UW News

December 28, 2020

Dueling pulpits: Book by Jackson School’s Taso Lagos explores rivalry between two charismatic early-20th century preachers

UW News

Aimee Semple McPherson was a fiercely charismatic Pentecostal preacher and media dynamo of the 1920s and 1930s. Lonely, driven and often controversial, “Sister Aimee” was dedicated, if rather theatrically, to saving souls.

Robert “Fighting Bob” Shuler was a popular fire-and-brimstone radio evangelist of that time who later ran for office twice and lost. A Southern Methodist family man, Shuler too sought the betterment of society but disapproved of the upstart McPherson, who so captivated congregations across America and beyond.

In a new book, Taso Lagos of the University of Washington Jackson School studies the rivalry between these two California-based performer-preachers who had the country’s rapt attention for a time, and asks about the role of charisma itself in leadership. “Charisma and Religious War in America: Ministries and Rivalries of Sister Aimee and ‘Fighting Bob’” was published in November by Cambridge Scholars.

“Two rock-star preachers may have been one too many in a city even as big and growing as Los Angeles,” Lagos writes. “One saw the potential a clean, well-run, fairer city could do to improve the lives for its citizens, while the other saw in the corruption around her an opportunity not to condemn but to help save souls under the eternal love and guidance of Christ.

“And these two starkly different visions could not be reconciled, no matter how bountiful the love, compassion, and forgiveness in their Jesus-inspired hearts.”

UW Notebook caught up with Lagos for a few questions about the book and these two outsized personalities of the past century.

You write that it’s hard for you to imagine McPherson and Shuler operating in a historical period other than the early 20th century. Why is that?

Taso Lagos, author of "Charisma and Religious War in America."

Taso Lagos

Taso Lagos: Both McPherson and Shuler were products of their time; I cannot see them operating in another time, or place for that matter. McPherson was a Canadian immigrant who found her chief mission in life initially as an itinerant minister, but eventually founded her own church — Foursquare — which today is in 146 countries.

At the time American Protestantism was in the throes of deep soul-searching, with a modernizing wing versus the more traditional wing caught in internecine battles. McPherson represented the new wing while Rev. Shuler tried to keep the old and true (what we today call “masculine Christianity”) alive. McPherson brought a feminizing element to her ministry — not the first, but certainly one of the most impactful. And they met in Los Angeles, which was a hotbed of religious innovation.

Taso Lagos’ last book:
A biography of theater mogul Alexander Pantages.
His next book: A memoir of the Continental Greek Restaurant on University Way NE.

Are there 21st century counterparts to personalities like Sister Aimee and “Fighting Bob” in evangelistic or even entertainment circles?

T.L.: No, so far as I know. Part of it is that female ministers are more accepted today than in the early 1900s, so the gender issue simply is no longer an issue, so far as I can see. Also, I am not aware of new religious sects being founded, like what Sister Aimee did with Foursquare. It was possible at the time because 1920s Los Angeles was a fervent place of innovation and entrepreneurship (for example, the emerging Hollywood studios).

The book seems in part a mediation on the effect of charisma on leadership. What, if any, were your conclusions?

Aimee Semple McPherson

Robert “Fighting Bob” Shuler

T.L.: Charisma plays a huge role in leadership and garnering public attention. I knew that charisma was important, but after the book, I realize it is critical to some forms of leadership and public adulation. Not always for the best. President Trump has brought charisma back to discussion about leadership, for good or ill, and he reminds us that it remains a potent force in American life today. So much so that I want to explore this concept with the creation of a “Journal of Charisma Studies” to bring this element more to the attention of academic and popular circles. We need to be more aware of the profound effects, positive or negative, of charisma and its impact on our social and political development.

Toward the end of the book you write, “Strangely, I believe (McPherson) was closer to spiritual maturity than Shuler.” Why?

T.L.: She understood human beings better than Shuler, which Shuler acknowledged long after their rivalry ceased to matter. He confessed that she was more in touch with human beings and moved them more profoundly that he ever did, simply because she chose to bring people to love of Jesus, not to damn them with hellfire as he preached.

McPherson was closer to the everyday people and their problems, in other words, whereas Shuler always seemed to battle and hobnob with elites and was more interested in eliminating corruption in Los Angeles than in saving human souls. So in that sense, she left a longer lasting legacy than he did; in fact, at the end, he became a political reactionary more or less on the fringe of society. Sister Aimee lives in the hearts of millions today. That says everything.

For more information, contact Lagos at taso@uw.edu.