Archive for January, 2009

Holiness, Hedonism, and Headlines: Aimee Semple McPherson and the Scandal of 1926

22 January, 2009

“Woman Evangelist Escapes Abductors” reads a bold New York Times headline from June 24, 1926. The woman evangelist was Aimee Semple McPherson, Pentecostal evangelist, founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and pastor of Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, which she founded and grew to 25,000 members. On that June morning, Aimee McPherson, known commonly as simply “Sister”, was discovered in a state of collapse at Agua Prieta, a Mexican village, and was immediately hospitalized in Douglas, Arizona, just across the United States’ border. Immediately, Sister began telling an incredible story of being kidnapped and held for $500,000 ransom before making her escape through the hot desert “Woman Evangelist Escapes Abductors” 1). What ensued was a veritable media circus and the first front-page scandal in Pentecostal history!

Aimee Kennedy was born October 9, 1890, near Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada and was reared with the zealous Salvation Army religion of her mother, Minnie. In 1908, she received the baptism of the Holy Ghost in a small Pentecostal mission in Ingersoll under the ministry of her future husband, Robert Semple (McPherson, TIT 50). The newlywed couple devoted themselves to evangelism and went to China in 1910 as Pentecostal missionaries. August 19, 1910, Robert Semple died in Hong Kong of malaria, and Aimee returned to North America with her newborn daughter, Roberta.  Aimee Semple married a grocery clerk, Harold McPherson; however, the marriage soon ended in divorce.  Mr. McPherson was simply unable to bear the vagabond life of his itinerant evangelist wife (Thomas 11-12).

With the help of her widowed mother, “Ma” Kenendy, Aimee established a popular Pentecostal ministry, traversing the continental North America in her “Gospel” car and raising thousands of dollars at her growing evangelistic and healing campaigns. Just before Christmas 1918, Aimee and Ma arrived in Los Angeles and began a Pentecostal work on Spring Street under the auspices of the Assemblies of God called Victoria Hall Mission (Thomas 20).

Just three years later, in 1921, McPherson and Ma Kennedy purchased property near Echo Park and designed and built Angelus Temple, a white, domed 5000-seat arena. Its outer surface glinted with crushed sea shells, and the inner walls were painted to mimic a blue sky. The structure and furnishings included two balconies, sweeping ramps, and an indoor baptismal pool along with opulent carpets, chandeliers, draperies, organ, and Steinway grand piano (Thomas 26). Angelus Temple surpassed nearby Hollywood movie palaces in both size and glory at a staggering cost of 1.5 million dollars (“Aimee Semple McPherson: Thousands . . . ” 85-89).

Preaching her “foursquare” message which exalted Jesus Christ as “Savior, Baptizer with the Holy Spirit, Physician and Healer, and Coming King”, Aimee filled Angelus Temple to capacity with devoted followers, keeping up an aggressive schedule of twenty-one weekly services and developed one of the most widely-recognized Pentecostal ministries of the early Twentieth century (Sister Aimee).

Possessed of natural beauty and charisma, Aimee Semple McPherson attracted parishioners with her eloquent preaching. In February 1924, she launched KFSG (Kall Four Square Gospel) and increased her influence around Southern California (McPherson SOML 127). McPherson had a penchant for performance and turned the Angelus platform into a veritable stage each week. She dressed as an Indian princess, a navy admiral, a firefighter, and most famously a police officer, complete with motorcycle, to deliver high-impact sermons to her faithful flock. She composed a number of sacred operas and oratorios; and in September 1931, she eloped with David L. Hutton, Jr., the baritone who played Pharaoh in “The Iron Furnace”, an Angelus Temple production with a cast of 450. In January 1934, the marriage ended in a second divorce for McPherson (Thomas 205; 272-273).

Aimee Semple McPherson became an evangelistic superstar. There was none of the asceticism of the early Pentecostals at Angelus Temple. Aimee dressed in ostentatious clothing and had charge accounts at exclusive boutiques and department stores around the city. In April 1927, a Los Angeles Times headline reported the murder of Paul Ivar who “created gowns for film stars and Aimee McPherson” (“Suicide Follows . . . ” 3). In 1929, she also constructed a 14-room stucco mansion on Lake Elsinore, rumored to have gold and silver leaf ceilings, silver doorknobs, and a swimming pool (Thomas 201-202). Nothing was too good for Sister, and members of Angelus Temple and the growing network of Foursquare churches seemed willing to fill church coffers to support McPherson’s increasing worldliness.

When Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared in the Pacific on Tuesday, May 18, 1926, while swimming at Ocean Park, her family and followers sorrowfully declared her drowned in the sea. When she was miraculously returned to them just over a month later, Foursquare faithful joyously accepted Sister’s testimony of her escape from her captors. According to Aimee, she was approached at the beach by a couple pretending to have a dying baby in their car. She accompanied them to the vehicle only to be shoved in the floor and chloroformed. When she regained consciousness, she learned that her trio of captors, Steve, Jake, and Mexicali Rose, intended to hold her for ransom. Moved to a remote shack in the desert, Aimee eventually escaped while her abductors were away by cutting her bands on the edge of an open tin can. Traversing the hot desert, she came upon the village where she collapsed (McPherson, SOML 147-157).

