left biblioblography: Aimee McPherson – Another Evangelist Gone Wandering From The Flock

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Aimee McPherson – Another Evangelist Gone Wandering From The Flock

Cross posted @ God Is 4 Suckers!250px-AimeeSempleMcPhersonVsGorillaOfEvolution

In this day and age, the trademark of an evangelist who’s bitten the dust AKA ‘gone astray’ seems to be a modern phenomenon. Names such as Jimmy Swaggert, Ted Haggard, and James Bakker are very much household words. However, much like serial killers, there is a long history of these shepherds gone astray. One such was Aimee McPherson, staunch preacherette and anti-evolutionist.


McPherson was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on October 9, 1890, on a farm near the town of Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada. Her father, James Kennedy, was a farmer, and her mother, Mildred, called Minnie, worked for the Salvation Army.Little is written about McPherson's father, and it is unclear what impact James Kennedy had on his daughter. It was through her mother that McPherson got her first exposure to religious exercise, which would have an impact on her later evangelical crusades. Mrs. Kennedy’s work with the Salvation Army included providing for people through soup kitchens. This reflected her idea of bringing faith to the people, which was reflected in Aimee’s later work in spreading the Gospel.

Historian Matthew Avery Sutton in his biography of McPherson documents that as a child, one of McPherson's favorite games was to play Salvation Army with her classmates, and at home she would create a congregation out of her dolls and would give them a sermon. Yet as a teenager, McPherson would stray from the teachings of her mother. She started to read novels and attend movies and dances, all things the Salvation Army disapproved of at the time. Even more shattering to her faith, McPherson while in high school was introduced to the teachings of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

McPherson was deeply confused and wrestled with her conscience over who was right: her mother's faith or her high school geology teacher. McPherson began to quiz local pastors over the relationship between faith and science. None of the pastors were able to give her the answer she was looking for.In frustration, McPherson sent a letter to a national Canadian newspaper, the Family Herald and Weekly Star, asking why taxpayers supported public schools that taught evolution. Later, while still in high school, she began a crusade against evolution, which would remain a life-long passion for her. This crusade also brought the teenager her first taste of celebrity as her letter brought responses from all over North America, according to Sutton.


After the birth of her son, McPherson suffered from postpartum depression and several serious health issues. She tried to settle into a quieter home-life, but her personal call to Christian service remained. While in her sickbed after her second operation within two years, she recommitted herself to what she felt was God's call. Soon thereafter, her health improved. After this near-death experience in 1913, she embarked upon a preaching career in Canada and the United States. In keeping with the promise to God made in her illness, she left home by June 1915 and began evangelizing and holding tent revivals, first by traveling up and down the eastern part of the United States, then expanding to other parts of the country.

Her revivals were often standing room only; on one occasion she met in a boxing ring, but had to hold her meeting before and after the boxing match. According to the PBS-TV American Experience documentary "Sister Aimee," she did, however, walk around during the match with a sign inviting the crowd to attend her service after the match and "knock out the Devil". On one occasion in San Diego, the National Guard had to be brought in to control the crowd of over 30,000 people. People often stood in line to wait many hours for the next service to begin in order to be assured a seat. McPherson was committed to saving as many people as possible and did what she could to ensure the message she was providing was reaching as many as it could. Aimee had practiced tongue speaking, although she rarely emphasized it the way the majority of Pentecostals had previously. She also had been considered a great faith healer, with numerous claims of physical healing taking place, although this is something that became less important as her fame increased over the years.

She was a study in contrast: she reached out to both the KKK as well as immigrant workers.

I shall skip to the more irritating content:

Aimee Semple McPherson was very opposed to teaching evolution and became a big supporter of William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial. In 1925 John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution in a Tennessee school, which was illegal at the time. Bryan and McPherson had worked together in the Angelus Temple on numerous occasions (Sutton 52). They both found the social implications as much as the theological ramifications of evolution troubling and they believed that social Darwinism had undermined students' morality (Sutton 52). According to McPherson, as was quoted by the New Yorker, 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" (Sutton 52). When William Jennings Bryan was involved with the Scopes trial she sent him a telegram which said, "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 . In order to celebrate the epic struggle that Bryan was facing she organized "an all night prayer service, a massive church meeting preceded by a Bible parade through Los Angeles". According to Marrow, Mayo declared that no city had followed the "monkey trial" with more emotional fervor than Los Angeles. No people shouted more loudly than the Angelenos for William Jennings Bryan to scotch the Devil. With the help of McPherson, Bryan gained support from numerous people.

And yet, despite all the collective ‘prayer’, despite her life-long battle, evolution is still in our schools. Why? Because it’s reality-based. It’s fairly apparent this woman wasn’t living in the here and now. The photo of her ‘battling the gorilla of evolution’ really epitomizes her woeful ignorance of the matter.

And of course, the essential ‘fall from grace’ followed (this is better than any modern soap opera):

On May 18, 1926, McPherson went to Ocean Park Beach, north of Venice Beach, with her secretary, to go swimming. Soon after arrival, McPherson disappeared. It was generally assumed at the time that she had drowned.

