Friday, June 17, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Aimee Semple McPherson's speech in a speakeasy

A pioneer in what we now call televangelism, using radio and film to spread her preaching, Aimee Semple McPherson was the first woman granted a license by the Federal Communications Commission, earning her the nickname "Our Lady of the Loudspeaker" from writer Dorothy Parker. She was so popular and visible a public speaker that she's been called "the closest thing to Oprah Winfrey in early 20th-century America," even though she died before the advent of television. She built the first megachurch, seating 5,000, in Los Angeles and filled it sometimes daily. Sister Aimee, as she was known, was a woman who wanted to be heard.

But she did more than speak and promote her Pentecostal message. Sister Aimee fed more than a million people in Los Angeles during the Great Depression and some credit her with keeping the city's Mexican population alive at that time. She welcomed black and Hispanic worshipers in an unusually diverse ministry. And she sometimes risked her reputation, with many failed marriages, rumored affairs and charges she had staged her own kidnapping.

Public radio program On Being has done a fascinating hourlong look at Sister Aimee, with a detailed site full of reference material, multimedia and transcripts. It's from host Krista Tippett's notes on the program that this famous speech comes. Contrary to her loudspeaker image, this is a quiet and legendary speech. It was summarized in The New Yorker by author John Updike in 2007, writing about a biography of the preacher:
In 1927, a month after the charges against her were dismissed in Los Angeles, she arrived in New York in furs and a yellow suit, and was taken to a prime watering spot of the Roaring Twenties, Texas Guinan's speakeasy, on Fifty-fourth Street. A reporter called out, with whatever sardonic intent, that she should be invited to speak. Guinan agreed, and, as Epstein tells it, 'Aimee, demure, dignified, stone sober … left her table and stood in the center of the dance floor, smiling until everyone was quiet.' Then she said:  'Behind all these beautiful clothes, behind these good times, in the midst of your lovely buildings and shops and pleasures, there is another life. There is something on the other side. "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" With all your getting and playing and good times, do not forget you have a Lord. Take Him into your hearts.' And that was all — a miniature masterpiece of the evangelist's art, silencing a boozy crowd in no mood to hear it. Epstein writes, 'All at once they applauded, and Tex put her arm around Aimee. The clapping went on for much longer than her speech had taken.'
What can you learn from this famous speech?

  • Surprise your critics with the unexpected: Like many women speakers, Sister Aimee's critics took a "how dare she?" tone about her promotion and prominence. This quiet and simple talk proved she was equally impressive with a small crowd and an intimate tone.
  • Don't be afraid to broadcast your words: McPherson used every tech tool available, and created a lasting legacy as a result. Unlike many famous woman speakers, we have an ample record of her speeches and sermons, including this one.
  • Preach beyond the choir: Talking to gambling drinkers in a speakeasy was not her regular approach, but Sister Aimee was reaching an important if unlikely audience--and so should you if you want to influence more than the groups that agree with you. The key: Speak to them with as much respect as the people who are already your fans.
  • Keep it brief and direct: There's no question this is a persuasive speech. Don't confuse length with effectiveness.

Here's video of Sister Aimee from a newsreel on Prohibition, to give you a sample of her speaking style. What do you think about her speaking?

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