In the 1920 and 1930s the most famous person in America was not a Hollywood star or a political leader but a young Pentecostal woman, Aimee Semple McPherson (pp. 260, 315). While pastoring a megachurch in L.A., Aimee was best known as a traveling evangelist, faith healer, and leader of Pentecostalism, who often found herself on the front page of the newspapers due to scandals and mysteries that were truly stranger than fiction. Born in 1891, her mother was a sold-out soldier of the Salvation Army which formed the base for much of her future career. A born leader and gifted speaker (her first public speech was at age 13), Aimee went through a period of doubt and rebellion before coming to Christ at age 17. Her conversion was intertwined with her romance to a young evangelist, Robert Semple, who was one of the earliest Pentecostal preachers. They quickly married and headed to China as missionaries where Robert died soon thereafter, leaving pregnant Aimee destitute (p. 67). By then Aimee had bought into Pentecostal doctrine with its teaching on a second baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is evidenced by speaking in tongues (pp. 49-53). Aimee returned to New York and in 1912 married Harold McPherson who assumed his wife would carry out the expected roles of a wife in the early 20th century. He would be disappointed, for the restless Aimee wanted the adventure of public ministry. During the first three years of marriage she suffered the first of at least two, possibly more, nervous breakdowns (p. 71). The marriage would ultimately end in a bitter divorce (p. 217) after years of separation (pp. 129-131) while Aimee pursued her evangelistic career.
By 1914, at age 23 Aimee began her public ministry at the insistence of the Lord’s direct command, she claimed (p. 73). While a gifted speaker McPherson would gain her fame as a faith healer (pp. 57-60 and all of Part Three). She would blaze the trail for all subsequent faith healers such as Oral Roberts and Benny Hinn. Aimee promoted speaking in tongues, claimed numerous prophecies (pp. 63, 73-78, 86, 104, 128), and believed that the Holy Spirit had returned to earth in preparation for the “Latter Rain” and the soon return of the Lord (pp. 136, 163-165, 399, 406). Aimee pioneered tent meetings, common later among traveling evangelists, and held revival services throughout the country (pp. 124-125, 156). Her meetings were attended by every manifestation imaginable – laughing, crying, ecstasy, speaking in tongues, screaming, etc. Later, as Aimee went big time, she purposely toned down some of these excesses to be more accepted by a broader base (p. 161). The evangelist seemed to have an uncanny ability to sense where the culture was headed and shift her ministry to attract attention. Thus during WWI she began dressing as a war nurse (p. 144); after all, she was at war with the devil. This would be her standard attire until well into her established pastorate when she rightly discerned a shift in appearance was needed.
Exhausted and looking for a more stable ministry, Aimee decided to build a church in LA. It was 1918 and the fabled Azusa Street Revival, which began in 1906, was little more than a memory. Pentecostals were looking for leadership and Aimee would provide it (pp. 151-152, 265-266). She became the key leader in the spread of Pentecostalism, being the first to take it into the public arena. In a span of two years Aimee built perhaps the largest Protestant church in the world, Angelus Temple, which is still in use today (pp. 203, Part Four). In addition she would publish a magazine, The Bridal Call (p. 121), establish a Bible college (Life Bible College) attended by a thousand students (p. 272), become the foremost pioneer of religious broadcasting (p. 235) with her own radio station – KFSG (p. 264), and found the Foursquare Gospel denomination (pp. 264, 433), which today boasts 1,700 American and 66,000 international churches with millions of members. As a pastor, Aimee preached 21 times a week, wrote articles for The Bridal Call, did radio broadcasts, taught at Life several times each week and traveled for periodic revival campaigns. Part of Aimee’s appeal was that she preached grace, not sin (p. 118), she was on the cutting edge of the social gospel movement (pp. 280, 361, 369, 396, 402), and she was an accomplished actress (pp. 252-259). She introduced to the church community what she called illustrated sermons which in essence was full-blown theater. She would dress as Little Bo Peep, or any number of characters, and act out her sermon. Her illustrated sermons drew thousands.
But as her fame spread so did the criticisms and controversies. Church splits, defections of branch churches, public criticism, and rumors of affairs began to surface (pp. 284-289, 333). Then came the most bizarre event in her life – her supposed kidnapping (p. 292-314) which lead to criminal charges (of which she was acquitted) and the destruction of more than one life. Power struggles within the church led to a disastrous split with her mother, Minnie who ran the financial and business aspects of the ministry (pp. 323-330, 339, 342). The division was never truly healed and when Aimee died she had not seen or spoken to her mother in seven years (p. 438). Without Minnie, Angelus Temple ran deeply into debt. Church feuds and splits continued, as did numerous lawsuits (pp. 333-338, 406-407). Domestic issues intensified as well and when Aimee’s father died she did not attend the funeral (p. 327). Her daughter Roberta, the heir apparent, married (p. 347), then divorced (p. 381), and later remarried. Aimee, herself, remarried but not long thereafter divorced for the second time (pp. 362-368, 375, 381, 391). Her associated pastor Rheba Crawford was dismissed because she seemed to be making a move to dethrone Aimee, which resulted in an expensive lawsuit (p. 391 ff). Then came the inexplicable disenfranchisement of Roberta (pp. 409-413) who Aimee also did not speak to for the last seven years of her life (pp. 409-413). Finally at age 53 Aimee overdosed on barbiturates and died. The death was ruled an accident, but suicide has always been rumored (p. 437-439). Her empire was rescued by her son Rolf who stabilized it and built the Foursquare movement into what it is today.
Sister Aimee, while largely forgotten today, was not only the most famous woman of her era, she was the most influential Pentecostal of her day, a trend setter for future faith healers, the seeker sensitive movement, church drama and theater, the spread of the second baptism of the Holy Spirit doctrine, and tongues. Her life is a mix of success and tragedy. Few have ever experienced such fame and accomplishment, yet she suffered two or more nervous breakdowns, numerous serious physical problems, widowhood, two failed marriages, permanent separation from all family members but her son, scandals, law suits, and criminal charges. While few know her name today one would have to wonder what church life would be like today had there been no Sister Aimee.
Sister Aimee, the Life of Aimee Semple McPherson by Daniel Mark Epstein (San Diego: Harvest, 1993) 475 pp., paper $18.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel