American Characters

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Don’t ever tell me that a woman cannot be called to preach the Gospel,” she once wrote. “If any man ever went through one hundredth the part of k hell on earth that I Iived in, they would never say that again.” If hell was the hopelessness of poverty, Aimee Semple McPherson had been there. But she preached her way out of those depths, and by the time of her death had ascended into a heaven of wealth and power.

She was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in 1890 on a little farm near the town of Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada. Her mother, a tambourine-thumping Salvation Army veteran, dedicated Aimee, then six weeks old, to the work of God. She remained true to that dedication until adolescence, when the doctrines of Darwin and the temptations of the secular world temporarily mired her in the quicksand of unbelief. But under the weighty ministrations of a Pentacostal preacher, Robert Semple, Aimee found herself born again. She burned her ragtime sheet music, her novels, and dancing pumps, and married Semple. A few months later, the newly weds were off to China as missionaries.

Within a year, Robert Semple was dead of dysentery, and eighteen-year-old Aimee found herself back in New York, penniless and with a baby. In desperation she married Harold McPherson, and by him she had another child. But her intractable will, buttressed by a commanding religious experience, could not long stand marital bliss, and she took to the road as a traveling evangelist.

Aimee ran her own show. She drove her own tent pegs, played her own piano, and developed her own evangelistic techniques as she traveled up and down the Atlantic coast with her children and her mother. Several years on this glory road persuaded Aimee it was time for a change, and in 1918, with $100 and a broken-down car, her little band rolled into Los Angeles.

Except for a few local revivals in upstairs mission rooms, Los Angeles was, at first, just a base from which Aimee toured the area with limited success. But her luck changed when she went to San Diego, then home of the ill and incurable, city of suicides. Thirty thousand people attended an open-air meeting sponsored by local churches. While Aimee held forth, a paralytic woman rose from her wheelchair and stumbled toward the platform. Near hysteria followed as scores of sick and crippled San Diegans surged forward. Aimee had never claimed she could heal the sick, but her fame as a healer quickly spread up and down the Pacific Coast, and riding this crest, she returned to Los Angeles determined to build a church.

Los Angeles in the 1920’s was, according to many contemporary observers, a cuckoo land with more sanctified cranks to the acre than any other town in America. It was also a city of strangers; more than a million and a quarter newcomers entered the county during the decade. Aimee fit right in. Before long, she had acquired more than fifty thousand followers—enough to enable her to build Angélus Temple, a hugh cakelike structure that cost over a million and a half dollars. It was equipped with a powerful radio station and topped with an illuminated rotating cross that could be seen for fifty miles. In the following years, Sister Aimee established over four hundred branch churches, or “lighthouses,” and sponsored 178 mission stations throughout the world.

The cause of Aimee’s success was not her so-called Foursquare Gospel: biblical infallibility, conversion, religious healing, and the imminent return of Christ. It was her vibrant personality, unconventional preaching, and, especially, her flair for drama and publicity that won her the loyalty—and money—of her people. Aimee gave them a show, and they were willing to pay for it. Angelus Temple was fitted out with a stage on which Sister enacted sacred operas and religious tableaux. Dancing devils complete with hellfire and pitchforks were routed before the eyes of the assembly by the godly gunfire of Aimee’s Army. Flowers, music, pageantry, and sex appeal were the props behind Aimee’s message of joy, but she was always the star.

Then, on a sparkling May morning in 1926, she went for a swim at a Los Angeles beach—and disappeared. “Aimee McPherson believed drowned!” screamed the newspaper headlines. Her stunned mother was sure her soul was with Jesus. But where was her body? Divers combed the shoreline, motor launches with grappling hooks swept the deeper water, and airplanes circled overhead. For thirty-two days armies of the faithful kept constant vigil at beach and Temple. A memorial service was held, and the sorrowing throng parted with over $34,000 in their grief. Three days later came a call from Douglas, Arizona. Aimee was alive. She allegedly had been kidnapped.

Aimee’s explanation was a lusty combination of intrigue, torture, and sex, climaxed by a hair-raising escape and a triumphant return to safety. The public loved it, but the police failed to find the kidnappers’ hut in which she claimed to have been held, let alone the kidnappers. Other discrepancies in Sister’s story resulted in Aimee’s indictment and trial on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice. The theory was that she had engineered her own vanishing act in order to run off with Kenneth Ormiston, a long-time Temple radio operator—and a married man. After four months, however, the charges against Aimee were dropped—leaving no one satisfied. To this day, the full story of Aimee’s “kidnapping” remains unknown.

Failing in her attempt to find a life away from her Temple, she directed her formidable energies back into the Temple itself—with sometimes explosive results. Family infighting over Temple monetary policies resulted in a broken nose for Sister’s mother and a lawsuit against Aimee by her own daughter-and fifty-five additional lawsuits by disgruntled followers and employees hounded her for the rest of her career. But Aimee was still Aimee, never one to let the Devil get her down. Paris fashions, face lifts, and new religious theatrics kept the Temple jumping and Aimee before the public eye. Her death from an overdose of barbiturates in 1944 came as a severe shock to the thousands of people who had found in Aimee’s life some of the color and joy lacking in their own. Fifty thousand mourners viewed her as she lay in state on the platform of Angélus Temple, reclining in a bronze casket with her hands clasped over an open Bible, and a caravan of six hundred cars followed “the mistress of hallelujah revivalism,” as the London Daily Mail called her, to her final resting place in Forest Lawn Memorial Park. “Today,” her eulogist intoned, “we are here to commemorate the stepping up of a country girl to God’s Hall of Fame.”