Who is Aimee McPherson?
Aimee Semple McPherson (October 9, 1890 – September 27, 1944), also known as Sister Aimee, was a Canadian-American Los Angeles-based evangelist and media celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s. She founded the Foursquare Church.
McPherson has been noted as a pioneer in the use of modern media, especially radio, and was the second woman to be granted a broadcast license. She used radio to draw on the growing appeal of popular entertainment in North America and incorporated other forms into her weekly sermons at Angelus Temple.
In her time she was the most publicized Christian evangelist, surpassing Billy Sunday and her other predecessors. Public faith-healing demonstrations conducted by her before large crowds, allegedly healed tens of thousands of people.
McPherson's articulation of the United States as a nation founded and sustained by divine inspiration continues to be echoed by many pastors in churches today. Her media image, which sensationalized difficulties with her mother and daughter, as well as a mysterious five-week disappearance, shrouded her extensive charity work and significant contributions to the revitalization of American Christianity in the 20th century.
Biography of Aimee McPherson
McPherson was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on a farm in Salford, Ontario, Canada. Her father, James Kennedy, was a farmer. Young Aimee got her early exposure to religion through her mother, Mildred – known as Minnie. McPherson's later work in spreading the Gospel was a result of watching her mother work with the poor in Salvation Army soup kitchens.
As a child she would play "Salvation Army" with her classmates, and at home she would gather a congregation with her dolls, giving them a sermon. As a teenager, McPherson strayed from her mother's teachings by reading novels and going to movies and dances, activities which were strongly disapproved of by both the Salvation Army and the faith of her father, the Methodists. Novels, though, made their way into the Methodist Church library and with guilty delight, McPherson would read them.
At the movies, she recognized some of her fellow Methodist church members. She learned too, at a local dance she attended, that her dancing partner was a Presbyterian minister. In high school, she was taught Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. She began to quiz visiting preachers and local pastors about faith and science, but was unhappy with the answers she received.
She stunned her father, who almost fell backwards while carrying a pan of milk up the basement stairs by asking him, "How do you know there is a God?" She wrote to the Canadian newspaper, Family Herald and Weekly Star, questioning why taxpayers funded public schools had courses, such as evolution, which undermined Christianity. While still in high school, after her Pentecostal conversion, McPherson began a crusade against the concept of evolution, beginning a lifelong passion.
Marriage and family
While attending a revival meeting in December 1907, Aimee met Robert James Semple, a Pentecostal missionary from Ireland. After a short courtship, they were married on August 12, 1908.
The two embarked on an evangelical tour, first to Europe and then to China, where they arrived in June 1910, with Aimee about six months pregnant. Shortly after disembarking in Hong Kong, both contracted malaria. Robert Semple died of the disease on August 19, 1910, and was buried in Hong Kong Cemetery.
Aimee Semple recovered and gave birth to their daughter, Roberta Star Semple, on September 17, 1910. Semple and her infant returned to the United States.
Shortly after her recuperation in the United States, Semple joined her mother Minnie working with the Salvation Army. While in New York City, she met Harold Stewart McPherson, an accountant. They were married on May 5, 1912, moved to Rhode Island and had a son, Rolf Potter Kennedy McPherson in March 1913.
McPherson tried to live the life of the dutiful housewife, had a devoted husband and a fine home, but was instead miserable as she denied her "calling" to go preach. She became emotionally erratic, sulking in a corner, lethargic, then tempestuous with a raging temper.
Next she would tackle household chores with prolonged obsessional detail and afterwards fall to weeping and praying. After the birth of her 2nd child, Rolf, she felt the call to preach tug at her even more strongly. In response, she helped with worship services in several Pentecostal churches in and around the Providence, Rhode Island area. But, this did not satisfy the voice which told her, as McPherson claimed, to go and do the work of an evangelist.
Then in 1914, she fell seriously ill and after a failed operation, was left in the holding room where patients were taken to die. In her delirium, McPherson states she again heard the persistent voice, asking her to go preach. Feeling that either her life was at an end or she would go preach, McPherson accepted the voice's challenge.
The astounded nurse looked on as McPherson suddenly opened her eyes and was able to turn over in bed without pain. One spring morning in 1915, her husband returned home from the night shift to discover McPherson had left him and taken the children. A few weeks later, a note was received inviting him to join her in evangelistic work.
