Tent revivals. Healings. Speaking in tongues. The Pentecostal faith conjures many images. But in the early years of the twentieth century, it was a religion that lived on the fringes of society -- a reality that one woman made it her mission to change. Aimee Semple McPherson emerged from a small town in Ontario, Canada and with a unique blend of charisma, humor, and theatrics, staged revivals that drew larger crowds than P. T. Barnum, Harry Houdini, or Teddy Roosevelt. Today, Pentecostalism, which calls people to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to accept salvation through Jesus Christ, is one of the fastest growing religious movements, claiming more than a half billion adherents around the world, thanks in no small part to the work of Aimee Semple McPherson.
American Experience's one-hour documentary, Sister Aimee, is a portrait of the controversial, charismatic, wildly popular evangelist who was instrumental in bringing conservative Protestantism into mainstream American culture and politics. "Aimee was equal parts evangelist, movie star and social activist," says film producer Linda Garmon. "She offered a brand of old time religion that people could connect with at a time when Americans were craving something to hold onto."
In 1915 the nation was reeling from the dizzying consequences of World War I, a deadly flu epidemic, and a society that was changing at breakneck speed. It was in this environment that Aimee began her evangelical mission. Crisscrossing America for seven years, Aimee preached a message of hope and inclusion, welcoming the sick and dispirited, and both blacks and disenfranchised whites. "She turned the gospel of fear, of hellfire and damnation, which had characterized American evangelists up until this point, to the gospel of love," says biographer Daniel Mark Epstein.
At the end of her whirlwind nationwide tour, Aimee settled in Los Angeles, where the exponential population growth of the city paired with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood served as the perfect backdrop for her next production. In 1921, McPherson broke ground on one of the largest churches in the nation, the Angelus Temple, which would serve as home to her newly established Church of the Foursquare Gospel. It was in this mega-church that Aimee preached to a packed house of 5,000 believers, using elaborate musical productions that were worthy of Broadway. "Sister Aimee mixed two things in American culture that we often think aren't supposed to be mixed -- one is entertainment, and the other is religion," says Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University. "And she mixed them together in a really potent combination."
Despite of the thousands who flocked to her each week, Sister Aimee craved a bigger podium. "Religion, to thrive in the present day," she argued, "must utilize present-day methods." With that, Aimee created her own radio station -- one of the first Christian stations in the United States-- and used it to broadcast daily sermons that were heard as far away as Australia. In the new radio and film era, McPherson became the first celebrity evangelist and the darling of the Los Angeles press, all the while ministering to unwed mothers, drug addicts, and victims of domestic abuse.
But like so many celebrity stories, Aimee's fame brought scandal when she mysteriously disappeared in 1926. Whether Aimee was kidnapped, staged her own disappearance, or simply ran away is still unknown. When she did return to Los Angeles, her disappearance became the center of a highly publicized trial and the subject of a media frenzy. When the dust settled, Aimee continued her work.
In more than three decades as an evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson touched the lives of millions. More famous than some movie stars, she had entwined religion with entertainment and politics to an unprecedented degree. "She really set the standard for present-day evangelists," says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels. "Given the influence, both social and political, that this group wields, it's important and interesting to look at the roots of the movement."