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Who Was Sister Aimee? The Incredible Story of L.A.’s Famous Evangelical Priest

Nobody actually saw Aimee Semple McPherson surrender to the ocean — but when, on May 18, 1926, her mother told a shocked crowd of over 5,000 followers at the Angelus Temple in Echo Park that its founder was drowned, Los Angeles grieved.

McPherson, the evangelical preacher known as “Sister Aimee” or just “Sister” was one of the most beloved, enigmatic, and identifiable characters of the Jazz Age in the Golden Land. In the mourning period after she yielded to the Pacific, despair reportedly caused one girl to commit suicide, while a deep-sea prowler looking for McPherson’s remains died of exposure; according to Carey McWilliams, one “ecstatic follower…glimpsing an image of Aimee on the bright, shimmering waters…was forcefully restrained from plunging into the waves” and another, “twenty-six, leaped into the sea crying, ‘I’m going after her,’ and was drowned.”[1]

So when, five weeks later, on June 23, Sister Aimee turned up at a Mexican border town near Douglas, Arizona, people were confused — and excited. And angry. The resulting scandal put the character of Aimee Semple McPherson on public trial. So who was she?

***

Aimee Kennedy was born in 1890 near Ingersoll, Ontario, where, at age 17 she met, fell in love with, and married Robert Semple, a magnetic Irish Pentecostal itinerant preacher. The young couple, with their mutual calling, sailed to China as missionaries, but Robert soon died of malaria; Aimee, now only 19, gave birth to her first child a month later. After moving to New York, she remarried to Harold McPherson, a grocery clerk who settled her into a life of domesticity in Providence, Rhode Island. It did not agree with her; after almost succumbing to illness, an insistent divine voice urged her: “NOW-WILL-YOU-GO?”

Aimee took a child under each arm and fled Rhode Island to return to the family farm in Ontario. She telegrammed her husband: “I have tried to walk your way and have failed. Won’t you come now and walk my way?” She was to take up preaching again; Harold would join her for the beginning of her career but, overwhelmed by her character, he could not sustain life with his “charismatic wife,”  and they divorced in 1921.

McPherson took her mother and children on the road preaching. They were nomads, crisscrossing the country and drawing massive crowds anxious to hear Sister Aimee’s evangelizing message. Carey McWilliams, later her neighbor in Los Angeles, noted that “their worldly possessions, at this time, consisted of the usual paraphernalia of traveling evangelists: a car and a tent.”

The car was called the “Gospel Auto,” and Sister Aimee famously painted evangelistic slogans across its sides in gold lettering: “JESUS IS COMING. GET READY” and “WHERE WILL YOU SPEND ETERNITY?” By night, they would turn the front seat back and sleep in the car: “The big outdoors is our home,” she wrote in her memoirs. “With joy we kneeled by the running board at night to pray.”[2] She spoke of her car “as if it were a talking horse, a valiant coworker for the Lord,” writes Daniel Mark Epstein in his biography, “Sister Aimee.” In July 1918 she wrote, “Sometimes when we leave the car on some errand, we find on returning that a crowd has gathered about the faithful car which is holding its own street meeting and preaching all by itself.”[3]

Dayton Sunday News coverage of Aimee Semple McPherson's visit
Dayton Sunday News coverage of Aimee Semple McPherson's 1919 visit in her Gospel Auto.

She preached a Pentecostal-leaning gospel, spoke in tongues, and seduced viewers with the spectacle of a woman preacher. “A female preacher in 1915 was, to many people, a horror,” notes Epstein. “To the Episcopalians of the time, McPherson’s meetings appeared like orgies scripted by the Witch of Endor.” With detractors, she was fearless and relentless: “Don’t you ever tell me that a woman cannot be called to preach the Gospel!” She insisted on gathering integrated groups of followers, and was, perhaps, the first evangelist to hold integrated revival meetings in the South.[4]

In a favorite stunt of hers, Sister Aimee would stand silent and motionless on a chair at a busy street corner with arms raised and eyes closed. Once a crowd formed that was large enough, Sister Aimee would snap her eyes open, yelp “Quick! Follow me!” ­­– and run to her venue with a tail of curious followers. Once inside, she would order the doors shut and command her captive but mesmerized audience.[5]

It was during a stint in New Rochelle, New York, with her daughter gravely ill, that Sister Aimee received a clear vision of the city of her salvation: Los Angeles, already a city of cultish inclination. She imagined a bungalow with a garden that awaited her and her family. And so, like many others, she hit the road and headed west to pursue her dream.