McPherson of this period wrote:
"Oh, don't you ever tell me that a woman can not be called to preach the Gospel! If any man ever went through one hundredth part of the hell on earth that I lived in, those months when out of God's will and work, they would never say that again."
Though the compulsion for cleanliness never left her, children Roberta Star Semple and Rolf McPherson later recalled a loving and dutiful mother, finding time for them in her busy itinerary. Their trip on the road traveling from city to city was an adventure; McPherson told them stories, planned pleasant little surprises and was consistently cheerful and optimistic.
Her husband later followed McPherson to take her back home. When he saw her, though, preaching to a crowd, she was not the troubled woman of uncertain temperament, but determined, radiant and lovely. Before long he succumbed to the Pentecostal experience, was speaking in tongues, and became her fellow worker in Christ. Their house in Providence was sold and he joined her in setting up tents for revival meetings and even did some preaching himself.
Food and accommodations were uncertain; McPherson and her family "lived by faith" for their needs. People would just appear and donate goods. Frequently, the McPhersons would have to launder clothing in the local ponds and creeks as well as fish them for their meals.
McPherson herself apparently became accomplished at angling, later describing in a sermon, how, in St Petersburg, Florida, as soon as she had a good catch on her line, a pelican would swoop in and swallow it. She would then have to reach down past its beak into the pelican's gullet and pull her fish out.
Her husband, in spite of initial enthusiasm, grew weary of living out of their "Gospel Car" and wanted a life much more stable and predicable. After arguing with McPherson, he returned to Rhode Island and around 1918, had filed for separation. His petition for divorce, citing abandonment, was granted in 1921.
Some years later after her fame and the Angelus Temple were established in Los Angeles, California, she married again on September 13, 1931 to actor and musician David Hutton. Her children, Roberta Star Semple and son Rolf McPherson had since married, leaving her feeling very much alone. McPherson admitted she herself would one day like to have a "diamond ring and a home" and "live like other folks."
She quickly hit it off with Hutton, 10 years her junior, who was a portly baritone currently acting in one of her sacred operas. The radiant bride shared her martial bliss with the congregation as well as the public at large, even allowing photographers into their bridal chamber for an interview the day after their marriage.
Two days after the wedding, though, Hutton was sued for breach of promise by ex-girlfriend nurse Hazel St. Pierre. Hutton disputed her story stating he never kissed or did any of the other things claimed by St. Pierre. Hutton earned the media nickname, "The Great Un-kissed." Deciding in favor of St. Pierre, the jury awarded her US$5,000. After Hutton relayed the news to McPherson, she fainted and fractured her skull.
While McPherson was away in Europe to recover, she was angered to learn Hutton was billing himself as "Aimee's man" in his cabaret singing act and was frequently photographed with scantily clad women. Her private cablegrams to Hutton made their way into the front page news, leaked from an unknown source. She was also distressed to find out he filed for divorce, something she refused to believe at the time.
Meanwhile, the marriage caused an uproar within the church: the tenets of Foursquare Gospel, as put forth by McPherson herself, held that one should not remarry while their previous spouse was still alive, as McPherson's second husband still was; although he had remarried. If her third husband was more well liked by the congregation and elders, the doctrinal ambiguity might have been more easily overlooked. But Hutton's much publicized personal scandals were damaging the Foursquare Gospel Church and their leader's credibility with other churches.
The newspapers anticipated Hutton might have a difficult time, coming in second to "the fascinating flaming, Aimee." Hutton, for his part, complained his financial allowance was too small, she humiliated him by limiting his powers within her organization and "inflicted grievous mental suffering." He also demanded McPherson pay the St. Pierre award. McPherson and Hutton separated in 1933 and divorced on March 1, 1934. McPherson later publicly repented of the marriage, as wrong from the beginning, for both theological and personal reasons and therefore rejected nationally known gospel singer, Homer Rodeheaver, a more appropriate suitor, when he eventually asked for her hand in 1935.
In 1913 Aimee Semple McPherson embarked upon a preaching career. Touring Canada and the United States, she began evangelizing and holding tent revivals in June 1915. At first she struggled to gain an audience. Standing on a chair in some public place, she would gaze into the sky as if intently observing something there, perhaps reaching upwards as if to gesture for help or supplication.
