The Jaggers in the Christian Century
Miss Velma Descends
On a hill west of Los Angeles' civic center stands a tabernacle built by the evangelist Paul Rader. Some 35 years ago, after Rader's death, the structure was taken over by the late William B. Hogg, a radio preacher who founded the Country Church of Hollywood. Today the tabernacle is headquarters for a "World Church" founded by O. L. Jaggers, once an Assemblies of God preacher.
Taking up where the late Aimee Semple McPherson left off, Jaggers, obsessed by the notion that God intends to use the church to summon the 144,000 souls who alone will inherit eternal life, is giving Los Angeles the most sensational "church" services it has ever seen. And that is a rare accomplishment in a city that through the years has been a magnet for countless offbeat theologies and ministries.
On Easter Sunday night this year Jaggers and his wife, the Rev. Velma Mary Lee, concluded a five-day-a-week, 11-week campaign they characterized as demonstrating the "beautiful ministry of Miss Velma" and as constituting "the greatest spiritual awakening in the world today." Throughout the 11 weeks they staged feat after feat, each surpassing its predecessor for imaginativeness.
One evening a live lion, an eagle, a calf and a man were let down from the 40-foot-high ceiling in golden cages -- to illustrate a sermon based on Revelation. On another evening the cages were occupied by booted girls performing the watusi, jerk, swim and frug to the beat of rock 'n' roll music. Meanwhile, Miss Velma descended from the ceiling in another golden cage to offer "the hottest sermon ever preached in Los Angeles." Its title: "Youth a-Go-Go." On still another occasion she came down from the towering ceiling astride a replica of a white horse, accompanied by a host of other white "horses" carrying "angelic" figures -- all surrounded by fluffy white "clouds." That time she delivered her sermon with the "horse" as pulpit.
For her sermon on "Astronauts and Cosmonauts of Youth" Miss Velma, dressed in a space suit, descended (she has a mania for descending) in a "spaceship," surrounded by "spacemen." She offered an explanation of why beings from other planets are landing on earth, and promised to provide "positive proof" that they are doing so. When she preached on "The Golden Bells of Youth" the audience was provided with thousands of golden bells collected from many nations and directed to ring them in unison at appropriate points.
Attend a service for yourself, and you discover that the Jaggers team really means to deliver the goods advertised. Take one Sunday night, when Miss Velma suddenly sailed down from stage right, a blonde vision riding in a red and white chariot drawn by two steeds which once adorned a carousel, red pompons flashing on their white manes. The equipage swayed back and forth, a single cable keeping Miss Velma from crashing to the floor. The congregation -- many true believers, as well as many skeptics — reacted with gasps of delight mingled with anguished groans.
Eventually Miss Velma got her chariot settled in midstage and began preaching--about Elijah and Elisha. Suddenly she sensed that the microphone had failed; she cast a petulant look at someone in the wings, and the sound came on again. (As a matter of fact, she need not have bothered; her voice reminds one of South Pacific's Bloody Mary.) She continued: "And God gave to Elisha that mah'velous mantle. And that mantle came floating down to earth." She paused; nothing happened. She looked offstage and repeated: ". . . floating down to earth." Finally she realized that it was she herself who had missed the cue. Rummaging through the chariot's glove compartment she brought forth a red cape and sent it floating down the few feet to the stage.
Some of the people, impressed, burst into applause--as always happens with any biblical reminder that good triumphs over evil. Others gasped in disbelief. The cable gave out a harsh, metallic crunch; Miss Velma and her chariot began their ascent toward the ceiling. Then, when only her head and shoulders had risen to a point behind the top curtain, everything stopped. Frantic maneuvering was of no avail; finally the side curtains closed mercifully on the first act.
Now came the second. Miss Velma reappeared on the stage to preach a bit more. Then she descended to floor level. "I'm going to anoint this golden altar with the oil of youth," she announced. "Dear God, let the coals of fire stream off my finger tips." This was routine procedure; throughout the campaign Miss Velma anointed people with oil and prayed that they might be restored to youth. Quoting Job 33: 23-25 ("Deliver him from going down to the pit: I have found a ransom. His flesh shall be fresher than a child's: he shall return to the days of his youth"), she explained that God has appointed her to use her "amazing divine gift" to anoint members of the "true world church"--144,000 in all--and thus restore to them "God's youth." This evening she issued her call: "For those of you who would like to be anointed with the oil of youth, I'll take one section at a time."
