Aimee Semple McPherson
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Aimee Semple McPherson (October 9, 1890 – September 27, 1944), also known as Sister Aimee, was a Canadian-American Los Angeles, Californiaevangelist and mediacelebrity in the 1920s and 1930s.[1] She founded the Foursquare Church.[2] McPherson has been noted as a pioneer in the use of modern media, especially radio, and was the second woman to be granted a broadcast license. She used radio to draw upon through the growing appeal of popular entertainment in North America and incorporated other forms into her weekly sermon performances at Angelus Temple.
Early life
McPherson was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on a farm in Salford, Ontario, Canada.[3] Her father, James Kennedy, was a farmer.[4] Young Aimee got her early exposure to religion through her mother, Mildred—known as Minnie. McPherson's later work in spreading the Gospel was a result of watching her mother work with the poor in Salvation Army soup kitchens.
As a child she would play "Salvation Army" with her classmates, and at home would gather a congregation with her dolls, giving them a sermon.[5] As a teenager, McPherson strayed from her mother's teachings by reading novels and going to movies and dances, activities were strongly disapproved by the Salvation Army. In high school, she was taught Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution.[6] She began to quiz local pastors about faith and science, but was unhappy with the answers she received.[7] She wrote to the Canadian newspaper, Family Herald and Weekly Star, questioning why public schools taught evolution.[8] While still in high school, McPherson began a crusade against the concept of evolution, beginning a lifelong passion.


Marriage and family
Robert and Aimee Semple (1910)
While attending a revival meeting in December 1907, Aimee met Robert James Semple, a Pentecostalmissionary from Ireland. After a short courtship, they were married on August 12, 1908.
The two embarked on an evangelical tour, first to Europe and then to China, where they arrived in June 1910, with Aimee about six months pregnant. Shortly after disembarking in Hong Kong, both contracted malaria. Robert Semple died of the disease on August 19, 1910, and was buried in Hong Kong Cemetery. Aimee Semple recovered and gave birth to their daughter, Roberta Star Semple, on September 17, 1910. Semple and her infant returned to the United States.
Shortly after her recuperation in the U.S., Semple joined her mother Minnie working with the Salvation Army. While in New York City, she met Harold Stewart McPherson, an accountant. They were married on May 5, 1912, and had a son, Rolf Potter Kennedy McPherson in March 1913.
In 1913, Aimee Semple McPherson embarked upon a preaching career. Touring Canada and the USA, in June 1915 she began evangelizing and holding tent revivals. She first traveled up and down the eastern United States, then went to other parts of the country. Her revivals were often standing-room only. One such revival was held in a boxing ring, with the meeting before and after the match. Throughout the boxing event, she walked about with a sign reading "knock out the Devil." In San Diego, California, the city called in the National Guard to control a revival crowd of over 30,000 people.
McPherson practiced speaking in tongues but rarely emphasized it. She was known as a faith healer and there were claims of physical healing occurring during her meetings. Such claims became less important as her fame increased.
In 1916, McPherson embarked on a tour of the Southern United States in her "Gospel Car" with her mother Mildred. Their vehicle was a 1912 Packard touring car emblazoned with religious slogans. Standing on the back seat of the convertible, McPherson preached sermons over a megaphone. On the road between sermons, she would sit in the back seat typing sermons and other religious materials.
By 1917 she had started her own magazine, The Bridal Call, for which she wrote many articles about women’s roles in religion; she portrayed the link between Christians and Jesus as a marriage bond. By taking seriously the religious role of women, the magazine contributed to the rising women’s movement.[citation needed]
Her husband made efforts to join McPherson on her religious travels, but by 1918 he had filed for separation. His petition for divorce, citing abandonment, was granted in 1921.
The battle between fundamentalists and modernists escalated after World War I, with many modernists seeking less conservative religious faiths.[citation needed] Fundamentalists generally believed their religious faith should influence every aspect of their lives. McPherson sought to eradicate modernism and secularism in homes, churches, schools and communities. She developed a strong following in what McPherson termed "the Foursquare Gospel" by blending contemporary culture with religious teachings.
