Reviving Sister Aimee with Anthea Butler and Arlene Sánchez-Walsh
  • Reviving Sister Aimee with Anthea Butler and Arlene Sánchez-Walsh
  • On Being
  • On Being, from APM

The Closest Thing to Oprah Winfrey in Early 20th-Century America

by Krista Tippett, host

I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it: Pentecostalism is one of the great underreported and misunderstood “religion stories” of our time. This faith with a strong egalitarian, populist instinct has always empowered people on the margins of society, culture, and religion itself.

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And so it is not remarkable — yet this memory surprises nevertheless — that one of the most influential women in American religious history was Pentecostal. Aimee Semple McPherson was a famous preacher and worship leader decades before the most liberal denominations in the United States ordained women as ministers. She was the first woman to obtain a license from the FCC to run a radio station. She helped to feed 1.5 million people in Los Angeles during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Among other things her commissary, it is said, “kept the Mexican community alive” — the lowest rung on that city’s Depression-era socio-economic hierarchy.

Sister Aimee, as she was known then, also generated controversy to rival her accomplishments. She was not just a powerful woman when women were not generally powerful; she was sexual when women were not supposed to be sexual — or, rather, only women of a certain kind. She had a famously tumultuous personal life, was accused of staging her own kidnapping in 1926, and created an extravagant worship style replete with lavish costumes, moving sets, and live animals. We heard from one listener who remembered his mother’s account of a Sunday service where Sister Aimee came down the aisle of Angelus Temple — the 5000-seat church she built in Los Angeles — atop a white horse.

I confess that it is probably easier for me to admire Aimee Semple McPherson from a distance of several decades. The journalist Dorothy Parker called her “Our Lady of the Loudspeaker.” For those who were not captivated by her, her love of the limelight seemed to defy the very spirit she preached. I might have had the same reaction. Her preaching voice, heard in this show by way of archival recordings, is by turns moving, alarming, and histrionic. Some recent scholars and documentarians have called her a precursor to modern televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, or a harbinger of the brand of highly politicized Christianity that has garnered so much attention in our time.

I can’t say those analyses are wrong, but they are certainly incomplete. Unlike many televangelists, she amassed no great fortune and fed many hungry people without strings attached. Unlike the politically mobilized Christianity of our time, her life and message always returned to the simplest themes of Christian faith, presented most effectively to people without clout. In the U.S., Pentecostal women have become less prominent in ministry as Pentecostalism has entered mainstream culture. But “Sister Aimee” is a source of hope for women now embracing charismatic faith in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Anthea Butler says that what was viewed as scandalous in her time — her volatile family life, her failed marriages, her evident humanity — makes her more inspiring, not less so, in ours.

In not wanting to reduce Aimee Semple McPherson to analogy or analysis, I find myself in company with one of her more unlikely recent chroniclers — the novelist John Updike, who reviewed a spate of new biographies about “Famous Aimee” for The New Yorker in 2007. Here is how he ends that essay:

“The reality of her, gone from the scene for most of a century, emerges affectingly not in sociological boasts but in anecdotes that take her as she came. In 1927, a month after the charges against her were dismissed in Los Angeles, she arrived in New York in furs and a yellow suit, and was taken to a prime watering spot of the Roaring Twenties, Texas Guinan’s speakeasy, on Fifty-fourth Street. A reporter called out, with whatever sardonic intent, that she should be invited to speak. Guinan agreed, and, as Epstein tells it, ‘Aimee, demure, dignified, stone sober … left her table and stood in the center of the dance floor, smiling until everyone was quiet.' Then she said: 

'Behind all these beautiful clothes, behind these good times, in the midst of your lovely buildings and shops and pleasures, there is another life. There is something on the other side. "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” With all your getting and playing and good times, do not forget you have a Lord. Take Him into your hearts.

'And that was all — a miniature masterpiece of the evangelist’s art, silencing a boozy crowd in no mood to hear it. Epstein writes, 'All at once they applauded, and Tex put her arm around Aimee. The clapping went on for much longer than her speech had taken.’“

Aimee Semple McPherson, also known as Sister Aimee, stands next to a puppet version of herself at the Turnabout Theatre. McPherson was the founder of the Foursquare Church, a pioneer in the use of mass media in the service of Pentecostal Christianity, and controversial figure who famously faked her own kidnapping in order to carry on an adulterous affair. 

