Aimee Semple McPherson 1890-1944
This amazing lady was a gifted missionary and healing evangelist, editor, author and founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel that today has over 25,000 churches and over 3 million members. She became internationally famous as the leader of the 5,300-seat Angelus Temple in Echo Park, Los Angeles, where she conducted church in an attractive theatre-style. She often used extravagant props and effects that resembled Hollywood stage productions more than church services. The innovation worked well as great crowds flocked to her standing-room-only meetings, sometimes three times a day and seven days a week. She believed that the Gospel should be presented in an enjoyable and contemporary way and she saw thousands come to Christ through her ministry.
Although a church girl she began to slip into worldly activities during her teens but was invited by her father to attend Robert Semple’s tent revival at Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada, during the winter months of 1907-8. She was not only converted to Christ during this time but also fell in love with this young Pentecostal preacher. He was 27 and she was 17 when they were married on August 28th 1908. They were involved in new church planting in Canada and U.S. until January 2nd 1909 when they were both ordained by William H. Durham.
In 1910 they left Chicago for China as missionaries but within weeks of their arrival Robert caught malaria and died in a Hong Kong hospital on August 19th. Aimee stayed in Hong King until she produced Robert’s child, Roberta Star on September 17th.
Back in the States
Aimee arrived back in New York City, where her mother, Minnie Kennedy, was working as a member of the Salvation Army. Aimee cared for Roberta and worked at the Glad Tidings Mission. She met Harold McPherson (1890-1968) and soon became Mrs. McPherson on October 24, 1911.
After their son Rolf was born on March 13, 1913 they moved to Canada where Aimee continued evangelistic meetings in a tent. In 1917 she produced a monthly magazine called ‘The Bridal Call’ to minister to her expanding number of followers. Their relationship found the taxing demands of the ministry too great and they divorced in August 1921.
It was also in 1921 that she decided to design and build Angelus Temple in Echo Park, Los Angeles. On January 1, 1923 the Temple was dedicated and Aimee committed herself to pastoring he growing flock. Nevertheless, she was able to hold evangelistic tours, in such places as San Diego, San Francisco, Denver, Winnipeg, San Jose, and Canton, Ohio. In addition she also wrote books, edited the Bridal Call and created a vibrant radio preaching ministry.
Aimee’s Bridal Call Magazine
Her public ministry at Angelus temple was extraordinary, resembling magnificent stage productions, drawing people who would never have thought to enter a church. Her illustrated sermons attracted the imagination of the lower classes as well as people from the middle and upper classes and those who worked in the entertainment industry. She employed a brass band, large choirs, costumes, and elaborate sets to draw people to church.
Her services became known for divine healing, where repentants would walk without crutches, regain lost eyesight, heal broken bones, and leave their wheelchairs to walk. Although her first manifestation of divine healing occurred in Corona, New York in 1917, it was not until she had the attention of major city newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, that many people nationally learned of such phenomena occurring in her services. The critics had a field day but thousands flocked to her services. She never ceased to be loyal to the Pentecostal testimony and many were baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke with tongues.
Her Foursquare movement began to grow and churches began to appear across the States. Her novelty as a female religious leader was heightened through the use of radio, which expanded her access to the public’s attention: she was a featured performer on various Los Angeles stations in 1923 and became a radio station owner herself in 1924. By the late 1920’s she was preaching twenty times a week and overseeing the burgeoning Foursquare movement. It was then that disaster struck.
The Vanishing Evangelist
It was the dramatic incident of her presumed drowning in May 1926 while swimming at the beach in Venice, California that brought calamity to her ministry. Later it was found that she had been kidnapped and hidden away for some days in a desert shack. Her disappearance made Aimee a front-page interest in many newspapers across the country. Analysing and discrediting her story became an addictive pastime for many. The District Attorney became involved, charging her with corruption of public morals, manufacturing evidence and falsifying police reports. She was called before the Grand Jury to testify. After several months of inconclusive evidence the District Attorney dismissed the case in January of 1927. Though she won that battle the following years saw several attempts to bring her into court again.
“When she attempted campaigns in the British Isles (in 1926?) the press was solidly against her. She stayed in a fashionable hotel in the West End which just “wasn’t done” in British evangelistal or Pentecostal circles, though calculated to impress American communities. Her visits to hair-stylists were duly described. There were scathing comparisons with the early apostles. George Jeffreys, then at the height of his fame, and the Elim Pentecostal Alliance arranged campaigns in the Royal Albert Hall, and in other cities but it became clear that she did not possess the same appeal to the more conservative British temperament. No further visits were attempted.”
On September 13, 1931, Aimee married David Hutton, a singer in one of Angelus Temple’s productions. Hutton, a vaudeville and cabaret performer, was purported to have a questionable past with ladies and alcohol. This marriage caused a scandal both inside and outside the walls of Angelus Temple as many held views of celibacy for anyone whose divorced spouse was still alive.
By 1933, Aimee was under considerable pressure medically and emotionally, with lawsuits against both her and her husband. The stress of it all began to take its toll. David Hutton sought a divorce which was granted in January of 1934. This was followed by various lawsuits, charges and counter-charges. Aimee took a trip around the world for relaxation and rest in 1936, but her popularity had begun to wane.
She regained some of her popularity, as the Second World War approached. Her combination of patriotism and Christian idealism reinforced the public war bond rallies she worked in and the servicemen’s rest centres she had established. During the war she honoured military personnel by awarding them Bibles on the platform at Angelus Temple. She continued to hold evangelistic rallies across the US, though on a much reduced scale. By 1944, Aimee had transferred the presidency of the Foursquare Church to her son Rolf, hoping that the relief of everyday pressures would lessen her load. It was in September of 1944, while at a church in Oakland, California that Aimee Semple McPherson suddenly died from an accidental overdose of Seconal sleeping pills or more specifically from “shock and respiratory failure.” She is buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale in a tomb befitting a queen.
Aimee had an amazing impact on her world as preacher and founder of a vigorous evangelistic organisation. She was a colourful, yet controversial figure who was either loved or loathed. A gifted communicator and organizer; a competent musician and prolific writer; a convincing visionary and a compelling evangelist, Aimee was undoubtedly one of the most prominent women of the Pentecostal movement in her time.
Bibliography: Donald Gee, ‘These Men I Knew’ 1965; C. M. Robeck, Jr., art. ‘International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements’ 2002.