By now, the Gospel Auto was a seven-seater Oldsmobile, and everywhere they went, the strangeness of their vessel and of the sight of a group of women traveling without an escort drew people to Sister Aimee and her Foursquare teachings. From Gettysburg to Tulsa, she met crowds, shocked them, and made fans of them. All along the way, she comforted her children with the promise of a bungalow and a canary. It was, as Kevin Starr writes, “a Biblical journey, a spiritual quest for the promised City of the Angels.”[6] McPherson was, moreover, one of the first women to cross the country by automobile without the company of a man. By the time she arrived in Los Angeles, Sister Aimee was already a celebrity.

At first renting small spaces and halls for her sermons (early devotees had eagerly provided for her, out of their own pockets, the bungalow, garden, and canary of her vision), she soon leased a small church, and by January 1923 had built her own Angelus Temple for $1.5 million at the northwest edge of Echo Park. The remarkable building could seat over 4,000, and was the largest class-A church building in the U.S.[7] From the church sprang up a Bible school (Sister Aimee fought vehemently against teaching evolution in schools) and an administration that ran 240 affiliate churches throughout Southern California, urging people to join her in Southern California (“Florida for a Season, California for a Lifetime!”)[8]

Sister Aimee leads a church service inside the Angelus Temple on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park, ca. 1930.
Sister Aimee leads a church service inside the Angelus Temple in Echo Park, ca. 1930. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

Story continues below

 

angelus_temple.jpeg
Angelus Temple on Glendale Blvd in Echo Park. Erected by Aimee Semple McPherson in 1923 for $1.5 million, the temple is still the headquarters of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. “Sister Aimee” claimed to be the first woman in the world to preach on the radio – the Foursquare Gospel-owned KFSG (Kall Four Square Gospel) broadcast from the radio towers visible on Angelus Temple’s roof. "Satan has almost irretrievably captured the moving pictures,” she said. “Do not let him get the Radio tied up.” KFSG went on the air in February 1924. Courtesy of the James H. Osborne Photograph Collection, California State University, Dominguez Hills, Archives and Special Collections.

 

aimee_microphone.jpg
Aimee Semple McPherson behind the microphone in 1923. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Magnetic, Sister Aimee became an attraction in and of herself. Dressed in her signature white nurse’s outfit with a military cape, she had a flair for the dramatic and was known for putting on spectacular and packed shows; she was the second woman granted a broadcast license and used the Foursquare-owned KFSG (Kall Four Square Gospel) radio station to spread her message. An electric marquee hung over Angelus Temple in a testament to the modernity and verve of her message.

Carey McWilliams wrote, “I have seen her drive an ugly Devil around the platform with a pitchfork, enact the drama of Valley Forge in George Washington’s uniform, and take the lead in a dramatized sermon called ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’…A magnificent sense of showmanship enabled her to give the Angelus Temple throngs a sense of drama, and a feeling of release, that probably did have some therapeutic value.”[9]

One notable sermon, called “Arrested for Speeding,” made light of her recent traffic violation; she dressed up as a police officer and rode in on a motorcycle. Once dismounted, she held up a white-gloved hand to her audience: “Stop! You’re speeding to hell!”

For the Angeleños who did not accept her literal reading of the Bible, she was still an exciting and bewildering local attraction, and members of the Hollywood elite such as Charlie Chaplin were known to look in on her performances and even collaborate with her.

***

It was in May 1926 that Sister Aimee, accompanied by her secretary, Emma Schaeffer, put on a green bathing suit at Ocean Park beach and disappeared. After a day-long search, she was presumed dead, and following a suspenseful service given in her absence by her mother, “Ma Kennedy” announced that “She is with Jesus.”[10]

Aimee Sempe McPherson ransom note
The ransom note sent to McPherson’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, after the evangelist's 1926 disappearance. “we took her for two reasons-:First To wreck that damned Temple and second: to collect a tiny half million.” It was signed “THE AVENGERS.” Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

A ransom note arrived but was ignored; people speculated that she had even committed suicide. Despite her fame, she led a rather lonely and introspective life, it seemed. Or had it been a publicity stunt? This was Louis Adamic’s theory.[11] And then miraculously, after a memorial had been held for her, Aimee reappeared – in Agua Prieta, Mexico, just across the border from Douglas, Arizona.