At this time, Los Angeles had become a popular vacation spot. Rather than touring the United States to preach her sermons, McPherson stayed in Los Angeles, drawing audiences from a population which had soared from 100,000 in 1900 to 575,000 people in 1920, and often included many visitors.[9]
McPherson preached a conservative gospel but used progressive methods, taking advantage of radio, movies, and stage acts. Advocacy for women's rights was on the rise, including women's suffrage through the 19th Amendment. Her methods contradicted her preaching about the evils of modernity. She attracted some women associated with modernism, but others were put off by the contrast between her different theories. By accepting and using such new media outlets, McPherson helped integrate them into people’s daily lives, despite her disapproval of them.
Mounting revivals from mid-1919 to 1922, McPherson created a stir in cities such as Baltimore; her revivals sometimes lasted as long as four weeks. In December 1919, she went to Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House to conduct seventeen days of meetings.[10] The Baltimore Sun ran a thousand-word interview with her in the December 6, 1919, issue.[11] During the interview, the Sun reporter asked McPherson how she had decided on Baltimore as the site for a revival.
“As soon as I entered the city I saw the need. Women were sitting in the dining room smoking with the men,” McPherson replied. “I took up the newspapers and I saw card parties and dances advertised in connection with the churches. There was a coldness. Card parties, dances, theaters, all represent agencies of the devil to distract the attention of men and women away from spirituality . . .”[12]
While Aimee Semple Macpherson had traveled extensively in her evangelical work prior to arriving in Baltimore, she was first “discovered” by the newspapers while sitting with her mother in the red plush parlor of the Belvedere Hotel on December 5, 1919, a day after conducting evangelistic services at the Lyric Opera House.[12]
International Church of the Foursquare Gospel
Angelus Temple in Echo Park, Los Angeles, with radio towers.
Wearied by constant traveling and having nowhere to raise a family, McPherson had settled in Los Angeles, where she maintained both a home and a church. McPherson believed that by creating a church in Los Angeles, her audience would come to her from all over the country. This, she felt, would allow her to plant seeds of Gospel and tourists would take it home to their communities, still reaching the masses. For several years she continued to travel and raise money for the construction of a large, domed church building in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. The church would be named Angelus Temple. Raising more money than she had hoped, McPherson altered the original plans, and built a "megachurch" that would draw many followers throughout the years. The church was dedicated on January 1, 1923. The auditorium had a seating capacity of 5,300 people and was filled three times each day, seven days a week. At first, McPherson preached every service, often in a dramatic scene she put together to attract audiences.
Eventually, the church evolved into its own denomination and became known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The new denomination focused on the nature of Christ's character, that he was Savior, baptizer with the Holy Spirit, healer and coming King. There were four main beliefs: the first being Christ's ability to transform individuals' lives through the act of salvation; the second focused on a holy baptism; the third was divine healing; and the fourth was gospel-oriented heed to the pre-millennial return of Jesus Christ.
In August 1925 and away from Los Angeles, McPherson decided to charter a plane so she would not miss giving her Sunday sermon. Aware of the opportunity for publicity, she arranged for at least two thousand followers and members of the press to be present at the airport. The plane failed after takeoff and the landing gear collapsed, sending the nose of the plane into the ground. McPherson boarded another plane and used the experience as the narrative of an illustrated Sunday sermon called "The Heavenly Airplane."[citation needed] The stage in Angelus Temple was set up with two miniature planes and a skyline that looked like Los Angeles. In this sermon, McPherson described how the first plane had the devil for the pilot, sin for the engine and temptation as the propeller. The other plane, however, was piloted by Jesus and would lead one to the Holy City (the skyline shown on stage). The temple was filled beyond capacity.
On one occasion, she described being pulled over by a police officer, calling the sermon "Arrested for Speeding." McPherson employed a small group of artists, electricians, decorators and carpenters who built the sets for each Sunday's service. Religious music was played by an orchestra. The biographer Matthew Avery Sutton wrote, "McPherson found no contradiction between her rejection of Hollywood values for her use of show business techniques. She would not hesitate to use the devil's tools to tear down the devil's house."[citation needed] Collections were taken at every meeting, often with the admonishment, "no coins, please."
