McPherson, Aimee Semple (1890–1944)

views updated

McPherson, Aimee Semple (1890–1944)

Canadian evangelical preacher with melodramatic tastes, who enjoyed massive success in Los Angeles during the 1920s but damaged her reputation in a 1926 kidnapping hoax . Born Aimee Kennedy in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada, on October 9, 1890; died in Oakland, California, on September 27, 1944; daughter of James Morgan Kennedy (an Ontario farmer) and Minnie (Pearce) Kennedy (a Salvation Army fund raiser); married Robert Semple, in 1908 (died in Hong Kong in 1910); married Harold Stewart McPherson, in 1912 (divorced 1918); married David Hutton, in 1930 (divorced 1935, on grounds of mental cruelty); children: (first marriage) daughter, Roberta Semple; (second marriage) son, Rolf.

Moved to Providence, Rhode Island (1912); migrated to California (1918); opened the Angelus Temple, Los Angeles (January 1, 1923); involved in disappearance and "kidnapping" scandal (1926).

Many American evangelists have been marred by scandal; the sensational disappearance of Aimee Semple McPherson in 1926 is one of the best-known examples. America's first woman evangelist to enjoy international renown, she claimed to have been kidnapped and tortured in the Mexican desert, but skeptical investigators maintained that she had been hiding out with a married lover in Carmel, California. Denying it to the end of her life, McPherson retained thousands of loyal disciples and her church of the Foursquare Gospel continued to grow.

She was born Aimee Kennedy in a small Ontario farm community in 1890. Her father James Morgan Kennedy was an ardent Methodist, her mother, Minnie Pearce Kennedy , a Salvationist. Growing up in an intensely religious rural environment, she longed for a career on the stage, and as a teenager rebelled against religion and took the side of the evolutionary modernists in the great debate on human origins. When she was 17, however, the preaching of a traveling revivalist, Robert Semple, precipitated a religious experience, and she was "born again." The revivalist proposed marriage to her soon thereafter, she accepted, and they laid plans to go as missionaries to China. "He was my theological seminary, my spiritual mentor, and my tender, patient, unfailing lover," she would write of him later. This was the era when confident missionaries spoke of "the evangelization of the world" and anticipated mass conversions among the "heathen" of China. Many of the American Protestant churches had mission boards to finance their evangelists overseas, but Robert Semple was an independent and decided to trust in God to provide the necessary funds. His spellbinding preaching brought him crowds wherever he went, and, from their contributions, he raised enough to pay for the voyage.

Aimee and her husband sailed first to Ireland, to visit his family, then to London, where they enjoyed the hospitality of millionaire evangelist Cecil Polhill. While there, she preached for the first time at a London revival, claiming that the Holy Spirit had possessed her when she felt powerless to speak alone. Wrote Aimee:

Then the Lord took possession of my tongue even as he had on that memorable day when he had baptized me with Pentecostal fire, only this time it was in England. The words seemed to flow forth without conscious volition or self-will. It seemed as though I was caught away by the oratory of another.

Boarding a ship for China, the couple landed in the devastating heat of a South China summer. Robert Semple went out to preach the gospel in the heat of the day (with an interpreter at his side), but before their mission was well under way he developed dysentery and died, leaving the 20-year-old Aimee Semple a widow and mother of a newborn daughter Roberta Semple . Returning to America, she moved disconsolately from New York to Chicago and then back to Ontario, nursing her frail child.

Fearing for her daughter's life and in need of some stability, she accepted a marriage proposal from Harold McPherson, a young contemporary whom she had met in Chicago just after her return. But "before the marriage took place … I made one stipulation, telling Mr. McPherson that all my heart and soul were really in the work of the Lord, and that if at any time He called me back into active ministry, no matter where or when, I must obey God first of all." They had a son, Rolf, but Aimee Semple McPherson remained depressed and dissatisfied. Suffering what seems to have been a nervous breakdown, she finally decided she could live with her husband no longer but must answer her call to preach. Taking both her children, she set off without notice in the middle of the night and joined the revival circuit. The oratorical power she had shown in London returned—she again gave full credit to the Holy Spirit—and as her reputation spread, she began to receive invitations to hold revivals throughout the United States. Her willingness to hold a revival in the African-American community of Corona showed an unusual readiness, for that era, to cross the color line. Harold McPherson was so impressed with her speaking when he came to listen that he urged her to continue. They were not reunited, however, and divorced in 1918.

