See biographies by R. Bahr (1979, repr. 2001), E. L. Blumhofer (1993), D. M. Epstein (1993), and M. A. Sutton (2007).
Aimee Semple McPherson (October 9, 1890 – September 27, 1944), also known as "Sister Aimee" or "Sister," was a Canadian-born evangelist and media sensation in the 1920s and 1930s; she was also the founder of the Foursquare Church. She was a pioneer in the use of modern media, especially radio, to create a form of religion that drew heavily on the appeal of popular entertainment.
Her mother had been orphaned at an early age, and raised by a couple who worked with the Salvation Army. As a result, young Aimee was raised in an atmosphere of strong Christian beliefs. As a teenager, however, she became an avowed agnostic, and began her public speaking career at the age of 13 in this context, writing letters to the newspaper defending evolution and debating local clergy.
Shortly thereafter, the two embarked on an evangelistic tour, first to Europe and then to China, where they arrived in June 1910. Shortly after they disembarked in Hong Kong, however, they both contracted dysentery. Robert Semple died of the disease on August 19, 1910. Aimee Semple recovered and gave birth to a daughter, Roberta Star Semple, on September 17, after which she returned to the United States. Roberta died on January 25, 2007 age 96.
Aimee Semple's mother "Minnie" had, in the footsteps of her foster parents, remained active with the Salvation Army, and after a short recuperation, Semple joined her in this work. While so occupied in New York, she met her second husband, Harold Stewart McPherson, an accountant. They were married on May 5, 1912, and they had a son, Rolf Potter Kennedy McPherson, born March 23, 1913.
After the birth of her son, McPherson suffered from postpartum depression and several serious health issues. She tried to settle down to a quieter home-life, but her personal call to Christian service remained constant. While in her sickbed after her second operation within two years, she recommitted herself to what she felt was God's call. Soon thereafter, her health improved. After this near-death experience in 1913, she embarked upon a preaching career in Canada and the United States. In keeping with the promise to God made in her illness, she had left home by June 1915 and began evangelizing and holding tent revivals, first by traveling up and down the eastern part of the United States, then expanding to other parts of the country.
Her revivals were often standing room only; on one occasion she met in a boxing ring, but had to hold her meetings before and after the boxing match. (According to the PBS-TV American Experience documentary "Sister Aimee," she did, however, walk around during the match with a sign inviting the crowd to attend her service after the match and "knock out the Devil.") Once in San Diego, the National Guard had to be brought in to control the crowd of over 30,000 people. People would often stand in line and wait many hours for the next service to begin in order to be assured a seat.
In 1916, in the company of her mother Mildred Kennedy, she made a tour through the southern United States. in her "Gospel Car", a 1912 Packard touring car emblazoned with religious slogans. Standing in the back seat of the convertible, she gave sermons through a megaphone. On the road between sermons, she would sit in the back seat typing sermons and other religious materials. By 1917 she had started her own newspaper, named The Bridal Call, for which she wrote many of the articles. Although her husband initially made efforts to join her on her religious travels, he soon became frustrated with the situation, and by 1918 had filed for separation. His petition for divorce, citing abandonment, was granted in 1921.
McPherson was famous both inside and outside of religious circles. Every city where services were held usually had civic leaders in attendance, as well as pastors representing the local churches of many denominations. She made sure that Angelus Temple was represented in local parades and entered floats in the Rose Parade in Pasadena. Her illustrated sermons attracted people from the entertainment industry, looking to see a "show" that rivaled what Hollywood had to offer. These famous stage productions drew people who would never have thought to enter a church, and then presented them with her interpretation of the message of salvation. McPherson believed that the Gospel was to be presented at every opportunity, and used worldly means at her disposal to present it to as many as possible. Her sermons, unlike other contemporaries, e.g. Billy Sunday, were not the usual fire-and-brimstone messages, but were based around a more friendly interpretation of Christian texts. She was also skillful at fundraising. Collections were taken at every meeting, often with the admonishment of "no coins, please". When the $1.5 million Angelus Temple opened its doors, construction was already entirely paid for through private donations.
Since Pentecostalism was not popular in the US during the 1920s, she avoided the label. She was heavily influenced by this faith, incorporating demonstrations of speaking-in-tongues and faith healing in sermons, and keeping a museum of crutches, wheelchairs and other paraphernalia. She was also strongly influenced by the Salvation Army. In a campaign to spread the church nationwide, she adopted a theme of "lighthouses" for the satellite churches, referring to the parent church as the "Salvation Navy." Always seeking publicity, McPherson continued publishing the weekly Foursquare Crusader and the monthly magazine Bridal Call. She also began broadcasting on radio in the early 1920s. McPherson was the first woman to preach a radio sermon, and with the opening of Foursquare Gospel-owned KFSG (now KXOL) on February 6, 1924, she also became the first woman to be granted a broadcast license by the Federal Radio Commission (which became the Federal Communications Commission in 1934).
McPherson is also credited with integrating her tent meetings and church services. She broke down racial barriers such that one time at Angelus Temple, some Ku Klux Klan members were in attendance, but after the service, many of their hoods and robes were found on the ground in nearby Echo Park. She is also credited with helping many of the Hispanic ministries in Los Angeles get started, and even had a large Gypsy following, after the wife of a Gypsy chief and the chief himself had been healed in a Denver revival meeting.
In 1925, the license for KFSG was suspended by the Commerce Department for deviating from its assigned frequency. McPherson received several death threats in 1925, and an alleged plot to kidnap her was foiled in September of that year, thus setting the stage for the episode for which she is perhaps best known.
