Archive for the ‘Pentecostal Women’ Category

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.

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From Convent to Convert: Sis. Charlotte Keckler’s Remarkable Testimony

4 July, 2007

She signed the documents in her own red blood, vows of chastity, crucial poverty, and obedience. She would never marry, own property, or disobey Church authority. Charlotte Keckler was a young woman who loved God and believed that her decision to join a Carmelite convent and serve Christ and humanity behind the closed doors of a nunnery would save she and her family. She could not have imagined the hardships and absolute terror that awaited her. The life that she innocently believed to be spiritual and sacred she found to be perverse and profane. Controlled and even enslaved by a corrupt Church and an unholy hierarchy, Charlotte spent over two decades in inhumane conditions, struggling to survive. Her story, From Convent to Pentecost, was transcribed from her own words, by Sister Eunilah Rutledge Mean, a United Pentecostal Church evangelist and pastor. It is a testimony of a nun who was miraculously delivered from the captivity of the Roman Church and found true Bible salvation.
Charlotte was reared in a devoutly Catholic home and entered the convent school at age thirteen. At sixteen, she became a novitiate, officially dedicating her life to the Church in a wedding ceremony where she was espoused to Jesus Christ. The Mother Superior, impressed with Charlotte’s devotion, suggested that she consider entering the cloister, shutting herself away from the world to pray for lost humanity. After much prayer and persuasion from the superior and her confessor, Charlotte took her perpetual vows, vows that could never be broken. Diametrically different from the white wedding of her novitiation, Charlotte, renamed Sister Patricia, spent hours in a crude casket, shrouded in a thick, incensed pall, ritualistically symbolizing her death to the outside world (Rutledge 9-10).
Life inside the cloister is the stuff of horror novels. Charlotte recounts gruesome and incredible atrocities committed against and even by the nuns. Mother Superior, whom she dubs “Legion”, is a wicked artificer of cruel tortures and unreasonable punishments (41). The nuns, who are constantly reminded of Christ’s suffering, bear their own Calvary, shedding their blood and stretching their bodies to the limits of human endurance. Charlotte herself was variously mistreated being hung from ropes for nine days in a penitential chamber, only offered bread and water for sustenance. She was made to lick the sign of the cross on filthy floors, burned with a fire poker, and temporarily blinded by some chemical concoction thrown in her face by the abbess (44-45; 92-93). She describes deplorable conditions in an underground dungeon where some nuns suffered and even died. Each year during the Lenten season, leading up to Easter, Charlotte describes a macabre ritual of human sacrifice, thinly disguised as Christian martyrdom:
. . . a glass casket was rolled into the center of the chapel (one flight underground). While the ceremony was performed, amidst chanting and prayers, a little Nun was then sealed and pushed back into the crypt in the wall. However, before the casket was placed into the crypt, we Nuns were allowed to look on that martyr through the glass lid. (Rutledge 28)
The convent perpetuated evil, appealing to the most godless and twisted perversion of Christ’s death.
Most disturbing is Charlotte’s claims about murders. Disobedient nuns were often killed or imprisoned in the subterranean dungeon until dead. Abnormal, illegitimate babies, sired by lecherous priests who visited the convent, were also murdered after receiving the rite of baptism. Charlotte describes a lime pit where bodies were taken for chemical treatment and decomposition.
