McPherson On Trial
"I think it's a shame the way they are prosecuting her... It's a dirty shame." — H.L. Mencken, editor, American Mercury.
Bryan won the battle, and John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution. But McPherson would also be punished. In Los Angeles, city officials grew concerned that the fight against evolution — led by McPherson — was giving their glamorous, modern city a backwards image.
Bolstered by the anti-evolution ruling in Tennessee, historian Matthew Sutton says, "[McPherson] worked to get a proposition on the upcoming California ballot requiring that a Bible be placed in every single public school classroom in the state. And she was working for a second [anti-evolution law] identical to the one that John Scopes had violated in Tennessee."
Then in the middle of her campaign, McPherson mysteriously disappeared from a Los Angeles beach. Drowning was suspected until she appeared six weeks later in Mexico, telling the story of a couple who had taken her against her will. Yet many suspected her disappearance was a publicity stunt. At the grand jury investigation into the kidnapping, the district attorney chose to pursue questions about McPherson's private sexual life. Instead of finding and charging the kidnappers, he charged McPherson with fabricating evidence, lying before a grand jury and conspiracy to commit a hoax. According to historian Edith Blumhofer, for the media, "the rest of the year was taken up with raking Aimee Semple McPherson over the coals and trying to penetrate every aspect of the story that she told about where she had been during the six weeks of her absence."
Just before McPherson's case came to trial, famed journalist H. L. Mencken arrived in town to investigate the story firsthand. Mencken was no friend to old-time religion, having written scathing articles during the Scopes Trial about McPherson's anti-evolution ally William Jennings Bryan. Everyone expected him to join in the assault on McPherson.
"But Mencken really captured what was going on in Los Angeles," Matthew Sutton explains, "because in fact, McPherson was becoming more and more politically active, and more and more politically powerful. She was trying to remake the anti-evolution fight a California fight. And civic leaders were not going to stand for it."
In the end, the district attorney was not able to prove that McPherson had lied, and he dropped the charges. But the damage to her reputation had been done.
In 1933 McPherson participated in a debate with an advocate of evolution entitled "God or Gorilla." Later, she quoted one reporter's description of the debate in her memoir: "[McPherson] snatched the false robe of 'science' from his gorilla theory and left it standing naked and without substantiation. She kicked the props from under the basic theory of evolution. And when she lifted her white Bible triumphantly and declared that it was the inspired Word of the Living God, I don't believe there was anyone in the audience who doubted her assertion."