It is the 17th of August 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1957.
It was the “booming-est” year of the Baby Boom. Economic insecurity had been assuaged with the GI Bill for returning soldiers, and college educations were available for many at an attractive cost. So, it was different from today.
But to make us all feel more at home, 1957 saw a worldwide pandemic. An H2N2 strain of influenza first reported in Singapore went worldwide and killed an estimated 70,000 Americans.
The world was getting more and more populous. In 1914, a study claimed that there were 16 cities in the world with a population of over 1 million. The study was repeated in 1957, and it was found that there were now 71 cities worldwide with a population of 1 million.
Sensing the need to explore beyond this world, the USSR launched Sputnik I into space. The United States was demoralized by being beat to space by the Soviets, even more so when their satellite, the Vanguard TV3, failed spectacularly.
“The Music Man” was first performed on Broadway in 1957, and while the story of Professor Harold Hill with music by Meredith Wilson was a hit, it didn’t hold a candle to Bernstein and Sondheim’s “West Side Story” debuting on Broadway just months later.
The “west side” was the proverbial “best side” for baseball teams looking to move out of a crowded New York market. The New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers made their way to the west coast in 1957 to their new homes in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Tinseltown saw the last of the “I Love Lucy” program, which ended its run in ’57. However, shows like “American Bandstand” and “Perry Mason” debuted in 57, and they would become the standard-bearers for decades to come.
And it was in Los Angeles, in 1957 on the 17th of August, that Alice Stebbins Wells died at her home in Los Angeles at the age of 84. You will be forgiven if you don’t know her name, but maybe you should. Wells was not only seemingly out of time as a female preacher, but she also became Los Angeles’ first female police officer. Her expertise and knowledge allowed her to help bust one of the most dangerous cult movements in LA history.
She was born Alice Stebbins in Manhattan, Kansas, in 1873, and her interest in theology led her to both Oberlin College and Hartford Theological Seminary. She filled pulpits until a full-time call to the ministry came in 1903 in Oklahoma. It is there that she met Frank Wells. The two married and soon moved to Los Angeles, where Alice could raise their three children. But in LA, Alice became concerned with the widespread debauchery she saw and what it did to the most vulnerable.
Wells had already had some sleuthing experience when, while visiting the Chicago World’s Fair, she learned of the dozens of missing women who it was eventually discovered were murdered by the notorious H.H. Holmes.
Alice’s commitment to the urban poor led her to petition to become Los Angeles’ first female police officer. The story is longer than we will recount here, but she got her break when a notorious cult called the Pillar of Fire was said to have kidnapped one of its underage adherents. With her theological and police training, she was sent into the cult as an undercover officer. She eventually found the girl believed to be kidnapped.
The Pillar of Fire and the girl’s father had their row over what to do with her. She garnered fame for her unusual assignments and specialties. Alice Stebbins would travel the country talking about theology, the rights of women, and police work. Wells died in her Los Angeles home on this, the 17th of August, in 1957.
The reading for today comes from another 20th century Angeleno. This is from Gregory Boyle’s “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.”
“Success and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified — whichever came first.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of August 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who lives in his own personal 90210 Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.