For corroboration, Charlotte cites The History of Puebla, a book which includes details about the opening of Mexican cloisters by the government. The discoveries made by Mexican detectives and officials in the 1930s, revealed an underworld of torture, imprisonment and death for nuns, illegitimate babies, and errant priests. Many other published tales of escape nuns in the nineteenth century lend credence to her story. Edith O’Gorman, who escaped a New Jersey convent in 1868, told of underground dungeons, sexual impropriety, and licking floors for penance. A British nun, Sister Lucy (Ann Cullen) published tales of her experience after escaping from an English convent, detailing drunken parties by priests, flagellation with chains, and dubbing these nunneries “sacerdotal harems” (Kollar 207-209). Father Charles Chiniquy, who spent 50 years as a Roman Catholic priest, and demonstrated sincere and honest fervency for his Catholic faith, eventually left and became a Protestant. His writings reveal a good deal about the characters of his fellow priests. He describes a meeting of Catholic clerics: “Some were handing the bottles from bed to bed . . . but half an hour had not elapsed before the alcohol was beginning to unloose tongues and upset the brains. Then the bon mots, the witty stories, at first, were soon followed by the most indecent and shameful recitals.” The drunkenness continued each night: “One night three priests were taken with delirium tremens almost at the same time. One cried out that he had a dozen rattle-snakes at his shirt . . . ” (Chiniquy 421). Modern accounts of the vilest corruption in the Church of Rome are ubiquitous; and even now, the sexual scandals that plague the Church are regularly reported in the media.
Miraculously, Sister Charlotte escaped from the convent. Through the treachery of her own family, she was kidnapped and returned to another. Under the direction of the new Mother Superior, she was burned with a plumber’s torch until she recanted for fleeing her former station (Rutledge 169). Over two years later, doing hard penance, Charlotte was providentially presented with another opportunity for escape when a gate was left unlocked after a delivery of coal. She fled again-this time for good (Rutledge 175).
God, who recognized Charlotte’s hunger for Him, eventually brought her into contact with Apostolic believers. In March 1945, Sis. Charlotte Keckler was gloriously filled with the Holy Ghost in a revival meeting preached by Sis. Nilah Rutledge in Davenport, Iowa. She was baptized in Jesus’ Name at the close of the revival (Rutledge 194-195). This inspired encounter launched Sis. Keckler’s ministry, and she traveled alongside Sis. Rutledge giving her testimony of God’s deliverance from convent life for the next 14 years. In 1957, Sis. Rutledge met and married Bro. John Mean, who has served as a United Pentecostal Church District Superintendent in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland for over 26 years. Sis. Charlotte continued to travel with the Means for two years following their marriage. In a recent telephone conversation, Bro. Mean described the Catholic opposition that Sis. Keckler met with during her meetings. The team began a revival meeting in Trenton, Nova Scotia. Sis. Charlotte’s testimony incited bitter protests from priests and the Catholic faithful in Antigonish, a nearby city. A mob came out with stones to attack Sis. Keckler, and the Chief of Police from a neighboring city, New Glasgow, promised police protection if they would move the revival to their town. The revival venue was changed, and deputies were placed at the meetings to protect the evangelists (Interview).
Sis. Charlotte Keckler’s message provides us with an astonishing look at the evils perpetrated in the name of the Catholic faith. While her experiences may be exceptional, they are not unique. Sis. Keckler used the pain of her past to create an effective ministry. Bro. T.F. Tenney, former District Superintendent of Louisiana, visited a Pentecostal service for the first time to hear Sis. Keckler’s incredible story. Her deliverance is nothing short of miraculous, and the book faithfully preserves the overcoming word of her testimony. She died in September 1983 at the age of 85, a faithful member of Bro. Paul Price’s church in Napa, California. Her story was never discredited, though many have tried. Bro. John Mean says: “She was a genuine lady, and a very beautiful person. She never misrepresented her cause” (Interview). Sis. Keckler is undoubtedly beholding the face of the Saviour that she longed to know when she entered the convent. She has now laid down the pain of her incomprehensible sufferings, for eternal life in Christ, not the Catholic Christ who necessitated such awful tortures, but the God of eternal love and blessed comfort!

