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|Aimee Semple McPherson|
Aimee Semple McPherson became one of the most photographed persons of her time. She enjoyed publicity and quotes on almost every subject were sought from her by journalists.
|Born||Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy|
October 9, 1890
|Died||September 27, 1944 (aged 53)|
|Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery (Glendale)|
|Known for||Founding the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel|
|Spouse(s)||Robert James Semple (died 1910)|
Harold Stewart McPherson (divorced 1921)
David Hutton (divorced 1934)
|Children||Roberta Star Semple|
|Parents||James Morgan Kennedy|
Mildred Ona Pearce
|This article may be too long to read and navigate comfortably. (October 2013)|
|This article's lead section may not adequately summarize key points of its contents. (April 2012)|
|Aimee Semple McPherson|
Aimee Semple McPherson became one of the most photographed persons of her time. She enjoyed publicity and quotes on almost every subject were sought from her by journalists.
|Born||Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy|
October 9, 1890
|Died||September 27, 1944 (aged 53)|
|Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery (Glendale)|
|Known for||Founding the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel|
|Spouse(s)||Robert James Semple (died 1910)|
Harold Stewart McPherson (divorced 1921)
David Hutton (divorced 1934)
|Children||Roberta Star Semple|
|Parents||James Morgan Kennedy|
Mildred Ona Pearce
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. She conducted public faith-healing demonstrations before large crowds, allegedly healing 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.
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.
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 in a Salvation Army ceremony, pledging never to allow their marriage to lessen their devotion to God, affection for comrades or faithfulness in the Army. The pair's notion of "Army" was very broad, encompassing much more than just the Salvation Army. Robert supported them as a foundry worker and preached at the local Pentecostal mission. Together, they studied the Bible, Aimee claiming Robert taught her all she knew; though other observers state she was far more knowledgeable than she let on. After a few months they moved to Chicago and became part of William Durham's Full Gospel Assembly. Under Durham's tutelage, Aimee was discovered to have a unique ability in the interpretation in tongues, translating with stylistic eloquence the otherwise indecipherable utterances of persons who began to speak in a language unknown to them.
The two then 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 and Robert, dysentery. Robert Semple died of the illnesses 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. Alone, with just the wailing of her newborn daughter, Aimee Semple was now a 19-year-old widow. Her mother, Mildred Kennedy wired her funds for the return journey to the United States. On-board ship, Aimee Semple started a Sunday school class then held other services as well. Almost all the passengers attended. On her departure, a collection was taken by the ship's purser and the amount given was just enough to pay for travel to her hometown. Robert Semple never left her thoughts; she displayed his photo in her parlor and spoke of him glowingly, even dreamily, in her sermons, as a lifelong inspiration.
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 second 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 she 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 that was more stable and predicable. After arguing with McPherson, he returned to Rhode Island and around 1918 had filed for separation. He petitioned for divorce, citing abandonment; the divorce 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 marital 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.
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. Six percent indicated they were immediately and completely healed while 85 percent indicated they were partially healed and continued to improve ever since. Fewer than half of 1 percent 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.
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 13:8 "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. Enrollment grew exceeding 10,000, and was claimed to be the largest single Christian congregation in the worldAccording 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 another 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.
Even though McPherson condemned theater and film as the devil's workshop, its secrets and effects were co-opted. She became the first woman evangelist to adopt the whole technique of the moving picture star. 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 Angelus 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, though, demonstrate speaking-in-tongues and faith healing in sermons. She also kept a museum of discarded medical fittings from persons faith healed during her services which included 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 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 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 rare exceptions, 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.
By early 1926, McPherson had become one of the most charismatic and influential women and ministers of her time. Her fame equaled, to name a few, Charles Lindbergh, Johnny Weissmuller, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Knute Rockne, Bobby Jones, Louise Brooks, and Rudolph Valentino. She was a major American phenomenon, who along with some other high profile preachers of the time, unlike Hollywood celebrities, could be admired by their adoring public, "without apparently compromising their souls."
According to Carey McWilliams, she had become "more than just a household word: she was a folk hero and a civic institution; an honorary member of the fire and police departments; a patron saint of the service clubs; an official spokesman for the community on problems grave and frivolous." She was influential in many social, educational and political areas. McPherson made personal crusades against anything that she felt threatened her Christian ideals, including the drinking of alcohol and teaching evolution in schools.
McPherson became a strong supporter of William Jennings Bryan during the 1925 Scopes Trial, in which John Scopes was tried for illegally teaching evolution at a Dayton, Tennessee school. Bryan and McPherson had worked together in the Angelus Temple and they believed Darwinism had undermined students' morality. According to The New Yorker, McPherson said, evolution "is the greatest triumph of Satanic intelligence in 5,931 years of devilish warfare, against the Hosts of Heaven. It is poisoning the minds of the children of the nation." She sent Bryan a telegram saying, "Ten thousand members of Angelus Temple with her millions of radio church membership send grateful appreciation of your lion-hearted championship of the Bible against evolution and throw our hats in the ring with you." She organized "an all-night prayer service, a massive church meeting preceded by a Bible parade through Los Angeles."
While her mother Mildred Kennedy was a registered Democrat, no one was certain of McPherson's registration. She endorsed Herbert Hoover over Franklin D. Roosevelt but enthusiastically threw her support behind the latter and his social programs when he was elected into office. She was a patron of organized labor, preaching a gangster's money was "no more unclean than the dollars of the man who amasses his millions from underpaid factory workers". She was more cautious though when labor strikes resulted in violent uprisings. She saw in them the infiltration of Communism, which sought to infiltrate labor unions and other organizations. McPherson intensely disliked Communism and its derivatives as they sought to rule without God; their ultimate goal, she believed, to remove Christianity from the earth. McPherson's opinion of fascism fared no better; its totalitarian rule wrongly justified by claiming to represent the power of God.
McPherson did not align herself consistently with any broad conservative or liberal political agenda. Instead she explained if Christianity occupied a central place in national life, if the components of God, home, school and government were kept together, everything else would fall into place. "Remove any of these," she warned, "and [civilization] topples, crumbles." Current Foursquare Gospel Church leaders qualify the evangelist's views: "McPherson’s passion to see America sustained in spiritual health, which compelled her quest to see the Church influence government, must be interpreted in light of the political and religious climate of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. It is not accurate to draw a parallel between today’s extreme fundamentalist, right-wing Christianity and the style or focus of Sister McPherson." She was also among the first prominent Christan ministers to defend the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. She related that when Christ returns, the Jews would receive him, their suffering will end "and they will establish at Jerusalem a kingdom more wonderful than the world has known."
On May 18, 1926, McPherson went with her secretary to Ocean Park Beach north of Venice Beach to swim. Soon after arriving, McPherson was nowhere to be found. It was thought she had drowned.
McPherson was scheduled to hold a service that day; her mother Minnie Kennedy preached the sermon instead, saying at the end, "Sister is with Jesus," sending parishioners into a tearful frenzy. Mourners crowded Venice Beach and the commotion sparked days-long media coverage fueled in part by William Randolph Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner and a stirring poem by Upton Sinclair to commemorate the tragedy. Daily updates appeared in newspapers across the country and parishioners held day-and-night seaside vigils. One parishioner drowned while searching for the body, and a diver died of exposure.
