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


“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.

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One Response to “Holiness, Hedonism, and Headlines: Aimee Semple McPherson and the Scandal of 1926”

  1. b Says:

    Cool post. Thanks

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