The faithful streamed into the aisles, later returning to their seats bearing greasy spots on their foreheads and exuding the aroma of hair oil. Then, her part of the performance over, Miss Velma gestured toward the stage: "And now I'll introduce mah good-lookin' husband!" Clad in a flowing white robe, Jaggers rose and launched into an account of plans for a new golden altar studded with precious stones. It would be ready, he said, for use on Easter morning.
Singing at the World Church is usually a jazzed-up version of hymns. Jaggers considers Rose Perry, the choir director, "the world's greatest musician." Miss Perry shouts out a hymn like a torch singer, unmercifully distorting the tempo of such old favorites as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Holding tones, giving them whole and half-note values in an artless manner, she is accompanied by an organist whose ascending and descending passages remind one of what he heard from the theater organs in the days of the silent film. Jaggers himself plays the electric guitar,"talking" the lyrics.
Easter morning brought the climax, with the Jaggers couple assisted by 24 elders performing "the most beautiful event in the history of mankind": the quarterly "mighty Transubstantiation miracle." The elders were clad in "new Revelation Transubstantiation robes and crowns" and protected by breastplates set with "144,000 precious stones and 288 ten-carat stones." Jaggers explained that when the elders offer the "prayer of Transubstantiation" the bread and wine "change into the actual body and blood of Christ." Further: "Show me one reference in the Bible in any language or translation that says or even implies that the elements are meant only as symbols, and I'll eat the Bible before the congregation.... It's blasphemy to teach otherwise. Not everyone but some persons will see Christ when the bread and wine become his body and blood."
Before unveiling the golden altar, on display for this Sunday morning only, Jaggers announced that to create this "equivalent of the eighth wonder of the world" he and his wife had set each of the 1 million precious gems and stones in place by hand. They had traveled in 80 countries, had visited Europe's great cathedrals, had seen Michelangelo's marvelous sculptures -- and they knew that nothing on earth could compare with this altar. It was mentioned 400 times in Scripture, he claimed, and was built according to directions found in Revelation.
Then the drapes were pulled, and Miss Velma, pointer in hand, proceeded to describe the altar in detail. Beneath it, she said, was the magnificent river of life, with a half-million jewels set in its bed. In circumference fully 144 feet, the river proceeds from the throne of God. On its banks stands the "tree of life," with leaves for the healing of the nations and 12 kinds of fruit for eternal life. Around it run the Holy City's streets of gold, on which the 144,000 saints of God will walk.
That night Miss Velma discussed the results of the 11-week campaign--in nondocumentary terms. "I use my own thermometer to determine whether people have received their youth," she said. She reported that 55 sermons, "all about restoring youth to people," had been preached, more than 40,000 people had been anointed. "God has told me three things," she said. "First, he would perform the greatest miracle of history by restoring people to their youth. Second, the restoration would be complete in the people, causing their bodies, minds and spirits to become young again. Third, I am to gather the 144,000 saved people from the earth and anoint them to restore their youth and bring about fellowship among them. My goal is to bring perfect health to people, including fellowship and reconciliation through the forgiveness of sins."
Eventually O. L. and Miss Velma hope to build seven churches in different places around the world to accommodate the 144,000 "saved." And since Los Angeles has shown such readiness to accept their ministry, the cathedral church will be built in that city. So deep has been the impression made on Los Angeles, says Miss Velma, that the major newsmagazines and broadcast media have asked for reports on youth restoration and for the right to televise the services.
Is the Jaggers' operation fraudulent? Are the two preachers bent on realizing huge sums of money? No one seems to know. Money must come from somewhere, else how could they stage the elaborate theatrical feats, build the magnificent altar? Yet through it all one senses a note of sincerity. That sincerity is based, of course, on an incredible megalomania, on the conviction that God has chosen the pair to lead the 144,000 redeemed into the World Church and thence to eternal life.
And in the mirror the operation provides, every preacher, every layman who labors under the illusion that his is the one true church may well see himself reflected. Aristotle held that wisdom and goodness cannot be separated. Socrates said that the greatest of all deceptions is self-deception. O. L. and Velma Mary Lee Jaggers have yet to understand and profit by those truths. And in that failure they have company throughout the land.
- Aubrey B. Haines (August 10, 1966). "Miss Velma Descends". The Christian Century: pp. 992-4. "Mr. Haines is a Pomona, Calif., businessman and free-lance writer."