According to her autobiography, Aimee McPherson had been wondering what role women should play in evangelism from the time of her conversion.

I found that Deborah , a woman, led forth her gleaming armies beneath flaming banners under the sunshine of God's smile. The woman at the well preached the first salvation sermon and led an entire city to Christ … [and] a woman had delivered the first Easter message.

Coming out of a tradition where scriptural validation was all-important, she apparently had no further doubts about her right to play a role usually reserved for men, even though the evangelical Christians in many cities regarded her as a dangerous and slightly scandalous figure.

Aimee McPherson bought a moth-eaten revival marquee with some of her collection funds, founded an evangelical newspaper, the Bridal Call, in 1916, and was soon publishing it monthly. It specialized in sentimental religious tales and moral advice. She began ranging along the East Coast of the United States, moving to Florida each winter and back to New England and Canada for the summers. Her two children and her mother came along as well, and her successes enabled them all to prosper. Frequently sick, she claimed that pain left her the moment she began to preach, and became convinced that, through her, God had the power to heal. Even the severe burns she suffered after an explosion in a faulty carbide lighting system during a camp revival meeting in Florida healed themselves, she claimed, as she plucked up her courage and returned to the pulpit with singed hair and blackened skin burns. During the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918, she preached three times a day despite being desperately ill. When her daughter Roberta was on the brink of death, suddenly Jesus appeared before McPherson and promised that her child would live, adding that the family's future lay in California, in a bungalow, with a rose garden outside and a caged canary within.

Following Jesus' instructions she bought a new car, painted "Jesus is coming soon—get ready!" on its doors, and drove the family across the country. She got as far as Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she heard that the First World War had ended. Completing the westward journey, she quickly made a name for herself in Los Angeles and along the West Coast, preaching a cheery gospel of good health, family love, and wholesome simplicity, which appealed to her mainly lower-middle-class audience. Many of her followers were also middle-class migrants who, like McPherson, had traveled to the Golden Land of California from other parts of America. She once defined her mission as an essentially middle-class affair, adding that the poor should turn to the Salvation Army and that the rich could take care of themselves. The idea of naming her brand of revivalism the "Foursquare Gospel," first came to her during a revival in Oakland, California, in 1922, as a way of dodging the then-much-debated question of whether or not she lined up with Pentecostalism. The four sides of the square were Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit, Jesus the Healer, and Jesus the Coming King. Within two years of her arrival in Los Angeles, volunteers from the congregation had built and paid for the cottage she had foreseen. It was complete, right down to the canary, but would soon be upstaged by something grander still.

McPherson's chief rival in Los Angeles was Bob Shuler, a sour, irritable evangelist who preached a ferocious blend of hellfire and damnation and loved to denounce sinners by name from his pulpit. Though their styles were totally different, each soon enjoyed a huge following. McPherson at first held her meetings in the Philharmonic Auditorium, the largest meeting place in Los Angeles, but found that it was not big enough. With her Midas touch for money-raising, however, she collected enough to build the stupendous "Angelus Temple," then the largest religious building in American history, seating 5,300 worshippers, which was dedicated on New Year's Day of 1923. She and her mother (now her business manager) were joint owners of the building, and of the adjacent mansion to which they moved; they had no bank debts and no financial accountability to the congregation.

McPherson evolved a technique of costumed sermonizing linked to a theme. Dressed as a USC football player, she preached on carrying the ball for Christ. Entering the Temple on a motorcycle in a policeman's uniform, she placed sin under arrest and urged her audience not to speed to ruin.