An audience, curious as to what the woman was doing or looking at, would gather around her. Then after 20 minutes to an hour, she would jump off the chair, declare something to the effect "I have a secret to share with you, follow me...," go to a nearby meeting room she had earlier rented out. Once inside, the doors were shut behind them and McPherson would begin her sermon.
The female Pentecostal preacher was greeted with some trepidation by pastors of local churches she solicited for building space to hold her revival meetings. Pentecostals were at the edge of Christian religious society, sometimes seen as strange with their loud, raucous unorganized meetings and were often located in the poorer sections of town.
McPherson, however, perhaps because of her Methodist upbringing, kept an order to her meetings that came to be much appreciated. She wanted to create the enthusiasm a Pentecostal meeting could provide, with its "Amen Corner" and "Halleluiah Chorus" but also to avoid its unbridled chaos as participants started shouting, trembling on the floor and speaking in tongues; all at once.
Because of the negative connotation of the word "pentecostal' and though McPherson practiced speaking in tongues, she rarely emphasized it. McPherson organized her meetings with the general public in mind and yet did not wish to quench any who suddenly came into "the Spirit." To this end she set up a "tarry tent or room" away from the general area for any who suddenly started speaking in tongues or display any other Holy Ghost behavior the larger audience might be put off by. McPherson wrote:
A woman preacher was a novelty. At the time I began my ministry, women were well in the background.... Orthodox ministers, many of whom disapproved even of men evangelists such as Moody, Spurgeon, Tunda and the rest chiefly because they used novel evangelistic methods, disapproved all the more of a woman minister. especially was this true when my meetings departed from the funeral, sepulchrelike ritual of appointed Sundays....
After her first successful visits, she had little difficulty with acceptance or attendance. Eager converts filled the pews of local churches which turned many recalcitrant ministers into her enthusiastic supporters. Frequently, she would start a revival meeting in a hall or church and then have to move to a larger building to accommodate the growing crowds. When there were no suitable buildings, she set up a tent, which was often filled past capacity.
McPherson was a strong woman, hefting a maul to hammer in tent stakes and involved herself in all the physical labor a revival setup required. She could fix her car, move boulders and drag fallen timber out of the roadway as she traveled to her destinations. McPherson was also known as a successful faith healer as there were extensive claims of physical healing occurring during her meetings. Such claims became less important as her fame increased.
In 1916 McPherson embarked on a tour of the Southern United States in her "Gospel Car", first with her husband Harold and later, in 1918, with her mother, Mildred Kennedy. She was an important addition to McPherson's ministry and managed everything, including the money, which gave them an unprecedented degree of financial security.
Their vehicle was a 1912 Packard touring car emblazoned with religious slogans. Standing on the back seat of the convertible, McPherson preached sermons over a megaphone. On the road between sermons, she would sit in the back seat typing sermons and other religious materials. She first traveled up and down the eastern United States, then went to other parts of the country.
By 1917 she had started her own magazine, The Bridal Call, for which she wrote many articles about women’s roles in religion; she portrayed the link between Christians and Jesus as a marriage bond. By taking seriously the religious role of women, the magazine contributed to the rising women’s movement.
Azusa Street Revivals starting in 1906 were noted for their racial diversity as blacks, Hispanics, whites and other minorities openly worshiped together, led by William J. Seymour, an African American preacher. As the participants of the Azusa Street Revivals, dispersed, local Pentecostals were looking for leadership for a new revival and in late 1918, McPherson came to Los Angeles.
Minnie Kennedy, her mother, rented the largest hall they could find, the 3,500 seat Philharmonic Auditorium (known then as Temple Auditorium). People waited for hours to get in and McPherson could hardly reach the pulpit without stepping on someone. Afterwards, grateful attendees of her Los Angeles meetings built her a home for her family which included everything from the cellar to a canary bird.
While Aimee Semple McPherson had traveled extensively in her evangelical work prior to arriving in Baltimore, she was first “discovered” by the newspapers while sitting with her mother in the red plush parlor of the Belvedere Hotel on December 5, 1919, a day after conducting evangelistic services at the Lyric Opera House.
