The Preachers: Aimee Semple McPherson, America’s first female celeb evangelist.
Aimee Semple McPherson, the Pentecostal Preacher who could’ve been a Silent Screen Star. (Image: Foursquare Church)
Aimee Semple McPherson was… so much. A Canadian missionary to China as a young newlywed; a widow with a sickly infant daughter a few years later; an acutely depressed and miserable mom of two and housewife in New England in marriage number two; and a traveling evangelist headlining packed tent revivals for Whites and Blacks, even in the segregated U.S. South. Oh yes, and that was all before she was 27 years old.
Thing is, when Aimee is remembered today (actually, if), she is reduced to the scandal that irrevocably altered her perception in the eyes of the public. She suddenly disappeared from a public beach in California in 1926, and was presumed by thousands to have drowned. After a month, she reappeared just as abruptly in Mexico, with claims that she been abducted by a trio of baddies looking for a steep payday by ransom. She ruined their plans by escaping out a window and walking for hours through the scorching desert. However, this tale was just too tall for many to accept, and alternate theories for Aimee’s being M.I.A. abounded, most notably that she had been on a secret rendevous with a married lover.
Aimee in a hospital bed surrounded by family (and L.A. district attornies) after her 1926 disappearance. (Image: Wikipedia)
So much has been written about the disappearance and is easily searchable online. I’m not going to focus on it here; while fascinating (it actually spun off court proceedings against Aimee and her mom on charges of corruption of morals and obstruction of justice), I find the entirety of her life, ministry and work far more so. My primary source for this post comes from “Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson” by Daniel Mark Epstein. This book includes portions of sermons, quotes from family, newspaper accounts and excerpts of Aimee’s books, and manages to present it all in a compelling manner. If Aimee is often reduced in many accounts of her life, Epstein expands and amplifies. So now on to some deets from “Sister Aimee”.
- Aimee’s mother Minnie prayed for a little girl, and not long after her 1890 birth, dedicated her to God.
“On October 30, when the Canadian wind is already too cold for a baby, Minnie Kennedy rose up. She announced to the household, which included a nurse and a neighbor or two and James Kennedy’s younger sister Maria, that there was a Jubilee that night at the Salvation Army mission in Ingersoll, five miles down the road. It was Minnie’s intention to go and take Aimee Elizabeth with her.
Kerosene lanterns shone through the windows of the barracks on Thames Street in Ingersoll. Minnie sat with her daughter on the front bench of the mission as a band in braided uniforms played. They listened to the tambourines and handclapping, the prayers and the testimony. There would be no baptism for Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy, because Minnie was going to consecrate her daughter to the holy orders of the Salvation Army. The Army believed that sacraments like baptism were not necessary for the soul’s salvation. In place of baptism the newborn child would be welcomed into the Army’s Christian ranks with a ceremony of dedication. They placed Minnie Kennedy’s infant daughter on a chair on the barracks platform, and the corps commandant recited the following prayer: “In the name of the Lord and the corps of the Salvation Army, I have taken this child, who has been fully given up by her parents for the salvation of the world. God save, bless, and keep this child. Amen.”
- Aimee fell in love with Robert Semple, her first husband at 17, when she went to hear him preach. While Momma Minnie was in the Salvation Army, and her dad was a dedicated Methodist, after hearing Robert’s sermon, she was sold on the nascent Pentecostal movement. On that life changing moment, Aimee said:
“I had never heard such a sermon. Using his Bible as a sword, he cleft the whole world in two.”
“Why, it just looked as if somebody had told him I was there, so vividly did he picture my own life and walk . . . His words seemed to rain down upon me, and every one of them hurt some particular part of my spirit and life until I could not tell where I was hurt the most.”
“From the moment I heard that young man speak with tongues to this day I have never doubted for the shadow of a second that there was a God, and that he had shown me my true condition as a poor, lost, miserable, Hell-deserving sinner. “My very soul had been stripped before God— there was a God, and I was not ready to meet him.”
- Mr. and Mrs. Semple moved to China as missionaries. Aimee hated it. She felt isolated by the foreignness of it all- the food, the language, the culture. Then things got far worse.