Kenneth G. Ormiston, the engineer for KFSG, had taken other assignments around late December 1925 and left his job at the Temple. Newspapers later linked McPherson and Ormiston, the latter seen driving up the coast with an unidentified woman. Some believed McPherson and Ormiston, who was married, had become romantically involved and had run off together. Several ransom notes and other communications were sent to the Temple, some were relayed to the police, who thought they were hoaxes and others dismissed as fraudulent. McPherson "sightings" were abundant, as many as 16 in different cities and other locations on the same day. For a time, Mildred Kennedy, McPherson's mother, offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the return of her daughter.
The ransom demands sent included a note by the "Revengers" who wanted $500,000 and another for $25,000 conveyed by a lawyer who claimed contact with the kidnappers. The handwritten "Revengers" note later disappeared from the LA Police evidence locker and the lawyer was found dead in a possibly suspicious accident before his claim could be adequately investigated. A lengthy ransom letter from the "Avengers" arrived around June 19, 1926, also forwarded to the police, demanded $500,000 or else kidnappers would sell McPherson into "white slavery." Relating their prisoner was a nuisance because she was incessantly preaching to them, the lengthy, two-page poorly typewritten letter also indicated the kidnappers worked hard to spread the word McPherson was held captive, and not drowned. Kennedy regarded the notes hoaxes, believing her daughter dead.
Shortly thereafter, on June 23, McPherson stumbled out of the desert in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican town across the border from Douglas, Arizona. The Mexican couple she approached there thought she had died when McPherson collapsed in front of them. An hour later she stirred and the couple covered her with blankets. She claimed she had been kidnapped, drugged, tortured, and held for ransom in a shack by two men and a woman, "Steve," "Mexicali Rose," and another unnamed man. Her story also claimed she had escaped from her captors and walked through the desert for about 13 hours to freedom.
Following her return from Douglas, Arizona, McPherson was greeted at the train station by 30,000–50,000 people, more than for almost any other person including movie stars and presidents. The parade back to the temple even elicited a greater turnout than President Woodrow Wilson's visit to Los Angeles in 1919, attesting to her popularity and the growing influence of mass media entertainment. Aircraft flew low overhead, dropping roses, which drifted around McPherson as she stood surrounded by white-robed flower girls from Angelus Temple
The fire department was out in their parade uniforms and high ranking Los Angeles officials formally greeted her return. Already incensed over McPherson's influential public stance on evolution and the Bible, most of the Chamber of Commerce and some other civic leaders, however, saw the event as gaudy display; nationally embarrassing to the city. Many Los Angeles area churches were also annoyed. The divorcee McPherson had settled in their town and many of their parishioners were now attending her church, with its elaborate sermons that, in their view, diminished the dignity of the Gospel. The Chamber of Commerce, together with Reverend Robert P. Shuler leading the Los Angeles Church Federation, and assisted by the press and others, became an informal alliance to determine if her disappearance was caused by other than a kidnapping.
In Los Angeles, ahead of any court date, McPherson noticed newspaper stories about her kidnapping becoming more and more sensationalized as the days passed. To maintain excited, continued public interest, she speculated, the newspapers let her original account give way to rain torrents of "new spice and thrill" stories about her being elsewhere "with that one or another one." It did not matter if the material was disproved or wildly contradictory. No correction or apology was given for the previous story as another, even more outrageous tale, took its place.
Her mother, Mildred Kennedy was very cynical of the increased newspaper scrutiny and McPherson had the option to forgive the alleged kidnappers and let the matter drop. Earlier, when McPherson was interrogated in Douglas, Arizona by Prosecutor District Attorney Asa Keyes and Deputy District Attorney Joseph Ryan, both seemed empathetic to her story. Ryan said he could make the desert trip without scuffing or marking his commissary shoes. McPherson therefore presented herself in court as a victim of a crime seeking redress. Pressured by various influential Los Angeles business, media, political and religious interests  Keyes and Ryan instead opened the grand jury inquiry with insinuating questions, implying McPherson and her mother were involved in a deception.
Some were skeptical of her story since McPherson seemed in unusually good health for her alleged ordeal; her clothing showing no signs of what they expected of a long walk through the desert. This was disputed by most Douglas, Arizona, residents, the town where McPherson was taken to convalesce, including expert tracker C.E. Cross, who testified that McPherson's physical condition, shoes, and clothing were all consistent with an ordeal such as she described. A grand jury convened on July 8, 1926, but adjourned 12 days later citing lack of evidence to proceed with any charges against either alleged kidnappers or perjury by McPherson. McPherson was told they would be open to receive any evidence submitted by her should she desire to further substantiate her kidnapping story.
The prosecution collected five witnesses who asserted to have seen McPherson at a seaside cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea, with the cottage being rented by Ormiston under an assumed name. It was pointed out that even though most of these witnesses knew of the $25,000 reward for McPherson's return, with her pictures prominently appearing in the newspapers, none of the five stepped forward at the time they allegedly saw McPherson to claim it. Moreover, several other witnesses, including two the prosecution erroneously thought would testify for them, stated the woman was not McPherson. Ormiston admitted to having rented the cottage but claimed that the woman who had been there with him – known in the press as Mrs. X – was not McPherson but another woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair.
The grand jury reconvened on August 3 and took further testimony along with documents from hotels, all said by various newspapers to be in McPherson's handwriting. These, though, were later revealed to be Elizabeth Tovey's, a woman traveling with Ormiston, whose handwriting did not at all resemble McPherson's. McPherson steadfastly stuck to her story, that she was approached by a young couple at the beach who had asked her to come over and pray for their sick child, and that she was then shoved into a car and drugged with chloroform.
The Carmel cottage was further checked for fingerprints, but none belonging to McPherson were recovered. Two grocery slips found in the yard of the cottage were studied by a police handwriting expert and determined to be McPherson's penmanship. While the original slips later mysteriously disappeared from the courtroom, photo-stat copies were available. The defense had a handwriting expert of their own who demonstrated the grocery slips were not McPherson's but doctored to look like hers. It was also noted the original slips would have been in the yard for two months, surviving dew, fog, and lawn maintenance before their discovery.
California grand jury members are bound by law not discuss the case to protect the integrity of the process in determining if there is sufficient cause for a formal juried trial. The Reverend Robert P. Shuler was told as much by a newspaper in response to an open demand he made for more disclosure in the ongoing inquiry. In the McPherson case, proceedings became quite public as observed by journalist H. L. Mencken. A vocal critic of McPherson, L. Mencken From The American Mercury (1930) of McPherson he wrote: For years she toured the Bible Belt in a Ford, haranguing the morons nightly, under canvas. It was a depressing life, and its usufructs were scarcely more than three meals a day. The town [he refers to Los Angeles] has more morons in it than the whole State of Mississippi, and thousands of them had nothing to do save gape at the movie dignitaries and go to revivals. He had been sent to cover the trial and there was every expectation he would continue his searing critiques against the evangelist. Instead, Mencken came away impressed with McPherson and disdainful of the unseemly nature of the prosecution. Mencken later wrote: "The trial, indeed, was an orgy typical of the half-fabulous California courts. The very officers of justice denounced her riotously in the Hearst papers while it was in progress." To combat the bad newspaper publicity, McPherson spoke freely about the court trials on the air during her radio broadcasts.
