In photographs, the face of the early-twentieth-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson has an uncanny way of changing, as if she were played by a different actress in each image. That’s fitting, because her contemporaries saw in her several different people. The pious saw a preacher with a gentle manner and intense energy, a Pentecostalist who “spoke in tongues” and could heal the sick through prayer. The secular saw a reactionary who wanted to bring religion into politics. The cynical saw an opportunist who put herself on the radio and tried to get into the movies. And the young saw a person bold enough to defy the proprieties that had once hemmed women in—a woman unafraid to have a career, a daringly short haircut, and maybe even a lover.
McPherson was full of contradictions, and they came to a head in 1926, when she mysteriously disappeared for six weeks. When she returned, she claimed she had been kidnapped, but many thought she had run off with a married man. The scandal made her into a national celebrity. Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair modeled characters after her. In the movie Miracle Woman, which starred Barbara Stanwyck, Frank Capra made her into one of his amiable frauds. Her biographer Edith Blumhofer estimates that in the 1920s McPherson appeared on newspaper front pages three times a week.1
Though journalists sympathized with McPherson, Capra and the novelists saw her as deceitful, and theirs is the image most often recalled today, as Matthew Avery Sutton observes in a lively and diligently researched new book, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. However, the denomination she founded, the Foursquare Church, looks back to her as “a pioneer of women in religion.” In search of the real person behind the caricatures and the saintly icon, Sutton gives McPherson the benefit of the doubt whenever the evidence allows him to.
Every year on her birthday, dressed as a milkmaid and carrying a pail, McPherson told her followers the story of her early life. She was born in 1890 in southern Ontario, to a mismatched couple. James Kennedy was a quiet Methodist farmer in his fifties. Minnie was a teenager who had left home to travel with the Salvation Army and was then hired by James to nurse his late wife.
Minnie dedicated the infant Aimee to the Salvation Army and dressed her in a sash that read “God’s Little Child.” The pageantry of the Army’s services must have impressed the girl, who would one day feature bands, flags, uniforms, and dramatic performances in her own ministry. In high school, she wrote a letter to the editor of a Canadian weekly about her geography textbook, which seemed to belie the Bible. “I will be willing to sacrifice science rather than religion,” she declared. As a teenager, she was nonetheless tempted by ragtime, ice skating, novels, and movies; her mother worried until December 1907, when Aimee attended a meeting of Pentecostals in the nearby town of Ingersoll. Pentecostalism had only recently emerged, in Topeka and Los Angeles. Its adherents believed they were living at the end of history, when the spiritual gifts that had marked the ministry of Jesus and his apostles were returning to his latter-day followers. Like other radical evangelicals, they believed in divine healing. What set them apart was their practice of speaking in tongues.
At the meeting, an Irishman well over six feet tall, with a curl of chestnut hair that kept flopping into his blue eyes, repeated the word “repent” as if in incantation, preached a sermon, and then, eyes closed and arms outstretched, began to talk in what seemed a foreign language. It wasn’t. As Grant Wacker explains in a recent history of Pentecostalism, “tongues” speech has no semantic content and is thought to result from a dissociation in the brain between higher speech controls and lower ones.2 But Aimee believed she was hearing “the voice of God thundering into my soul.” A month later, she was so devoted to Pentecostalism that she was in danger of flunking out of school and was speaking in tongues herself—even, on one occasion, over the phone to her mother, who had called the mission to find out what was happening to her. In August 1908, Aimee and the Irishman, whose name was Robert Semple, were married.
The couple moved to Chicago, where Aimee discovered she had a gift for interpreting what others said in tongues. She came in touch with another divine gift there as well—faith healing. After dislocating her ankle, she asked her husband’s supervising pastor to pray over it and was then able to remove it from its cast without pain. The recovery seemed to her “wonderful” and she recalled it during her own later efforts at healing. From Chicago the couple felt called to be missionaries in China. They went, trusting in God to provide and not knowing any better than to drink the water and eat the vegetables unboiled. In August 1910, when Robert died of dysentery and malaria, Aimee was distraught. Robert would prove to be the only man she was ever happy with.
