Aimee Semple McPherson (October 9, 1890 – September 27, 1944), also called Sister Aimee, was a Canadian-born 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, which she drew upon through the growing appeal of popular entertainment in North America.
International Church of the Foursquare Gospel
Weary of constant traveling and having no place 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, she could plant the seed of the Foursquare gospel and tourists would take it home to their communities, thus taking the traveling out of her preaching, while still reaching the masses. For several years she continued to travel and raise money for the construction of a large, domed church building in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, named Angelus Temple. She raised more than expected and altered the original plans to build a "megachurch" that would draw many followers throughout the years. The church was dedicated on January 1, 1923. It had a seating capacity of 5,300 people and was filled to capacity three times each day, seven days a week. At first McPherson preached every service, often in a dramatic scene she put together to attract audiences. The church eventually evolved into its own denomination, called the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which 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, the third was divine healing and the fourth was gospel-oriented heed to the premillennial return of Christ.
McPherson often based her sermons around events that took place in her life and then acted them out on Sunday evening. In August 1925, McPherson decided to charter a plane so she would not miss a Sunday sermon. Aware of the opportunity for publicity, she had at least two thousand followers and members of the press at the takeoff site. The plane failed after takeoff and the landing gear collapsed, sending the nose of the plane into the ground. McPherson boarded another plane the same day 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 one occasion, she described being pulled over by a police officer, calling the sermon "Arrested for Speeding." McPherson employed a small group of artists, electricians, decorators and carpenters who built the sets for each Sunday's service. Religious music played by an orchestra. Biographer Matthew Avery Sutton wrote, "McPherson found no contradiction between her rejection of Hollywood values for her use of show business techniques. She would not hesitate to use the devil's tools to tear down the devil's house." Collections were taken at every meeting, often with the admonishment, "no coins, please."
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 social Darwinism had undermined students' morality. According to McPherson, 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."
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 and 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 stirring a 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 whilst searching for the body and a diver died from exposure.
Kenneth G. Ormiston, the engineer for KFSG, had also disappeared. Some believed McPherson and Ormiston, who was married, had developed a close friendship and run off together. After about a month her mother received a ransom note (signed by "The Avengers") which demanded a half million dollars, or else kidnappers would sell McPherson into "white slavery.." Kennedy later said she tossed the letter away, believing her daughter was 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. She claimed she had been kidnapped, drugged, tortured and held for ransom in a shack by two people, Steve and Mexicali Rose. Her story also alleged that she had escaped from her captors and walked through the desert for about 13 hours to freedom.
However, her shoes showed no hint of a 13-hour walk in the desert but rather, carried grass stains. The shack was not found. McPherson had vanished wearing a bathing suit. She returned fully dressed, wearing a wristwatch (a gift from her mother) which she had not taken on the swimming trip. A grand jury convened on July 8, 1926, but adjourned 12 days later citing lack of evidence to proceed.
Five witnesses claimed to have seen McPherson at a seaside cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea. One claimed to have seen Mrs. McPherson at the cottage on May 5 (he later went to see her preach at Angelus Temple on August 8, to confirm she was the woman he had seen at Carmel). His story was confirmed by a neighbor who lived next door to the Carmel cottage, by a woman who rented the cottage to Ormiston (under the name "McIntyre"), by a grocery clerk and a Carmel fuel dealer who delivered wood to the cottage.
The grand jury reconvened on August 3 and took further testimony along with documents from hotels, said to be in McPherson's handwriting. 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, that she was then shoved into a car and drugged with chloroform. However, when she was not forthcoming with answers regarding her relationship with Ormiston (now estranged from his wife), the judge charged McPherson and her mother with obstruction of justice. To combat the bad newspaper publicity, McPherson spoke freely about the court trials on her private radio station.
Theories and innuendo abounded, that she had run off with a lover, that she had gone off to have an abortion, taken time to heal from plastic surgery or had staged a publicity stunt. The Examiner newspaper then reported that Los Angeles district attorney Asa Keyes had dropped all charges, which he did on January 10, 1927.
The tale was later lampooned 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."
Milton Berle's claim
In Milton Berle: An Autobiography, Milton Berle claimed he had a brief affair with McPherson in 1930, saying 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 the 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 and that she only 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 also wrote that Berle's story of a crucifix in her bedroom was not consistent with the coolness of Pentecostal/Catholic relations during that era.
Later life and career
McPherson carried on with her ministry but fell out of favor with the press. She became caught up in power struggles for the church with her mother and daughter and suffered a nervous breakdown in August 1930.
On September 13, 1931, McPherson married again, to 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 Hazel St. Pierre (Hutton claimed he had never met her). He eventually settled the case by paying St. Pierre US$5,000. While McPherson was away in Europe, she was angered to learn 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, as put forth by McPherson herself, held that one should not remarry while their previous spouse was still alive and McPherson's indeed was. McPherson and Hutton separated in 1933 and divorced on March 1, 1934.
Drawing from her childhood experience with the Salvation Army, in 1936 McPherson opened the temple commissary 24 hours a day, seven days a week and became more active in creating soup kitchens, free clinics and other charitable activities as the Great Depression wore on. With the later outbreak of World War II, she became involved in war bond rallies, with sermons linking the church and Americanism.
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.
The autopsy did not conclusively determine the cause of death. She had been taking sleeping pills following sundry health problems (including "tropical fever") in the 1940s. The pills found in the hotel room were Seconal, a strong sedative which had not been prescribed for her and how she obtained them was unknown.
The coroner said she most likely died of an accidental overdose compounded by kidney failure. Seconal has a hypnotizing effect which can make a person forgetful about how much medication has been taken and lead to an overdose. There was some conjecture of suicide but most sources generally agree the overdose was accidental as put forth in the coroner's report.
McPherson is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. The Foursquare Gospel church was led by her son Rolf McPherson for 44 years after her death and claims over eight million members worldwide.