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.
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 …