Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Sister Aimee
Transcript

Sister Aimee

Pentecostal preacher (actor): Thank you, Lord Jesus. Thank you, Lord, for we are grateful for the miracles that you have wrought in our lives.

Narrator: On a winter's day in 1907, in the dairy farm countryside of Canada, a young woman was on her way to a rehearsal for the school play when she decided to take a detour that would dramatically change her life.

Pentecostal preacher (actor): ... Abundant light is for you.

Narrator: Seventeen-year-old Aimee Kennedy made her way to a nearby church revival -- an event unlike anything she'd ever seen.

Anthea Butler, Historian: When young Aimee walked into the mission in 1907, she might have seen people falling down, prostrate on the floor.

She might have seen people going up and down the aisles and dancing, which in a normal church service would never happen.

And then, she might have heard these strange noises coming out of people. La, la, la, la, la, or something, that she would not have recognized, that we call speaking in tongues or glossolalia, which is speaking in a language other than your own.

Narrator: Aimee was among Pentecostals, members of a brand-new Protestant movement for whom speaking in tongues was a unique and controversial signature. Detractors called them "Holy Rollers."

Pentecostal preacher (actor): The promise is for you...

Anthea Butler: Aimee went because ... it was entertainment. They didn't have television. And what if you had people down the street who seemed to be barking like dogs and rolling around the floor? Who wouldn't go? And it's free.

Narrator: Strong-willed and inquisitive, Aimee had spent years in the throes of a spiritual crisis. At her home in Ingersoll, Ontario, she had been taught the literal truth of the Holy Bible. At school, she had been exposed to Darwin's Theory of Evolution, four decades old, but now rapidly gaining currency.

Old-time religion, or the new gospel of science -- for Aimee, as for millions of others across North America, something had to give.

Daniel Mark Epstein, Biographer: One thing we learn about Aimee from her earliest childhood is that she was never halfway about anything. She took very, very extreme positions; She was never content with a compromise.

Matthew Sutton, Biographer: Aimee begins to question the literalness of Genesis at a time in which many Americans were doing the same thing.

Randall Balmer, Historian: God created the world in seven, 24-hour days. Darwin comes along and, and casts serious doubts on that.

Matthew Sutton: Aimee began to realize that if humans were descendants from animals, how could God have created them? How could they be the peak of God's creation? She began to ask these questions of local ministers and decided if you can't trust the book of Genesis, then why can you trust the rest of the Bible?

Pentecostal preacher (actor): ...And we are grateful, Lord, for the miracles and for the healing...

Narrator: Aimee was willing to embrace either Darwin or the Bible, science or divine revelation. "Oh, god," she prayed, "if there is a god, reveal yourself to me."

Pentecostal preacher (actor): Tonight we want to give a warm welcome to our brother from Ireland, brother Robert Semple. Would you give him a warm welcome?

Narrator: And it was at this moment that she laid eyes on the man who would forever change her life -- preacher, Robert Semple.

Robert Semple (actor): "Repent," said Peter.

Anthea Butler: When Robert Semple stepped up to the pulpit, all six-foot-two of him, dark, Irish, handsome. Aimee, like most young women who have their first experience of the charismatic preacher, fell in love. And she fell hard.

Robert Semple (actor): Will you say "yes" to God?

Pentecostal congregation: Yes!

Robert Semple (actor): Will you be filled by the Holy Spirit?

Anthea Butler: It seemed that Robert was speaking into her very soul, and it seemed that he saw everything about her.

Robert Semple (actor): Will you give your whole life to God? Repent! The spirit of God is pouring out on all flesh! Will it reach your heart? Will you be his vessel?

Pentecostal congregation: Yes!

Narration: At her first Pentecostal revival, Aimee Kennedy found renewed faith, a resolution of her spiritual crisis -- and a husband. Soon, Aimee and Robert Semple were married, partners in the Pentecostal faith, intent on spreading the word.

Narrator: In the spring of 1910, the couple boarded a steamer bound for China. They were self-appointed missionaries for a movement that had begun a decade before, when a Bible student in Kansas began speaking in tongues.

Edith Blumhofer, Biographer: Early Pentecostals thought that Jesus was coming any day. And that that meant that they needed to go and preach the Gospel. [They] thought that actually the languages that people claimed to speak under the power of the Holy Spirit were known languages and that those languages would indicate where they should go and where they should preach.