According to the PBS American Experience segment "Sister Aimee", which aired 7 April 2007, McPherson was scheduled to hold a service on the very day she vanished. McPherson's mother appeared and preached at the service in her place, and at the end announced, "Sister is with Jesus," sending parishioners into a tearful frenzy. Mourners crowded Venice Beach, and the commotion sparked days-long media coverage of the event, fueled in part by William Randolph Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner, and even including a poem by Upton Sinclair commemorating the "tragedy". Daily updates appeared in newspapers across the country, and parishioners held day-and-night seaside vigils. A futile search for the body resulted in one parishioner drowning and another diver dying from exposure.

At about the same time, Kenneth G. Ormiston, engineer for KFSG, also disappeared. According to American Experience, some believed McPherson and Ormiston, a married man with whom McPherson had developed a close friendship and had been having an affair, had run off together. About a month after the disappearance, McPherson's mother, Minnie Kennedy, received a ransom note, signed by "The Avengers", which demanded a half million dollars to ensure kidnappers would not sell McPherson into "white slavery". Kennedy later said she tossed the letter away, believing her daughter to be dead.

On June 23, 35 days after her disappearance, McPherson stumbled out of the desert in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican town just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. She claimed that she had been kidnapped, drugged, tortured, and held for ransom in a shack in Mexico, then had escaped and walked through the desert for about 13 hours to freedom.

Several problems were found with McPherson's story. Her shoes showed no evidence of a 13-hour walk-- indeed, they had grass stains on them after a supposed walk through the desert. The shack could not be found. McPherson showed up fully dressed while having disappeared wearing a bathing suit, and was wearing a wrist watch given to her by her mother, which she had not taken on her swimming trip. A grand jury convened on July 8 to investigate the matter, but adjourned 12 days later citing lack of evidence to proceed. However, several witnesses then came forward stating that they had seen McPherson and Ormiston at various hotels over the 32-day period.

Wow. Just, wow.

But wait! There’s more juicy bits!

McPherson continued her ministry after the controversy over the alleged abduction diminished, but she fell out of favor with the press. While she and her ministry still received a good deal of publicity, most of it was bad. Additionally, she became involved in power struggles for the church with her mother and daughter. McPherson suffered a nervous breakdown in August 1930.

On September 13, 1931, McPherson married again, this time to an actor and musician, David Hutton. The marriage got off to a rocky start: two days after the wedding, Hutton was sued for alienation of affection by a woman, Hazel St. Pierre, whom he claimed never to have met. He eventually settled the case by paying $5,000 to St. Pierre. While McPherson was away in Europe, she was incensed to discover Hutton was billing himself as "Aimee's man" in his cabaret singing act. The marriage also caused an uproar within the church. The tenets of Foursquare Gospel, established by McPherson, stated that one should not remarry while their previous spouse was still alive (which Harold McPherson was at the time). McPherson and Hutton separated in 1933, and divorced on March 1, 1934.

And of course, the piece-de-resistance: having an affair with Milton Berle!

In Milton Berle's autobiography, Milton Berle: An Autobiography he described a brief affair with McPherson in 1930. Supposedly he met McPherson while at the RKO Hill Street Theater in Los Angeles where he was doing a charity show. After his performance, he states that he waited for her backstage and she invited him to see the Angelus Temple. Berle states that they never made it there.

Instead of going to Angelus Temple, Berle asserts the two of them went to lunch, then to an apartment of hers so that McPherson could change into something "cooler". While Berle was waiting for McPherson in her apartment, she supposedly reappeared from her room wearing "a very thin, pale blue negligee". Berle could see that she was wearing nothing underneath and "'Come in' was all she said." Berle supposedly met with her on one other occasion at her apartment a few days later for sexual relations a second and final time. In Milton Berle: An Autobiography Berle recalled their second and final rendezvous: "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.”

She overdosed on medication – ruled accidental.

Here then, is the cautionary tale – and a premium example of how religion is a horrendous waste of time. Aimee was a bright, strong, charismatic woman who very well could have done marvelous, incredible things for our species. But she was misled by this delusion of the supernatural, that caused her to shut out reality, that led her down a path that ran contrary to her own natural inclinations. A horrible waste of time and life. How many more people must walk the road of the unreal, and find that nothing lay at the end of that road but a dead-end? It is to weep, sometimes.

Till the next post then.

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the chaplain said...

Great post. I'd heard McPherson's name but never knew anything about her. If someone wrote that as a fictional movie script, Christians would be up in arms over the stereotypical plot. Well, there's a reason stereotypes exist: because they have some foundation in real circumstances. They don't apply to all, obviously, but they usually contain enough truth to be recognizable. They wouldn't be effective otherwise.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Hey, chaplain.
There is a movie based on her life. Haven't seen it, but the 2 stars on Netflix is a good indication of the quality. She's also featured on a chapter of God's Generals - again, haven't seen that either.