Theories and innuendo were rampant: that she had run off with a lover, had gone off to have an abortion, was taking time to heal from plastic surgery, or had staged a publicity stunt. Two-inch headlines called her a tart, a conspirator, and a home-wrecker. McPherson's near death medical operation in 1914, which prevented her from having more children, was already part of the public record. When challenged about the abortion claim with a request to pay for the medical exam to prove it, the newspaper which printed the story backed down. Some prosecutor witnesses stated when they saw McPherson in Carmel, she had short hair, and furor ensued she was currently wearing fake hair swatches piled up to give the impression of longer tresses. McPherson, as requested by her lawyer, stood up, unpinned her hair, which fell abundantly around her shoulders, shocking the witnesses and others into embarrassed silence. McPherson learned that in a celebrity crazed-culture fueled by mass media, a leading lady could become a villainess in the blink of an eye.
The defense rested its case on October 28 and the judge, on November 3, decided enough evidence had been garnered against the evangelist and her mother for a jury trial case in Los Angeles, set for mid-January 1927. The charges were a criminal conspiracy to commit acts injurious to public morals, to prevent and obstruct justice, and to prevent the due administration of the laws, and of engaging in a criminal conspiracy to commit the crime of subordination of perjury. If convicted, the counts added up to maximum prison time of forty-two years.
The chief witness against McPherson was now Lorraine Wiseman-Sielaff. She first stated she was in Carmel as a nurse for Ormiston's mistress; and because she somewhat physically resembled McPherson, it was her that people were misidentifying as the evangelist. Later, after the Angelus Temple refused to post her bail when she was arrested for passing a bad check, Wiseman-Sielaff said McPherson paid her to tell that story. Her testimony was fluidly inconsistent, and it changed significantly yet again in late December, 1926. Prosecutor Asa Keyes eventually concluded Wiseman-Sielaff's story was not true and a "grievous wrong had been done." The Examiner newspaper reported that Los Angeles district attorney Asa Keyes had dropped all charges on January 10, 1927.  
Regardless of the court's decision, months of unfavorable press reports fixated in much of the public's mind, a certainty of McPherson's wrongdoing. Many readers were unaware of prosecution evidence having become discredited because it was often placed in the back columns while some new accusation against McPherson held prominence on the headlines. In a letter he wrote to the Los Angeles Times a few months after the case was dropped, the Reverend Robert P. Shuler stated, "Perhaps the most serious thing about this whole situation is the seeming loyalty of thousands to this leader in the face of her evident and positively proven guilt."
Some supporters thought McPherson should have insisted on the jury trial and clear her name. The grand jury inquiry concluded while enough evidence did not exist to try her, it did not indicate her story was true with its implication of kidnappers still at large. Therefore, anyone could still accuse her of a hoax without fear of slander charges and frequently did so. McPherson, though, was treated harshly in many previous sessions at court, being verbally pressured in every way possible to change her story or elicit some bit of incriminating information. Moreover, court costs to McPherson were estimated as high as US $100,000 dollars. A jury trial could take months. McPherson moved on to other projects. In 1927 she published a book about her version of the kidnapping: In the Service of the King: The Story of My Life.
The 1926 grand jury case, the largest of its kind in California, had hundreds of reporters looking for discrediting evidence against McPherson. Almost $500,000 was spent (most by newspapers assisting in the investigation), 36,000 pages of transcripts generated, and agencies, officials and others continued to investigate, even years later, but were unable to prove her kidnapping story false. In 1929, after a failed request by the state senate to reopen the older 1926 case,  Journalist Morrow Mayo noted it was the last chance in California to "ruin that red-headed sorceress", and "she is free to serve the Lord until the Marines are called out." 
The tale was later satirized by Pete Seeger in a song called "The Ballad of Aimee McPherson", with lyrics claiming the kidnapping had been unlikely because a hotel love nest revealed "the dents in the mattress fit Aimee's caboose."
The Court of Historical Review and Appeal in San Francisco, which holds no legal authority, is made up of members of the bench who examine and retry historical cases and controversies. In April 1990, a decision was handed down regarding the matter of McPherson's kidnapping story. George T. Choppelas, the then presiding judge of the San Francisco Municipal Court, ruling for the Court of Historical Review, found the issues involved both serious and fascinating. He concluded that "there was never any substantial evidence to show that her story was untrue. She may not have been a saint, but she certainly was no sinner, either."
Numerous allegations of illicit love affairs were often directed against McPherson. Suspected lovers generally denied involvement. For example, Kenneth Ormiston, a married man with a small son, could have profited immensely from an expose' about himself and McPherson. It was not disputed the two had a good working relationship and were friendly with each other. During the 1926 kidnapping grand jury trial, his privacy in every way was invaded as reporters and investigators tried to link him amorously to McPherson. Ormiston told newspapers his name connected in such a way to the evangelist "was a gross insult to a noble and sincere woman."
Alarmed by her rapidly changing style of dress and involvement with Hollywood and its "worldly" lifestyle, in 1929, an Angeleus Temple official hired detectives to shadow McPherson. Through her windows, the detectives frequently saw McPherson staying up until the early morning hours composing songs, drafting sacred operas and scribbling diagrams of her illustrated sermons. They were looking for evidence of her indiscretions, but found nothing. No confirmation of adulterous misconduct, with perhaps exception of her third marriage as a violation of Church tenets, was ever presented. McPherson herself, aware of numerous accusations leveled at her throughout her career, responded only to a small fraction of them, conveying the only thing she had time for was "preaching Jesus."
Posthumously, unsubstantiated allegations of extramarital affairs continued to emerge, this time by those who stated to have been her partner; claims not mentioned by them or others while she was still alive. Canadian journalist, Gordon Sinclair, implied such a claim in his 1966 autobiography, Will the Real Gordon Sinclair Please Stand Up. Sinclair stated he worked on a story with McPherson and it was during one of those times in 1934, the incident purportedly occurred. Sinclair alludes to a sexual dalliance with McPherson one afternoon along with some gin and ginger.
Thirty years after her death, another claim by comedian Milton Berle, in a 1974 autobiography, alleges a brief affair with the evangelist. In his book, entitled Milton Berle: An Autobiography, Berle asserts he met McPherson at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles where both were doing a charity show. Upon seeing her for the first time, Berle recalled,
"I was both impressed and very curious ... She was all dignity and class when it came her turn. The house went wild when she walked out into the lights." Backstage, she invited him to see Angelus Temple. Instead, Berle wrote, the two of them went to lunch in Santa Monica, then to an apartment of hers where McPherson changed into something "cooler [...] a very thin, pale blue negligee." Berle said he could see she was wearing nothing underneath. She just said, "Come in." Berle said they met for the second and last time at the same apartment a few days later, writing, "This time, she just sent the chauffeur for me to bring me straight to the apartment. We didn't even bother with lunch. When I was dressing to leave, she stuck out her hand. 'Good luck with your show, Milton.' What the hell. I couldn't resist it. 'Good luck with yours, Aimee.' I never saw or heard from Aimee Semple McPherson again. But whenever I hear 'Yes, Sir, That's My Baby', I remember her."
Biographer Matthew Avery Sutton commented, "Berle, a notorious womanizer whose many tales of scandalous affairs were not always true, claimed to have had sex with McPherson on this and one other occasion", both during a year when McPherson was often ill and bedridden. Sutton noted that Berle's story of a crucifix in McPherson's bedroom was not consistent with the coolness of Pentecostal-Catholic relations during that era. Another book by Milton Berle, Laughingly Yours, which had autobiographical content that was published in 1939 while McPherson was still alive, did not have this claim.