Matthew Sutton: If you were going to be a Pentecostal missionary, you just went. You don't need a missionary board, you don't need church backing, you don't need to learn the language. God's going to provide for you.

Narrator: The Semples came to preach and convert, but for Aimee, the strangeness of China proved profoundly unsettling. Once, while watching a funeral from her window, she became hysterical, convinced that the corpse on the burning pyre was still alive.

Daniel Mark Epstein: Aimee experienced enormous difficulties in China. The heat was appalling. The food was completely foreign to her. The entire culture was something that, as a farm girl, she had absolutely no preconception of.

Narrator: China was so strange to Aimee that she had no notion that the produce they ate was grown in soil fertilized by human waste, a potential source of infection.

Aimee and Robert had arrived in Hong Kong in June; by the end of August, Robert Semple was dead, from dysentery and malaria. Aimee was eight months pregnant, penniless, and alone.

Narrator: Aimee Semple made her way to New York City, where her mother arranged a job for her daughter collecting money for the Salvation Army. A restaurant accountant named Harold McPherson began walking her home. Soon, Harold asked Aimee to marry him. Still grieving the love of her life and eager to provide for her infant daughter, she said "yes." When he asked her to move with him to Providence, Rhode Island, to live a more traditional life, she said "yes" again.

Edith Blumhofer: Traditional life, in some ways was spoiled for her, because she felt that Robert and she together had had a call to do something special for God.

Daniel Mark Epstein: During that period in Providence, she was really out of her element. She was a flamingo in the chicken coop.

Narrator: Aimee Semple McPherson bore a second child, a son. She struggled to find meaning in domestic life. "Such a fever of restlessness came upon me," Aimee later recalled, "that it seemed as though I must wear the polish off the furniture."

Edith Blumhofer: She was depressed. She apparently had a nervous breakdown. She had a hysterectomy, and she had a problem with appendicitis. She had a series of surgeries.

Daniel Mark Epstein: She talks about the darkness in the hospital and how the light was fading -- the light of her life was actually fading on her. And now she heard a voice out of the darkness saying, "Now will you go? Now will you go?" And it was at that moment that she decided that she had to return to her ministry. And it was at that moment that she began to get well.

Narrator: Not long afterwards, Aimee Semple McPherson left her husband to catch a midnight train to the family farm in Canada, holding one child on either arm. "I tried to walk your way, and I have failed," she explained to Harold in a telegram. "Won't you come now and walk mine?"

McPherson bought two white servant uniforms for $5, the only dresses she could afford, and overnight, she had a signature look. And with no savings, no church backing and nothing to guarantee she could support her children, she set out to make a name for herself as a female preacher. From now on, she would be known simply as "Sister."

Edith Blumhofer: In August 1915, Sister began a series of sermons -- her first solo meetings -- in Mount Forest in Ontario.

Daniel Mark Epstein: She took a chair, she set it on the curbstone, and she stood on that chair, probably in some attitude of prayer, perfectly silent for something between 20 minutes and an hour.

Edith Blumhofer: And a crowd gathered, people wondering what was going on, and she jumped off the chair, shouted, "Come on, everybody, follow me!" and ran into the mission that she had rented to have the service.

Narrator: Sister Aimee hit the road with little more than the clothes on her back and an old Corona typewriter to tap out sermons. Her message: The miracles and born-again experiences of Jesus day could still happen today. Local ministers warned folks to steer clear of strangers who spoke in tongues and the lady charlatan who was hypnotizing them. "I know a lot of you folks came to gape at a woman preacher," McPherson would say, "But while your mouth is open to gape, I'll pop the Gospel in."

Edith Blumhofer: The decision to hit the sawdust trail was a risky decision in every way. Her mother came up with money whenever she needed it. But, she's a woman preacher. She doesn't have an established clientele. She doesn't have lots of invitations. She is still depending on word of mouth.

Narrator: Over the next seven years, McPherson would criss-cross the country six times, as the nation grappled with the dizzying consequences of the first Great War, a deadly flu epidemic, and far-reaching social change.

Everywhere she went, her home-spun, old-time religion struck a chord among working class Protestants, who felt left behind by modern times.