Authorities were immediately suspicious of McPherson’s claims. She made the escape through an arid land with no hat and no water. She arrived in the Douglas hospital with no sunburn, no perspiration on her dress, grass stain on her shoes, and was satisfied with a single glass of water (Thomas 51-52). Police forays into the Mexican desert failed to locate the shack described by McPherson, and the Post Office ruled that the purported ransom letter that had been mailed to Minnie Kennedy had been tampered with (“Two Juries Start . . ” 13).

Complicating matters for Sister, witnesses emerged claiming to have witnessed Aimee Semple McPherson during the period of her absence in the company of Kenneth G. Ormiston, a jovial man in his thirties that managed KFSG for McPherson and disappeared shortly before her own absence. Ma Kenendy had, in fact, already averted an earlier scandal when Mrs. Ormiston threatened to divorce her husbanding citing an affair with the Temple’s leader (Thomas 42-43). Despite positive identifications by a garage repairman and hotel registrars who saw McPherson and Ormiston, Sister stuck to her story, piping her innocence in pulpit and press (“Says M’Pherson was with Ormiston” 4). In 1927, she authored In the Service of the King, an autobiographical book detailing her ordeal and defending her innocence.

On November 3, 1926, both Sister and Ma Kenendy were charged with obstruction of justice and were held for trial. But District Attorney Asa Keyes finally dropped all charges on January 10, 1927, citing lack of evidence (Thomas 57; 61). Aimee Semple McPherson returned to Angelus Temple and was joyously received by her congregation, who continued to stand by their militant spiritual commander, supporting her version of events.

When she died September 27, 1944, of a medication overdose, her body, which lay in state on the Temple platform for three days, was visited by over 50,000 mourners, and her funeral reputedly cost $40,000 (“Aimee Semple McPherson: Thousands Mourn . . . ” 85-89). She was buried in full regalia in a 1,200-pound bronze casket lined in white satin. She was laid to rest in the popular Forest Lawn Cemetery beneath slabs of polished Italian marble flanked by statues of kneeling angels (Thomas 339-346).

Sister Aimee proved to be an enigma and a media sensation, and her ministry survived her final demise under the leadership of her son, Rolf McPherson. Canonized as saint by some, criticized as sinner by others, Aimee Semple McPherson undoubtedly introduced the world to a glamorous version of quasi-Pentecostalism distanced from the movement’s early roots in humility, sacrifice, and even poverty. Her Hollywood-style Christianity set an unfortunate precedent for future charismatic charlatanism, and her questionable morality prefigured much of today’s religious ribaldry. Her story has inspired ballads, books, movies, and even a short-run Broadway musical (Sister Aimee). Historians are rarely hagiographers of Sister, and she is often more hypocritical and less holy in popular accounts of her life and ministry. Regardless of whether Aimee Semple McPherson was abducted or staging an adulterine hoax, her unique concoction of the sacred and profane, the mixture of evangelism and entertainment, her cinematic Christianity, and her genius for manipulating the media and capturing the popular imagination, propelled McPherson’s form of Pentecostalism into the mainstream and foreshadowed the quagmire of televangelism, so similarly marked by the moral maladies that plagued her. Today, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel continues to exist alongside larger Pentecostal organizations, and her crowning work, Angelus Temple, serves as the spiritual home of thousands of Los Angeles parishioners. Ultimately, Sister remains a mystery, an unresolved problem in the chronicle of early American Pentecostalism, and “everybody loves a mystery!”

Sources:

“Aimee Semple McPherson: Thousands Mourn at Famed Evangelist’s Funeral.” Life Magazine. 30 Oct 1944, pp. 85-89.

 McPherson, Aimee Semple.  Story of My Life. Los Angeles: Echo Park Evangelistic Association, 1951.

McPherson, Aimee Semple. This is That. New York: Garland Press, 1985.

“Says Mrs. M’Pherson was with Ormiston.” New York Times. 16 Jul 1926, pg. 4.

Sister Aimee. Dir. Linda Garmon. WGBH Educational Foundation, 2007.

“Suicide Follows Hollywood Killing. New York Times. 27 April 1935, pg. 3.

Thomas, Lately. Storming Heaven: the Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1970.

“Two Juries Start M’Pherson Inquiry.” New York Times. 3 Jul 1926, pg. 13.

“Woman Evangelist Escapes Abductors.” New York Times. 26 June 1926, pg. 1.

