evolution in schools.

McPherson became a strong supporter of William Jennings Bryan during the 1925 Scopes Trial, in which John Scopes was tried for illegally teaching evolution at a Dayton, Tennessee school. Bryan and McPherson had worked together in the Angelus Temple and they believed social Darwinism had undermined students’ morality. According to McPherson, 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 saying, “10,000 members of Angelus Temple with her millions of radio church membership send grateful appreciation of your lion-hearted championship of the Bible against evolution and throw our hats in the ring with you.” She organized “an all-night prayer service, a massive church meeting preceded by a Bible parade through Los Angeles” in his support.

1926 – Kidnapping

On May 18th, 1926 McPherson went with her secretary to Ocean Park Beach north of Venice Beach to swim. Soon after arriving, McPherson was nowhere to be found. It was thought she had drowned.

McPherson was scheduled to hold a service that day. Her mother Minnie Kennedy preached the sermon instead, saying at the end, “Sister is with Jesus” sending parishioners into a tearful frenzy. Mourners crowded Venice Beach and the commotion sparked days-long media coverage fueled in part by William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner and a stirring poem by Upton Sinclair to commemorate the tragedy. Daily updates appeared in newspapers across the country and parishioners held day-and-night seaside vigils. One parishioner drowned while searching for the body, and another diver died of exposure.

Kenneth G. Ormiston, the engineer for radio station KFSG, had also disappeared at about the same time. Some believed McPherson and Ormiston, who was married, had become romantically involved and had run off together. After about a month Minnie Kennedy received a ransom note – signed by “The Avengers” – which demanded a $500,000 or else the kidnappers would sell McPherson into “white slavery”. Kennedy later said that she tossed the letter away, believing her daughter was already dead.

On June 23rd, McPherson stumbled out of the desert in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican town across the border from Douglas, Arizona. She claimed she had been kidnapped, drugged, tortured and held for ransom in a shack by a man and a woman, Steve” and “Mexicali Rose”. Her story also claimed she had escaped from her captors and walked through the desert for about thirteen hours to freedom. McPherson seemed in unusually good health for her alleged ordeal and her clothes showed no signs of the long walk through the desert. A grand jury convened on July 8th, 1926, but adjourned 12 days later citing a lack of evidence to proceed. Five witnesses then claimed to have seen McPherson at a seaside cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea (the cottage having been rented by Ormiston under an assumed name). Ormiston admitted to having rented the cottage but claimed that the woman who had been there with him — known in the press as Mrs. X — was not McPherson but another woman with whom he was engaging in an extramarital affair.

The grand jury reconvened on August 3rd and took further testimony along with documents from hotels, all said to be in McPherson’s handwriting. McPherson steadfastly stuck to her story, that she was approached by a young couple at the beach who had asked her to come over and pray for their sick child, and that she was then shoved into a car and drugged with chloroform. When she was not forthcoming with answers regarding her relationship with Ormiston, the judge charged McPherson and her mother with obstruction of justice. To combat the bad newspaper publicity, McPherson spoke freely about the court trials on the air from her church-owned radio station.

Surprisingly, the prosecution of Aimee Semple McPherson generated support for her from interesting sources. Local flappers attended the trial in support of McPherson, whom they regarded as a modern woman similar to themselves, and whose prosecution they believed was motivated by issues of gender. Newspaperman and cynic H.L. Mencken, previously a vocal critic of McPherson’s, had been sent to cover the trial and came away impressed with McPherson and disdainful of the unseemly nature of the prosecution.

Theories and innuendo were rampant: that she had run off with a lover, she had gone off to have an abortion, she was taking time to heal from plastic surgery, or she had staged a publicity stunt. The Examiner newspaper then reported that Los Angeles district attorney Asa Keyes had dropped all charges on January 10th, 1927.