Randall Balmer: Evangelicals, who were largely confined to small towns, rural areas, were not terribly comfortable with urbanization and industrialization, changes in the cities, in part because of the influx of non-Protestant immigrants. And so, they began to retreat from the larger culture.

Daniel Mark Epstein: These people needed faith, and they needed the kind of faith that was immediately accessible in the emotionalism of Sister Aimee's revival.

Edith Blumhofer: She spoke frequently of her children, of her own life and experience, of how she knew what it was like to have a sick child up all night, or a child who was not doing well in school.

Daniel Mark Epstein: She turned the gospel of fear, of hellfire and damnation, which had characterized American evangelists, to the gospel of love.

Narrator: At a time of deep racial divisions, sometimes enforced by law, Sister Aimee's gospel embraced blacks, as well as disenfranchised whites. When her ministry made its way to Key West, Florida, she ignored warnings and pitched her tent in a poor black part of town. There, she held what she claimed was the first integrated revival in the town's history.

Matthew Sutton: Aimee actually had Roberta baptized by a black minister. She actually had an African American man take her out into this river, baptize her, because for McPherson, this was a symbol of her effort to reach out to people of all races.

Narrator: Harold McPherson joined the revival campaign, moving from town to town with Aimee and the two children. But it was difficult for him to play second fiddle to his wife. He chafed at the nomadic life and depending on others to stay afloat. Sister Aimee thrived on it.

Edith Blumhofer: In these early years, Pentecostals were generally poor people. But they felt that there was a high priority to giving to evangelistic and missionary efforts. And so, Sister would get offerings, small offerings, a dollar here or 50 cents there. Or she would get someone who might pay a bill or print up an advertisement for her.

Narrator: When Sister Aimee reached Philadelphia in the summer of 1918, she was scheduled to lead a revival of thousands of followers. An entire city of tents had been erected in preparation. One night, a gang of local thugs arrived with clubs and containers of gasoline, intent on causing mayhem. McPherson had a plan of her own.

Daniel Mark Epstein: She sent this by word of mouth to all these thousands of people -- she said: "I want all of you to kneel down and pray." And as they kneeled, all of these hoodlums were suddenly, they were suddenly raised up above the rest... you know, as if they were caught naked...and they were disarmed. They were totally disarmed.

Narrator: Harold posed for family photos in Philadelphia, and then, Sister Aimee never saw him again. He later filed for a divorce, claiming that life with his charismatic wife had exacted a harsh personal toll.

Edith Blumhofer: I think that when Harold and Sister split, it indicated an inability on her part to get along with anyone who was really close to her. And loneliness would come to be a problem for her through the rest of her life.

Narrator: Aimee's mother, Minnie Kennedy, came down from Canada to help run the traveling show, and helped her buy a car. Mother and daughter became two of the first women to drive across the country without the help of a man. When mud literally stopped them in their tracks, Aimee wound clothes around the tires to regain traction. The women traveled up to 200 miles per day.

Tona Hangen, Historian: The Gospel car from her 1918 cross-country tour, with the sign emblazoned on the side -- "Jesus is coming. Get ready" or "Where will you spend eternity?" This is a form of media, of mass media, if you like, since she was hoping that it could be seen by the most possible number of people as she drove cross country.

Narrator: In San Diego, McPherson took her first airplane ride to drop 15,000 leaflets promoting her revival over the city. Her genius for self-promotion even took her into the Dreamland Boxing Arena.

Daniel Mark Epstein: And you can imagine her in her nurse's uniform, stepping through the ropes and inviting everybody, "Come one, come all, because Aimee Semple McPherson is going to knock out the devil!"

Randall Balmer: I think the genius of American evangelicalism, and especially in the 20th century, is the ability of the evangelist to speak the language of the people. It's very simple -- it is easily accessible, which makes it also subject to ridicule from those who are more educated and who consider themselves part of the upper classes. But for the mass of American people throughout American history, this has been the kind of approach that has appealed to them.

Narrator: In 1919, McPherson took her revival to Baltimore, to the Lyric Opera House, which she rented for two weeks for the hefty price of $3,100.

Her ministry was becoming big business -- too big, she now calculated, to be associated so closely with the Holy Rollers.