She gave birth to a daughter a month later and returned to America, traveling to New York to join her mother, who had in the meantime left her elderly husband for the Salvation Army, as once she had left her parents. In New York, Aimee, too, worked for the Salvation Army, and was stalked and courted by an out-of-work restaurant cashier named Harold McPherson. She married him on the condition that if God called her back to the ministry, she would go, or so she claimed later. They settled in a boardinghouse kept by his mother in Providence, Rhode Island, where Aimee gave birth to a son in 1913 and then fell into a postpartum depression and a series of illnesses. She suffered from hypersensitivity to light and sound, auditory hallucinations, and internal bleeding, and she began to feel that her misery resulted from her neglect of her religious calling. Doctors removed her appendix and uterus. At last, in a hospital bed, she heard a voice she believed to be God’s ask, “NOW—WILL—YOU—GO?” She decided to preach again. After returning to health, she waited for an evening when her husband was working a night shift and her mother-in-law was asleep, and fled. “I have tried to walk your way and have failed,” she telegraphed Harold from Ontario. “Won’t you come now and walk my way?”
Gamely, he did. He followed Aimee, whose speech in tongues at one revival meeting would win her an invitation to preach at another, as the daisy chain of invitations took her from Canada through Massachusetts to Florida. Harold even tried to preach himself. It was an improvised life—sometimes they slept on the beach and fished for their dinner—though in 1916 they managed to buy a tent to hold services in. But Harold was not happy, and in the end, he gave up. Aimee saw him for the last time in 1918, standing in the back of a revival tent in Philadelphia. After buying her daughter an ice cream, he went away. Sutton has found their 1921 divorce papers; Harold accused her of not only deserting but also beating and threatening to kill him.
In the absence of Harold, Minnie Kennedy became her daughter’s manager. She took control of the finances and insisted that groups who invited Aimee provide a venue and guarantee an audience. Aimee soon progressed from tents to auditoriums. In 1918, she drove across the country, perhaps the first woman ever to do so without a man, and found a welcome in Los Angeles. Within months, followers had built her a house on donated land, a new base for her touring.
A rival fundamentalist once put down McPherson’s attraction as mere “sex appeal,” but it’s not clear that she initially struck observers as erotic. In her early years in Los Angeles, she was five foot six and weighed 150 pounds. Sutton calls her “chubby”; reporters described her as “fully ripened” and “Junoesque” in 1923. She wore a white maid’s uniform, to which she had added a lace fringe and a secondhand cape—an ensemble as makeshift as a superhero’s first costume. She chose the maid’s uniform because she couldn’t afford anything fancier, and when the salesclerk asked whether she wanted black or white, she told him she “would rather be the Lord’s dove than the Lord’s crow.”
She knew the sort of gimmick that would draw a crowd. In Mt. Forest, Ontario, she stood on a chair at the town’s crossroads, eyes closed and hands raised, in order to collect the curious. In Winnipeg she visited prostitutes, and in New York, speakeasies. Like Billy Sunday, the baseball player who turned evangelist in the 1890s, she spoke in a plain, folksy style, as when she criticized the socializing at conventional churches by calling for “less pie, more piety.” But whereas Sunday warned sternly of hellfire, McPherson stressed God’s love and cheerfully encouraged her listeners to look forward to salvation. She also offered to pray for the sick and to lay on them her hands, anointed with what is thought to have been spiced olive oil. In San Jose, three girls deaf since birth gained the power to hear. In Denver, her touch cured the mayor’s wife of arthritis in her foot.
