In 1933, one of the most outspoken atheists in the U.S. challenged Foursquare’s founder to a series of debates on the subject of evolution. Part 17 in our series from Sister Aimee’s memoirs
By Aimee Semple McPherson
In late 1933, America was looking to the “Blue Eagle” of national recovery to dispel the clouds and mists of the Great Depression. I reminded the multitudes who came to our meetings that in order to fly, an eagle must have two wings: “One wing is material recovery. The other is spiritual recovery. The first wing is not enough. We will just flop about helplessly. Let us get back to God! Let us turn our eyes from self and mankind, and behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
The specter of communism and other totalitarian evils haunted the nation; indeed, they thrived on the desperate conditions that saw so many millions unemployed and in dire need. But the severest threat was in the realm of the spiritual. Atheism and modernism were rife.
It was at this time that I received a challenge from Charles Lee Smith, founder and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. In my evangelistic itineraries, my messages, he complained, had stepped on his toes, and he wanted to debate me. He said I would not dare meet him on any platform because I knew in my own heart that evolution was true.
My debating experience was rather limited. With fear and trepidation, I accepted the challenge. But I decided to appear at the debates in conjunction with a nationwide lecture tour in which I would endeavor to alert the nation to the perils that threatened and to awaken America to its need of God.
The first of the debates took place in Seattle. Once I had met Charles Lee Smith on a public platform, I was no longer afraid. Up to the last moment before that, a degree of nerve strain had held me rigid. I had prayed long and earnestly. I believed the promise of the Word of God with all my heart and soul, but I trembled lest I personally should fail the Lord and be insufficient to meet so seemingly formidable a foe.
When I first saw the streams of people standing in line for admission, I supposed they must be going to the great auto show that was being held in the lower auditorium of the municipal building. Soon I found that this mass of smartly dressed intelligentsia was bound for the debate.
The question of the first debate saw Mr. Smith challenging: “There is no God, and America would be better if ridded of her churches.” He sailed into his attack on faith and hope in the hereafter.
Almost immediately I relaxed in my chair at the opposite table, for the realization swept over me that this atheist had not a leg to stand on. When it came time for me to rise and answer Mr. Smith, the words came tumbling out. I had studied for several weeks on the subject of evolution and its conflict with God’s Word. My book was filled with notes, but I scarcely glanced at them, for my heart was so full of the message the Lord poured within.
Noting the interest that prevailed, listening to the people cheer for God’s Word but groan and shudder at the atheist’s propositions, I felt that it was a great pity that every American citizen, and especially every parent, could not hear that series of debates. The evolution Mr. Smith championed is just what is taught in our schools and universities worked out to its final analysis: the ripened flower of atheism.
On the easel behind me was a lovely portrait of the Savior, while behind Mr. Smith stood a huge cardboard cutout of an immense gorilla. Above us, a sign challenged: “God or Gorilla?”
Here in part is how one reporter described the encounter:
“Mr. Smith seemed to be making rather good headway. I was almost ready to vote for the gorilla. Then Sister Aimee stood up to speak. … She pierced the wall of Mr. Smith’s sarcasm and showed an utter emptiness behind it. She snatched the false robe of ‘science’ from his gorilla theory and left it standing naked and without substantiation.
“… I hadn’t intended to make any such decision [God or Gorilla?]. I had not come for that. I resented the sign jumping out at me and shouting, 'God or Gorilla?' It demanded an answer. Well, by the grace of Sister’s preaching, the question was answered. … God has my vote. Down with the gorilla!”
The debates in other West Coast cities toward the end of January 1934 likewise proved to be triumphs for God’s Word.
Adapted from Aimee: The Life Story of Aimee Semple McPherson by Aimee Semple McPherson, copyright 1979. Published by the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.