In August of 1910 malaria and dysentery struck both Semples. They grew so feverish and weak they could no longer move from bed to bed to nurse each other. Man and wife were returned by steamer to Hong Kong, where coolies carried Robert in his hammock on bamboo poles up the mountain to Matilda Hospital. When the attending physician asked Aimee what she had been feeding her husband, she told him a careful diet of market produce. The doctor shook his head in dismay. Had no one explained to the young wife how Chinese fields were fertilized with the excrement of the families who tilled them? Malaria was the least of Robert’s problems. Robert James Semple died in Matilda Hospital on August 17, five days after their second wedding anniversary.
She gave birth to a daughter on September 17, 1910, and this seems to have calmed her. She named the girl Roberta Star, as the baby represented the only star of hope in a dim and forbidding future. The child at birth weighed only four and a half pounds.
- In early 1912, Aimee married Harold McPherson, and gave birth to their son the following year. They settled in Providence, R.I., in a home owned by Harold’s mom,but by 1915, after a nervous breakdown, Aimee left Harold… to preach.
In the spring of 1915 Mack was transferred to the night shift at the Industrial Bank and Trust. Minnie was back on the farm in Canada, and Aimee wired her for money. One night while Anna McPherson slept, her restless daughter-in-law called a taxi, bundled the children in warm clothes, and sped away to the train station. There they boarded the 11: 55 train to Toronto, where they met the connection to Ingersoll. Harold McPherson returned in the morning to find his wife had left him.
- This move marked a definitive change in Aimee. She would no longer allow anyone or anything- her husband, marriage, motherhood, societal expectations- to stop her from doing what she felt God had put her on Earth for. Ministry would come before all. While Harold eventually reunited with the family, after a few more years of living on the road, sleeping in their car, and grueling nonstop travel, Harold was done. He wanted a more traditional wife and homelife. Things grew bitter by the end.
McPherson said that his wife was of a roving, restless disposition, that during one quarrel she threatened to kill both of them. His mother, Annie McPherson, testified that her son’s wife was “a difficult woman to live with.” A boarder from Annie McPherson’s rooming house testified that “Mrs. McPherson was more interested in her evangelistic career than anything else . . . She had a fiery temper and made life unendurable for her husband. She could throw herself into a fit at any time.”
The husband was awarded the divorce about the time Aimee was driving to San Jose in 1921. Mack was also awarded custody of Rolf McPherson on weekends, Rolf who was 3,000 miles away. Mack declined, explaining, “I would rather give up the pleasure of seeing my own son than put up with even the slightest connection with my former wife.”
- Failed marriage aside, Aimee was all about the holiness standards of Pentecostalism- at least pre-scandal. She’d later begin wearing makeup, cut and curl her hair, and wear fashionable clothes. In a 1919 interview for The Baltimore Sun, she said:
“As soon as I entered the city,” she says, her brow furrowed, “I saw the need. Women were sitting in the dining room smoking with the men. 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…”
She attacks the vanities of dress and jewelry. Women “go forth with their faces painted as does the Indian, and with a vanity bag to answer the place of the tomahawk.” The reporter asks if Aimee believes silk stockings are evil. “It depends altogether,” says the Rubenesque subject, crossing her powerful legs, “on how much of them is shown.”
The interview is nearly over. He remarks that she is sometimes called “the female Billy Sunday,” which does not amuse her. She dislikes Sunday’s “slang.”
Image and caption from “Sister Aimee”
- In another interview, this with The Baltimore Star , Aimee compared the events of their present time to how it fit with the book of Revelation:
“That is the Red Dragon,” Aimee boomed, “and you will find it spoken of in both Testaments. The labor movement is prophesied at length in the Bible and the ‘mark of the beast’ we know to be the union seal. The time is coming when none will be able to buy or sell save those who are stamped with the mark of the beast.” The interview was nearly over. Near dawn the journalist must have doubted how much more of this she could stand, while the subject seemed to grow more animated and bright-eyed by the hour. “The Jews will be the ruling nation of the earth in years to come,” Aimee stated, “because at the second coming of the Lord they will receive Him. After that, their years of exile and of suffering will have ended and they will establish at Jerusalem a kingdom more wonderful than any the world has ever known . . .”