In December 1919, she went to Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House to conduct seventeen days of meetings. The Baltimore Sun ran a thousand-word interview with her in the December 6, 1919, issue. Her mother Mildred Kennedy had booked the 2,500 seating capacity Lyric Opera House at US $3,100, a huge sum compared to earlier engagements.
Considering her daughter's success elsewhere, Kennedy thought the risk well worth taking. During the interview, the Sun reporter asked McPherson how she had decided on Baltimore as the site for a revival.
“As soon as I entered the city I saw the need. Women were sitting in the dining room smoking with the men,” McPherson replied. “I took up the newspapers and I saw card parties and dances advertised in connection with the churches. There was a coldness. Card parties, dances, theaters, all represent agencies of the devil to distract the attention of men and women away from spirituality....”
The Baltimore event was one of McPherson's larger engagements yet. The crowds, in their religious ecstasy were barely kept under control as they gave way to manifestations of "the Spirit," and the Lyric Opera House's capacity was constantly tested. Moreover, her alleged faith healings now became part of the public record, and attendees began to focus on that part of her ministry over all else.
McPherson considered the Baltimore Revival an important turning point not only for her ministry "but in the history of the outpouring of the Pentecostal power."
The battle between fundamentalists and modernists escalated after World War I, with many modernists seeking less conservative religious faiths. Fundamentalists generally believed their religious faith should influence every aspect of their lives. McPherson sought to eradicate modernism and secularism in homes, churches, schools, and communities.
She developed a strong following in what McPherson termed "the Foursquare Gospel" by blending contemporary culture with religious teachings. McPherson was entirely capable of sustaining a protracted intellectual discourse as her Bible students and debate opponents will attest. But she believed in preaching the gospel with simplicity and power, so as to not confuse the message. Her distinct voice and visual descriptions created a crowd excitement "bordering on hysteria."
Her faith-healing demonstrations gained her unexpected allies. When a Romani tribe king and his mother stated they were faith-healed by McPherson, thousands of others came to her as well in caravans from all over the country and were converted. The infusion of crosses and other symbols of Christianity alongside Romani astrology charts and crystal balls was the result of McPherson's influence.
Prizing gold and loyalty, the Romani repaid her in part, with heavy bags of gold coin and jewels, which helped fund the construction of the new Angelus Temple. In Wichita, Kansas, in May 29, 1922, where heavy perennial thunderstorms threatened to rain out the thousands who gathered there, McPherson interrupted the speaker, raised her hand to the sky and prayed, "let it fall (the rain) after the message has been delivered to these hungry souls".
The rain immediately stopped, an event reported the following day by the Wichita Eagle on May 30: Evangelist's Prayers Hold Big Rain Back", For the gathered Romani, it was a further acknowledgement "of the woman's power".
The appeal of McPherson's thirty or so revival events from 1919 to 1922 surpassed any touring event of theater or politics ever presented in American history. "Neither Houdini nor Teddy Roosevelt had such an audience nor PT Barnum. " Her one to four week meetings typically overflowed any building she could find to hold them.
She broke attendance records recently set by Billy Sunday and frequently used his temporary tabernacle structures to hold some of her meetings in. Her revivals were often standing-room only. One such revival was held in a boxing ring, with the meeting before and after the match.
Throughout the boxing event, she walked about with a sign reading "knock out the Devil". In San Diego, California, the city called in the National Guard and other branches of the armed forces to control a revival crowd of over 30,000 people.
McPherson preached a conservative gospel but used progressive methods, taking advantage of radio, movies, and stage acts. Advocacy for women's rights was on the rise, including women's suffrage through the 19th Amendment. She attracted some women associated with modernism, but others were put off by the contrast between her different theories. By accepting and using such new media outlets, McPherson helped integrate them into people’s daily lives.
Faith healing ministry
Aimee Semple McPherson's faith healing demonstrations were extensively written about in the news media and were a large part of her early career legacy. No one has ever been credited by secular witnesses with anywhere near the numbers of faith healings attributed to McPherson, especially during the years 1919 to 1922.
Over time though, she almost withdrew from the faith healing aspect of her services, since it was overwhelming other areas of her ministry. Scheduled healing sessions nevertheless remained highly popular with the public until her death in 1944.
Alleged incidents of "miraculous" faith healing are sometimes clinically explained as a result of hysteria or a form of hypnosis. Strong emotions and the mind's ability to trigger the production of opiates, endorphins, and enkephalins; have also been offered as explanations as well as the healings are simply faked. In the case of McPherson, there was no evidence of fraud found.
