I contributed the following article on Aimee Semple McPherson to the American National Biography.
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McPherson, Aimee Elizabeth Semple (9 October 1890-27 September 1944), evangelist and founder of The Church of the Foursquare Gospel, was born in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada, the daughter of James Morgan Kennedy, Methodist farmer, and Mildred “Minnie” Pearce, Salvation Army volunteer.
Minnie believed that her own call to preach the gospel had been frustrated by her marriage to James Kennedy and promised God that she would dedicate to His service a daughter if He would only give her one. Believing Aimee to be an answer to this prayer Minnie dedicated Aimee as an infant at a Salvation Army jubilee and nurtured her to fulfill this calling.
Aimee was a precocious child and stubbornly resistant to attempts to govern her actions and thoughts. After a somewhat rowdy career at the elementary level of public school, Aimee entered high school at the Ingersoll Collegiate Institute. During her time there she was educated in Darwinism and consequently began to question the truth of her Christian upbringing. During this time, she heard Irish Pentecostal evangelist Robert James Semple and her crisis of faith became a faith krisis in which she not only fell in love with God but with Robert Semple also. Aimee converted to Pentecostalism and Semple became Aimee’s mentor.
In 1908, at age seventeen, she married Robert Semple. After several short-term ministries in North America, Aimee and Robert moved to China in 1910 to serve as missionaries. On August 17, 1910 Robert Semple died from malaria and other complications. One month later, Aimee gave birth to their daughter Roberta Star Semple. Returning to the United States, she continued to engage in Pentecostal ministries and assisted her mother with Salvation Army work. Early in 1912 Aimee was wed to Harold “Mack” Stuart McPherson, an accountant. Out of this union was born a son, Rolf McPherson, who would later assume leadership of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Unhappy in her domestic state, Aimee left Harold McPherson in 1915. Asked to speak at a religious meeting in Forest Park, Ontario, Aimee had an epiphany and turned to the life of a Pentecostal evangelist. Harold rejoined her and for several years they wandered up and down the eastern seaboard, wherever the Spirit led, conducting evangelistic meetings. By 1918 Harold was growing weary of their travels and they again parted company.
In 1919, Aimee was joined by her mother, Minnie, who began to manage the speaking schedule and administrative matters. They criss-crossed the country in her Gospel Car which had the phrase “JESUS IS COMING SOON – GET READY” painted along one side and “WHERE WILL YOU SPEND ETERNITY” on the other. In the beginning she would use a megaphone, gospel tracts, and a good deal of showmanship to gather a crowd and then encourage them to attend the evangelistic services. Later such tactics would become unnecessary as her fame spread and she filled tents, arenas, auditoriums, colloseums, and parks. Some of the attendees were seeking God, some were seeking healing, and others were there to be entertained. It seems that whatever people were looking for, most found more than they expected. From an early age Aimee had entertained at church events and at one time desired to become an actress. Now, her sermons were full of drama. They were apocalyptic but without the fire-and-brimstone themes common in the sermons of that time. Instead, they emphasized the love of God and were alive with music, storytelling, healing, speaking in tongues, narration of visions, and theatrical presentations of biblical stories. She had an intuitive understanding of group dynamics. She could unify a mass audience and move it towards her end.
Financial receipts from her many campaigns were used to build the Angelus Temple which opened in 1923 in Los Angeles, California. This Temple became the home of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The Church of the Foursquare Gospel was so named in response to divine inspiration in which Aimee interpreted Ezekiel’s vision of the four living creatures with four faces and four wings. She indicated that the four faces of these creatures represented Christ’s fourfold role as Savior, Healer, Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, and Coming King. At this time she did not intend to start a new denomination and had no thought that the Church of the Foursquare Gospel would eventually evolve into an independent Pentecostal denomination with thousands of churches around the world. From the Temple, Sister Aimee preached twenty-one times a week, ministered to the homeless and hungry, started a radio station, made available a telephone counseling ministry, initiated an around the clock prayer vigil, founded a Bible college, and personally ministered to the spiritual needs of her parishioners and those who traveled from around the world to meet her.
