Aimee Semple McPherson: conflicted celebrity evangelist...

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Itinerant evangelists have proclaimed the good news in crusades and tent revivals, in fields and stadiums, in tabernacles and classrooms. Over the last 150 years, Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899), Billy Sunday (1862-1935), Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) and Billy Graham (1918-present) have been household names in their eras. Each used different methods and had vastly different personalities, and was able to tap into deep undercurrents of American piety. My intent in this post is not to compare these four, but to consider a recent (1993) and major biography (400+ pages), Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister by Edith Blumhofer .

For much of the 1920s and 1930s, Aimee was front-page news. She was a relentless evangelist, a missionary to China, a megachurch pastor, the founder of a denomination, and a leader in helping to provide for the physical needs of those who fell on hard times during the Great Depression.

Yet her life was full of contradictions. Adored by thousands … 

… she was a very lonely woman. A preacher of piety, she went through two divorces. Sister cultivated a kinder, gentler image but fired those she saw as rivals, even family. She portrayed herself as a mother, even as she spent much of her time away from her children. Though she tried to proclaim simple Bible Christianity, many of her messages consisted of personal testimony, telling her life’s story, intriguing for what she included and what she left out. She did lots of things women didn’t traditionally do. She had an all-male elder board in her church, yet she was always the one in control. Aimee was a faith healer, yet she always aimed to keep the focus on her preaching. All in all, she was a fascinating woman and this biography was written with a sympathetic eye, even while noting the contradictions.

Aimee Kennedy was born on a farm in Canada. Her father (James) had almost two separate families. His first wife had three children but then became seriously ill and could no longer do the chores of a farm wife, so the family took in a 15-year old orphan named Minnie to stand in the gap. After his wife died, James proposed to Minnie, 35 years his junior and much younger than his own children. They went to Michigan to marry and she added seven years to her real age on the marriage license, and he subtracted eight years from his. Their only child, Aimee, came along in due course. Thus, mother and daughter were close in age and almost like sisters.

Though James was a Methodist, Minnie was a member of the Salvation Army. Evangeline Booth, General Booth’s trusted daughter, led the Army in Canada (at this time), and she pioneered the illustrated sermon, complete with costumes and props, using vivid word pictures to portray the mire and despair to which sin leads, with Jesus as our only hope. Aimee, who heard (and watched) Evangeline preach, would later take the illustrated sermon to a new level and receive the praise of Hollywood actors (e.g., Charlie Chaplin) for doing so. Minnie had dedicated Aimee to be God’s servant for the salvation of the world and took her to Army meetings and taught her the Bible, so that Scripture and Army customs became second nature to her daughter. Interestingly, part of the Salvation Army wedding service contained the proviso that ministry came first, before spouse, the marriage or children. That indeed proved to be the case in Minnie and Aimee’s life.

When Aimee was 17, the Pentecostals came to town and this proved a turning point. After much struggle, she gave in to God and fully consecrated her life to Him. After agonizing prayer, she experienced the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and spoke in tongues. This created quite a stir in the Kennedy home. James and Minnie didn’t know what to do with their teen-age daughter who kept skipping school to pray with the Pentecostals. Minnie said she would withdraw Aimee from school if she kept it up. Aimee, by now quite the match for her mother (and well beyond her elderly father’s control), countered with her own demand. Minnie had to show Aimee from the Bible that the Pentecostals were wrong. Minnie spent the whole day searching the Scriptures but in vain. When Aimee got home, her mother admitted the Bible was on the side of the Pentecostals. Aimee had won this round between mother and daughter. I’ll continue the story more briefly.

Marriage and China: Joy and Loss … a handsome man showed up in town to help with the Pentecostal mission. Robert Semple was in his mid-20s and Aimee was smitten … They married in 1908 and then did itinerant work in the Midwest … The Semples went to China as missionaries, arriving in mid-1910. Sadly, they did not take adequate sanitary precautions and Robert got dysentery and died less than three months after their arrival. Aimee was eight months pregnant … She returned to the U.S. with her young daughter, Roberta, named after her father. Aimee never got over the death of the only man she ever loved and respected.