In August 1921, doctors from the American Medical Association in San Francisco secretly investigated some of McPherson's local revival meetings. The subsequent AMA report stated Aimee Semple McPherson's healing was "genuine, beneficial and wonderful".
McPherson claims to have experienced several of her own personal faith healing incidents, among them one in 1909, when her broken foot was mended, an event which first served to introduce her to the possibilities of the healing power.
Another was an unexpected recovery from an operation in 1914 where hospital staff expected her to die, and in 1916, before a gathered revival tent crowd, swift rejuvenation of blistered skin from a serious flash burn caused by a lamp exploding in her face.
Her apparently successful first public faith healing session of another person was professedly demonstrated in Corona, Long Island, New York, 1916. A young woman in the painful, advanced stages of rheumatoid arthritis was brought to the altar by friends just as McPherson preached "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever", meaning, in part, Jesus had the same power to heal now as in ancient times.
McPherson, laid hands upon the crippled woman's head and she allegedly walked out of the church that same night without crutches. Sick and injured people came to her by the tens of thousands. Press clippings, and testimonials became mountainous. To people who traveled with her, the numerous faith healings were routine.
Lubricating her hands with spiced oil, McPherson touched and prayed over the infirm and reporters wrote extensively of what they saw. When asked by a journalist about these demonstrations, McPherson indicated, "the saving of souls is the most important part of my ministry".
Not all healings were successful and McPherson had occasional well-publicized failures. But these were apparently few and people in ever increasing numbers came to her. She was invited back again and again to cities that she previously visited. Perhaps one of the more dramatic public faith healing demonstrations of her career occurred starting in late January 1921 at Balboa Park in San Diego, California.
The Spreckles Organ Pavilion in the park, was site of several earlier revival meetings by many of her predecessors, and there, McPherson preached to a huge crowd of 30,000. She had to move to the outdoor site since the 3,000 seat Dreamland Boxing Arena could not hold the thousands who went to see her. To assist the San Diego Police in maintaining order, the Marines and Army had to be called in.
During the engagement, a woman paralyzed from the waist down from childhood, was presented for faith healing. Concerned because numerous, previous demonstrations had been before much smaller assemblages, McPherson feared she would be run out of town if this healing did not manifest. Believing in the reality of the living Christ, filled with sincere passion beyond love for humanity, McPherson prayed, and laid hands on her. Before 30,000 people — and captured for all time by photography — the woman supposedly got up out of her wheelchair and walked. The large gathering responded with thunderous applause.
Other hopefuls presented themselves to the platform McPherson occupied, and though not all were cured, the sick, injured and invalid continued to flood forth for healing. Before witnesses and reporters, a goiter allegedly shrank, crutches abandoned, an abscessed arm purportedly returned to normal.
Many hundreds of people wanted her help, more than she could handle and her stay was extended. As with many of her other meetings, McPherson labored and prayed feverishly for hours over the infirm, often without food or stopping for a break. At the day's end, she would eventually be taken away by her staff, dehydrated and unsteady with fatigue; her distinct, booming voice reduced to a whisper. Originally planned for two weeks in the evenings, McPherson's Balboa Park revival meetings lasted over five weeks and went from dawn until dusk.
Later in 1921, investigating McPherson's healing services, a survey was sent out by First Baptist Church Pastor William Keeney Towner in San Jose, California, to 3,300 people. 2500 persons responded. 6% indicated they were immediately and completely healed while 85% indicated they were partially healed and continued to improve ever since. Fewer than half of 1% did not feel they were at least spiritually uplifted and had their faith strengthened.
Denver Post reporter Frances Wayne writes while McPherson's "attack" on sin "uncultured,...the deaf heard, the blind saw, the paralytic walked, the palsied became calm, before the eyes of as many people that could be packed into the largest church auditorium in Denver".
In 1922, McPherson returned for a second tour in the Great Revival of Denver and asked about people who have claimed healings from the previous visit. Seventeen people, some well known members of the community, testified, giving credence to McPherson's claim "healing still occurred among modern Christians".