In 1926, Aimee was at the center of a highly publicized disappearance/kidnapping. Aimee disappeared while swimming in the Pacific Ocean in southern California. Five weeks later she walked out of the desert into Douglas, Arizona with a story about having been kidnapped. A large number of people questioned the validity of her story believing instead that she had spent that time with a married man, Kenneth G. Ormiston, who had previously been employed at the Angelus Temple and with whom she had closely worked. Legal charges were brought against her for obstruction of justice and corruption of morals. Although the charges against her were eventually dropped, Aimee had been found guilty in the court of public opinion. To vindicate herself Aimee decided to go on a national tour in which she presented in dramatic narration her life story, including the kidnapping incident. During this three month odyssey she engaged in behavior believed to be worldly by many of her followers, including her mother. Upon her return the discord was such that her mother was forced out of her position as business manager for the Echo Park Evangelistic Association which held official ownership of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
In the subsequent years Aimee was to experience a host of bad business deals, She was named as defendant in numerous lawsuits and went through a series of broken relationships including a third marriage to David Hutton in 1931 which ended in a divorce in 1935 and the estrangement of her daughter, Roberta, after a disagreement regarding Temple management. Roberta’s later attempts to contact her mother were unsuccessful. Aimee’s relationship with her mother, which had suffered after the 1926 disappearance, was never adequately restored.
McPherson’s admirers included the rich, powerful and exotic. Among them, the Klu Klux Klan which shared her conservative political convictions, a large contingent of gypsies, politicians including the governor of Colorado, speakeasy owner Tex Guinan, legalist William Jennings Bryan, and actors such as Charlie Chaplin. However, her followers tended to be ordinary, working-class people. Many in the early decades of the twentieth century were leaving mainline denominations due to encroaching liberalism and McPherson provided the kind of leadership and religious enthusiasm for which they were looking. Her religion was not a new religion, but the old-time religion made new.
McPherson is remembered as a flamboyant performer who appeared in her trademark white dress and blue cape and spoke with the voice of angels. Her pageantry included camels and macaws, orchestras, bands and dramatized sermons including texts such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” These were the tools she utilized to advance her cause. Throughout her ministry the emphasis was placed upon the spiritual need for personal salvation. Towards this end she founded a new denomination which had evangelism as a major tenet, established a Bible college to train evangelists and missionaries, published the periodical Bridal Call and its spinoffs, and started the first religious radio station in the nation.
Before her death she successfully passed control of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel to her son Rolf McPheson. She was buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California after taking an overdose of sleeping pills in an Oakland hotel. Her death was ruled accidental by medical officials.
Contributed by Kevin E. Stilley
McPherson published two autobiographies during her life; This is That (1919), and In the Service of the King: The Story of My Life (1927). The Story of My Life (1951) is a compilation of autobiographical materials taken from her books, sermons and articles which were edited by Raymond W. Becker, with a foreward by Rolf McPherson. These autobiographical works tend to be overly romanticized and should be balanced with more etic approaches. Two of the better full-length biographies of McPherson include Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson (1993), by Daniel Mark Epstein, and Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister (1993), by Edith L. Blumhofer. Both of these works recognize the legitimate accomplishments of McPherson while maintaining a critical distance. Those seeking to know more about the beliefs of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel and its founder may wish to consult The Four-Square Gospel (1969) which contains fourteen of McPherson’s sermons intertwined with explanatory chapters by the books compiler, Raymond L. Cox. Shortly after the alleged kidnapping of McPherson, Nancy Barr Mavity published Sister Aimee (1931) which deals primarily with the disappearance and subsequent events. Under the pseudonym Lately Thomas, Robert V. P. Steele published a similar work, The Vanishing Evangelist (1959), and followed it with Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson (1970) which focuses on the broken relationships which followed on the heels of McPherson’s disappearance, Robert Bahr has attempted to vest the pages of Least of All Saints: The Story of Aimee Semple McPherson (1979) with the kind of drama which was typical of the ministry of McPherson. This work is entertaining but, by the author’s admission, highly speculative.