From Azusa to Apostasy: the Father Divine Story

13 January, 2009

1fdhat.jpgGeorge Baker received the baptism of the Holy Ghost at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles in April 1906. But this participant in the birth of the Pentecostal Movement was not destined to become a powerful evangelist, anointed missionary, or even faithful saint, rather George Baker became the delusional false messiah of the Peace Mission Movement, a spiritual cult that claimed “millions” of adherents from around the world. Amongst the movement’s members, Baker was known only as Father Divine and was hailed as an incarnation of God.

Father Divine was a blatant blasphemer. In 1940, he described the Pentecostal meetings in Los Angeles in his official organ entitled New Day, believing the experience deified him: “I recall many years ago shortly after the HOLY GHOST fell in the demonstration or came into expression in My light of understanding, but when I say fell in the demonstration of speaking in tongues in Los Angeles in nineteen six and after then spread throughout the country” (qtd. in Watts 191). For Baker, the baptism of the Holy Ghost was to become distorted by layers of bad, even weird, theology.

In 1907, George Baker was drastically influenced by a traveling evangelist from Pennsylvania named Samuel Morris. Morris claimed to be the “Father Eternal” and styled himself “Father Jehovia.” Baker, his student, became “The Messenger, God in the Sonship degree”, second in power to Morris. The trinity was completed by the addition of Reverend Bishop Saint John the Vine, formerly John Hickerson of Alexandria, Virginia. Inevitable disagreement led to the dissolution of the group in 1912, and Baker set out on his own (Watts 27-30).

Baker attempted to develop an itinerant evangelistic ministry, but many ministers and churches objected strongly to Baker’s claims that he was God. In 1914, he was ejected from a black Holiness church in Valdosta, Georgia after informing congregants that he was the messiah and was soon to destroy the world. Amazingly, a number of female members believed Baker, and he was installed in a member’s home where he continued to teach his damnable doctrine. The controversial leader was arrested in Valdosta in February and tried for lunacy. Despite his impressive calm during the proceedings, Baker was found guilty of insanity and ordered to leave Valdosta. Through the publicity, however, he gained several more supporters, including some Whites (Watts 38).

Baker had limited success travelling the American South with a few vagabond disciples, but his following grew steadily after setting up a permanent home in New York City in 1917. The group lived communally and pooled their resources. Baker found jobs for his disciples and offered an alternative to the poverty that surrounded them in Harlem.

At this time, Baker adopted the name Reverend Major Jealous Divine, combining the strange elements of his self-perception as the embodiment of God in ecclesiastical, military, and ontological terms. Amongst the devotees, he was simply Father Divine, and the “children” of his family sang: “God is here on earth today. Father Divine is his name” (Watts 47-48).

The Peace Movement grew and developed a strong financial base. In 1919, Father Divine and his wife, Peninniah, known as Mother Divine signed the deed for a property in the resort town of Sayville, Long Island. The small cult was tolerated by its White middle-class neighbors until its swollen numbers coupled with rumors of free love and suspicions about the source of Father Divine’s growing wealth led to complaints. Father Divine was arrested in May 1931 for creating a public nuisance. Four days after his sentencing, the judge died of a heart attack. Vindicated, Father Divine hubristically said: “I hated to do it!” (“Father Divine, Cult Leader, Dies . . . ” 12).

Despite accusations and speculation, Father Divine maintained a strong sense of morality in the home at Sayville. Members were enjoined to abstain from smoking, liquor, cursing, all sexual activity and cosmetics were disallowed. The lavish “Holy Communion” banquets held each evening included a sermon from Father Divine and a pseudo-Pentecostal worship style with dancing, shouting, and speaking in tongues (Watts 64, 72).

The publicity increased awareness of the cult, and many White, educated people began to join the group, accepting Father Divine’s claim to divinity and ascribing to his “New Thought” teachings about visualization, materialization, and the power of positive thinking.
The Kingdom of Peace Movement expanded to include communal properties in many major American cities and branches in Europe, Africa, and Australia. When Father Divine died in 1965, he lived in a lavish 32-room mansion on a 72-acre estate in Gladwyn, Pennsylvania. He held no property in his name and had no “personal” wealth, but lived in opulence. Followers, who believed Father Divine was immortal, posited that he had only “discarded” his body but was still spiritually present with the movement (“Father Divine, Cult Leader, Dies” 12). Father Divine’s many good works and timely message of racial equality and social justice are irreversibly blotched by his Luciferian claims of divinity. Like Simon, the sorcerer of Samaria, Father Divine bewitched people, trading the gift of God that he received at Azusa Street Mission for filthy lucre. What might have been a dynamic Pentecostal ministry degenerated into abysmal abomination, and George Baker’s so-called Kingdom of Peace shall one day be cast into outer darkness by the real Father Divine, Jesus Christ, the Righteous.

Sources:

“Father Divine, Cult Leader, Dies; Disciples Considered Him God.” New York Times (11 Sept 1965), pp. 1; 12.

Watts, Jill. God, Harlem U.S.A.: the Father Divine Story. Berekeley: Univ of Cal Press, 1992.