Author Raymond L. Cox states: "Mrs. McPherson's daughter, Roberta Salter of New York, told me, 'Mother never had an apartment in her life.' By 1931 she kept herself securely chaperoned to guard against such allegations." During 1930 the evangelist's appearances and whereabouts can be traced almost every day. She was incapacitated with illness a full five months of that year, and there is no place on her schedule as reported in her publications and church and travel records for the benefit Berle alleged. Besides, Roberta also told Cox, "Mother never did a benefit in her life. She had her own charities".
Aimee Semple McPherson strove to develop a church organization which could not only provide for the spiritual, but the physical needs of the distressed. Though she fervently believed and preached the imminent return of Jesus Christ, she had no idea of how soon that Second Coming might be. Two thoughts pervaded the mind of most devout Pentecostals of the time, "Jesus is coming, therefore how can I get ready," and "how can I help others to get ready?"
For McPherson, part of the answer was to mobilize her Temple congregation and everyone she could reach through radio, telephone and word of mouth to get involved in substantial amounts of charity and social work. "True Christianity is not only to be good but to do good," she preached. The Charities and Beneficiary Department collected donations for all types of humanitarian relief to include a Japanese disaster as well as a German relief fund. Men released from prison were found jobs by a "brotherhood." A "sisterhood" was created as well, sewing baby clothing for impoverished mothers. Branch churches elsewhere in the country were likewise encouraged to follow the Angelus Temple's example. Even people who considered McPherson's theology almost ridiculous helped out because they saw her church as the best way to assist their community.
In June 1925, after confirming reports of an earthquake in Santa Barbara, McPherson immediately left the parsonage and interrupted a broadcast at a nearby radio station. She took over the microphone from the startled singer and requested food, blankets, clothing, whatever listeners could give for emergency supplies to assist nearby Santa Barbara. As the Red Cross met to discuss and organize aid, McPherson's second convoy had already arrived at the troubled city. In 1928, after a dam failed and the ensuing flood left up to 600 dead in its wake, McPherson's church led the relief effort. Later, in 1933, a n earthquake struck and devastated Long Beach. McPherson quickly arranged for volunteers to be on the scene with blankets, coffee and doughnuts.
An unwed mother's home was operated of the parsonage. Roberta Semple Star, McPherson's daughter, shared her room with one troubled or battered runaway girl after another. She recalled they came from all over the country and her mother could spot them in any crowd. McPherson herself would frequently contact the girl's presumably worried parents, offering to facilitate a reconciliation if needed. If the girl stayed on, after the baby arrived, McPherson made another call to the parents, letting them know wonderful news: their daughter just gave birth to a healthy eight pound baby boy or girl. McPherson's enthusiastically sincere, caring approach tended to result in reluctant parents accepting back their wayward daughter with their new grandchild.
While McPherson, her two children and sometimes visitors shared dinner upstairs, frequently they were interrupted by knocks on the downstairs door. The Angeles Temple parsonage received an unknown number of abandoned infants left in all types of containers at its doorstep. People knew a baby left there would be well taken care of. Because many baby abandonments were caused by mothers unable to care for their infants while they worked, she also established a day nursery for children of working mothers.
Drawing from her childhood experience with the Salvation Army, in 1927, McPherson opened a commissary at Angelus Temple which was devised to assist the needy on a much larger, formalized scale. The Commissary was virtually the only place in town a person could get food, clothing, and blankets with no questions asked. It was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and became active in creating soup kitchens, free clinics, and other charitable activities as the Great Depression wore on. It is estimated that she fed 1.5 million people. When the government shut down the free school lunch program, McPherson took it over. Her policy of giving first and investigating afterward allowed waste and a certain amount of deadbeats to leech off the program, but it "alleviated suffering on an epic scale".
McPherson got the fire and police departments to assist in distribution. Doctors, physicians and dentists were persuaded to staff her free clinic that trained 500 nurses to help treat children and the elderly. She encouraged individuals and companies of all types to donate supplies, food, cash or labor. To prevent the power from being turned off to homes of overdue accounts during the winter, a US $2,000 cash reserve was set up with the utility company. Many people, who otherwise would have nothing to do with the Angelus Temple, would receive a call from McPherson, and then loot their mansion closets or company stores for something to give. The Yellow Cab Company donated a large building and, in the first month, 80,000 people received meals there.
Laboring under a sign "Everybody and anybody is somebody to Jesus", volunteer workers filled commissary baskets with an assortment of food and other items as well as Foursquare Gospel literature and handed them out. Even a complete kit designed to care for newborn babies was available. A reporter writes he had always thought the breadline was a "drab colorless scar on our civilization" but of the Angelus Temple commissary, he observes, was "the warm garment of sympathy and Christian succor." A note, which reflects the sentiment of many of those who received assistance, was left in June, 2010 at McPherson's virtual gravesite:
"My grandpa always talked about when he was a kid, he and his family moved to California from Missouri, during the depression, and his family was starving and they met you and you gave them a bag of vegetables, and some money, he never forgot it." -Anonymous
Establishing an employment bureau as well, McPherson desired to help "the discouraged husband, the despondent widow, or the little mother who wants extra work to bear the burden of a sick husband". She expected everyone in her temple to be involved, 'let us ever strive to lighten our brother's load and dry the tears of a sister; race, creed or status make no difference. We are all one in the eyes of the Lord." She encouraged members to think of the commissary as widening "the spirituality of the whole church".
In 1932, the commissary was raided by police to allegedly locate a still used to make brandy out of donated apricots. Some sauerkraut and salad oil were purportedly observed leaking from their respective storage areas. As a consequence, the commissary was briefly shut down. The press got involved and the public demanded an investigation. Since no one really wanted to stall the temple's charity efforts, the acceptable solution was to replace the immediate management. The staff was let go and students from her Foursquare Gospel Church's LIFE Bible College filled in. The newspaper media, generally cynical of the Temple and in particular, of McPherson, recognized "the excellent features of that organization's efforts" and "the faults of the Angelus Temple are outweighed by its virtues". McPherson issued a statement declaring, "They have clashed loud their cymbals and blown their trumpets about a still and some sauerkraut,... our work is still before us. If...anybody abused his trust, it must not happen again."
As McPherson tried to avoid administrative delays in categorizing the "deserving" from the "undeserving," her temple commissary became known as one of the region's most effective and inclusive aid institutions. Few soup kitchens lasted more than several months, but McPherson's remained open. Even as she transformed herself into a fashionable blonde Hollywood socialite, McPherson's vigor and practicality for social activism did not change, she loved organizing big projects. A 1936 survey indicated the Angelus Temple assisted more family units than any other public or private institution in the city. Because her programs aided non-residents as well, such as migrants from other states and Mexico, she ran afoul of California state regulations. Even though temple guidelines were later officially adjusted to accommodate those policies, helping families in need was a priority, regardless of their place of residence.
Actor Anthony Quinn recalls:
"This was all during the height of the Depression, when hunger and poverty permeated America. Many Mexicans were terrified of appealing for county help because most of them were in the country illegally. When in distress, they were comforted by the fact that they could call one of Aimee's branches at any time of the night. There, they would never be asked any of the embarrassing questions posed by the authorities. The fact that they were hungry or in need of warm clothing was enough. No one even asked if they belonged to Aimee's church or not."