Losing her way but finding her niche … By this time, Minnie had left James (no divorce, “just serving the Lord”) to work with the Salvation Army in New York City … For the next year, Aimee wandered around, sometimes with her mother, sometimes with her father, sometimes in Chicago, trying to find her niche … While in New York, Harold McPherson stepped into her life and they began to see each other. Aimee was still grieving over Robert’s death, but she was lonely and struggling financially. Harold was willing to take care of her and her daughter. What to do? … Though Minnie disapproved, Aimee and Harold married in 1912. Rolf McPherson came along a year later … Aimee tried to be a housewife but it didn’t work. She became sick and got worse and worse, and seemed to be dying. While deathly ill, Aimee believed she heard God’s voice calling her to re-consecrate her life to ministry and she obeyed and then recovered … Harold didn’t understand what had happened, so one day, while her husband was out, Aimee left him, returning to Canada. Her dad took care of the children, and mother and daughter went off to “serve the Lord” … Aimee sent Harold a telegram: “I have tried to walk your way and have failed. Won’t you come now and walk my way? I am sure we will be happy” … For the next several years (1915-1918), Aimee went up and down the east coast, speaking at camp meetings, holding tent revivals, preaching in churches, sometimes with Harold in tow, often without him. She had found her niche, as a traveling evangelist … Harold tried to be happy but it didn’t work. He criticized his wife for leaving him and home to preach, but Aimee saw this merely as an attack of the enemy. God had called her while she was at death’s door and there was no going back … Harold and Aimee separated in 1918 and he divorced her three years later. Her success (=souls saved) as an evangelist validated her decision. She had made the right choice … Harold had been her mistake but Rolf was her hope for the future. Harold’s unhappiness was collateral damage, the result of Aimee running from God … In the wake of this failure, Aimee did what many have done since: she went to California, becoming one of the first women to drive cross-country without a man.

California: A New Start … Los Angeles Pentecostals embraced her and built a house for Aimee and her children. She developed a large following, including groupies. These were people who moved around, “in a constant quest to discover where God was evidently working.” Many of these attached themselves to Aimee and her work and were devoted to her through thick and thin … With LA as her base, she would travel to Canada and then to Baltimore and Tulsa and San Jose and Denver and Canton and Rochester to preach the gospel … spending a few days in one place, a few weeks in the next, interspersed with time back home with her children … Wherever she went, she visited the marginalized, prostitutes in Winnipeg, dancers at the Alhambra night club, Serbian gypsies in New York, talking to each one personally, letting them know that Jesus cared and so did she. She passed out New Testaments and tracts and invited one and all to come to her meetings. And they came, by the thousands … The outcasts came and were welcomed. Pastors were often initially skeptical, but (almost always) Aimee won them over with her laughter, her tears, and her message. By the end of 1920, she had a core of about 60 sermons and people had their favorites … Her messages reminded people of simpler times … The KKK tried to gain her support but Aimee was lukewarm … Newspapers gave her positive coverage. The 1920s were an age of celebrities: Henry Ford, Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Aimee was their equal. LA guidebooks touted her as a tourist attraction.

Her Message: Foursquare Gospel … In 1922, sister started to summarize her message as the Fourfold or Foursquare Gospel: Jesus as the Only Savior, the Great Physician, the Baptizer with the Holy Ghost, and the coming Bridegroom. Aimee claimed originality for this formula but that is not certain. Others also used it. Who borrowed from whom? … She rarely addressed the subject of female preachers but regarded it as a sign that the church was in the end times. If a woman is called to preach, then she had better preach … Aimee was not a careful student of the Scriptures and her message was mainly experiential or emotional. Her key verse became Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” What He did once He can do again … There was no fire and brimstone in her preaching, no railings against sins, a contrast with Billy Sunday. Her star was rising while his was setting.

Angelus Temple: A church that wasn’t really a church … On New Year’s Day, 1923, Aimee opened the Angelus Temple. It held up to 7,500 and was open for services every day … The church “was not so much a community of believers who shared sacraments, were bound in mutual obligation, and submitted to discipline, as it was a gathering of individuals who rallied to Sister’s presentation of Christianity and cooperated in its realization” … Aimee used music to set the mood, to unite the congregation, to rouse or calm them, to stir emotions and bring tears. The stage was covered with flowers and color. She “spoke of perfume, fragrance, and Christ as lover,” in a mixture of feminine piety and grandiose pageantry. Sister was adored … There were also vivid displays of patriotism: flags and music and a military feel … Sister perfected the illustrated sermon, using actors, costumes, props, lighting, stage noises, and theatrical tricks. Harper’s Monthly claimed she was, “staging month after month … the most perennially successful show in the United States” … Politicians and well-known pastors would attend services at the Temple, hoping for an introduction … She started a training school for evangelists called L.I.F.E., the Lighthouse of International Foursquare Evangelism, with Harriet Jordan (a Presbyterian who shouts) as the dean … Aimee built a powerful radio station that made her voice “one of the most familiar” in the country, hiring a top engineer from a secular company to make it all happen.