Works Cited:

Chiniquy, Charles Fr. Fifty Years in the Church of Rome. London: Robert Banks & Son, 1891.

Kollar, Rene. “An American ‘Escaped Nun’ on Tour in England: Edith O’Gorman’s Critique of Convent Life.” Feminist Theology: the journal of Britain and Ireland School of Feminist Theology 14 (2) 2006, pp. 205-220.

Rutledge, Nilah. From Convent to Pentecost: My Escape from the Cloistered Convent. Halifax, NS: Rose of Sharon Books, 1999. 

“A Mother in Zion”: Mary Moise and Her Mission

10 July, 2005

When she died in September 1930, Mother Mary Moise was hailed as a great social worker and a woman of uncompromising faith. In 1904, she was awarded first prize at the World Fair for her work with homeless women. Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1850, Mother Moise possessed a Southern gentility and charm that endeared her to many social outcasts in the St. Louis area, where she labored first under the auspices of the Episcopal Church and later as leader of a Pentecostal mission, Bible school, shelter and hotel for itinerant Pentecostal preachers.Her husband, Albert Welborne Moise, was a distinguished graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and a lawyer. Mr. Moise did not accept his wife’s increasing dedication to missions work, and the two separated amicably sometime after 1905. Apparently, the mission continued to receive benefaction from Mr. Moise’s business clients. The fact that the Moises were buried together suggests that rather than any sort of dissolution of their marriage, there was a workable understanding about their respective plans. He chose relative affluence and success, and she chose ministry to the dejected, living meal to meal and provision to provision.

Her inner-city work was dedicated to social pariahs and fallen women. She operated various works in St. Louis including: Bethany Christian Home, Door of Hope, the Pentecostal Rescue Home and the Dorothy Phillips Mission, named for an unfortunate girl who committed suicide. No on was too destitute or stained by the world to receive food, shelter, medicine, and prayer at one of Mother Moises’s facilities. Police often remanded prostitutes to the care of Mother Moise, a true testament to the efficacy of her labor.

Exactly when Mary Moise converted from Episcopalian to Pentecostal is not precisely clear. In 1907, Bro. Seeley D. Kinne came to the city of St. Louis from the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles and opened the first Apostolic Faith work over the Monarch Laundry (Warner “St. Louis Era” 1). It was probably then that Mother Moise became acquainted with Kinne’s work. Certainly, she was already a convert before 1909 , when Mother Mary Barnes, another Pentecostal pioneer worker and evangelist, joined the staff of the mission and conducted many of the preaching services. Mary Barnes had a reputation as a fiery and anointed preacher and often traveled with her prayer and evangelism bands through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, holding Pentecostal meetings in tents and brush arbor (Warner “MMM of St. Louis” 6). In St. Louis, Mothers Moise and Barnes worked together, offering young women and vagrants a message of salvation and transformation through the power of God.

In January 1915, Bro. Glenn A. Cook, a former elder in the Azusa Street Mission under W.J. Seymour, arrived in St. Louis on a campaign through the Midwest, spreading the doctrine of baptism in Jesus’ Name. The truth of the New Testament baptismal formula had been recovered during the World Wide Pentecostal Camp Meeting in Arroyo Seco, California in 1913. After examining the scriptures and seeking God’s direction, Bro. Cook and Bro. Frank Ewart rebaptized one another in the Name of Jesus. Bro. Cook, who had been instrumental in spreading the Pentecostal message throughout the Midwest, no came bearing the revelation of the Oneness of God. Mother Moise, Mother Barnes, and nearly forth others at the mission accepted Bro. Cook’s message and were rebaptized in the Mississippi River in the Name of Jesus.

Only Heaven records the stories of the lives touched and changed by the work of the Mother Mary Moise. Many Pentecostal leaders found Apostolic truth under her roof and tutelage. She sacrificed a lifestyle of comfort and ease to answer the call to minister as a servant to those in sorest need. Her life and testimony of faith and service are an example to all of God’s people to lay up incorruptible, heavenly treasure.

Sources:

Warner, Wayne. “The St. Louis Era.” AG Heritage 1 (1), pp. 1-2.

Warner, Wayne. “Mother Mary Moise of St. Louis: a Pioneer in Pentecostal Social Ministry.” AG Heritage 10 March 1986, p. 6.