Actor Anthony Quinn, who for a time played in the church's band and was an apprentice preacher, in this partial quote, recalls a service:
"I sat in the orchestra pit of the huge auditorium at the Angelus Temple. Every seat was filled, with the crowd spilling into the aisles. Many were on crutches or in wheelchairs. Suddenly a figure with bright red hair and a flowing white gown walked out to the center of the stage. In a soft voice, almost a whisper, she said, 'Brothers and sisters, is there anyone here who wants to be cured tonight?' Long lines formed to reach her. She stood center stage and greeted each one. One man said, 'I can't see out of one eye.' She asked. 'Do you believe, brother?' And suddenly, the man cried, 'Yes, sister, I can see, I can see!' And the audience went crazy. "To a woman dragging herself across the stage on crutches she said, 'Throw away that crutch!' Suddenly, the woman threw away her crutch and ran into Aimee's open arms. I left that service exhilarated, renewed".
Ironically, when McPherson retired for much needed rest after a long and exhausting faith healing service, she would sometimes suffer from insomnia, a problem she would contend with for the rest of her life. Regarding her own illnesses, she did not abstain from visiting doctors or using medicines.
McPherson considered each faith healing incident a sacred gift from God, passed through her to persons healed and not to be taken for granted. In visiting foreign lands, for example, she paid scrupulous attention to sanitation, concerned that a careless oversight might result in acquiring an exotic disease.
In later years, other individuals were identified as having the alleged faith healing gift. On stage, during Wednesday and Saturday divine healing sessions, she worked among them, or was even absent altogether, diminishing her own singular role. Divine healing, in her view, was not the emergency room, entertainment or something to puzzle scientists, it was a church sacrament.
In her own writings and sermons, McPherson did not refer to her own particular personal proficiencies, conveying divine healing was accessible by faith and devotion.
International Church of the Foursquare Gospel
At this time, Los Angeles had become a popular vacation spot. Rather than touring the United States to preach her sermons, McPherson stayed in Los Angeles, drawing audiences from a population which had soared from 100,000 in 1900 to 575,000 people in 1920, and often included many visitors.
Wearied by constant traveling and having nowhere to raise a family, McPherson had settled in Los Angeles, where she maintained both a home and a church. McPherson believed that by creating a church in Los Angeles, her audience would come to her from all over the country. This, she felt, would allow her to plant seeds of the Gospel and tourists would take it home to their communities, still reaching the masses.
For several years she continued to travel and raise money for the construction of a large, domed church building at 1100 Glendale Blvd. in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. The church would be named Angelus Temple, reflecting the Roman Catholic tradition of the Angelus bell, calling the faithful to prayer and as well its reference to the angels.
Not wanting to take on debt, McPherson located a construction firm which would work with her as funds were raised "by faith". She started with $5,000. The firm indicated it would be enough to carve out a hole for the foundation.
McPherson began a campaign in earnest and was able to mobilize diverse groups of people to help fund and build the new church. Various fundraising methods were used such as selling chairs for Temple seating at US $25 apiece. In exchange, "chairholders" got a miniature chair and encouragement to pray daily for the person who would eventually sit in that chair. Her approach worked to generate enthusiastic giving and to create a sense of ownership and family among the contributors.
Raising more money than she had hoped, McPherson altered the original plans, and built a "megachurch" that would draw many followers throughout the years. The endeavor cost contributors around $250,000 in actual money spent. Comparable structures were priced at far more, a nearby smaller auditorium, for example, cost US$ 1 million.
Costs were kept down by donations of building materials and volunteer labor. McPherson sometimes quipped when she first got to California, all she had was a car, ten dollars and a tambourine.
The Class "A" fireproof building was constructed of concrete and steel and designed by Brook Hawkins. The main architectural feature of the structure is its large, unsupported concrete dome coated with a mixture of ground abalone shells. The dome, at the time, was by some reports, the largest in North America, and rises 125 feet from the main floor.
The dome's interior was painted azure blue, with fleecy clouds, a reminder to "work while its day" and "to look for His coming". McPherson insisted on a bright joyous setting, avoiding any reminder of sin from either artwork or motto. In back of the pulpit was her theme verse from Hebrews 13:18 "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today and forever." She later conveyed she loved "every stone in Angelus Temple,...I love to touch its walls, its altar,...I look to its high vaulted dome...." but no part of the church pleased her more the magnificent Kimball pipe organ which always soothed and brought her peace of mind.