Following her heyday in the 1920s, McPherson carried on with her ministry but fell out of favor with the press. They once dubbed her the "miracle worker" or "miracle woman", reporting extensively on her faith healing demonstrations, but now were anxious to relay every disturbance in her household to the headlines. Her developing difficulties with her mother, Mildred Kennedy, were starting to take the front page. Yet, McPherson emerged from the kidnapping nationally famous. As much as ten percent of the population in Los Angeles held membership in her Temple. For a time, movie studios competed with each other offering McPherson long-term contracts.
Believing that talking pictures had the potential to transform Christianity, McPherson explored Hollywood culture and appeared in newsreels alongside other famous individuals such as Mary Pickford, Frances Perkins, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. She lost weight, cut and dyed her hair, and became stylish and well attired. A critic wrote McPherson "can out-dress the Hollywood stars". The solicitation of fame, justified to draw audiences to her and hence to Christ, was more than some in her church organization could accept. They yearned for Sister Aimee "in the old time dress," referring to her previous "trademarked" uniform of a navy cape over a white servant's dress; both purchased inexpensively in bargain basements. Other members, though, loved it and her Angelus Temple services were as popular as ever and remained so throughout her life. Unless parishioners arrived to a service early, frequently they could not get in, all seats were taken. Now that she could afford it, McPherson thought as well, she wanted her apparel and display to be the best she could present to Jesus.
In early 1927, McPherson immediately set out on a "vindication tour", visiting various cities and taking advantage of the publicity her kidnapping story created to preach the Gospel. Her visit to New York in fox-furs and a finely trimmed yellow suit was noted in the society pages. She visited even nightclubs, to include a famous speakeasy in New York: Texas Guinan’s Three Hundred Club on 54th Street. While McPherson sipped water at her table, Guinan asked if she would speak a few words to the patrons. Delighted, McPherson stood and addressed the jazzed and boozy crowd:
"Behind all these beautiful clothes, behind these good times, in the midst of your lovely buildings and shops and pleasures, there is another life. There is something on the other side. “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” With all your getting and playing and good times, do not forget you have a Lord. Take Him into your hearts."
The unexpected speech that did not judge, and had a conciliatory tone between them and the Divine, earned a thoughtful moment of silence from the crowd, then an applause that went on for much longer than the speech took. The revelers were invited to hear her preach at the Glad Tidings Tabernacle on 33rd street. The visits to speakeasies and nightclubs added to McPherson's notoriety; Newspapers reported heavily on them, rumors erroneously conveyed she was drinking, smoking and dancing; and her mother along with some other church members, did not understand McPherson's strategy of tearing down barriers between the secular and religious world, between the sinner and the saved.
In the summer of 1927, Mildred Kennedy, McPherson's mother, left the Angelus Temple. In an attempt to curtail her daughter's influence and officially transfer more power to herself, Kennedy initiated a staff member "vote of confidence" against McPherson, but lost. The two had heatedly argued over management polices and McPherson's changing personal dress and appearance. For similar reasons, 300 members of the choir left as well. The choir could be replaced; however, Kennedy's financial and administrative skills had been of crucial importance in growing McPherson's ministry from tent revivals to satellite churches and maintaining its current activities in the Temple. A series of less able management staff replaced Kennedy and the Temple became involved in various questionable projects such as hotel building, cemetery plots, and land sales. Accordingly, the Angelus Temple plummeted deep into debt. In response to the difficulties, Kennedy came back in late 1929, but because of continued serious disagreements with McPherson, tendered her resignation July 29, 1930. The following month, in August 1930, McPherson suffered a physical and nervous breakdown. For ten months she was absent from the pulpit, diagnosed, in part with acute acidosis.
When she gained strength and returned, it was with renewed vigor that she introduced her moving "Attar of Roses" sermon, based on the Song of Solomon, with its Rose of Charon as the mystical Body of Christ. While journalists attending her Sunday illustrated sermons assumed her language was fit only for slapstick or sentimental entertainment, scholars who have studied her work for Bible students and small prayer groups, found instead the complex discourse of neoplatonic interpretation. The Old Testament book, the Song of Solomon, for example, she had hundreds of pages written about it, each "different from one another as snowflakes".
In September, 1931, on her way to an eight-day revival in Portland, Oregon, she visited former district attorney Asa Keyes, in the San Quentin penitentiary. Keyes, who had been a vigorous prosecutor in attempting to prove her 1926 kidnapping story a fraud, was imprisoned on an unrelated matter. McPherson, with no apparent malice or gloating, wished him well and said he was in her prayers. A grateful Keyes thanked her. Afterwards, she arranged to visit Boston for an ambitious nine-day revival. McPherson trained for it by swimming 3 1/2 miles per day across Lake Elsinore, California, paced by a rowboat.
The October 10–18, 1931 revival in Boston started out sluggishly and many predicted its failure. A Los Angeles newspaper ran headlines of the flop and expected more of the same in the days to come. On opening night, McPherson spoke to less than 5,000 persons in the 22,000 seating sports arena, and safety pins and rubber bands abundantly cluttered the collection baskets. The city had large populations of Unitarians, Episcopalians and Catholics, venerable denominations traditionally hostile to a Pentecostal / fundamentalist message. Afterwards, from her hotel room, McPherson, known to be a sports fan, asked for the afternoon's World Series scores and a Boston Herald reporter sent her a copy of the Sunday edition. The next day, the "Bring Back the Bible to Boston" campaign's tone shifted as McPherson took greater control and attendance climbed sharply.
A reporter took note of McPherson's stage presence, different from any other evangelist who spoke there, gesturing with her white Bible for effect as well as preaching. Answering him as to why she presented a dramatic sermon, she stated, "Our God is a dramatic God,... rolling back the Red Sea,... Elijah on the mountaintop,... the crucifixion, the resurrection, His ascension,... tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost." The final day of afternoon and evening services had 40,000 persons attending, the stadium was full and more than 5,000 had to be turned away. A total of 160,000 people attended the meetings; breaking historic attendance records of any nine days of revival services in Boston.
Her revival in New York City was not very fruitful, her sensationalistic reputation preceded her. The third marriage to David Hutton, rumored romances and her kidnapping was what its press and citizens wanted hear about. Therefore, after a brief pause in New York and Washington, DC, she went on Philadelphia and other cities, traveling to 46 of them in 21 states; speaking to as much as two percent of the entire population of the United States. A full crew of musicians, scene designers and costumers accompanied McPherson. In this, her last national revival tour, between September 1933 and December 20, 1934, two million persons heard 336 sermons. Many more were reached by 45 radio stations.
The Boston Evening Traveler newspaper reported:
"Aimee's religion is a religion of joy. There is happiness in it. Her voice is easy to listen to. She does not appeal to the brain and try to hammer religion into the heads of her audience. Rather, she appeals to the hearts of her hearers. She radiates friendliness. She creates an atmosphere that is warming. She is persuasive, rather than forceful; gracious and kindly, rather than compelling. Fundamentally she takes the whole Bible literally, from cover to cover."