Because Pentecostalism was not popular in the U.S. during the 1920s, McPherson avoided the label. She did demonstrate speaking-in-tongues and faith healing in sermons. She kept a museum of crutches, wheelchairs and other paraphernalia. As evidence of her early influence by the Salvation Army, McPherson adopted a theme of "lighthouses" for the satellite churches, referring to the parent church as the "Salvation Navy." This was the beginning of McPherson working to plant Foursquare Gospel churches around the country.
McPherson published the weekly Foursquare Crusader, along with her monthly magazine Bridal Call. She began broadcasting on radio in the early 1920s. McPherson was one of the first women to preach a radio sermon. With the opening of Foursquare Gospel-owned KFSG on February 6, 1924, she became the second woman granted a broadcast license by the Department of Commerce, the federal agency that supervised broadcasting in the early 1920s.[13])
McPherson racially integrated her tent meetings and church services. On one occasion, as a response to McPherson's ministry and Angelus Temple being integrated, Ku Klux Klan members were in attendance, but after the service hoods and robes were found on the ground in nearby Echo Park.[citation needed] She is also credited with helping many Hispanic ministries in Los Angeles.[citation needed]
In 1925, McPherson received several death threats. An alleged plot to kidnap her was foiled in September of that year.

Politics and education
By early 1926, McPherson had become one of the most charismatic and influential women and ministers of her time. According to Carey McWilliams, she had become "more than just a household word: she was a folk hero and a civic institution; an honorary member of the fire and police departments; a patron saint of the service clubs; an official spokesman for the community on problems grave and frivolous."[14] She was influential in many social, educational and political areas. McPherson made personal crusades against anything that she felt threatened her Christian ideals, including the drinking of alcohol and teaching evolution in schools.
McPherson became a strong supporter of William Jennings Bryan during the 1925 Scopes Trial, in which John Scopes was tried for illegally teaching evolution at a Dayton, Tennessee, school. Bryan and McPherson had worked together in the Angelus Temple and they believed social Darwinism had undermined students' morality. According to McPherson, evolution "is the greatest triumph of Satanic intelligence in 5,931 years of devilish warfare, against the Hosts of Heaven. It is poisoning the minds of the children of the nation." She sent Bryan a telegram saying, "Ten thousand members of Angelus Temple with her millions of radio church membership send grateful appreciation of your lion hearted championship of the Bible against evolution and throw our hats in the ring with you."[15] She organized "an all night prayer service, a massive church meeting preceded by a Bible parade through Los Angeles."[16]
Reported kidnapping
On May 18, 1926, McPherson went with her secretary to Ocean Park Beach north of Venice Beach to swim. Soon after arriving, McPherson was nowhere to be found. It was thought she had drowned.
McPherson was scheduled to hold a service that day; her mother Minnie Kennedy preached the sermon instead, saying at the end, "Sister is with Jesus," sending parishioners into a tearful frenzy. Mourners crowded Venice Beach and the commotion sparked days-long media coverage fueled in part by William Randolph Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner and a stirring poem by Upton Sinclair to commemorate the tragedy. Daily updates appeared in newspapers across the country and parishioners held day-and-night seaside vigils. One parishioner drowned while searching for the body, and a diver died of exposure.
Kenneth G. Ormiston, the engineer for KFSG, had also disappeared during this time. Some believed McPherson and Ormiston, who was married, had become romantically involved and had run off together. After about a month, McPherson's mother received a ransom note (signed by "The Avengers") which demanded a half million dollars, or else kidnappers would sell McPherson into "white slavery". Kennedy later said she tossed the letter away, believing her daughter was dead.
Shortly thereafter, on June 23, McPherson stumbled out of the desert in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican town across the border from Douglas, Arizona. She claimed she had been kidnapped, drugged, tortured and held for ransom in a shack by a man and a woman, "Steve" and "Mexicali Rose".[17] Her story also claimed she had escaped from her captors and walked through the desert for about 13 hours to freedom.