McPherson disliked it when healing was too prominent in her advertising. But it drew thousands, including reporters who didn’t always leave as skeptical as they arrived, and it was integral to her beliefs. She once compared reading about biblical miracles in a liberal church to reading the menu of a restaurant with a poorly stocked larder: “Sorry, sir,” the waiter says, “but Divine Healing is not in season! They of the Apostolic Age ate the last of that.” McPherson meant to offer everything on the menu—faith healing, an emotionally rich experience of salvation, speaking in tongues as evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit, and an expectation of Christ’s imminent return—a theology she called the Foursquare Gospel. As she grew more successful, she distanced herself somewhat from what she called the “wildness, hysteria, screaming, or unseemly manifestations” of some other Pentecostals. Although she was given credentials at various times by the Assemblies of God, the Methodists, and the Baptists, she would eventually be recognized as having founded a distinct Pentecostal denomination.
On New Year’s Day, 1923, McPherson dedicated Angelus Temple, a cement building near Los Angeles’s Echo Park with columns and a dome of a vaguely Roman style. It seated more than five thousand and was shaped like a baseball field, with the pulpit at home plate. Rose petals were strewn in the baptismal pool, where the water was heated. McPherson’s services in the temple became famous for her “illustrated sermons”—skits with costumes, props, and occasionally some jokes. After she was caught speeding in Santa Monica, for example, congregants listened to her preach astride a motorcycle, wearing a policewoman’s uniform, of the need to slow down and think of God (see illustration on page 58). After she flew to San Francisco, they watched a plane piloted by the devil crash, while another, piloted by Jesus, rose to heaven. In Miracle Woman, Barbara Stanwyck’s character preaches from inside a cage of lions, and indeed, in addition to performing with a lion, McPherson once shared a stage with a live camel as it failed to pass through the eye of a needle, and at another time placed in an imaginary Garden of Eden a real macaw, which betrayed an unfortunate secular past by squawking, “Aw, go to hell!” Yet it was not merely the stunts that drew people. “Whether you like it or not you’re a great actress,” she was told by Charlie Chaplin, who had slipped in to see her.
On February 6, 1924, McPherson launched a radio station, hiring as engineer an agnostic with a wooden leg named Kenneth G. Ormiston. She broadcast all her sermons as well as a morning show called The Sunshine Hour, transmitting on so many frequencies that Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover felt obliged to remind her that she was only allowed one. He later recalled that she responded by telegraphing him, “Please order your minions of Satan to leave my station alone.” “We hear her over the radio,” Upton Sinclair wrote to H.L. Mencken. “It is impossible not to.”
As her celebrity grew, McPherson tried a new haircut, haute couture, and a perfume called Quelque Fleur. She also tried something with her radio engineer that Daniel Mark Epstein, another of her biographers, tactfully calls “an experiment in friendship”3 but which Sutton suspects was an affair. Ormiston was estranged from his wife, and because of a quirk in the temple’s acoustics, women in the second balcony could hear him and McPherson as they conferred about logistics during services. It sounded as if the two were flirting. In December 1925 Ormiston resigned, and in February 1926 McPherson left for a vacation in Europe and the Middle East, pursued by rumor.
On May 18, 1926, having returned to Los Angeles, McPherson went to a beach in nearby Venice for a swim. Her secretary never saw her come back out of the water. That evening, Minnie Kennedy announced at the Angelus Temple that “Sister is with Jesus.” A swimmer and a diver died looking for her body. So exhaustive was the search that alcohol, a contraband because of Prohibition, couldn’t be safely landed, and the city went temporarily dry. Newspapers published speculations that McPherson had gone insane, that she was suffering from amnesia, that she had been kidnapped, and that she had been eaten by a sea monster. At least one skeptic wondered if it was a publicity stunt. According to Sutton, The New York Times gave as much coverage to the disappearance as it had to the Scopes “Monkey Trial” the year before. After the Los Angeles Times noted that Ormiston was also missing, he surfaced—briefly—to declare that he had no idea where McPherson was. At last, on June 20, Minnie Kennedy led the Angelus Temple in a grand farewell to her daughter.