Nevertheless, she was not a radical literalist. In an informal meeting with some Harvard students, McPherson told them that Genesis allowed great latitude of interpretation, and that neither she nor the Bible insisted the world was created only 6,000 years ago. In another meeting with students, she heard their assertion the teachings of Christ have outlived their usefulness; education, science and cold reasoning was the new savior of the world. Thus compelled, McPherson decided to travel and look at the world with new eyes. In 1935 McPherson embarked on a worldwide six-month discovery tour to examine the social religious and economic climates of many countries. At one point it was earlier reported she wanted to study the women's movement in connection with the campaign for the Independence of India, and was anxious to have "a chat with Mahatma Gandhi". She received an invitation from him and he gave her a sari made from threads woven from his simple spinning wheel. Impressed with Gandhi and his ideas, McPherson thought he might secretly lean towards Christianity; his dedication possibly coming from catching "a glimpse of the cleansing, lifting, strengthening power of the Nazarene".
Other highlights included traversing barefoot, in Myanmar, the lengthy stone path to the Great Pagoda, a gold covered 325 ft tiered tower enshrining relics of four Buddhas, which caught and reflected the rays of the sun; a "vision of breath-taking glory." She heard Benito Mussolini speak in Italy, and fretted war would again ensue. In the rain, at Verdun, France, she sat on a wrecked military vehicle in mournful contemplation of the hundreds of thousands who died on the still uncleared battlefield. White, bleached, bones of the fallen poked out of the earth, and nearby, laborers toiled carefully at their dangerous iron harvest, collecting old munitions for disposal.
As she sailed to New York passing by the Statue of Liberty, McPherson was fascinated by its illumined torch. The flame represented to her some of the things missing from the other countries visited: truth and life; knowledge from schools and colleges, shelter of the Constitution, law, order, and progress. McPherson's concluded from her trip that though the United States might wander, a revival of faith in God would kill the "fatted calf of the Depression" and "again spread the banquet table."
In mid-1936, a delegation who had been involved with the 1906 Azusa Street Mission Revivals asked if they could use the Angelus Temple for their 30th Anniversary Celebration. The original mission building was demolished and its land unavailable. African American Evangelist Emma Cotton and McPherson therefore organized a series of meetings which also marked her enthusiastic re-identification with the Pentecostal movement. McPherson's experiments of Hollywood celebrity ambitions co-existing with her ministry were not as successful she hoped. Alliances with other church groups were failing or no longer in effect and she searched for ways to start again. Therefore, she looked to her spiritual origins and allowed for the possibility of re-introducing even the more alarming aspects of the Pentecostal experience into her public meetings. Temple officials were concerned the Azusa people might bring in some "wildfire and Holy Rollerism." McPherson indicated she would turn hand springs with them as needed to see the power of God manifest.
The Azusa Street Revival commemoration events brought numbers of black leaders to her pulpit. The original attendees of the Azusa revivals filled the Angelus Temple along with every ethnic minority, "the saints who were once smelted together with the fires of Pentecost" were "being reunited re-welded and rejuvenated." McPherson recommitted herself to the dissemination of "classic Pentecostalism," and her concern now was that Foursquaredom was in the danger of becoming too "churchy." For the first time since the Temple opened, McPherson began to publicly deliver some of her messages in tongues. McPherson traversed the line between cold formality and wildfire and now decided it was easier to cool down a hot fanatic than to resuscitate a corpse. Future meetings to celebrate the Azusa Street Revivals included guest Charles H. Mason, a founder of the Churches of God in Christ. Mason, an Azusa leader, was also one of the most significant African American religious figures in United States history and was frequently hosted at the Angelus Temple.
Also in 1936, McPherson reassigned staff responsibilities in an effort to address the Temple's financial difficulties. This, together with other unresolved issues, accelerated simmering tensions among various staff members. Rumors circulated that "Angel of Broadway", charismatic evangelist Rheba Crawford Splivalo, who had been working extensively with McPherson for several years, planned to take the Angelus Temple from her. McPherson asked Splivalo to "leave town". In the course of the staff controversy, McPherson's lawyer issued a strongly worded press release that upset Roberta Star Semple, McPherson's daughter, and led her to initiate a $150,000 lawsuit against him for slander. Splivalo also sued McPherson for $1,080,000 because of alleged statements calling her a ‘Jezebel and a Judas’ and "unfit to stand in the Angelus Temple pulpit".
The two lawsuits filed by Semple and Splivalo were not related, but McPherson did not see it that way. She saw both as part of the Temple takeover plot. Mildred Kennedy, McPherson's mother, was also involved and sided with Semple, her granddaughter, making unflattering statements about McPherson to the press. In these charged circumstances, McPherson's defense of herself and her lawyer in a public trial was dramatic and theatrical. She testified tearfully with swoons and faints about how her daughter conspired with others against her. Her daughter's lawyer, meanwhile, mocked McPherson by imitating her mannerisms and making faces at her. The trial did much to estrange McPherson from her daughter. The judge ruled for Semple giving a $2,000 judgement in her favor. Semple then moved to New York. Splivalo and the Temple settled their suit out of court for the "cause of religion and the good of the community."
With Kennedy, Semple, and Splivalo gone, the Temple lost much of its talented leadership. However, McPherson found a competent and firm administrator in Giles Knight, who was able to bring the Temple out of debt, dispose of the 40 or so lawsuits, and eliminate the more spurious projects. He sequestered McPherson, allowed her to receive only a few personal visitors, and carefully regulated her activities outside the Temple. This period was one of unprecedented creativity for McPherson. No longer distracted by waves of reporters, reams of lawsuits, and numberless individuals demanding her attention, she became very accomplished in her illustrative sermon style of gospel preaching. The irreligious Charlie Chaplin would secretly attend her services, enjoying her sermons. She later met and consulted with Chaplin on ways to improve her presentations. McPherson, who earlier blared across newspaper headlines as many as three times a week, in one alleged scandal or another, had her public image much improved. Her adversary, Reverend Robert P. Shuler, who previously attacked her by radio, magazine, pulpit, and pamphlet, proclaimed "Aimee's missionary work was the envy of Methodists". He also expressed his support of her Foursquare Church application admittance into National Association of Evangelicals for United Action in 1943.
Her efforts at making interracial revival a reality at Angelus Temple continued. She welcomed blacks into the congregation and pulpit. While race riots burned Detroit in 1943, McPherson publicly converted the notorious black former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson on the Temple stage and embraced him “as he raised his hand in worship”.
Pacifism, which was a component of Pentecostalism, was evaluated by the Foursquare Gospel Church in the 1930s with official statements and documents which were further revised by McPherson. A press quote attributed to McPherson, in reference to Mahatma Gandhi, appears to explore the concept, "I want to incorporate the ideals of India with my own...." Additionally, Clinton Howard, the chairman of the World Peace Commission, was invited to speak at the Angelus Temple. In 1932 she promoted disarmament, "If the nations of the world would stop building warships and equipping armies we would be all but overwhelmed with prosperity."
Foursquare leaders, alarmed at rapid changes of technology, especially sea and air, which challenged the United States isolation and security, decided to officially draw up an amendment inclusive of varied opinions in regards to military service. The idea that one could trust to bear arms in a righteous cause as well as believing the killing of others, even in connection to military service, would endanger their souls; both views were acceptable.
McPherson kept a canny eye on the international events leading up to the Second World War, citing the probability of a much more terrible conflict than the one that passed 20 years earlier. In a sermon, she described a recently conquered country which had the Cross and other religious symbols in their schools removed; in their place was a portrait of a certain man. Instead of prayer, their school day began with a distinctive salute to this person. The destructive apocalypse of John the Apostle, with its expected high civilian casualties, followed by the Second Coming of Christ, it seemed, was at hand. Even if submarines were hiding in the depths of the sea, they could not escape the terror that would befall them.
