Aimee Semple McPherson (1890–1944) was a flamboyant, controversial, immensely popular preacher who the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel—a Pentecostal denomination which still exists today (with 1,600 churches and a quarter of a million members and adherents in the U.S.; and 75,000 churches with 8.7 million members and adherents in 136 countries).
Ten years ago, Matthew Avery Sutton, the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor and Graduate Studies Director at Washington State University, produced a fascinating study entitled Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard University Press, 2007). More than a standard biography—like Edith Blumhofer’s Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister or Daniel Mark Epstein’s Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson—Sutton’s work not only tells the story of Sister Aimee but also explores her theology, culture, influence, and legacy. It is a fascinating work that I highly recommend. The PBS documentary series American Experience based their Sister Aimee on Sutton’s book.
He kindly answered a few questions about this enigmatic figure of fundamentalist-evangelical-Pentecostal history.
I keep thinking of the tag line for the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series that begins, “What if I told you. . . .” If they did one for Aimee Semple McPherson, perhaps they’d say, “What if I told you that one of the most famous fundamentalist preachers of the 1920s and 30s was not a man but a woman, and not just any woman, but one who went through two divorces and who became something of a sex symbol.” So how did something like that happen in that day and age?
It happened precisely because of the day and age. McPherson represented so many trends of the era. She helped drive the rise of a new mass media, celebrity culture. She launched her career on the heels of the first wave of feminism and the coming of woman suffrage. And she embodied—in every way—the sexual revolution of the 1920s. What makes her unique, and worth exploring as a historical subject, was how all of this intersected with her religious faith.
There’s “famous” and then there’s “Christian famous.” The former are bona fide celebrities; the latter tend to be big fishes in a small pond. What kind of celebrity was Sister Aimee? In other words, how well-known was she in the United States at the time?
She was not Christian famous—and of course in the 1920s there was no “Christian” subculture—no Kirk Cameron, no Veggie Tales, no Amy Grant—there were simply celebrities. And she was among the most famous. She was profiled in the major magazines of the era from Harpers to Vanity Fair, and she was the subject of hundreds of news stories not just in her hometown Los Angeles papers but in the New York Times. She also drew a good deal of international attention in places like London.
So in May of 1926-the same month Henry Ford institutes the 5-day, 40-hour work week for his factory workers in Detroit, and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met for the first time in England—the news comes out that Aimee Semple McPherson, at the age of 34, has vanished from Ocean Park Beach, north of Venice Beach and south of the Santa Monica Pier. What had she been doing before this, where was she at during the time of the disappearance, and what did people assume had happened?
McPherson, who was born in Canada in 1890, had converted to pentecostalism as a teenager and she soon thereafter claimed to be able to heal people. She built her career as an itinerant evangelist and then settled down in 1923 in Los Angeles where she opened a huge five-thousand seat megachurch called Angelus Temple.
The next year, she launched a state-of-the-art radio station, Kall Four Square Gospel (KFSG). She also started a monthly magazine, a weekly newspaper, and incorporated a film company. Her church drew enormous crowds of locals and tourists alike, who came especially to see her Sunday evening “illustrated” sermons—the most popular shows in town.
In these entertaining productions, McPherson blended what she called the old-time religion with Hollywood pizzazz, using costumes, actors, an orchestra, expensive lighting, and elaborate stage sets to perform her messages.
It was at the peak of her fame, in the spring of 1926, that McPherson mysteriously vanished.
But then five weeks later, she dramatically returns, stumbling out of the desert in Aqua Prieta, Sonora (Mexico), some 600-700 miles away from LA. What did Aimee say had happened? Was she believed, and how was she received?
McPherson’s reappearance made for a great story. Some people at the time alleged that she had run away with a lover. Others thought that she might have orchestrated an elaborate publicity stunt. But McPherson told the first reporters to arrive an account from which she would never deviate. Kidnappers had taken her from Venice beach that mysterious day in May when, as she came out of the water, a man and woman begged her to go to their car to pray for their dying baby. McPherson agreed, but when she reached the car, she was shoved in from behind and given an anesthesia, rendering her unconscious. She awoke to find that three people had snatched her: an unnamed man, another called Steve, and a woman who answered to Rose. The trio held her in a shack in the Mexican desert while they attempted to secure a ransom from Angelus Temple. They promised to sell her to “Felipe” in Mexico City if the church did not meet their demands. Church leaders did receive many ransom notes, which they turned over to local police, but investigators dismissed them as hoaxes. When Rose left McPherson alone one day, she freed herself by rubbing the ties on her wrists against the jagged edge of a large open tin can. Jumping out of a window, she began her desert trek to Agua Prieta.
Why did she end up going to trial, and how did that turn out?
