This essay was originally published in The Haldeman-Julius Monthly, vol. 4, no. 6 (November 1926). It is now in the public domain. All original formatting has been preserved.
Every trade or business has its tricks and secrets which one must master in order to succeed at it. This is true of mortarmixing no less than of poetry, rat-catching and bootlegging no less than evangelism and faith-healing. In the present piece I propose to examine, briefly, the tricks and secrets of the evangelistic and faith-cure industry as it flourishes in this great Republic of ours, though, in the main, I shall keep in mind my favorite heroine, the Rev. “Sister” Aimee Semple McPherson, the wonder woman of Los Angeles and Radioland, her faith factory, the Angelus Temple, and her customers.
The secret of Mrs. McPherson’s amazing success lies as much in her customers as in herself. This. I suppose, is true of every business: one who wishes to succeed at peddling anything would better get some commodity the mention of which strikes a responsive chord in souls or bellies of a lot of people.
The patrons of such establishments as the Angelus Temple and the Rev. “Billy” Sunday’s tabernacles arc of the type that Ben Hecht likes to refer to as the “half dead”; that a Los Angeles infidel lecturer called “the millions now living who are already dead”: and that Dr. Herbert A. Parkyn, the psychologist, labeled “suggestive sleep-walkers.” Other names for the customers of Aimee’s faith-factory and similar concerns are “‘morons,” “boobs,” and “suckers.” P. T. Barnum won wealth and fame on the theory that there was one born every minute; but, as is well known, P. T. has since been proven wrong: there is one born every five seconds, at least.
They are the two-legged organisms who make up the vast memberships of various fanatical religious bodies, reform leagues, and mobs of all sorts. They are the folks whom the Lord blessed with a lot of feelings and scant reasoning power, making them, thus, abnormally suggestible to dynamic personalities–spellbinders, demagogues, bunkshooters, bunco-steerers of all sorts. They make life rosy for the evangelistic faith manufacturer, the salvationist, the “divine healer,” the flag-waving politician, the blue-sky promoter. They fill our churches and jails. They shout hallelujahs at Aimee Semple McPherson’s temple and furnish recruits to the Oldest Profession on Earth. They are the folks who make possible the so-called “scientific salesmanship.”
But here I am primarily concerned with the business of faith, religious revivalism, “conversion,” “salvation,” “faith healing.”
Pure faith is synonymous with the child attitude. The Christian Savior, in describing the ways of attainment of the spiritual condition of faith, is reported by Matthew (18:1, 3) to have said, “Except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” –that is to say, you must be as receptive as little children.
The chief characteristic of the child-mind is credulity. Each impression reaching it through the senses, unless that impression is contradicted by some other, is promptly received and made at home in it. These impressions are for the child the world as it is. To the adult–the mental adult–some of them may be the essence of absurdity. To the child they are the essence of reality.
Not long ago I saw a group of boys between the ages of, perhaps, eight and eleven pester an old goat that is tied to a peg on the empty lot near where I live. I have a personal interest in the welfare of the goat because he is my neighbor, very quiet and tolerant–an ideal neighbor. Moreover, the beast has a passion for literature: he would sooner eat an American Magazine or a New Thought pamphlet than the most luscious grass, and once or twice a day, when the mail comes, I toss him a few booklets, which he promptly devours, thereby saving me the trouble of burning them up. Anyway, I felt for the goat; besides, the boys were making a good deal of noise, and to get them away I called one of them over and confided to him that only a few minutes before I had seen a young wild cat over by the bluff, a few hundred yards away.
The boy believed me instantly and implicitly, and was immensely thrilled by the news of the wild eat. He ran back to the gang. They talked it over a while, and, as I watched them, I saw that, although they all experienced a thrill, some of them hesitated about going to the bluff.
“Is it a big one?” one of them called to me.
“Oh, no,” I returned, “just a little baby wild cat.”
“He says it’s just a little baby wild cat,” the boy repeated.
And to my and the goat’s great content, the boys dashed off bluffward, to hunt for the baby wild cat.
They believed me; so intensely, in fact, that a few hours later one of the boys breathlessly told me all about the wild cat. They had “seen” the beast; yes, they had seen it dash through the tall grass and found its tracks in the dust on the road.
And a good many people never grow up; their bodies mature, but they retain their child-receptivity, their primitive credulity, thereby remaining in condition to attain to the Kingdom of Heaven–the kingdom of illusion–as easily as the kids who annoyed my friend and neighbor, the goat. The state of the child-mind is practically one of unbounded credulity.
The phenomena of religious conversion and “divine” healing are perfect evidence of the fact. In the case of the boys who annoyed the goat I shifted, in an instant, their interest to the mythical wild cat; and when “conversion” or “divine healing” takes place something similar occurs in the case of the “converted” and the “healed.”