The tale was later satirized by Pete Seeger in a song called “The Ballad of Aimee McPherson,” with lyrics claiming the kidnapping had been unlikely because a hotel love nest revealed “the dents in the mattress fit Aimee’s caboose.”

1930 – Milton Berle

In Milton Berle: An Autobiography, comedian Milton Berle claimed he had a brief affair with McPherson in 1930. He claimed that he met McPherson at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles where both were doing a charity show. Upon seeing her for the first time, Berle recalled, “I was both impressed and very curious … She was all dignity and class when it came to her turn. The house went wild when she walked out into the lights.” Backstage, she invited him to see Angelus Temple. Instead, the two of them went to lunch in Santa Monica, then to an apartment of hers where McPherson changed into something “cooler: a very thin, pale blue negligee.” Berle said he could see she was wearing nothing underneath and that she only said, “Come in.” Berle said they met for the second and last time at the same apartment a few days later, writing, “This time, she just sent the chauffeur for me to bring me straight to the apartment. We didn’t even bother with lunch. When I was dressing to leave, she stuck out her hand. ‘Good luck with your show, Milton.’ What the hell. I couldn’t resist it. ‘Good luck with yours, Aimee.’ I never saw or heard from Aimee Semple McPherson again. But whenever I hear ‘Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby,’ I remember her.” Biographer Matthew Avery Sutton commented, “Berle, a notorious womanizer whose many tales of scandalous affairs were not always true, claimed to have had sex with McPherson on this and one other occasion” both during a year when McPherson was often ill and bedridden. Sutton also wrote that Berle’s story of a crucifix in her bedroom was not consistent with the coolness of Pentecostal-Catholic relations during that era.

1935 – The Later Years

Following her heyday in the 1920s, McPherson carried on with her ministry but fell out of favor with the press. She became caught up in power struggles for the church with her mother and daughter and suffered a nervous breakdown in August 1930.

On September 13th, 1931, McPherson married again, to actor and musician David Hutton; the marriage got off to a rocky start. 2 days after the wedding, Hutton was sued for alienation of affections by Hazel St. Pierre, although Hutton claimed he had never met her. He eventually settled the case by paying St. Pierre $5,000. While McPherson was away in Europe, she was angered to learn Hutton was billing himself as “Aimee’s Man” in his cabaret singing act. The marriage also caused an uproar within the church: The tenets of Foursquare Gospel, as put forth by McPherson herself, held that one should not remarry while their previous spouse was still alive, as McPherson’s second husband still was. McPherson and Hutton separated in 1933 and divorced on March 1st, 1934.

In 1936, drawing from her childhood experience with the Salvation Army, McPherson opened a commissary at Angelus Temple. It was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and became active in creating soup kitchens, free clinics and other charitable activities as the Great Depression wore on. With the later outbreak of World War II, McPherson became involved in war bond rallies, complete with sermons that linked the church and American patriotism.

1944 – The End

On September 26th, 1944, McPherson went to Oakland, California, for a series of revivals, planning to preach her popular “Story of My Life” sermon. When her son went to her hotel room at 10:00 the next morning, he found her unconscious with pills and a half-empty bottle of capsules nearby. She was dead by 11:15 am.

The autopsy did not conclusively determine the cause of McPherson’s death. She had been taking sleeping pills following numerous health problems — including ‘tropical fever’. Among the pills found in the hotel room was the drug Seconal, a strong sedative that had not been prescribed for her. It was unknown how she got them.

The coroner stated the death was most likely an accidental overdose compounded by kidney failure. Some say Seconal has a hypnotizing effect which can make a person forgetful about how much medication has been taken and lead to an overdose. The actual cause of death is still officially listed as unknown.

Aimee Semple McPherson is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Following her death, the Foursquare Gospel Church was led for 44 years by her son Rolf McPherson. The church claims a membership of over 8.7 million, worldwide.

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Original material and material compiled and edited from numerous sources including Wikipedia.

Sections of Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson compiled and edited from Wikipedia and The FourSquare Gospel Church website.