There was actually a series of trials. First, the district attorney convened a grand jury ostensibly to determine if he had enough evidence to indict the “kidnappers” (even though they had not been identified or arrested). He used this investigation to attack McPherson’s story and to pry into her personal life. Then, when he concluded that she had lied in her testimony to the grand jury, he decided to convene a second grand jury to determine if McPherson should stand trial for criminal charges. The grand jury concluded that she should. The DA then scheduled the criminal trial for early 1927, but then his case imploded and he dropped all the charges against the evangelist.
The question everyone wants to know is: what really happened? What are the basic arguments for and against the idea that she was telling the truth?
Ah yes, so what really happened during those mysterious thirty-six days in 1926? In the ninety years since McPherson vanished, most Americans have assumed that she had an affair with her radio engineer, Kenneth Ormiston.
After all, it certainly looked that way.
McPherson herself acknowledged during the first grand jury investigation that such rumors abounded even before the kidnapping.
Furthermore, it would be an amazing coincidence if the evangelist vanished at exactly the same time that the engineer, using a series of pseudonyms, took off with a secret, disguised lover to the northern California beach town of Carmel—which he did do.
Then there is the issue that most troubled McPherson’s own closest confidants: she worked really hard behind the scenes to pressure the DA to drop the case against her. Why? After her many public proclamations promising that the courts would vindicate her, why didn’t she want the investigation carried through to the end? What was she afraid of?
But most damaging of all was the testimony of her mother, Minnie Kennedy, a true piece of work. Although Kennedy stood by her daughter during the trials, the temple matron opened up to reporters two years later, at a time when her relationship with Aimee had disintegrated. She claimed that the year before the kidnapping McPherson seemed to be infatuated with Ormiston and implied that they had become “too close.”
But if McPherson had chosen to disappear, why would she concoct such an outrageous kidnapping story? There are many possibilities. It might be that she was truly in love with Ormiston. Since he was married and she was divorced, her pentecostal followers would never have approved. Admitting to a relationship with the radioman would have undermined everything that she stood for and all that she had labored so hard to achieve.
Or maybe Ormiston had nothing to do with her disappearance. She may have lacked the energy to continue her work. She might have liked the idea of living outside of the Hollywood spotlight.
Or maybe, as one pioneering journalist suspected, she got some bad advice from one of her publicity aides. She might have vanished with the intention of quickly returning for a dramatic sermon, never anticipating what a huge sensation she would cause.
Finally, there was also the issue of her mental health. At times she behaved immaturely, she often lacked foresight, and she occasionally struggled with lethargy and depression. She may not have been thinking clearly or rationally when she left the beach that mysterious day. (And, in fact, she eventually died in 1944 of a drug overdose.)
Nevertheless, as damning as the circumstantial evidence linking McPherson to Ormiston appears to be, the mystery will probably never be totally solved. Those who were closest to McPherson stood by her kidnapping story; and neither Ormiston nor anyone close to the engineer ever claimed that McPherson was his secret mistress. Most importantly, neither a politically savvy district attorney who had gambled his career on this high profile case, nor two very well financed newspapers ever uncovered a single shred of evidence that conclusively linked McPherson with Kenneth Ormiston during the spring of 1926. But she certainly did not escape the scandal unscathed.
That said, I am confident based on the circumstantial evidence that she was in Carmel with Ormiston. The evidence—circumstantial as it may be—is pretty overwhelming.
How did her life change after this ordeal?
She went through a really dark period for almost the next decade, in which she struggled to rebuild her ministry and to restore her reputation. But in the mid-1930s she returned to her old time pentecostal roots and her ministry experienced the revival she had longed for. Blending faith with compassion for the poor, she established a racially inclusive, effective social service organization during he Great Depression. By World War II, she had once again become one of the most popular ministers in the country. Linking religious faith with patriotic politics, she drew thousands of Americans to her movement. She died on September 27, 1944. The evangelical denomination that she established, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, continues to grow.
I’d venture to guess that most folks reading this had not previously heard of Aimee Semple McPherson. It may strike them as an interesting story but without immediate relevance for today. In what ways do you think her life and theology and theatrics influenced American culture and American religion in particular?
Aimee is in many ways a prototypical American hero. She began her career on the margins of society, became a Hollywood star reaching the pinnacle of power, and then helplessly watched her empire nearly implode. Her story speaks to contemporary issues and resonates with important historical themes that remain with us today. Her life illuminates our enduring struggles to find intimacy, our efforts to overcome personal racial or gender or class barriers, our unease with the influence of religion on American politics and culture, and our nervousness about the opportunities and limitations of new technologies. Basically, Aimee tells us a lot about who we are as Americans.