Matthew Sutton: By the time McPherson gets to Baltimore, she has made a very crucial, calculated decision and one that would become extremely controversial and put her at risk.

Edith Blumhofer: Sister's earliest work had been primarily supported and attended by Pentecostals, but she noticed that Pentecostals in Baltimore might be a problem.

David Daniels, Historian: These people are filled with the joy of the Lord, filled with the spirit of the Lord, and that joy and that spirit is sort of oozing out of their being.

Daniel Mark Epstein: In order to lead her religion into the mainstream, there had to be some sort of a cooling of these manifestations of the spirit. This was one of the first great, big city revivals, which was covered by the press. It was highly promoted and she did not want to frighten away newcomers.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): Praise the Lord, I believe that my Lord was born of the Virgin Mary. Do you believe it? Do you believe it, balcony? Do you believe it, gallery?

Narrator: Towards the end of McPherson's Baltimore run, a woman who claimed to be filled by the spirit began running up the aisle and screaming. Sister Aimee had her removed from the theater. Within years, she would even stop publicly speaking in tongues. "I was fishing for whales," she explained, "not minnows."

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): Oh, brother, it's wonderful to be alive, if you let Jesus come into your hearts. Amen.

Matthew Sutton: This was controversial because it was Pentecostalism that had made her. It was Pentecostalism that had established her career.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): What a night it would be to accept Jesus the savior.

Matthew Sutton: And so, for her to say, "I'm going to step back, I'm going to distinguish myself from classic Pentecostalism," really offended a lot of people. They accused her of really having lost the spirit -- that she had quenched the spirit, that she really may have even lost her salvation.

Text on screen: Los Angeles, California

Narrator: In 1921, Aimee Semple McPherson broke ground in Los Angeles for one of the largest churches in the nation, Angelus Temple. California, she had decided, was the key to attracting a mainstream following.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): I never felt better or younger or happier in all my life than I do now.

Narrator: McPherson would focus her ministry here, in the home of Hollywood. She would hire press agents and stage publicity stunts, in the place where thousands of Americans were moving each year, drawn by the promise of heaven on earth.

Matthew Sutton: During the 1920s, Los Angeles would actually double in population, from about 500,000 to over a million people, and these people needed churches, and McPherson was in the right place to appeal to all these folks coming off the farms in Iowa, coming out of the industries in Alabama to try and find a minister who blends the spectacle and pizzazz of the showbiz town with everything about conservative religion.

Singing: ...and Holy Ghost.

Narrator: The same year McPherson broke ground for her church, she held one of the largest revivals of her ministry in Balboa Park, San Diego. Here, as American evangelists had done for decades, she would lay hands on the sick.

Daniel Mark Epstein: The invalids were carried on carts and on stretchers ... and on the backs of husbands and brothers. Aimee got what she wanted. She wanted a revival that would reach to the horizon. But she looked out onto the crowd and she was terrified.

Narrator: McPherson had conducted healing services before, many times, but never in front of such a large crowd, estimated at 30,000.

Daniel Mark Epstein: The first one who came to the stage was an elderly woman who had been paralyzed from her waist down from the time that she was a child.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): ...Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!

Anthea Butler: And there's nothing worse for an evangelist to think about that "if I pray for this person and nothing happens, they are going to run me out of town on a rail."

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): Rise up and walk!

Daniel Mark Epstein: And there's a wonderful photograph of her getting up out of the wheelchair and walking for the first time.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): Glory, glory, glory to God!

Robert Orsi, Historian: Healing services are dense, emotional, charged environments. And something real happens in that space. The fabulous thing about the Pentecostal imagination is what they were saying is that the miracles you see among the early apostles, those miracles are still possible now.

Narrator: Some reporters called Sister Aimee a "miracle woman" -- others, a skilled hypnotist. "There is no job in the world so thankless as praying for the afflicted," she responded. "But I have been forced into this sort of thing by the public demand."

Daniel Mark Epstein: They say that she would come down off of the stage completely drenched.

Dorothy Furlong, attended Angelus Temple services: My friend Juanita told me that Sister McPherson took her shoe off and poured out water.

Daniel Mark Epstein: I think at Balboa Park, we really see the psychic demands that would be made upon any woman who was expected to lay hands on that many people and make a difference in each one of their lives. And I think that this must have been more than any -- any person could bear.

