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Seventy-five Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Aimée and Coué Improve Your Life

The first week of 1923 saw two key milestones in America’s Roaring Twenties obsession with mental and spiritual matters. On January 1, in Los Angeles, Aimée Semple McPherson opened the 5,300-seat Angelus Temple, home base for her Church of the Four Square Gospel. McPherson had spent most of the previous decade as a barnstorming preacher, and her characteristically Californian mix of fundamentalist religion and mass entertainment would amount to a permanent tent revival.

Sister Aimée, as she was known, was no great beauty, and certainly not an original religious thinker. But her stage presence was riveting, her charisma was overwhelming, and she knew how to draw a crowd. Aimée (née Amy) preached almost every day, three times on Sunday. As colored lights played over her pure white gown, she spoke of love and redemption instead of sin and damnation. Vaudevillian musical acts and elaborately staged allegorical scenes rounded out her services, in addition to the usual faith healing, testifying, and (of course) collection of donations. One observer saw the proceedings as “a sensuous debauch served up in the name of religion”; another called them “supernatural whoopee.” Within five years the church had thirty thousand members.

In 1926, at the height of her fame, McPherson mysteriously disappeared for a month, almost certainly in the company of a handsome technician from her church’s radio station. Implausibly claiming to have been kidnapped, she barely escaped jailing for perjury. Then, like Henry Ward Beecher before her and Jimmy Swaggart after, McPherson took advantage of the Christian spirit of forgiveness to re-establish her career. Soon, however, more scandals and lawsuits made Aimée passé.

On January 4 a gray-haired, mildmannered, sixty-seven-year-old French pharmacist named Emile Coué arrived in New York City. Though it was his first visit to America, Coué was already wildly popular for his theories of selfhealing through “autosuggestion,” inspired by a book on hypnotism he had ordered from a publisher in Rochester, New York. The method, which consisted mainly of repeating the phrase “Every day in every way I am getting better and better” twenty times each morning and evening, was held responsible for many miraculous cures.

Coué had already taken much of Europe by storm, and one British observer worried that a visit to America would involve “lecturing in large halls to huge audiences, staring headlines in the press, innumerable interviews, and a deluge of correspondence. From such a corvée may he ever be delivered.” No such luck. As soon as Coué's ship docked, forty reporters descended on it to interview him. In between his lectures, which had been sold out for weeks, Coué taught sufferers to overcome nervous breakdown, paralysis, insomnia, and sinus trouble. As he moved on to Philadelphia, Washington, and Cleveland, crowds mobbed Coué wherever he went, desperate to touch his garments. Theologians debated Couéism’s relation to Christianity, while cocktail-party psychoanalysts interpreted autosuggestion in light of the widely discussed, if poorly understood, theories of Sigmund Freud.

After Coué returned to his clinic in Nancy, one skeptic said Americans had been “far more susceptible to his treatments than the French and English. Barnum was wise when he decided to be born in the United States.” Indeed, the episode demonstrated something Barnum was well aware of: the importance of a punchy slogan. Coué's original mantra (“Tous les jours, à tous points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux”) had been stiffly translated for British audiences as “Every day, in every respect, I grow better and better.” The new, improved American version, with its steady beat and internal rhyme, was just the thing for a country that would become known for its BurmaShave poetry and soft-drink jingles.

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