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The Miracle Woman

In photographs, the face of the early-twentieth-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson has an uncanny way of changing, as if she were played by a different actress in each image. That’s fitting, because her contemporaries saw in her several different people. The pious saw a preacher with a gentle manner and intense energy, a Pentecostalist who “spoke in tongues” and could heal the sick through prayer. The secular saw a reactionary who wanted to bring religion into politics. The cynical saw an opportunist who put herself on the radio and tried to get into the movies. And the young saw a person bold enough to defy the proprieties that had once hemmed women in—a woman unafraid to have a career, a daringly short haircut, and maybe even a lover.

McPherson was full of contradictions, and they came to a head in 1926, when she mysteriously disappeared for six weeks. When she returned, she claimed she had been kidnapped, but many thought she had run off with a married man. The scandal made her into a national celebrity. Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair modeled characters after her. In the movie Miracle Woman, which starred Barbara Stanwyck, Frank Capra made her into one of his amiable frauds. Her biographer Edith Blumhofer estimates that in the 1920s McPherson appeared on newspaper front pages three times a week.1

Though journalists sympathized with McPherson, Capra and the novelists saw her as deceitful, and theirs is the image most often recalled today, as Matthew Avery Sutton observes in a lively and diligently researched new book, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. However, the denomination she founded, the Foursquare Church, looks back to her as “a pioneer of women in religion.” In search of the real person behind the caricatures and the saintly icon, Sutton gives McPherson the benefit of the doubt whenever the evidence allows him to.

Every year on her birthday, dressed as a milkmaid and carrying a pail, McPherson told her followers the story of her early life. She was born in 1890 in southern Ontario, to a mismatched couple. James Kennedy was a quiet Methodist farmer in his fifties. Minnie was a teenager who had left home to travel with the Salvation Army and was then hired by James to nurse his late wife.

Minnie dedicated the infant Aimee to the Salvation Army and dressed her in a sash that read “God’s Little Child.” The pageantry of the Army’s services must have impressed the girl, who would one day feature bands, flags, uniforms, and dramatic performances in her own ministry. In high school, she wrote a letter to the editor of a Canadian weekly about her geography textbook, which seemed to belie the Bible. “I will be willing to sacrifice science rather than religion,” she declared. As a teenager, she was nonetheless tempted by ragtime, ice skating, novels, and movies; her mother worried until December 1907, when Aimee attended a meeting of Pentecostals in the nearby town of Ingersoll. Pentecostalism had only recently emerged, in Topeka and Los Angeles. Its adherents believed they were living at the end of history, when the spiritual gifts that had marked the ministry of Jesus and his apostles were returning to his latter-day followers. Like other radical evangelicals, they believed in divine healing. What set them apart was their practice of speaking in tongues.

At the meeting, an Irishman well over six feet tall, with a curl of chestnut hair that kept flopping into his blue eyes, repeated the word “repent” as if in incantation, preached a sermon, and then, eyes closed and arms outstretched, began to talk in what seemed a foreign language. It wasn’t. As Grant Wacker explains in a recent history of Pentecostalism, “tongues” speech has no semantic content and is thought to result from a dissociation in the brain between higher speech controls and lower ones.2 But Aimee believed she was hearing “the voice of God thundering into my soul.” A month later, she was so devoted to Pentecostalism that she was in danger of flunking out of school and was speaking in tongues herself—even, on one occasion, over the phone to her mother, who had called the mission to find out what was happening to her. In August 1908, Aimee and the Irishman, whose name was Robert Semple, were married.

The couple moved to Chicago, where Aimee discovered she had a gift for interpreting what others said in tongues. She came in touch with another divine gift there as well—faith healing. After dislocating her ankle, she asked her husband’s supervising pastor to pray over it and was then able to remove it from its cast without pain. The recovery seemed to her “wonderful” and she recalled it during her own later efforts at healing. From Chicago the couple felt called to be missionaries in China. They went, trusting in God to provide and not knowing any better than to drink the water and eat the vegetables unboiled. In August 1910, when Robert died of dysentery and malaria, Aimee was distraught. Robert would prove to be the only man she was ever happy with.

She gave birth to a daughter a month later and returned to America, traveling to New York to join her mother, who had in the meantime left her elderly husband for the Salvation Army, as once she had left her parents. In New York, Aimee, too, worked for the Salvation Army, and was stalked and courted by an out-of-work restaurant cashier named Harold McPherson. She married him on the condition that if God called her back to the ministry, she would go, or so she claimed later. They settled in a boardinghouse kept by his mother in Providence, Rhode Island, where Aimee gave birth to a son in 1913 and then fell into a postpartum depression and a series of illnesses. She suffered from hypersensitivity to light and sound, auditory hallucinations, and internal bleeding, and she began to feel that her misery resulted from her neglect of her religious calling. Doctors removed her appendix and uterus. At last, in a hospital bed, she heard a voice she believed to be God’s ask, “NOW—WILL—YOU—GO?” She decided to preach again. After returning to health, she waited for an evening when her husband was working a night shift and her mother-in-law was asleep, and fled. “I have tried to walk your way and have failed,” she telegraphed Harold from Ontario. “Won’t you come now and walk my way?”