Narrator: On New Year's Day, 1923, Angelus Temple, the largest church in the city, opened its doors to the public for the first time. McPherson had managed to raise $300,000 for the grand building, leading one critic to say that Sister Aimee had put the "cost" in Pentecost.

Wendell St. Clair: Along about three o'clock on Sunday, there would be a line of people down Glendale Boulevard for two blocks. And at five o'clock the doors would open and 5,000 people would course into this building and fill every seat.

Narrator: McPherson had built one of the first mega churches in the United States, and she designed it to look more like a place for Hollywood movies than a place of worship.

Wendell St. Clair: And in comes Mrs. McPherson with a huge bouquet of roses. And at the moment the crowd sees her, 5,000 people start applauding wildly.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): Friends, let us give our lives to Jesus Christ and really become healed in Jesus.

Narrator: Once on the Angelus Temple stage, Sister Aimee used her unique blend of humor, charisma and storytelling to deliver the age-old evangelical message about salvation through Jesus Christ. Each service built to the same climax, the "altar call," or the invitation to come forward and be "born again."

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): Everyone stand and say, "I need Jesus in my life."

Wendell St. Clair: Quite often, people would come down, their lives are changed from that very night. And they become a Christian.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): Come on young man, come on down from that balcony. Good for you!

Dorothy Jean Furlong: There would be 30, 40, 50 people coming, sometimes more.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): Now, Lord let the Holy Ghost come down upon everyone of us, here on the main floor of Mercy, everyone close your eyes please...

Narrator: Angelus Temple held 21 services each week, but Sister Aimee was most famous for the dramatic productions she staged on Sunday evenings, called "illustrated sermons."

Wendell St. Clair: Sometimes it was a Bible story, like "Sampson and Delilah." And they had Samson with the long hair and Delilah with the slinky dress. She was so beautiful. And she was so eloquent. And she even moved my little four-year-old heart.

Steven Prothero, Historian: Sister Aimee mixed two things in American culture that we often think aren't supposed to be mixed, you know -- one is entertainment, and the other is religion. And she mixed them together really, really well in a real potent combination.

Narrator: McPherson created a new denomination, with branch members, called the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. She published monthly magazines; and just at the moment when radio was born, she built her own Christian radio station. KFSG broadcast Angelus Temple sermons, healing services, instructing listeners to place their hands on their radio sets, and serial dramas, such as "The Adventures of Jim Trask, Lone Evangelist." Some nights, the signal reached as far as Australia.

Tona Hangen: When she first envisioned the station, she said that there were some 200,000 radio receiving sets in Los, in the Los Angeles area. But within just a few years, radio was ubiquitous in nearly every home. And she had the foresight to ride the crest of that wave.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): My friends, if you're starving...tonight, there is salvation, there's a baptism of the Holy Ghost, there's the healing power of Jesus, there's a grand...

Tona Hangen: Shortly before she died, Sister Aimee applied for a license for an experimental television station and so, had she lived, she surely would have been one of the first televangelists.

Narrator: From her headquarters at Angelus Temple, Aimee Semple McPherson now presided over a vast evangelical empire, embracing thousands, even millions. Yet, she remained fundamentally alone. "At the end of each day," she wrote, "...dear people would go to their homes arm in arm, while I would sit in silence, watching the last light extinguished in the big auditorium and the last happy couple disappear in the darkness."

Unknown man (archival): I have pleasure in introducing Mrs. McPherson.

Narrator: In her first couple of years in Los Angeles, the city enthusiastically embraced Sister Aimee, listing her church as a tourist destination, where guest speakers included superior court judges, city councilmen and the District Attorney.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival) (singing): Sing a song of golden California...

Narrator: In turn, McPherson would boost California, literally singing the praises of her new home. But not everyone welcomed her. She soon faced growing criticism from a powerful local minister.

Daniel Mark Epstein: Fighting Bob Shuler felt that she was a poacher, that she was raiding their congregations.

Crowd (archival) (chanting): One, two, three, four, who are we for? Our sister!

Edith Blumhofer: He felt that she was developing a personality cult, that it was McPhersonism rather than Christianity -- that the illustrated sermons, just excitement, drama that were everywhere at Angelus Temple were really not serious religion.