Her return to Los Angeles was triumphant. Morrow Mayo wrote, “Thousands wept and cheered…A pilot engine, loaded to the cow-catcher with armed guards, preceded her train…The Police Department detailed special guards to protect her on her arrival…The City Council and the Sheriff’s department welcomed her officially. She was carried from the train in a chair of roses, and when her feet touched the pavements, the pavements were carpeted with flowers…Many presidents have visited Los Angeles, but no other man or woman was ever given such an ovation in the history of this city.”[12]

McPherson claimed that she had been kidnapped by a couple at the beach who asked her to heal an ailing infant they had left in their car. After being pulled into the vehicle, Aimee was driven by the band of kidnappers – “Jake,” “Steve,” and “Mexicali Rose” – into the desert, held there and bound. To escape, she used an empty tomato-can to cut the rope that had her tied, and walked for 17 hours to Agua Prieta, from where she was sent to a hospital in Douglas.

In the days that followed her triumphant return, it was suggested that in fact she had not been kidnapped but had taken an illicit vacation in Carmel with the married Kenneth Ormiston, the temple’s radio operator, whose wife had reported him missing over the same period of time. District Attorney Asa Keyes gathered evidence to charge McPherson with conspiracy to produce false testimony; the Rev. Bob Shuler, who already had competitive quarrel with her, wrote 64 vicious pages against her story and her character.

Lengthy legal proceedings eventually ended with the DA dropping the charges, and, despite her sullied reputation, an editorial in the Los Angeles Record famously conveyed public opinion: “Let’s forget it while we are still good neighbors and good friends…At the worst, Mrs. McPherson is accused by rumor of a moral lapse, and of lying about it afterwards like a gentleman.”[13]

Even after the trial, Sister Aimee maintained her following and her fundamentalism; she vowed to close dance halls, defend Prohibition, and fight the teaching of evolution in public schools.[14]

Angelus Temple Commissary
Men wait in line to enter the Angelus Temple’s Free Dining Hall & Commissary at 2210 W. Temple Street, around 1932. The Commissary was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the Depression, offering food, clothes, shelter, medical assistance, and cash. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

She also worked to serve Los Angeles, the city of her bungalow dreams. During the Depression she founded the Angelus Temple Commissary, which provided food and clothing and served 1.5 million people; during wartime, she sold war bonds for the government. In his landmark “Southern California Country”, Carey McWilliams wrote, “She made migrants feel at home in Los Angeles, she gave them a chance to meet other people, and she exorcised the nameless fears which so many of them had acquired from the fire-and-brimstone theology of the Middle West.”[15] In 1944, she died at age 53 of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills while visiting Oakland for a speaking engagement.

Over her lifetime, Sister Aimee elicited a mix of emotions from the public: incredulity, suspicion, arousal. During the lengthy proceedings that followed her mysterious return, the evangelist shot back at reporters who questioned whether she could have actually walked across the unforgiving Mexican desert to escape her kidnappers:

“Many have said that a woman could not have built Angelus Temple and do these other seemingly impossible things – but I did.”[16]

Further Reading

Barfoot, Chas H. Aimee Semple McPherson: And the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890-1926. London ; Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2011.

Epstein, Daniel Mark. Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. 1st edition. New York: Harcourt, 1993.

Mayo, Morrow. Los Angeles. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1933.

McPherson, Aimee Semple. This Is That: Personal Experiences, Sermons and Writings of Aimee Semple McPherson. Edited by Douglas Harrolf, n.d.

McWilliams, Carey. Southern California: An Island on the Land. Santa Barbara [Calif.]: Peregrine Smith, 1973.

———. “Sunlight in My Soul.” In The Aspirin Age, 1919-1941, edited by Isabel Leighton. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1949.

Starr, Kevin. Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Sutton, Matthew Avery. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. Harvard University Press, 2009.


[1] McWilliams, “Sunlight in My Soul,” 64.

[2] McPherson, This Is That, 136.

[3] Epstein, Sister Aimee, 146; McPherson, This Is That, 154.

[4] Epstein, Sister Aimee, 82; Barfoot, Aimee Semple McPherson, 74.

[5] McWilliams, “Sunlight in My Soul,” 55.

[6]Barfoot, Aimee Semple McPherson, 89; Starr, Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s, 140.

[7] Starr, Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s, 141.

[8] Ibid.; Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, 292.

[9] McWilliams, Southern California, 260.

[10] McWilliams, “Sunlight in My Soul,” 64.

[11] Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America.

[12] Mayo, Los Angeles, 285.

[13] Epstein, Sister Aimee, 302.

[14] Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America.

[15] McWilliams, Southern California, 262.

[16] Epstein, Sister Aimee, 302.

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