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Mixing Fire, Brimstone and Politics

L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

November 23, 1997|Cecilia Rasmussen

Seventy years before there was a 700 Club or a Christian Coalition, there was the Rev. "Fighting Bob" Shuler, whose fire-and-brimstone preaching not only won him one of the world's largest radio audiences, but also a powerful voice in the politics of his adopted city--Los Angeles.

He led successful campaigns to drive officials from office and to make the Bible compulsory reading in state schools. At the zenith of his popularity, he narrowly missed being elected to the U.S. Senate.

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Fighting Bob also was an equal opportunity attacker.

At various times during the 1920s, his targets included the YMCA, the Los Angeles Public Library and the Knights of Columbus. From his bully pulpit downtown, he showered politically tinged brimstone, linking scriptural revelation and tabloid gossip in accusations against the politicians and lawyers he labeled the "criminals who spoil paradise."

Another of his frequent targets was rival evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, whom Shuler, in his Blue Ridge drawl, frequently attacked during broadcasts on KGEF, the radio station he owned. His nightly broadcasts were made wildly popular by his readiness to shoot from the lip at the drop of a rumor. Shuler was always promising and delivering lurid revelations--true or not--to his eager audience.

Although he had a propensity for making trouble and publicity for himself, Shuler also was the most visible leader of the good government Progressive movement, which campaigned to shut down Los Angeles' quasi-legal, police-protected gambling dives, saloons and houses of prostitution.

He was born in 1880, the son of a Methodist minister in Virginia. Ordained at 23, he began preaching in the backwoods of his home state, Kentucky, and Tennessee. He moved to Texas and then to Los Angeles in 1920, along with his wife and six children. Here, he assumed the pastorate of the struggling Trinity Methodist Church, organized a half-century earlier with only a handful of members.

His new congregation was eager for a taste of the unyielding evangelical revival then sweeping the country. Shuler didn't disappoint them. His fiery, revival-style preaching poured from the pulpit at 12th and Flower streets and from the pages of his privately published Bob Shuler magazine.

He also had a flair for promotion. One year, Shuler advertised a Mother's Day gift for the woman who brought the largest family to church. The winner, a Mrs. Hahn, arrived with her seven sons, including 2-year-old Kenneth, who later would become one of Los Angeles' master politicians. In fact, the widowed Mrs. Hahn so impressed Shuler that he instantly called for a special collection in her honor. It took in $20.

In 1923, Shuler got a tip that Los Angeles Police Chief Louis D. Oakes was spending his evenings in dissolute fashion. After catching the chief emerging from a sleazy hotel with a young woman on each arm, Shuler crucified him in a series of blazing sermons. Oakes was removed from office by the mayor, denied a disability pension, then fired from the LAPD for chronic alcoholism and adultery.

With the help of a $25,000 contribution, Shuler launched KGEF in 1927, and Los Angeles was never the same. He campaigned tirelessly for stronger "morals" laws and implored listeners to see the errors of their ways.

He blasted away at the "real criminals": the YWCA, which staged Saturday night dances that sometimes carried over to the Sabbath, and the Los Angeles Public Library, for putting books on its shelves not fit for "heathen China or anarchistic Russia."

His preaching-and-teaching broadcasts also brought in new church members. His 6,000-member "mega-church" was a precursor of today's evangelical powerhouses and the largest Southern California congregation of its day.

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Then, as now, Shuler's brand of activism was bound to make its way into the courtroom, and there he met with a mixed response.

In 1927, Shuler and his right-hand man, the Rev. Gustav Briegleb of St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, went to the Follies Theater to see the much-talked-about "Hot Mamma Revue." The police commissioner was informed, and the theater was soon raided.

Although the pastors' testimony stirred up a storm during the weeklong trial, it still took only six hours for an all-male jury to exonerate the 27 women accused of indecent exposure.

The Knights of Columbus were stung by Shuler's rabid anti-Catholicism, and he outraged the unflappable Mayor George Cryer by linking him to crime overlord Charlie Crawford--"the Wolf of Spring Street." Both the Knights and the mayor sued Shuler for libel--unsuccessfully.

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