Some, however, were skeptical of her story since McPherson seemed in unusually good health for her alleged ordeal, and her clothes showed no signs of a long walk through the desert. A grand jury convened on July 8, 1926, but adjourned 12 days later citing lack of evidence to proceed with any charges.
Five witnesses claimed to have seen McPherson at a seaside cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea, with the cottage being rented by Ormiston under an assumed name. Ormiston admitted to having rented the cottage but claimed that the woman who had been there with him—known in the press as Mrs. X—was not McPherson but another woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair.
The grand jury reconvened on August 3 and took further testimony along with documents from hotels, all said to be in McPherson's handwriting. McPherson steadfastly stuck to her story, that she was approached by a young couple at the beach who had asked her to come over and pray for their sick child, and that she was then shoved into a car and drugged with chloroform. When she was not forthcoming with answers regarding her relationship with Ormiston (by then estranged from his wife), the judge charged McPherson and her mother with obstruction of justice. To combat the bad newspaper publicity, McPherson spoke freely about the court trials on the air during her radio broadcasts.
The prosecution of McPherson generated support for her among surprising sources. Local flappers attended the trial in support of McPherson, whom they regarded as a modern woman similar to themselves, and whose prosecution they believed was motivated by issues of gender. The journailst H.L. Mencken, previously a vocal critic of McPherson's, had been sent to cover the trial and came away impressed with McPherson and disdainful of the unseemly nature of the prosecution.[18]
Theories and innuendo were rampant: that she had run off with a lover, she had gone off to have an abortion, she was taking time to heal from plastic surgery, or she had staged a publicity stunt. The Examiner newspaper reported that Los Angeles district attorneyAsa Keyes had dropped all charges on January 10, 1927.
The tale was later satirized by Pete Seeger in a song called "The Ballad of Aimee McPherson," with lyrics claiming the kidnapping had been unlikely because a hotel love nest revealed "the dents in the mattress fit Aimee's caboose."
Milton Berle's claim
In Milton Berle: An Autobiography, comedian Milton Berle claimed he had a brief affair with McPherson in 1930, saying he met her at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles where both were doing a charity show. Upon seeing her for the first time, Berle recalled,
"I was both impressed and very curious ... She was all dignity and class when it came her turn. The house went wild when she walked out into the lights." Backstage, she invited him to see Angelus Temple. Instead, Berle wrote, the two of them went to lunch in Santa Monica, then to an apartment of hers where McPherson changed into something "cooler [...] a very thin, pale blue negligee." Berle said he could see she was wearing nothing underneath and that she only said, "Come in." Berle said they met for the second and last time at the same apartment a few days later, writing, "This time, she just sent the chauffeur for me to bring me straight to the apartment. We didn't even bother with lunch. When I was dressing to leave, she stuck out her hand. 'Good luck with your show, Milton.' What the hell. I couldn't resist it. 'Good luck with yours, Aimee.' I never saw or heard from Aimee Semple McPherson again. But whenever I hear 'Yes, Sir, That's My Baby,' I remember her."[19]
Biographer Matthew Avery Sutton commented, "Berle, a notorious womanizer whose many tales of scandalous affairs were not always true, claimed to have had sex with McPherson on this and one other occasion" both during a year when McPherson was often ill and bedridden. Sutton also wrote that Berle's story of a crucifix in her bedroom was not consistent with the coolness of Pentecostal-Catholic relations during that era.[20]

Later life and career
McPherson (left) prepares Christmas food baskets (about 1935)
Following her heyday in the 1920s, McPherson carried on with her ministry but fell out of favor with the press. She became caught up in power struggles for the church with her mother and daughter and suffered a nervous breakdown in August 1930.
On September 13, 1931, McPherson married again, to actor and musician David Hutton; the marriage got off to a rocky start. Two days after the wedding, Hutton was sued for breach of promise by ex-girlfriend Hazel St. Pierre, although Hutton claimed he had never met her. He eventually settled the case by paying St. Pierre US$5,000. While McPherson was away in Europe, she was angered to learn Hutton was billing himself as "Aimee's man" in his cabaret singing act. The marriage also caused an uproar within the church: The tenets of Foursquare Gospel, as put forth by McPherson herself, held that one should not remarry while their previous spouse was still alive, as McPherson's second husband still was. McPherson and Hutton separated in 1933 and divorced on March 1, 1934.