The average person entering a religious revival joint does so aware, at least vaguely, of his shortcomings. Gradually his mind is absorbed in the program of the service and he automatically stops thinking of himself. Then he hears the testimonies, and, his mind being what it is–a child-mind, endowed with primitive credulity–he learns of the marvelous working of the “power” and the “spirit” of God. Perhaps at first these claims sound strange, though not really dubious, but as they are continually reiterated, and his mind moves on its abstraction, these assurances cease to seem strange, until at last, under the pressure of various emotional stimuli, he surrenders to the idea and gets “saved” or “healed.” Under the emotional excitement a person of this type is as incapable of deliberation or of doubt as a sea-gull egg is of flying. In the excitement he forgets all about his shortcomings and is conscious of naught save “the power and the spirit of the Lord”–and the mood becomes, to him, an actual experience.
It is this abandonment of self to the illusion that is the central secret of evangelism, of healing–of the entire faith business.
Most of these people–these dismaying customers or the faith business-are in such cheerless circumstances, one way or another, that, in self-defense, they must seek relief from reality in illusion, which, in order to get a thrill, they–by trick still little understood–promptly turn into reality–reality to them–just as the urchins I spoke of above, beset by monotony of existence on the one hand and by overabundant energy on the other, converted my mythical wild cat into a living creature which they “saw” dash through the grass and whose tracks they found in the dust. The lot of these people is to suffer a great deal, indeed all they can stand: to perform dreary, wearisome tasks, to be looked down upon, for as a rule they are old or else unbeautiful and unhealthy of body and dull of mind; and, naturally enough, they are eager for something to hoist them out of the morass of their lives. They crave comfort, something to sooth their wounded vanity; they crave well-being and peace, security and certainty; and not being in a position to attain to the material things which spell or symbolize these desirable conditions of life, and being also full of inhibitions and the sense of sin, carefully implanted into them by the forces that made them what they are and that feed upon them–they eagerly reach for the neatly prepared cakes of simple but potent hokum that Aimee Semple McPherson produces and distributes. J. Macphail Waggett, in his book on Mental, Divine and Faith Healings, which is mostly claptrap, tells of a woman who was constantly going “under the power” at religious meetings and who described to him her sensations as follows: “You feel that the Lord has lifted you away from this sinful world. You are no longer worldly-minded; all that you have is a sense of inexpressible restfulness. You do not care whether the Lord sends you back to earth or not. At last you are so blessedly content that if you have a desire it is to remain just as you are.”
I said simple hokum–the simpler the better. I lured the boys away from the goat by giving them the simple tale of the wild cat. If I had told them, for instance, that below the bluff there grew a tremendously interesting assortment of grasses and weeds and then proceeded to impart to them a string of Latin names and to enlighten them with a long scientific dissertation upon the marvel and mystery of a blade of grass, followed by a long and learned speech upon the significance of the aforesaid grass in the life of the young heifer over yonder, etc., etc.–if I had tried to give anything like that, I would have confused them, and, quite naturally and perhaps justifiably, they would have considered me insane. Such description of the marvels beyond the bluff would have been too complicated to thrill them: their imagination was yet too limited.
In the same way, a lecture upon a subject like the Einstein Theory or the Millikan Cosmic Rays would fall flat before an Angelus Temple audience, especially if delivered by some unassuming, quiet-mannered, bald, stoop-shouldered little fellow. It would not only fall flat, but the lecturer would better watch out for himself; for, in their bewilderment, the subject being beyond their powers, the bearers would quite naturally conclude that he was making fun of them, or that he was a great fraud, and perhaps would violently resent his “stuff and nonsense.”
Thus, in order to appeal to these people, whose minds are undeveloped or killed, and to get their shekels, one must not speak of the thrilling and intricate mysteries of our world and the universe in terms of the patient and highly imaginative researcher with his passion for exactitude and detail. In order to appeal to this type of mind, one must get a plain piece of something or other and then put it over in terms of the everyday life lived by the audience. One must not tax their imagination. Instead of going, for instance, into an elaborate discussion of the nebular hypothesis, bringing in the various ideas of Kant, Herschel, Laplace, Chamberlin, and Moulton, one would better tackle the mystery of the universe in the manner of our “Sister” Aimee Semple McPherson, who recently had the following to say on the subject:
God spoke the first words ever recorded of him¬–“Let there be light.”
What a strange scene it must have been in the beginning when God came stepping down through the mighty lights of the starry lands, down to the mountain summits of earth, down to the lowlands and shores or the mighty deep. The earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. Can you picture it now!
God moves forward–the darkness begins to recede. The garment or night that has cloaked and shrouded the earth so long is withdrawn.