—Kevin Starr

McPherson had a well-developed sense of the dramatic. She loved to dress up in different costumes to give added emphasis to her messages, collecting costumes on her frequent revival tours throughout the United States, Europe, and Australia. Her strawberry blonde hair became famous, and newspapers sometimes featured successive photographs showing how she gathered the loose tresses and arranged them into her elaborate performance coiffure. Other accessories were flowing white robes, glittering costume jewelry, and theatrical kleig lights, all of which added impact to her performances. A well-trained choir backed up the preaching, a brass band punctuated the prayers, and for those worshippers whose excitement led to ecstasy and "holy rolling" there was even a padded cell in the Angelus Temple where they could writhe without serious injury. Preaching services often culminated in faith healings, as McPherson implored the sick and the lame to rise from their beds of suffering. Dozens did just that, and one area of the Temple was given over to a display of the discarded crutches, wheelchairs, and stretchers of sufferers who claimed to have been healed through her intercession. The theatricality of her preaching certainly contributed to her success; so did her unerring eye for publicity. Historian Lately Thomas aptly summarized that "her tastes, sentimental, garish, heartily and healthily vulgar, matched those of the multitude."

Along with the Temple, she created a music conservatory, a Bible college (attended by 1,000 students) which was soon thriving, and radio station KFSG, only the third radio station to be licensed in Los Angeles. Evangelical preachers were some of the earliest Americans to understand the power of broadcasting to create and enlarge an audience. When inspectors closed the station down temporarily in 1925, for veering off its assigned frequency, she cabled Secretary of Commerce (later president) Herbert Hoover: "Please order your minions of Satan to leave my station alone. You cannot expect the Almighty to abide by your wavelength nonsense." She also pioneered in the use of telephones as an aid to evangelizing. Her assistants would set up tents in Los Angeles suburbs and welcome crowds to listen to her sermons over the air, then converts would call in word of their salvation (and contributions) by phone. In all these enterprises, some of them anticipating evangelical techniques of the 1970s and 1980s, McPherson showed a high measure of entrepreneurial skill.

On a sunny May 18, 1926, at the height of her fame, McPherson went to the beach near Los Angeles. After pitching a tent, she sent her secretary, and only companion, on an errand. But when her secretary returned, Aimee Semple McPherson had disappeared. It was assumed that she had drowned. The exact sequence of events in that spring and summer was never settled beyond dispute, but the conflicting stories are soon told. During a massive search for her body, one diver and one enthusiast from the Angelus Temple were themselves killed by drowning. But then, two days after thousands of mourners had attended a memorial service at the Temple to grieve her loss, she appeared once more, in the Mexican city of Agua Prieta. She told police and journalists that she had been walking toward the water that day when a distraught couple hailed her and asked for her help. Their child was sick in a nearby car. When they reached the car, McPherson was shoved in, thrown to the floor, anesthetized, and driven first to an unidentified house and later to a desert shack, where she had been tortured. She managed to escape, she added, by severing her bonds, climbing through a window, and staggering off

into the desert, walking 20 miles in the midsummer Mexican sun to Agua Prieta. She claimed that a ransom note demanding $500,000, delivered to her mother at the Temple during her absence, proved that her story was true.

The story did not convince investigators for long, and as more sleuths, amateur and professional, became involved, the gaps in her tale grew larger. Why did her dress show no sign of wear? Why wasn't she dehydrated? Why hadn't she even asked for a glass of water when she arrived out of the desert? Most of the evidence pointed towards another version of events. As she rested in bed in a Los Angeles hospital, there was a new development. Kenneth G. Ormiston, a married man who ran KFSG, had also been missing. He had spent several weeks traveling with a blonde companion who some said resembled McPherson. Authorities began to speculate that she had left her clothes on the beach to give the illusion of drowning, and then had gone with her lover, Ormiston, to a honeymoon cottage in Carmel. Neighbors reported seeing a mysterious veiled woman on several occasions during the month in question, and a local shopkeeper had a grocery list written in her distinctive handwriting. According to this version of events, the ransom note was part of the hoax, arranged by McPherson and Ormiston to substantiate her kidnapping claim. The district attorney gathered evidence in preparation for a trial, on the charge that McPherson had conspired to produce false testimony. In his view, Minnie Kennedy, McPherson's mother, had known perfectly well that her daughter was still alive and had orchestrated the search efforts while knowing that there was no body to be found. After months of costly evidence-gathering, however, he decided against prosecuting, partly because of McPherson's immense popularity and partly because of his inability to get incontestable proof. This decision offered true believers in McPherson's story the reasonable doubt they had been looking for, despite the strength of the circumstantial evidence. Their jubilation knew no bounds. A crowd of 50,000 turned out to greet her at the station when she returned to Los Angeles. Thousands more flocked to her sermons; they saw the allegations as a vicious affront to a virtuous woman who had already suffered enough. A triumphant cross-country preaching tour (with plenty of paid publicity flacks on board) fortified her rehabilitation.