Narrator: McPherson ignored her critics and paraded her faith down Main Street. Instead of retreating, she redoubled efforts to put Pentecostalism on the map, urging followers to erase the line between church and state.

Matthew Sutton: Aimee is continuing to try to work Pentecostalism in the mainstream of American life, and part of how she does that is to get involved in politics. She believes that a national revival is necessary, that American Christians need to reclaim the state -- that they need to take over the government and exert their influence.

Narrator: Sister Aimee watched with keen interest the controversy over evolution which was unfolding in the south. High school biology teacher John Scopes was on trial for teaching his students evolution, in violation of a Tennessee statute. This time, McPherson was ready to enter the political fray, using her media empire to mobilize her supporters against Darwin's Theory.

Matthew Sutton: She does everything she can in Los Angeles to crusade against evolution. She wants it out of the public schools, she wants it out of the classrooms. She wants Los Angeles school children to go to school and to learn the story of Genesis, the traditional, six-day literal creation story, with no compromise, no watering down.

Narrator: As McPherson moved to the center of political debate, L.A. city fathers grew uneasy. They feared their thriving metropolis could acquire a backwards, anti-modern image.

Daniel Mark Epstein: Now, you have to remember that Los Angeles at that time had ambitions to become the Athens of the West, they wanted to host the Olympics. This was just too much for the city fathers to take.

Narrator: While the evolution issue simmered, in January 1926, Sister Aimee bid farewell to thousands of fans, in preparation for a rare vacation. In the short time she had been in Los Angeles, she had built a new Four Square Church almost every month and established a media empire. Behind the scenes, she had ministered to unwed mothers, drug addicts, victims of domestic abuse. McPherson was feeling the strain.

Daniel Mark Epstein: This was a woman of enormous gifts and powers, and one who was capable of doing an enormous amount of good -- but those very gifts of spirit and dedication isolated her. This was a woman who never really had a close friend.

Narrator: In fact, Sister Aimee had developed a friendship, in the previous year, with her radio engineer Kenneth Ormiston. But he was a married man, and this led to rumors.

Daniel Mark Epstein: Kenneth Ormiston was the first person that Sister Aimee saw in the morning when she went to work and often late at night after the sermons were over. Frequently, there would be sound checks over this intercom. And she didn't realize the acoustics were so good in Angelus Temple that people could hear the two of them talking on the intercom. And evidently, they didn't like the tone of voice that Sister Aimee was using. In short, people began to suspect that there was an affair between Sister Aimee and Kenneth Ormiston.

Robert Orsi: She was a Canadian farm girl who finds herself, suddenly, the darling of the media and the darling of Los Angeles, and I don't think she could handle it. How do you get time by yourself when you're the object of that kind of fascination and that kind of scrutiny? How do you get off the stage? How do you do that gracefully?

Narrator: Not long after her return to Los Angeles, on May 18, 1926, Sister Aimee and her secretary went to nearby Venice Beach. There something happened that would set the entire city abuzz; the secretary, watching McPherson swim from the beach, suddenly lost sight of her.

Daniel Mark Epstein: After walking up the beach, up and down the beach for quite some time, really terrified, she finally notified the hotel manager nearby that Sister Aimee had disappeared. Minnie Kennedy was convinced that Aimee had drowned.

Edith Blumhofer: Sister had been advertised to speak at the Temple at night. And when the crowds got there, Minnie was there, and Sister was not. And Minnie conducted the entire service without saying anything, even though rumors had circulated in the city suggesting that Aimee had disappeared.

Matthew Sutton: And parishioners sitting in the back could hear the newsboys outside shouting, "Aimee McPherson believed drowned." A few began sobbing.

Narrator: At the end of the service, Minnie Kennedy announced what the congregation had feared. "Sister," she said, "is with Jesus." But not everyone was convinced.

Matthew Sutton: One young journalist in this period believed that Aimee had not actually drowned, but that this was a well-orchestrated publicity stunt -- that this was going to be some sort of story of death and resurrection or redemption and that Aimee was going to come back.

Narrator: For 32 days, followers of Sister Aimee held a vigil at the beach where she had disappeared. Meanwhile, the woman who had so skillfully used the media to promote her ministry was now the subject of a media frenzy.