Days of Difficulty … Minnie hired and fired and ran the show at the Temple. Her management style was abrasive. If she didn’t like someone, she tore up his membership card. Complaints were heard about Temple finances … Aimee and Minnie held the property title to the church … Sister developed a close relationship with the man, Ken Ormiston, who ran the radio station (and was married). Minnie finally pressured him to resign … Minnie told sister to moderate things, but Aimee wouldn’t listen … In mid-May 1926, sister went for a swim and never returned. For a while, it was presumed she had drowned. LA papers covered every detail of the story. Was she dead or alive? If dead, where was her body? If alive, was she with Ormiston? Then, suddenly, five weeks later, she reappeared … She told a story of being kidnapped and taken to northern Mexico. She escaped and made her way to the border. Her family found her in a hospital in Douglas, Arizona … We may never know what really happened. There had been credible threats of kidnapping, but hard evidence to back up Aimee’s story was lacking. Most people believed sister (even the hardened newsman, H.L. Mencken), but some did not.

When it rains, it pours … Sister escaped to the road, doing what she loved, holding evangelistic rallies … She came back and fired her mother … Aimee let herself and her name be used by the wrong people, trying to make a buck … She was accused of not following through on building a summer resort and a hotel for her Bible students and a subdivision and a cemetery … Lawsuits followed and testimony before a grand jury … As her mother had said, Aimee lacked business sense … Sister went back on the road and suffered a nervous breakdown … Then a world tour to recover her health … Then back to the Temple and marriage to a David Hutton, a singer in one of her Temple productions (in 1931) … But then several women sued Hutton for “breach of promise” and it turned out his past was pretty checkered … Aimee tried to put on a brave face, but her health declined … Their marriage grew strained. They separated and Hutton returned to vaudeville, divorcing Aimee in 1934 … Sister finally admitted she had made a grievous mistake and for many of her followers, this marriage (Harold McPherson was still alive) was the last straw.

Aimee’s Legacy … She helped many illegal immigrants who were down on their luck and fearful of the government … Sister helped to start many branch churches that eventually became a denomination and to which her son, Rolf, gave capable oversight until he retired in 1988 … Graduates from L.I.F.E. like Chuck Smith (of Calvary Chapel fame) and Jack Hayford have had fruitful ministries … Aimee brought hope and encouragement to many who sorely needed it.

Yet there are some hard lessons to learn … like the importance of real accountability. Just because you have accountability structures in place doesn’t mean you’re accountable. There has to be a desire on the part of the leader to submit to those structures. Unaccountable leaders make stupid decisions and disaster looms … like the dangers of Christian celebrity. Aimee was a celebrity and milked her status for all it was worth but, in the end, she felt trapped and tried to escape. We have our celebrities in the Reformed world today and they speak at our conferences and seem to be above criticism and rebuke. A celebrity-led church can cease to be a true church, though there are happy exceptions … like the vulnerability of the marriages and families of leaders … like the tragedy of wandering believers. The Pentecostal movement seems to manufacture groupies who are always on the look out to find out “where God is at work,” so they wander from church to church. They hear of miracles happening at the hands of Pastor X and so they all flock to his church so they can laugh or get slain or have their future told. But pretty soon, the excitement dies down and those “restless hearts that never mend” start looking for the next “move of God.” If nothing pops up, sooner or later Pastor X falls and so the flock is scattered until the next “starry-eyed messiah” comes along. The Pentecostal movement seems to breed this nonsense, but I see hints of it in the Reformed movement as well … like the essential need to follow the Scriptures. Pastors must be careful students of the Bible and a faithful expositor of it. If he isn’t, it’s just a matter of time before problems become evident. Aimee simply ignored some parts of the Bible (like those pesky verses about a wife submitting to her husband and being a keeper at home, etc.). Where personal experience is elevated, gifts and “the call” can trump the plain meaning of text after text that places limits on the ministry of women. When the gifts and call of the Spirit are opposed to the words inspired by the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity seems confused. Perish the thought … like the danger of music. Songs and hymns are very powerful and they move us, emotionally and into action. This is good and God designed us this way, but this powerful ministry can lead easily and quickly to crass manipulation. Other problems and lessons could be mentioned. I saw more than a little foreshadowing, when I compared Aimee’s life and ministry with some of the more recent televangelist scandals. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Aimee died in 1944 at too young an age. She was worn out.

Blumhofer’s biography is pretty fine. She made use of correspondence and visits with sister’s two children and undoubtedly the biography is more accurate for it. Roberta read each chapter as it was finished and interacted with Blumhofer about them. Yet such closeness can sometimes lead to a certain hesitancy to be sufficiently critical of your subject and that was a problem in this biography. Perhaps it was also that Blumhofer is a feminist and didn’t want to be too hard on a woman who broke so many barriers. But the author is pretty aware of the contradictions in Aimee’s life and she gently points them out. She might respond that her goal was not to evaluate sister’s life and ministry but to tell it like it was and let others make their evaluations. Well, fair enough. I want a little more from a biography but it was still a good one.

David Wegener

David is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Central Indiana Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. Formerly serving in theological education in Africa with Mission to the World, he and his wife currently live in their hometown of Bloomington, IN.