McPherson insisted to the end of her life that Ormiston had been no more than a business associate. Ormiston, who stayed in Los Angeles as a radio station engineer and died in 1937, denied to the end that there had been an affair. Soon after the scandal, Ormiston's wife applied for a divorce on grounds of desertion but declined to name any "other woman" in the case. McPherson's spectacular career continued, even though among more skeptical Angelenos she had become a laughingstock. The Foursquare Gospel continued to grow, and by the Second World War had opened 400 churches in America and 200 more throughout the world, preaching the same message of "feel-good" religion. And as biographer Thomas noted, McPherson retained and exploited many of the advantages of notoriety: "During the decade 1927–1936, her name appeared on the front pages of the Los Angeles newspapers an average of three times a week."

When Sinclair Lewis, America's first Nobel-Prize winning novelist, wrote Elmer Gantry (1927), the tale of a fraudulent evangelical preacher, he included a thinly fictionalized version of McPherson in the character of Sister Sharon Falconer. In his portrayal of Falconer, Lewis blended disdain with a sort of grudging admiration for her organizational powers and her rhetorical dash. In several scenes, he showed her offstage entrepreneurial character, as she reminded her volunteers of the need to raise hard cash to keep the evangelical empire running. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, McPherson recovered some of her former esteem by playing a distinguished part in Los Angeles poor relief work. She set up a "commissary," offering food to thousands of the unemployed each day, along with an employment and housing bureau which aimed at helping the thousands of homeless people in Los Angeles.

Her personal life remained chaotic. In 1930, she was married for a third time, to David Hutton, a baritone from the Angelus Temple choir. Hutton began to play a role in the business side of the Temple, and before long the two of them were squabbling, often in public. The press had always relished the way she and her mother would fight over business matters; now they had a field day with the Huttons' not-so-secret conflicts. In 1934, the marriage reached a crisis, with him suing for divorce on grounds of mental cruelty and her countersuing on the grounds that his posing for publicity photographs with scantily clad dancing girls had damaged the Temple's reputation for moral probity. He won his suit; hers was thrown out.

During the Second World War, as during the First, Aimee Semple McPherson turned her oratorical powers to fund raising on behalf of war loan drives and was always an energetic patriot. But, in 1944, aged only 53, she had a series of heart attacks and died (some sources cite an overdose of sleeping pills).

Aimee Semple McPherson had been an unbending foe of Hollywood and of decadent night-life, a supporter of Prohibition during the 1920s, and an enemy of all criminals. She believed she had been kidnapped by racketeers whose business she had tried to interrupt, and the sincerity with which she described the whole episode in several books makes it difficult to see her as a cynical, knowing liar. The exact sequence of events in the summer of 1926 and many strange details of the case have still not been unravelled beyond all doubt, though most evidence does support the theory of a Carmel tryst. Kindly, affable, entertaining, self-indulgent, taking unashamed pleasure in wealth and luxury, and yet hard-working and in her own way devout, McPherson became an important precursor of one side of the postwar evangelical revival, in addition to being a pioneer for women preachers and evangelical broadcasters.


Hadden, Jeffrey, and Charles E. Swann. Prime Time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1981.

Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry (fiction). NY: Grosset and Dunlap, 1927.

McPherson, Aimee Semple. The Story of My Life. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1973.

Starr, Kevin. Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s. NY: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Thomas, Lately. Storming Heaven. NY: William Morrow, 1970.

——. The Vanishing Evangelist. NY: Viking, 1959.

suggested reading:

Blumhofer, Edith. Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister. Eerdmans, 1993.

Epstein, Daniel Mark. Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1993.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

About this article

McPherson, Aimee Semple (1890–1944)

Updated About content Print Article