The church was dedicated on January 1, 1923. The auditorium had a seating capacity of 5,300 people and was filled three times each day, seven days a week. According to church records, Angelus Temple received 40 million visitors within the first seven years At first, McPherson preached every service, often in a dramatic scene she put together to attract audiences.
Eventually, the church evolved into its own denomination and became known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The new denomination focused on the nature of Christ's character: that he was Savior, baptizer with the Holy Spirit, healer, and coming King. There were four main beliefs: the first being Christ's ability to transform individuals' lives through the act of salvation; the second focused on a holy baptism which includes receiving power to glorify and exalt Christ in a practical way; the third was divine healing, newness of life for both body and spirit; and the fourth was gospel-oriented heed to the pre-millennial return of Jesus Christ.
In August 1925 and away from Los Angeles, McPherson decided to charter a plane so she would not miss giving her Sunday sermon. Aware of the opportunity for publicity, she arranged for at least two thousand followers and members of the press to be present at the airport. The plane failed after takeoff and the landing gear collapsed, sending the nose of the plane into the ground. McPherson boarded another plane and used the experience as the narrative of an illustrated Sunday sermon called "The Heavenly Airplane".
The stage in Angelus Temple was set up with two miniature planes and a skyline that looked like Los Angeles. In this sermon, McPherson described how the first plane had the devil for the pilot, sin for the engine, and temptation as the propeller. The other plane, however, was piloted by Jesus and would lead one to the Holy City (the skyline shown on stage). The temple was filled beyond capacity.
On one occasion, she described being pulled over by a police officer, calling the sermon "Arrested for Speeding". Dressed in a traffic cop's uniform, she sat in the saddle of a police motorcycle, earlier placed on the stage, and revved the siren. One author in attendance, insisted she actually drove the motorcycle, with its deafening roar, across the access ramp to the pulpit, slammed on the brakes, then raised a white gloved hand to shout "Stop! You're speeding to Hell!" Since McPherson gave some of her sermons more than once, and with variations, the possibility existed both versions might be true.
McPherson employed a small group of artists, electricians, decorators, and carpenters who built the sets for each Sunday's service. Religious music was played by an orchestra. McPherson also worked on elaborate sacred operas. One production, The Iron Furnace, based on the book of Exodus, told of God’s deliverance as the Israelites fled slavery in Egypt.
Some Hollywood movie stars even assisted with obtaining costumes from local studios. The cast was large, perhaps as many as 450 people but so elaborate and expensive, it was presented only one time. Rehearsals for the various productions were time consuming and McPherson "did not tolerate any nonsense." Though described as "always kind and loving," McPherson demanded respect regarding the divine message the sacred operas and her other works were designed to convey.
The biographer Matthew Avery Sutton wrote, "McPherson found no contradiction between her rejection of Hollywood values or her use of show business techniques. She would not hesitate to use the devil's tools to tear down the devil's house." McPherson desired to avoid the dreary church service where by obligation parishioners would go to fulfill some duty by being present in the pew.
She wanted a sacred drama that would compete with the excitement of vaudeville and the movies. The message was serious, but the tone more along the lines of a humorous musical comedy. Missed cues, forgotten or misstated script lines and other mistakes became part of the gag. Animals were frequently incorporated and McPherson, the once farm girl, knew how to handle them.
In one incident, a camel was to squeeze through a narrow gate set up on stage, illustrating the Eye of the Needle. McPherson unlimbered one bag of cargo after another labeled "Worldly Pleasure," "Indifference to the Poor" and others, from the camel. Until all the cargo burdens were removed, the camel could not cross through the opening.
McPherson gave up to 22 sermons a week and the lavish Sunday night service attracted the largest crowds, extra trolleys and police were needed to help route the traffic through Echo Park to and from Angelus Temple. To finance the Angeleus Temple and its projects, collections were taken at every meeting, often with the admonishment, "no coins, please".
Because Pentecostalism was not popular in the U.S. during the 1920s, McPherson avoided the label. She did demonstrate speaking-in-tongues and faith healing in sermons. She kept a museum of crutches, wheelchairs, and other paraphernalia. As evidence of her early influence by the Salvation Army, McPherson adopted a theme of "lighthouses" for the satellite churches, referring to the parent church as the "Salvation Navy." This was the beginning of McPherson working to plant Foursquare Gospel churches around the country.