- At least some of Aimee’s Healings were verified by or got the seal of approval from medical doctors, such as:
Aimee introduced Mrs. W. W. Jackson of Baltimore. Mrs. Jackson had been thrown from a streetcar on February 3, 1919, injuring her spine. It became infected with the tubercle bacillus. X-rays revealed that her vertebrae were badly damaged by the tubercular lesions and deteriorating rapidly; the doctors had no idea how to treat her. They placed the woman in a cast from her armpits to her knees, and she lay on her back for sixteen weeks without improvement. Her case is the first of Sister Aimee’s that has medical documentation. Mrs. Jackson’s physician, the distinguished Dr. S. R. Wantz of Baltimore, would testify:
So far as medical skill can determine, Mrs. Jackson’s pelvic bones in the rear of the junction of the spinal column were diseased as proven by x-ray pictures and physical examinations.
He informed his patient of what he had seen at the healing services in the Lyric Theater. Because she could not walk, and Mrs. McPherson could not go to her, Mrs. Jackson’s son took a handkerchief to one of the healing services, to be prayed over and anointed with oil. Then the handkerchief was pushed up under her cast to rest upon the diseased spine. And Mrs. Jackson prayed to God that she might be healed. “In several days I was so much improved that the cast was removed, then I began to walk and now I am as healthy as ever.”(pp. 179-180).
Physicians from San Francisco had been following the story and the controversy in the newspapers for several days. Quietly, without the knowledge of anyone involved in the revival, the American Medical Association of San Francisco sent representatives to the tent meetings during the week of August 22  The doctors submitted their report at the end of the week and sent a copy to Dr. W. K. Towner in San Jose, who read it aloud under the big top. The report from the AMA of San Francisco stated that the work of Aimee Semple McPherson met with their approval in every way, that the healing was “genuine, beneficial and wonderful.” (233)
- Aimee gave credit to God for the “wonder working power of the precious blood of the Lamb”:
“Is there anything you would like to tell the public previous to your revival meetings, Mrs. McPherson?” “I’d like them to know,” said the evangelist, turning to him, “my meetings are ninety-nine percent soul-saving and one percent healing.” He wrote this down. As he was not satisfied, Aimee continued, in a deep tuneful voice that was strangely like someone talking to herself, but a voice, the reporter noted, that would easily fill the four-pole big top: “God heals that they may go out to save others. He does not heal that the sick may take up worldliness and travel in sin again. The central thought they must have when they come to me is first and last and all the time— save their souls.”
The press, of course, was not interested in Aimee’s profundity on the subject. Their questions were simple, and she answered them simply. Hadn’t the days of divine healing passed with the Apostles? She replied: “No gift that Jesus ever gave was temporary.” Would the healings be permanent?
She told them that she did not know. “It all depends upon the lives they lead from the moment they descend this altar. God does not cure your twisted bones that you may dance better . . . the way to be healed and to stay healed is to give your lives to Jesus.” Of course she could cite testimonies of hundreds who had remained healed for years. Is healing instantaneous? On this subject she was eloquent. The work of preparation was all-important. People who came rushing into the meetings saying they that had heard “there is a miracle woman here who can heal them at once,” that they wanted to be “treated” promptly so they could catch the next train, were quickly set straight.
They are bidden to settle themselves down and take part in the meetings just as though they were going to the Mayo clinic and were preparing for it for days, obeying each order— so they are bidden to prepare their house before coming into the presence of Jesus, the Great Physician. There is no miracle woman here at all, only a simple little body whom the Lord has called from a milk-pail on a farm, bidding her tell the good news of a Saviour who lives and loves and answers prayers.
(pp. 220, 222-223).
- After moving to California with Minnie (who stepped in to manage her daughter’s ministry around the same time her marriage finally fell apart for good) and the kids, Aimee set to work having a church built in Los Angeles. It was financed by her national preaching tours, and was called the Angelus Temple. Just as she had preached to people of all ages and races on the road, the Temple, also, was opened to all. Some of her most devoted parishoners were Mexican American, including a young boy who would grow up to be a Hollywood star.