Let there be light! Each word was as a great, mighty cleaver coming down and splitting the darkness asunder and letting the glory rays of Heaven come shining through. God gathered all the great big bundle of black night into one heap and cast it to one side. Then He gathered all the dancing sunbeams and the glories of heavenly beauty into a great mass and spread them on the other side. He divided the day from the night, the light from the darkness. He called the light, day, and the darkness, night.
That great, wonderful scene of creation, the conquering of the darkness by God and bringing in of the light is repeated every twenty-four hours in an illustrated sermon. Each evening the sun sets and darkness comes down on the face of the earth, shadows lengthen from the mountains, steal down into the valleys and gloom settles over the earth. Night sways her scepter over the land. But, praise the Lord! as sure as the hours roll by there ever comes the dawn, the rising of the sun over the eastern hills, the scattering of the night before the crowning glory of the newborn day.
Another very important element in the career of Aimee Semple McPherson is the fact that she succeeded in endowing herself with supernatural attributes.
To begin with, she was not born in the usual way, but “in answer to her mother’s prayers.” And she was “reared carefully; her character, mind, and soul were trained for “God.” Then, on numerous occasions, she heard the “call of God”; she heard “voices”; indeed she modestly compares her career to the life of Joan of Arc. Her life has been full of miracles; she is a worker of miracles; in fact, she admits that she herself “is the greatest miracle of all.”
The site of the Angelus Temple was picked by the Lord, and so on. The Lord helped her escape from the “shack” where the “kidnapers” had held her captive. The Lord functions through her in a most amazing way; He gave her miraculous powers to cure the afflicted–that is, those who have faith.
With such and similar claims she acquired a tremendous hold upon the imagination or her poor followers. When she “drowned” in the Pacific Ocean, some of her people saw her rise from the waves and in glory ascend to Heaven; that was an explanation for the failure of the divers to find her body. And later, upon her sudden reappearance at Agua Prieta, when she told her thrilling but perforated “kidnaping” yarn, they instantly believed her, just as they believe in her Foursquare Gospel. They can’t conceive how a person, through whom God works His miracles and spreads His blessings, could tell a lie.
In his admirable Thais, Anatole France illustrated the power of imagination over a certain type of mind. The story or Thais is set in the second century of the Christian era, and France tells of a monk, Paphnutius by name, who lived atop a pillar, which he had ascended in compliance with a divine command.
The top of the pillar was not large enough to allow the monk to lie full length, so that he slept with his legs crossed and his head on his breast, and sleep was a more cruel torture to him than his wakeful hours.
Soon the report of this extraordinary existence spread from village to village, and the laborers of the valley came on Sundays, with their wives and children, to look at the stylite. The disciples of Paphnutius, having learned with surprise the place of this wonderful retreat, came to him, and obtained from him permission to build their huts at the foot of the column. Every morning they came and stood in a circle round the master, and received from him words of instruction. …
Pilgrims flockedfrom all parts. There were some had come long distances. …
Bishops and other dignitaries came, full of admiration. The Patriarch of Antioch, who chanced be in Egypt at that time, came with all his clergy. He highly approved of the extraordinary conduct of the stylite, and the heads of the Libyan Church followed the opinion of the Patriarch. …
The seventh month, there came from Alexandria women who had long been barren, hoping to obtain children by the intercession of the holy man (some of whose words were interpreted to mean that the desire of woman was in him) and the virtues of the pillar. They rubbed their sterile bodies against the stone. There followed a procession, as far as the eye could reach, of chariots, palanquins, and litters, which stopped and pushes and jostled below the man of God. From them came sick people terrible to see. … He laid his hands upon them. Blind men approached, groping with their hands, and raising towards him a face pierced with two bleeding holes. … Dropsical women, swollen like wine skins, were placed on the ground before him. He blessed them. …
As the people reported everywhere the miracles which the saint had performed, unfortunate persons afflicted with that disease which the Greeks call, “the divine malady”, came from all parts or Egypt in incalculable legion. As soon as they saw the pillar, they were seized with convulsions, rolled on the ground, writhed, and twisted themselves into a ball. …
One day along came a philosopher and a physician. The former was amazed to see so many people throwaway their crutches, and he commented upon this phenomenon to the physician, who replied:
It is very possible that the monk on the pillar may cure certain diseases better than I can; such for instance, as epilepsy, vulgarly called the divine malady, although all maladies are equally divine, for they all come from the gods. But the cause of this disease lies partly in the imagination, and you must confess, Lucius, that this monk … strikes the minds of the sick people more forcibly than I, bending over my mortars and phials in my laboratory, could ever do. There are forces, Lucius, infinitely more powerful than reason and science.
What are they?
Ignorance and folly.