McPherson published the weekly Foursquare Crusader, along with her monthly magazine, Bridal Call. She began broadcasting on radio in the early 1920s. McPherson was one of the first women to preach a radio sermon. With the opening of Foursquare Gospel-owned KFSG on February 6, 1924, she became the second woman granted a broadcast license by the Department of Commerce, the federal agency that supervised broadcasting in the early 1920s.)
McPherson racially integrated her tent meetings and church services. On one occasion, as a response to McPherson's ministry and Angelus Temple being integrated, Ku Klux Klan members were in attendance, but after the service hoods and robes were found on the ground in nearby Echo Park. She is also credited with helping many Hispanic ministries in Los Angeles.
McPherson traveling about the country holding widely popular revival meetings and filling local churches with converts was one thing, settling permanently into their city caused concern among some local Los Angeles churches.
Even though she shared many of their fundamentalist beliefs: divine inspiration of the Bible, the classical Trinity, virgin birth of Jesus, historical reality of Christ's miracles, bodily resurrection of Christ and the atoning purpose of his crucifixion; the presentation of lavish sermons, and an effective faith healing ministry presented by a female divorcee who thousands adored and newspapers continuously wrote of, was unexpected. Moreover, the Temple had a look and style uniquely theirs, almost cult or military-like.
Women would emulate McPherson's style and dress, and a distinct Angeleus Temple uniform came into existence, a white dress with a navy blue cape thrown over it. Men were more discrete, wearing suits. Her voice, projected over the powerful state-of-the-art KFSG radio station and heard by hundreds of thousands, became the most recognized in the western United States.
Her illustrated sermons attracted criticism from some of clergy members because they thought it turned the gospel message into mundane theater and entertainment. Divine healing, as McPherson called it, was claimed by many pastors to be a unique dispensation granted only for the Apostolic times. Reverend Robert P Shuler published a pamphlet entitled McPhersonism, which purported that her "most spectacular and advertised program was out of harmony with God's word."
Debates such as the Bogard-McPherson Debate in 1934 drew further attention to the controversy, but none could really argue effectively against McPherson's results.
The new developing Assemblies of God denomination, Pentecostal as McPherson was, for a time worked with her, but they encouraged separation from established Protestant faiths. McPherson resisted trends to isolate as a denomination and continued her task of coalition building among evangelicals.
McPherson worked hard to attain ecumenical vision of the faith and while she participated in debates, avoided pitched rhetorical battles that divided so many in Christianity. She wanted to work with existing churches on projects and to share with them her visions and beliefs. Assisting in her passion was the speedy establishment of LIFE Bible College adjacent to the Angeles Temple. Ministers trained there were originally intended to go nationally and worldwide to all denominations and share her newly defined "Foursquare Gospel."
A well known Methodist minister, Frank Thompson, who never had the Pentecostal experience, was persuaded to run the college; and he taught the students the doctrine of John Wesley. McPherson and others, meanwhile, infused them with Pentecostal ideals. Her efforts eventually led Pentecostals, which were previously unconventional and on the periphery of Christianity, into the mainstream of American evangelicalism.
McPherson herself steadfastly declined to publicly criticize by name any individual (with the later exception of Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tōjō after Pearl Harbor) but those who were converted in her services were not so careful. The testimonies of former prostitutes, drug addicts and others, from stage or broadcast over the radio, frequently revealed the names and locations concerning their past illegal activities. These revelations angered many and McPherson often received hostile letters and death threats. An alleged plot to kidnap her and detailed in the Los Angeles Times was foiled in September, 1925.
On September 26, 1944, McPherson went to Oakland, California, for a series of revivals, planning to preach her popular "Story of My Life" sermon. When McPherson's son went to her hotel room at 10:00 the next morning, he found her unconscious with pills and a half-empty bottle of capsules nearby. She was dead by 11:15.
It was later discovered she previously called her doctor that morning to complain about feeling ill from the medicine, but he was in surgery and could not be disturbed. She then phoned another doctor who referred her to yet another physician, however, McPherson apparently went into shock before the third could be contacted.
- "Aimee McPherson" Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (with minor edits), under GFDL.