Three days later, McPherson was found, in a state of collapse, outside the house of a saloon owner in Agua Prieta, Mexico. From a hospital in Douglas, Arizona, just across the border, she told police and reporters that she had been kidnapped. She said that a couple had come up to her on the beach in Venice as she left the water and asked her to pray for their dying child. She had followed unsuspectingly to their car, where they had anesthetized her with what smelled like chloroform. When she awoke, she was the hostage of two men and a woman who called themselves “The Avengers” and said they were holding her for ransom. They burned her with a cigar to extract personal details for a convincing ransom note. After six weeks of captivity, they left her alone one day in a shack in northern Mexico while they went for supplies, and she escaped by cutting herself loose with the jagged edge of a tin can and walking across the desert for seventeen hours.
Early reports described McPherson as bruised and blistered, with a burn on her hand that might have come from a cigar. And Minnie Kennedy had received a ransom note matching Aimee’s description, which she had set aside as one crank letter among many. But some doubted the story. The county sheriff in Arizona observed that McPherson’s clothes were not torn and had no sweat stains. She was not sunburned, and witnesses in Agua Prieta said she had only drunk one or two glasses of water when discovered—rather few for someone who had supposedly spent most of a day and a night in the desert. No shack matching her description was ever found, nor were any of her captors.
Nonetheless, thirty thousand people greeted the train that returned McPherson to Los Angeles. The city’s district attorney, Asa Keyes, convened a grand jury to indict her kidnappers. But as it became clear that no such people were likely to be found, Keyes turned on their supposed victim, asking McPherson about Ormiston and the finances of the Angelus Temple. She promptly likened herself to Joan of Arc. Then newspapers reported that in the week immediately following McPherson’s disappearance, Ormiston had been seen at a bungalow in Carmel with a mysterious “Miss X,” allegedly McPherson in disguise. McPherson began to hint that the district attorney, who was Catholic, might be part of an anti-Protestant conspiracy and appealed to the Ku Klux Klan, among others, for support. Keyes convened a second grand jury, this time to indict McPherson and her mother for perjury and preparing false evidence. As in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the alleged crime was not the affair but lying about it under oath. McPherson’s health broke down. After twenty-three days of hearings, she was charged with conspiracy to injure the public morals, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy to induce perjury.
During McPherson’s ordeal by law, she broadcast her side of the story daily on the radio, and her faithful stood by her. Unexpectedly, some critics also came to her defense. “At the worst,” wrote the progressive Los Angeles Record, “Mrs. McPherson is accused by rumor of a moral lapse, and of lying about it afterwards like a gentleman.” Mencken suggested it was uncivilized to try a woman “for perjury uttered in defense of her honor.” Flappers, identifiable in the courtroom by their bobbed hair and their habit of chewing gum, cheered McPherson on. “Maybe she did have a love affair,” one told the Record. “A woman’s human.” The Klan sent roses.
In January 1927, the case unraveled when a crucial witness changed her story one too many times. But McPherson told her board of directors that she had herself arranged for the case to be thrown out of court. Sutton is able to report this because the Foursquare Church, to their credit, granted him what seems to have been unfettered access to their archives. Sutton takes her at her word, and thinks “probable” an allegation by an FBI informant that she blackmailed the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who in turn bribed the district attorney on her behalf. This strikes me as far-fetched; a recent Hearst biographer is skeptical,4 and nothing else in McPherson’s life has such an air of hard-nosed criminality. It does seem likely, though, that McPherson lied about her missing six weeks and that she spent them having an ill-thought-out affair with Ormiston, as Sutton believes. No one knows for sure, but a biographer has to hazard a guess if he hopes to understand McPherson, since a lie would have had consequences. As Blumhofer has written, because McPherson was “shaped …by a sin-conscious radical evangelical subculture,” guilt about such a dishonesty “would most certainly have plagued her.”