Anthony Rudolph Oaxaka Quinn and his baby sister lived with their mother and grandmother in a tiny house without plumbing. Mother and grandmother were Mexican. The Irish-Mexican father, Francisco Quinn, had been killed outside their front door by an automobile. The family was dirt poor. The grandmother made day wages carrying water for a road crew. One day Anthony Quinn came home from school to find several strangers in his house, gathered around his grandmother’s bed. A strong woman, she had developed some stomach disorder. The pain had grown so acute that for minutes at a time she could not inhale except in shallow breaths.
The men and women appeared very excited, some of them trembling, with their eyes closed as they held their hands on Quinn’s grandmother and prayed. One was reading from a black bible while the others were making a strange gurgling noise in which the boy could make out the name “Jesus” but not much else. Quinn had been going to Mass several times a week. He was studying with Father Anselmo, with a view of someday becoming a Catholic priest himself. At this point in his education the teenage boy suspected that anyone who was not Catholic might be the Devil’s disciple. So he shouted at these strangers, “Get out of my house, you’re evil!” His grandmother groaned and shook her head. A man held Tony’s arms, explaining, “We’re not doing anything wrong. We’re praying to the same God, maybe in a different way . . . Your grandmother is going through great pain. She believes we can help her.” The old woman nodded in agreement.
The boy ran out the door, straight to the Catholic church. In breathless sentences he told Father Anselmo what he had seen. The “holy rollers” from Angelus Temple were practicing their heathen rites on his poor grandmother. The priest looked very serious as he replied: “Tony, I don’t worship like the Protestants, but we mustn’t be so narrow as to think they are devils. There are many ways to reach God. If your grandmother believes these people are the way, fine. Let them come.” Slowly the boy began to accept the Protestants coming and going in his house, as his grandmother’s pain subsided under their ministrations.
“Now, Tony,” said his grandmother. “I don’t have the pains anymore. These people have helped me. We owe them something. I think we should both go and give thanks. I promised that if I got well, I’d give testimony.” That is how Anthony Quinn went to his first revival meeting, in the 500 Room of Angelus Temple. Seated side by side were whites, blacks, and Mexican-Americans. Everyone felt at home, accepted. “I had never seen five hundred people happy at the same time.”
- Quinn wasn’t the only celeb with ties to Aimee. As I mentioned in a post last year, a young Marilyn Monroe attended the church with her strictly religious foster parents. Other notables who would meet with Aimee over her thirty years of ministry would include Charlie Chaplin, Gandhi, NYC club owner Tex Guinan, Tallulah Bankhead and more.
(Image Source: Tex Guinan Blog)
- Despite pastoring a church with thousands of members and being one of the most known people of the 1920s and 30s, Aimee’s personal life became incredibly lonely. Once her kids grew up and married, her loneliness would at times be crushing. Her health, after decades of travel, chronic insomnia and other ailments, began to give her problems as well. She would marry for a third time in 1931 to David Hutton, another black mark on her romantic life to many since her second husband, Harold McPherson, was still living. This marriage was a mess before it even had a chance to really get going and ended less than four years later.
- By the time Aimee died of an accidental barbiturate overdose in 1944, she had been estranged from her mom and daughter for years. She remained close to son Rolf, though, and he would go on to take over running The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel denomination his mother began in the 20s. It’s still in existence today with millions of members internationally.
My friend Kiki has asked me over the past month my take on Aimee. So here goes: she was a flawed woman, but knew it. Unlike the previous subjects of The Preachers series, Aimee did not harbor delusions of being God or not needing Him. If there’s anything that seems constant in her life was her love of the Lord. The Angelus Temple fed and clothed thousands throughout The Great Depression. She became one of the first radio stars by having the foresight to start KFSG, the Temple’s station. She faced off against the Ku Klux Klan and LA criminals who resented her church’s work getting prostitutes and addicts off the streets. She took in unwed pregnant teens when their families threw them out. She didn’t drink or smoke but had not one iota of shame about marching into saloons, nightclubs and speakeasies if she were given a chance to talk about Jesus. And perhaps most surprising to me having grown up Pentecostal, is how little she spoke on Hell. It’s not that she didn’t believe in one. She instead focused on the beauty, love and life that comes from relationship with Jesus. I came away from studying up on Aimee with great appreciation for her work ethic, love of music and production, and determination to soldier on.
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