On May 18, 1926, McPherson went to Ocean Park Beach, north of Venice Beach, with her secretary, to go swimming. Soon after arrival, McPherson disappeared. It was generally assumed at the time that she had drowned.
According to the PBS American Experience segment "Sister Aimee" aired 7 April 2007, McPherson was scheduled to hold a service on the very day she vanished. McPherson's mother appeared and preached at the service in her place, and at the end announced, "Sister is with Jesus," sending parishioners into a tearful frenzy. Mourners crowded Venice Beach, and the commotion sparked days-long media coverage of the event, fueled in part by William Randolph Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner, and even including a poem by Upton Sinclair commemorating the "tragedy". Daily updates appeared in newspapers across the country, and parishioners held day-and-night seaside vigils. A futile search for the body resulted in one parishioner drowning and another diver dying from exposure.
At about the same time, Kenneth G. Ormiston, engineer for KFSG, also disappeared. According to American Experience, some believed McPherson and Ormiston, a married man with whom McPherson had developed a close friendship and allegedly had been having an affair, had run off together. About a month after the disappearance, McPherson's mother, Minnie Kennedy, received a ransom note, signed by "The Avengers", which demanded a half million dollars to ensure kidnappers would not sell McPherson into "white slavery". Kennedy later said she tossed the letter away, believing her daughter to be dead.
On June 23, 35 days after her disappearance, McPherson stumbled out of the desert in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican town just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. She claimed that she had been kidnapped, drugged, tortured, and held for ransom in a shack in Mexico, then had escaped and walked through the desert for about 13 hours to freedom.
Several problems were found with McPherson's story. Her shoes showed no evidence of a 13-hour walk-- indeed, they had grass stains on them after a supposed walk through the desert. The shack could not be found. McPherson showed up fully dressed while having disappeared wearing a bathing suit, and was wearing a wrist watch given to her by her mother, which she had not taken on her swimming trip. A grand jury convened on July 8 to investigate the matter, but adjourned 12 days later citing lack of evidence to proceed. However, several witnesses then came forward stating that they had seen McPherson and Ormiston at various hotels over the 32-day period.
There were five witnesses that claimed to have seen Aimee McPherson at a seaside cottage at Carmel-by-the-Sea, which was rented out by her former employee Kenneth G. Ormiston for himself and his mistress. Mr. Hersey claimed to have seen Mrs. McPherson on May 5 at this cottage, and then later went to see her preach on August 8 at Angelus Temple to confirm she was the woman he had seen at Carmel. His story was confirmed by Mrs. Parkes, a neighbor who lived next door to the Carmel cottage, by Mrs. Bostick who rented the cottage to Mr. Ormiston under his false name “McIntyre,” Ralph Swanson a grocery clerk, and Ernest Renkert, a Carmel fuel dealer who delivered wood to their cottage.
The grand jury re-convened on August 3 and received further testimony, corroborated by documents from hotels in McPherson's handwriting. McPherson steadfastly stuck to her story that she was approached by a young couple at the beach who had asked her to come over and pray for their sick child, and that she was then shoved into a car and drugged with chloroform. However, when she was not forthcoming with answers regarding her relationship with Ormiston (who was recently estranged from his wife), Judge Samuel Blake charged McPherson and her mother with obstruction of justice on November 3.
During this time, to combat the bad publicity in the newspapers, she refused to take an oath of secrecy and spoke freely about the court trials on her private radio station. This worried the district attorney who believed McPherson had the ability to shape public opinion and thus the direction of the trial.
Theories and innuendo abounded: she had run off with a lover; she had had an abortion; she was recovering from plastic surgery; she had staged the whole thing as a publicity stunt. No satisfactory answer, though, was ever reached, and soon after the Examiner erroneously reported that Los Angeles district attorney Asa Keyes had dropped all charges, Keyes decided to do exactly that on January 10, 1927 due to changing testimonies, and a lack of Ormiston's testimony thus leading to a lack of evidence.
The tale inspired a satirical song, "The Ballad of Aimee McPherson", popularized by Pete Seeger. The song explains that the kidnapping story was unlikely because a hotel love nest revealed that "the dents in the mattress fit Aimee's caboose."
On September 13, 1931, McPherson married again, this time to an actor and musician, David Hutton. The marriage got off to a rocky start: two days after the wedding, Hutton was sued for alienation of affection by a woman, Hazel St. Pierre, whom he claimed never to have met. He eventually settled the case by paying $5,000 to St. Pierre. While McPherson was away in Europe, she was incensed to discover Hutton was billing himself as "Aimee's man" in his cabaret singing act. The marriage also caused an uproar within the church. The tenets of Foursquare Gospel, established by McPherson, stated that one should not remarry while their previous spouse was still alive (which Harold McPherson was at the time). McPherson and Hutton separated in 1933, and divorced on March 1, 1934.
In 1936 Aimee McPherson proclaimed her rededication to the pentecostal movement. As a result of her childhood days involved with the Salvation Army, she had always believed in the idea that the gospel had a social agenda. This influenced her to open up the temple commissary which was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. People from every race and faith could come here for aid and help. This was instrumental to Los Angeles because these years constituted the Great Depression. McPherson became more active in creating soup kitchens, free clinics and other charitable activities. Later, with the outbreak of World War II, she became involved in war bond rallies and advocated a connection between the church and americanism.-->
McPherson is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. The Foursquare Gospel church, whose leadership was assumed by McPherson's son Rolf for 44 years after her death, continues worldwide with over two million members, over 90% of whom are outside the US.