All night prayer meetings were held Friday nights at the Angelus Temple, starting in 1940, the year when Germany was overrunning Belgium, the Netherlands and France. She asked other Foursquare churches around the country to follow suit. She sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary, Mr. Stephen Early, as well as some other leaders, an outline of her plans. Prayer, to her, was even more powerful than the implements of war. Various officials expressed their appreciation, including the governor of California. Early passed on a reply back from Roosevelt: a message of thanks for her work. A month later Roosevelt declared a National Day of Prayer to "beseech the Ruler of the Universe to bless our Republic." Foursquare leaders thought McPherson may have inspired it; and perhaps the President of the United States was looking to her for spiritual leadership of the nation.
At the outbreak of World War II, McPherson rejected the Christian pacifism of many in the Pentecostal movement including those of her own church. Her mind was set on doing what ever it took to assist the United States in winning the war, "It is the Bible against Mein Kampf. It is the Cross against the Swastika. It is God against the antichrist of Japan,... This is no time for pacifism." The Angelus Temple itself became a visible symbol of home front sacrifice for the war effort. If necessary, it was announced the building could be used for an air raid shelter. The distinctive white dome was painted over with black paint and its beautiful stained glass windows covered up. The Temple, like other buildings in the city, had to have any opening or window that could emit visible light at night, covered. One evening in May 1942, to advertise the need to conserve gasoline and rubber, McPherson herself drove a horse and buggy to the Angelus Temple.
Rubber and other drives were organized; and unlimited airtime on her radio station, KFSG, was given to the Office of War Information. She asked parishioners and other listeners to donate two hours a day for such tasks as rolling bandages "so that a soldier's bandage could be changed.... And let us give our blood to help every one." Money was raised to provide local military bases with comfortable furnishings and radios. Newsweek published an article about McPherson, "The World's Greatest Living Minister," in July 19, 1943, noting she had collected 2,800 pints of blood for the Red Cross; servicemen in her audience are especially honored, and the climax of her church services is when she reads the National Anthem.
McPherson gave visiting servicemen autographed Bibles. She observed they often had no religious affiliation and did not even own a Bible. She wrote:
"What a privilege it was to invite the servicemen present in every Sunday night meeting to come to the platform, where I greeted them, gave each one a New Testament, and knelt in prayer with them for their spiritual needs, and God’s guidance and protection on their lives. Later, when the altar call would be given, many of these same servicemen would make another trip to the platform publicly to receive Jesus Christ as their personal savior."
She insulted Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tōjō, and became involved in war bond rallies. Pershing Square's Victory House in Los Angeles never saw a bigger crowd. McPherson sold $150,000 worth of bonds in one hour on June 20, 1942, breaking all previous records, then repeated the performance again on July 4, 1944. The U.S. Treasury awarded her a special citation. The Army made McPherson an honorary colonel.
Her wartime activities included sermons that linked the church and American patriotism. McPherson spoke to the men in uniform of her belief that military action against the Axis powers was long overdue. And more so than in almost any war previously, she felt that if they did not prevail, churches, homes and everything precious and dear to the Christian would absolutely be destroyed.
McPherson's embrace of the total war strategy of the United States, left her open to some criticism. The line between the church as an independent moral authority monitoring government became blurred, perceived instead, as complicit with that same governance. Wrongs being done to Japanese Americans through their internment in relocation camps, were being overlooked, for example. And she refused to allow her denomination to support Christians who remained committed pacifists. Even if conscientious objectors were willing to participate in non-combat roles, more was needed. Church members and leaders had to be willing to take up arms and fight for the United States. The pacifist clause which earlier existed, was by her proposal, voted upon and eliminated by Foursquare Gospel Church leaders.
She articulated the history of Christianity, as a torch ignited first in the Near East with the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus; moving to Europe, then England finally to arrive in the United States. Freedom of speech, assembly, and the press was being blotted out in Asia and Europe; the United States now had total responsibility for Christianity, to carry the Gospel to millions. McPherson announced, "the flag of America and the church stand for the same thing...they stand or fall together!"
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 lost consciousness before the third could be contacted.
The autopsy did not conclusively determine the cause of McPherson's death. She had been taking sleeping pills following numerous health problems – including "tropical fever". Among the pills found in the hotel room was the barbiturate Seconal, a strong sedative which had not been prescribed for her. It was unknown how she obtained them.
The coroner said she most likely died of an accidental overdose compounded by kidney failure. The cause of death is officially listed as unknown. Given the circumstances, there was speculation about suicide, but most sources generally agree the overdose was accidental, as stated in the coroner's report.
Forty-five thousand people waited in long lines, some until 2 am, to file past the evangelist, where, for three days, her body lay in state at the Angelus Temple. Within a mile-and-a-half radius of the church, police had to double park cars. It later took 11 trucks to transport the $50,000 worth of flowers to the cemetery which itself received more telegrammed floral orders than at any time since Will Roger's death almost 10 years earlier. A Foursquare leader noted that to watch the long line pass reverently by her casket, and see tears shed by all types of people, regardless of class and color, helped give understanding to the far-reaching influence of her life and ministry.
An observer, Marcus Bach, who was on a spiritual odyssey of personal discovery, wrote:
"Roberta, who had married an orchestra director, flew in from New York. Ma Kennedy was at the grave, Rheba Crawford Splivalo had returned to say that there was never a greater worker for God than Sister. A thousand ministers of the Foursquare Gospel paid their tearful tribute. The curious stood by impressed. The poor who had always been fed at Angelus were there, the lost who had been spirit-filled, the healed, the faithful here they were eager to immortalize the Ontario farm girl who loved the Lord. Here they laid the body of Sister Aimee to rest in the marble sarcophagus guarded by two great angels on Sunrise slope. "
Millions of dollars passed through McPherson's hands. However, when her personal estate was calculated, it amounted to US $10,000. To her daughter, Roberta, went US $2000 the remainder to her son Rolf. By contrast, her mother Mildred Kennedy had a 1927 severance settlement of as much as US $200,000 in cash and property; the Foursquare Church itself was worth $2.8 million
Aimee Semple McPherson is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Following her death, the Foursquare Gospel church denomination was led for 44 years by her son Rolf McPherson. The church claims a membership of over 7.9 million worldwide.
Aimee Semple McPherson's ministry continued to flourish even in the face of scandal. The newspapers which served to propel McPherson to fame and advertise her message, also were used to highlight her faults, real and imagined. Some modern televangelists who transgressed and faded into obscurity because of high profile news coverage, also learned how quickly modern communication media could hurt as well as help them. After her death, the largely negative aspect of her media image persisted, was cultivated and became the dominant factor in defining McPherson for many in the public today.
Reverend Robert P. Shuler, whose caustic view of McPherson softened over the years, wrote he could not figure out why God chose such a person. The flaws he observed in McPherson, were by his opinion, many, yet she ultimately made a positive impact on Christianity, long lasting and enduring . He recognized her appeal was a combination of identifying with the average citizen as well as an ability to explain the gospel in simple, easily understandable terms, drawing them irresistibly to her services:
...while great cathedral churches closed their doors on Sunday night, the crowds pushed through her portals in one ever-flowing stream.