Drawing from her childhood experience with the Salvation Army, in 1936 McPherson opened a commissary at Angelus Temple. It was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and became active in creating soup kitchens, free clinics and other charitable activities as the Great Depression wore on. With the later outbreak of World War II, McPherson became involved in war bond rallies, complete with sermons that linked the church and American patriotism.[21]
Aimee Semple McPherson's grave
On September 26, 1944, McPherson went to Oakland, California, for a series of revivals, planning to preach her popular "Story of My Life" sermon. When McPherson's son went to her hotel room at 10:00 the next morning, he found her unconscious with pills and a half-empty bottle of capsules nearby. She was dead by 11:15.
The autopsy did not conclusively determine the cause of McPherson's death. She had been taking sleeping pills following numerous health problems—including "tropical fever". Among the pills found in the hotel room was the drug Seconal, a strong sedative which had not been prescribed for her. It was unknown how she obtained them.
The coroner said she most likely died of an accidental overdose compounded by kidney failure. The cause of death is officially listed as unknown.[22] Given the circumstances, there was speculation about suicide, but most sources generally agree the overdose was accidental, as stated in the coroner's report.[23]
Aimee Semple McPherson is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Following her death, the Foursquare Gospel church denomination was led for 44 years by her son Rolf McPherson. The church claims a membership of over 8.7 million worldwide.[24]
Works about McPherson
Books, periodicals, film, play

  • The character Sharon Falconer in Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry (1926) was based on McPherson. (Lingeman, p. 283)
  • The faith-healing evangelist Big Sister in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust was based on McPherson.
  • Upton Sinclair was fascinated with her history. After writing a poem about her dubious abduction, called "An Evangelist Drowns", he wrote her into his 1927 novel, Oil!, in the character of Eli Watkins, a corrupt small-town minister. That character is called Eli Sunday in the 2007 film, There Will Be Blood.[25]
  • The character of the American evangelist Mrs Melrose Ape in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies (1930) is thought to be based on McPherson.
  • Vanity Fair published a satirical cutout paper doll based on her.[26]
  • Aimee Semple McPherson appeared in The Voice of Hollywood No. 9 (1930), one in a series of popular documentaries released by Tiffany Studios.[27]
  • Frank Capra's film The Miracle Woman (1931), starring Barbara Stanwyck, was based on John Meehan's play Bless You, Sister which was reportedly inspired by McPherson's life.
  • Agnes Moorehead's role as Sister Alma in the 1971 thriller film What's the Matter with Helen? was modeled after McPherson.
  • A television film about the events surrounding her 1926 disappearance, The Disappearance of Aimee (1976) starred Faye Dunaway as McPherson and Bette Davis as her mother.
  • A film adaptation of the story of her life, entitled Aimee Semple McPherson (2006) was directed by Richard Rossi. The same director filmed a short film Saving Sister Aimee in 2001. (The film was retitled "Sister Aimee: The Aimee Semple McPherson Story" and released on DVD April 22, 2008.) Rossi later penned the prize-winning play "Sister Aimee," honored with a cash award in the 2009 Bottletree One-Act Competition, an international playwriting contest.[28]
  • A documentary about McPherson, entitled Sister Aimee, made for the PBS series American Experience, premiered April 2, 2007.[17]
  • Several biographies have been written about McPherson.[25]
  • In the alternate history novel Back in the USSA, she appears as the Secretary of Manpower Resources under President Al Capone.
  • Escape from Hell (fiction novel) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Tor, 2009), features "Sister Aimee" in Hell after her death, in a supporting role as a guide and saint who is teaching the damned about Dante's route out of Hell.
  • Scandalous is a musical about the life and ministry of McPherson with the book and lyrics written by Kathie Lee Gifford and music written by composer David Friedman and David Pomeranz; the musical ran most recently in 2011 at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.