Gamely, he did. He followed Aimee, whose speech in tongues at one revival meeting would win her an invitation to preach at another, as the daisy chain of invitations took her from Canada through Massachusetts to Florida. Harold even tried to preach himself. It was an improvised life—sometimes they slept on the beach and fished for their dinner—though in 1916 they managed to buy a tent to hold services in. But Harold was not happy, and in the end, he gave up. Aimee saw him for the last time in 1918, standing in the back of a revival tent in Philadelphia. After buying her daughter an ice cream, he went away. Sutton has found their 1921 divorce papers; Harold accused her of not only deserting but also beating and threatening to kill him.

In the absence of Harold, Minnie Kennedy became her daughter’s manager. She took control of the finances and insisted that groups who invited Aimee provide a venue and guarantee an audience. Aimee soon progressed from tents to auditoriums. In 1918, she drove across the country, perhaps the first woman ever to do so without a man, and found a welcome in Los Angeles. Within months, followers had built her a house on donated land, a new base for her touring.

A rival fundamentalist once put down McPherson’s attraction as mere “sex appeal,” but it’s not clear that she initially struck observers as erotic. In her early years in Los Angeles, she was five foot six and weighed 150 pounds. Sutton calls her “chubby”; reporters described her as “fully ripened” and “Junoesque” in 1923. She wore a white maid’s uniform, to which she had added a lace fringe and a secondhand cape—an ensemble as makeshift as a superhero’s first costume. She chose the maid’s uniform because she couldn’t afford anything fancier, and when the salesclerk asked whether she wanted black or white, she told him she “would rather be the Lord’s dove than the Lord’s crow.”

She knew the sort of gimmick that would draw a crowd. In Mt. Forest, Ontario, she stood on a chair at the town’s crossroads, eyes closed and hands raised, in order to collect the curious. In Winnipeg she visited prostitutes, and in New York, speakeasies. Like Billy Sunday, the baseball player who turned evangelist in the 1890s, she spoke in a plain, folksy style, as when she criticized the socializing at conventional churches by calling for “less pie, more piety.” But whereas Sunday warned sternly of hellfire, McPherson stressed God’s love and cheerfully encouraged her listeners to look forward to salvation. She also offered to pray for the sick and to lay on them her hands, anointed with what is thought to have been spiced olive oil. In San Jose, three girls deaf since birth gained the power to hear. In Denver, her touch cured the mayor’s wife of arthritis in her foot.

McPherson disliked it when healing was too prominent in her advertising. But it drew thousands, including reporters who didn’t always leave as skeptical as they arrived, and it was integral to her beliefs. She once compared reading about biblical miracles in a liberal church to reading the menu of a restaurant with a poorly stocked larder: “Sorry, sir,” the waiter says, “but Divine Healing is not in season! They of the Apostolic Age ate the last of that.” McPherson meant to offer everything on the menu—faith healing, an emotionally rich experience of salvation, speaking in tongues as evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit, and an expectation of Christ’s imminent return—a theology she called the Foursquare Gospel. As she grew more successful, she distanced herself somewhat from what she called the “wildness, hysteria, screaming, or unseemly manifestations” of some other Pentecostals. Although she was given credentials at various times by the Assemblies of God, the Methodists, and the Baptists, she would eventually be recognized as having founded a distinct Pentecostal denomination.

On New Year’s Day, 1923, McPherson dedicated Angelus Temple, a cement building near Los Angeles’s Echo Park with columns and a dome of a vaguely Roman style. It seated more than five thousand and was shaped like a baseball field, with the pulpit at home plate. Rose petals were strewn in the baptismal pool, where the water was heated. McPherson’s services in the temple became famous for her “illustrated sermons”—skits with costumes, props, and occasionally some jokes. After she was caught speeding in Santa Monica, for example, congregants listened to her preach astride a motorcycle, wearing a policewoman’s uniform, of the need to slow down and think of God (see illustration on page 58). After she flew to San Francisco, they watched a plane piloted by the devil crash, while another, piloted by Jesus, rose to heaven. In Miracle Woman, Barbara Stanwyck’s character preaches from inside a cage of lions, and indeed, in addition to performing with a lion, McPherson once shared a stage with a live camel as it failed to pass through the eye of a needle, and at another time placed in an imaginary Garden of Eden a real macaw, which betrayed an unfortunate secular past by squawking, “Aw, go to hell!” Yet it was not merely the stunts that drew people. “Whether you like it or not you’re a great actress,” she was told by Charlie Chaplin, who had slipped in to see her.

  1. 1

    Edith L. Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson : Everybody’s Sister (Eerdmans, 1993), p. 3.

  2. 2

    Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Harvard University Press, 2001) pp. 52–54.

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