He saw her legacy extend far beyond the glamor of Hollywood, exerting itself through the thousands of ministers she trained and churches planted throughout the world. McPherson, together with the alliances she made, worked to reshape the evangelical Christian faith, making it relevant to American culture and personally involving for those in the audience.
In Fresno, California, 1924, nine-year-old Uldine Utley (1912–1995), became a fervent believer. After hearing McPherson's dramatic retelling of the David and Goliath story, the young girl tearfully gave her life over to Christ, and dedicated herself to be "a little David for the lord and fight Goliath, " With her parents as managers, she went on to preach to millions of people and converted many thousands. She frequently used the same metaphors as McPherson, referring to Christ as "the Rose of Charon" and invoking "Bride of Christ" imagery.
Two years later, in New York City, Dr John Sung (1901–1944), described as a brilliant scientist with a PhD in chemistry, was expecting to see the well known Pastor Dr. I. M. Haldeman, whom he hoped would intellectually address his current crises of faith. Instead, as part of her extremely successful New York revival crusade, the eleven-year-old Uldine Utley took to the stage. Similar to McPherson's style of simplicity and power, but with childlike innocence, Utley preached her message. Awed, Sung fervently desired the same empowerment of God he saw in the 11-year-old girl. Dr Sung eventually returned to China and became a significant evangelist, leading perhaps as many as 100,000 Chinese to Jesus Christ in three years Though not as extensively media covered as McPherson, both Utley's, and Sung's ministry included many instances alleged faith healing.
Together with Billy Sunday, McPherson and Utley were named as the three major names in revivalism in 1927 Dr John Sung has been called the "John Wesley of China," and the "Billy Graham of China." Ironically, the Chinese mission field was where McPherson herself started out, but was forced to abandon after the death of her first husband Robert Semple. McPherson wrote even under the best of circumstances the Chinese mission field was extremely difficult particularly due to cultural and numerous local language differences. Sung knew the culture, being born into it, however, even he preached using a regional language interpreter who relayed his message to the audience.
During the Great Depression years, as a child, Dr. Edwin Louis Cole's mother attended LIFE Bible College and as he grew up, Cole participated in various Angelus Temple activities "witnessing the miraculous." Cole went onto found the Christian Men's Network and influenced many to include Coach Bill McCartney (starter of Promise Keepers), Pat Robertson (president of the 700 Club), John Maxwell (president of Injoy Ministries), Kenneth Copeland, Oliver North and as Chuck Norris, the martial artist and actor, writes, himself.
In the early 1900s it was expected traditional Protestantism would give way to rapidly developing new philosophical ideas and sciences that were being widely taught. McPherson contributed immensely to the forestalling of that predicted inevitability. Liberal Christianity, which enjoyed strong growth starting in the late 19th century, regarded many of the miracles of Jesus to be superstitious interpretations of what actually occurred or metaphors for his teachings. McPherson's faith healing demonstrations instead gave credence to onlookers her claim was true: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. It was easy to deny a God who did something 1,900 years ago, but large crowds of people were now witness to the blind seeing, the lame walking and the deaf hearing. Alleged healings were occurring faster than the journalists could write them down. Crowds clamored to reach her altar to experience a New Testament conversion that transformed many of their lives. Even large portions of the secular public admired her. The old time gospel message was being dramatically marketed by the most technologically advanced means possible, reconstructing it into something far more interesting and desirable than it was previously.
McPherson's ecumenical approach assisted Pentecostals in learning how better to explain their faith in the context of historic church doctrine. Mainline churches became exposed to the more unusual gifts of the Holy Spirit. They also benefited by borrowing Pentecostal revival techniques such as more emotive expression, joyful praise worship and testimonials, forerunning the Charismatic Movement.
Defying gender norms, Aimee Semple McPherson challenged what was expected from women. Females as preachers and her status as a divorcee with two failed marriages were of particular concern to many of the fundamentalist churches she wanted to work with, but her success could not be easily ignored. Meanwhile, secular society broadly labeled women as either Victorian ladies or whores, and she bounced from one category to the other. She had her extensive relief charities and along with it, titillating scandals. Atheist Charles Lee Smith remarked publicly of McPherson, just before a debate, that she had an extraordinary mind, "particularly for a woman."
Her continual work at church alliance building finally bore fruit in an impressive, official way, though she did not live to see it. Foursquare Gospel Church leaders were at last able to join the National Association of Evangelicals in 1952 and from there helped organize the Pentecostal World Fellowship which worked to keep the fires of religious revival burning into contemporary times. Pentecostalism which once advocated separatism and was on the fringes of Protestantism, became part of mainstream Christianity and grafted itself into American society at every level.
A production of the musical Saving Aimee, with a book and lyrics by Kathie Lee Gifford and music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman, debuted at the White Plains Performing Arts Center in October 2005 and was staged at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, in April and May 2007. An updated, fully staged production opened September 30, 2011, at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre. A revised version of the musical, now called Scandalous – The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson began a broadway run at the Neil Simon Theatre on October 13, 2012, with an official opening date of November 15. The musical starred Carolee Carmello as McPherson, and opened and closed within a month.
A play entitled The Wide Open Ocean, a musical vaudeville, was performed at The Actors' Gang theater in Los Angeles. It was written and directed by playwright, director, actor, and educator Laural Meade.
In 2003, a play entitled Spit Shine Glisten, loosely based on the life of McPherson, was performed at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. Written and directed by the experimental theatre artist Susan Simpson, the play used life-sized wooden puppets, human beings, and fractured and warped video projection.
As Thousands Cheer, a musical revue with a book by Moss Hart and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, contains satirical sketches and musical numbers loosely based on the news and the lives and affairs of the rich and famous, including Joan Crawford, Noël Coward, Josephine Baker, and Aimee Semple McPherson.
The musical, Vanishing Point, written by Rob Hartmann, Liv Cummins, & Scott Keys, intertwines the lives of evangelist McPherson, aviatrix Amelia Earhart, and mystery writer Agatha Christie. It is featured as part of the 2010–2011 season at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In 2007, a one-woman play titled An Evangelist Drowns, written by Gregory J. Thompson, debuted at Rogers State University in Claremore, Oklahoma. In 2008, the show was produced at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. The play is partly based on the life of McPherson, but it explores a fictionalized portrayal of her recalling lost loves, regrets, and remorse in the final hours before her death in 1944.
Aimee's Castle is a mansion built by McPherson. She had a house near Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, but McPherson built this mansion in Lake Elsinore, California, as a retreat. McPherson convalesced there after an injury in 1932.
In 1929, Clevelin Realty Corp. purchased land in Lake Elsinore's Country Club Heights District and was marketing the area as a resort destination for the rich and famous. To encourage celebrities to purchase there, the developers offered to give McPherson a parcel of land featuring panoramic views of the lake. She accepted the land and in 1929 commissioned the architect Edwin Bickman to design a 4,400-square-foot (410 m2) Moorish Revival mansion, with art deco details, on the hills above the lake's northeastern shore. The structure's white plaster wall and arches reflect an Irving Gill influence. Its large, cerulean blue-tiled dome over a prayer tower and a second silver-painted dome and faux-minaret give it mosque-like appearance from the exterior; the interior features art-deco wall treatments in several of the rooms. The domed ceiling of the formal dining room rises at least 15 feet (4.6 m). A narrow breakfast nook reflects an American-Indian motif.