  • "An Evangelist Drowns" (2007) a one-woman play based on McPherson's life. Includes fictionalized accounts of relationships with Charlie Chaplin and David Hutton.
  • "Aimee Semple Mcpherson and the Resurrection of Christian America" (2007) A biography written by Matthew Avery Sutton that chronicles the ever changing life of Sister Aimee.
  • "La disparition de Soeur Aimee" (2011) in Crimes et Procès Sensationnels à los Angeles, book written by Nausica Zaballos, pages 103-140, Paris, E-Dite, (ISBN 978-2-8460-8310-2)

A 2012 Broadway Musical Scandalous began in the fall.
A production of the musical Saving Aimee, with a book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford and music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, debuted at the White Plains Performing Arts Center in October 2005 was staged at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA in April–May 2007.[citation needed] An updated, fully staged production opened September 30, 2011 at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre. The play is set to hit Broadway in November of 2012.
A play entitled The Wide Open Ocean, a musical vaudeville, was performed at The Actors' Gang theater in Los Angeles. It was written and directed by playwright, director, actor, and educator Laural Meade.[citation needed]
In 2003, a play entitled Spit Shine Glisten, loosely based on the life of McPherson, was performed at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. Written and directed by the experimental theatre artist Susan Simpson, the play used life-sized wooden puppets, human beings and fractured and warped video projection.[citation needed]
As Thousands Cheer, a musical revue with a book by Moss Hart and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, contains satirical sketches and musical numbers loosely based on the news and the lives and affairs of the rich and famous, including Joan Crawford, Noël Coward, Josephine Baker, and Aimee Semple McPherson.
The musical, Vanishing Point, written by Rob Hartmann, Liv Cummins, & Scott Keys, intertwines the lives of evangelist McPherson, aviatrix Amelia Earhart, and mystery writer Agatha Christie. It is featured as part of the 2010–2011 season at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh, PA.
In 2007 a one-woman play titled An Evangelist Drowns, written by Gregory J. Thompson, debuted at Rogers State University in Claremore, Oklahoma. In 2008 the show was produced at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. The play is partly based on the life of McPherson, but it explores fictionalized portrayal of her recalling lost loves, regrets, and remorse in the final hours before her death in 1944.
Aimee's Castle
Aimee's Castle is a mansion built by McPherson. She had a house near Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, but McPherson built this mansion in Lake Elsinore, California as a retreat. McPherson convalesced there after an injury in 1932.[29]
In 1929, Clevelin Realty Corp. purchased land in Lake Elsinore's Country Club Heights District and was marketing the area as a resort destination for the rich and famous. To encourage celebrities to purchase there, the developers offered to give McPherson a parcel of land featuring panoramic views of the lake. She accepted the land and in 1929 commissioned the architect Edwin Bickman to design a 4,400-square-foot (410 m2) Moorish Revival mansion, with art deco details, on the hills above the lake's northeastern shore. The structure's white plaster wall and arches reflect an Irving Gill influence. Its large cerulean blue-tiled dome over a prayer tower and a second silver-painted dome and faux-minaret give it mosque-like appearance from the exterior; the interior features art-deco wall treatments in several of the rooms. The domed ceiling of the formal dining room rises at least 15 feet (4.6 m). A narrow breakfast nook reflects an American Indian motif.[30]


  • Richard R. Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street, Minnesota Historical Society Press, June 2005, ISBN 978-0-87351-541-2.

Further reading

  • Blumhofer, Edith L. Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister.
  • Epstein, Daniel Mark. Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson .
  • Morris, James. The Preachers. ISBN 0-900997-41-9
  • Sutton, Matthew Avery. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America.
  • Lately, Thomas. Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoil of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson. New York: Morrow, 1970.
  • Zaballos, Nausica La disparition de Soeur Aimee (2011) in Crimes et Procès Sensationnels à los Angeles, book written by Nausica Zaballos, pages 103-140, Paris, E-Dite, (ISBN 978-2-8460-8310-2)

Next >>>