Source: Turnabout Theatre Archives
The Mysterious Disappearance of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson

On May 18, 1926, Aimee Semple McPherson went for a swim in the Pacific Ocean at Venice Beach. An avid swimmer, Aimee loved to escape from her temple in Echo Park for a quick dip in the ocean. She was dropped off by her secretary, who then left to do errands. When the secretary returned…

Did you know the first megachurch in America was started by a woman?

The Life and Disappearance of Sister Aimee

Aimee Semple McPherson, also known as Sister Aimee was born Aimee Kennedy on October 9, 1890 in Ontario, Canada. Her parents were very religious and even though she had the typical teenage rebellious phase it didn’t last long. By the time she was in high school Aimee was against the theory of evolution and wrote letters to newspapers against public schools teaching it.

In 1907 Aimee met Robert Semple a missionary from Ireland at a church revival. Shortly thereafter the couple traveled to China on a missionary mission. While there both Aimee and Robert contracted malaria, Aimee survived while Robert did not. Aimee was heavily pregnant but gave birth to  a girl, Roberta. Aimee left China and settled in New York City and worked with the Salvation Army with her mother, Minnie. In New York Aimee met a man named Harold McPherson. They married and eventually moved to Rhode Island and had a son, Rolf.

Eventually though Aimee became restless and felt the call to go on missionary trips again. Harold went with her at first but eventually they divorced as he did not care for the rough lifestyle of a traveling preacher. Aimee and Harold, before they divorced traveled all over the United States going from church revival to church revival sleeping in their car and bathing in rivers. Aimee was very popular as she preached a more optimistic sermon than the fire and brimstone that most were preaching. After they divorced Aimee set out with her children and her mother preaching from town to town.

In 1923 Aimee had bought some land in Lost Angeles and set up her own church there. She called it the Foursquare Church as it was a complete gospel for the body, soul, spirit, and eternity. Her church could seat over 5,000 people and she was incredibly popular the church held services every day of the week. She had her own weekly show on the radio where she preached she was one of the first women to preach on the radio.

The Foursquare Church was extremely popular and Aimee had followers all over. But on May 18, 1926 Aimee and her secretary went to the beach and Aimee disappeared. The police swarmed the area but no traces of Aimee was found. The newspapers ran article after article about the disappearance including numerous sightings. Minnie did receive two ransom notes, even though she turned them over to the police Minnie thought they were hoaxes as Aimee had previously received death threats.

A month later Aimee was found around Agua Prieta, Sonora in Mexico and then taken across the border to Douglas, Arizona. She claimed to have been kidnapped on the beach by a couple and taken to a shack in the desert. After her captors had left the shack she had escaped and traveled about 20 miles through the desert to Agua Prieta. Her return brought crowds of over 30,000 people, estimates range from 30,000 to over 50,000, and there was a parade to celebrate. Everyone was glad that the esteemed preacher had returned.

But there was a growing concern that her kidnapping had been staged. A grand jury was convened in June of 1926 to decide if there was enough evidence to try Aimee for obstruction of justice and conspiracy. The trial was set for mid January 1927 but on January 2nd the case was dismissed as much of the eyewitness testimony was faulty.

The kidnapping and subsequent grand jury seriously hurt Aimee’s credibility. Many people felt that her kidnapping was just a stunt and there were rumors that she had run off with one of her employees. She continued her church and charity after the trial but she never reached the same popularity as she had in her heyday afterwards. Her later life was full of strife within the church, she had a falling out with her mother and lost members of her church because she started dressing more modernly. Aimee died on September 27, 1944 in her home at the age of 53. The Foursquare Church is still around today and has spread to almost 2,000 churches in the US.


Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast

And the show notes with more information and links

The Foursquare Church

The Smithsonian’s article on Sister Aimee

Encyclopedia of World Biography
The Unknown History of Televangelism

Interesting essay on the role of American regulations in shaping the development of religious broadcasting. Argues for an essential link between broadcast ministries and end-times theology but doesn’t theorize it much.

Just rolling it over in my head, I can see the unidirectional one-to-many format of broadcasting being better suited to jeremiads or prophecy than, say, pastoral work. I’d still like to see numbers on the business model though.

Like, how did Jimmy Swaggart compare with his half-century predecessor Sister Aimee in terms of income sources and expenditures? (When I included the Foursquare Church with Scientology and Pentecostalism as religious innovations from Los Angeles, I’m talking not of theology but the “media spectacle” approach, and would rope in things like the Crystal Cathedral).