In the next decade, perhaps under the burden of such guilt, McPherson became more worldly and less healthy. Her “vindication tour” was managed by a poker-playing, chain-smoking, bourbon-drinking ex-journalist. After she began wearing makeup and had her hair cut shorter than ever, her music director declared that “bobbing of the hair is not according to the Scriptures” and led a secession of three hundred congregants. Mother and daughter quarreled in the summer of 1927, after which McPherson bought out her mother’s share in the temple, and again in 1930, when, according to Minnie Kennedy, McPherson broke her nose. They were never to speak again. In the aftermath, Kennedy told the newspapers that she had had a face lift and that her daughter was about to have one—and perhaps a leg slimming, too. As it happens, McPherson did not appear in the pulpit for the next ten months. Spokespersons said she was ill. After a rest cruise to the Caribbean, her doctor reported that she had lost forty pounds, and in May 1931, the Los Angeles Times pronounced her “slim enough for Hollywood.” Freed of her mother’s supervision, McPherson involved the temple in a production company for a movie about her life, starring herself, as well as a number of other ventures. The movie fell through, as did a McPherson-themed cemetery and a similar vacation resort.
In March 1932, McPherson hastily married an obese young baritone. Two days later, he was sued by a former girlfriend for breach of promise. When a court sentenced him to pay the woman five thousand dollars, McPherson fainted and fractured her skull. In these years, she seemed always to be passing in and out of medical care; she also suffered from anemia, shingles, hemorrhages, an intestinal obstruction, an infected ureter, arthritis, and dysentery. She was to die at age fifty-three from an overdose of sleeping pills, estranged from her daughter as well as her mother.
Though Sutton touches on McPherson’s personal misery in her late years, he concentrates on her achievements. In 1927, just in time for the Great Depression, she founded a commissary that fed everyone, in defiance of a Los Angeles County order that prohibited publicly funded charities from helping those who had lived in California less than three years. “The one human being that never asked what your nationality was, what you believed in and so forth, was Aimee Semple McPherson,” the actor Anthony Quinn recalled of her impact on the Mexican-American community he grew up in. (Though McPherson accepted the Klan’s help and money, she did not share its crude racism. Her daughter recalls her preaching a sermon about tolerance to a hall full of Klan members in hoods.)
But it is McPherson’s late involvement in conservative Christian politics that Sutton thinks may be her most pertinent legacy today. Early Pentecostals had thought earthly politics a waste of time in light of the Second Coming. But McPherson convinced her followers “that their citizenship in heaven did not nullify their citizenship on earth,” Sutton writes. As early as 1926, she fought to bring the Bible into public schools and take evolution out of them. In 1934, she helped to quash Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor by throwing a pageant celebrating America’s Christian heritage on the Friday before Election Day. Sinclair had been running on an antipoverty platform, and McPherson continued to preach against left-wing politics to the end of the 1930s. During World War II, she opposed the release of Japanese-Americans from internment camps in California and broke with Pentecostalism’s tradition of pacifism by refusing to support church members who claimed a conscientious objection to armed service. Sutton suggests that she was the pioneer for such recent Pentecostals in politics as Pat Robertson, Oliver North, James Watt, and John Ashcroft.
I’m not sure her politics were disciplined enough to deserve such credit. Her story may be more useful in explaining someone like Ted Haggard, the evangelical minister who resigned last year after charges that he hired a male prostitute. Like women in the 1920s, gay men today have more license to live out their sexual passions openly than ever before. Within conservative churches, however, that license is perceived as a threat. A minister who managed to separate his emotional energies from his sexual passions and bring them into such a church’s service might be tempted to feel a special pride in his achievement. And that pride might lead to a sense of himself as above the law. It is common for liberal-minded outsiders to view lapses like Haggard’s as evidence of hypocrisy; as leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, he signed a 2004 letter thanking George W. Bush for supporting a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. But Haggard probably experienced his faith as earnestly as his lapse, and he probably thinks of what happened to him as sin—as a captivity from which he was lucky to escape. So may McPherson have seen her lost weeks with her lover, if that is what they were.
July 19, 2007
Edith L. Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson : Everybody’s Sister (Eerdmans, 1993), p. 3. ↩
Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Harvard University Press, 2001) pp. 52–54. ↩
Daniel Mark Epstein, Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), p. 289. ↩
Louis Pizzitola, Hearst Over Hollywood: Power, Passion, and Propaganda in the Movies (Columbia University Press, 2002) pp. 222–224. ↩