Matthew Sutton: The press were having a field day with this story. And what they discovered was that McPherson's former radio engineer, a guy named Kenneth Ormiston, had also disappeared around the same time Aimee did. So, rumors began spreading, and the newspapers sensationalized this, that maybe she had escaped away with him.

Narrator: Then, in the early morning hours of June 23, 1926, police knocked on the door of the parsonage at Angelus Temple, presenting Minnie Kennedy with stunning news. Her daughter had apparently walked out of the desert in Mexico and was in a hospital in Arizona. Aimee Semple McPherson was alive.

Edith Blumhofer: Minnie provided questions to verify her daughter's identity -- questions that only Aimee would have known. Questions that had to do with the name of the dog on the farm in Ontario, things like that from her childhood.

Narrator: Aimee's mother, her two children -- and L.A. reporters -- all raced to the Arizona hospital, to learn what had happened. McPherson's account was soon taken up by the silent film industry, which made theatrical versions of current events.

Daniel Mark Epstein: Sister Aimee's story is that, while she was at the beach... a man and a woman approached her. And they said, "Sister, our baby is dying. Would you please come with us and pray for our child?" They dragged her into the car, and they chloroformed her. And when she woke up, she was in a shack in the desert.

Narrator: McPherson said she was taken to Mexico by kidnappers named Steve and Mexicali Rose. She was bound, but managed to escape by severing ropes on the rim of an open tin can.

Edith Blumhofer: There were some doubts, first raised by someone in Arizona who said that her clothing and her shoes did not look as worn as he thought they would have, if her story of wandering across the desert terrain had been true.

Matthew Sutton: On the face of it, this story sounds outrageous but, in fact, the FBI had been investigating a number of kidnapping rings in Southern California and, just a few months earlier, a wealthy, white Angelino had been kidnapped and taken down to Mexico.

Daniel Mark Epstein: I've never believed the kidnapping story. The names themselves: Mexicali Rose. The whole story is far too melodramatic. I've always believed that up until this point, Aimee felt that she was somewhat in control of her life but that, at this point, she was so tired and exhausted that she really wanted to leave behind everything.

Narrator: When she returned to Los Angeles, just days after her re-appearance, thirty thousand people greeted Sister Aimee at the train station. But the press didn't share her followers' unquestioning loyalty.

Edith Blumhofer: And the rest of the year, the second half of 1926, would be taken up with raking Aimee Semple McPherson over the coals and trying to penetrate every aspect of her story that she told about where she had been during the six weeks of her absence.

Narrator: McPherson was now under the gaze of reporters across the entire nation, with articles in elite magazines such as "Vanity Fair," "Harper's," and "The New Republic." The New York Times would publish as many articles on Sister Aimee's saga as it had on the entire Scopes Trial.

Steve Prothero: Well, nowadays, celebrities do have some sense of what they're getting in for. In the 20s, that wasn't necessarily the case. These people who were moving into celebrity -- the Mary Pickfords in film, the Babe Ruths in sports, and the Aimee Semple McPhersons in religion...they didn't know really what the rules were going to be and how it would change their lives.

Narrator: Within weeks of McPherson's return, the Los Angeles District Attorney launched a grand jury investigation into her alleged kidnapping. At the hearing, everyone expected the D.A. to focus on whether there was enough evidence to identify and charge kidnappers in the case.

Matthew Sutton: And almost immediately, it's clear that the District Attorney is not interested in finding out about Steve and Rose and these supposed kidnappers, but they're interested in prying into Aimee's private sexual life.

Narrator: The D.A. grilled McPherson about her relationship with Kenneth Ormiston, implying that she had concocted the sensational kidnapping story to hide an affair. Ultimately, it was not kidnappers that he charged, but McPherson -- with fabricating evidence, lying before a grand jury and conspiracy to commit a hoax. He even argued that McPherson should go to jail.

Narrator: Before McPherson's case went to trial, famed journalist H.L. Mencken came to town to investigate the story firsthand. Mencken was no friend to old-time religion, having written only scathing articles during the Scopes Trial about Aimee's anti-evolution ally William Jennings Bryan. Everyone expected him to carve McPherson into pieces as well.

Edith Blumhofer: H.L. Mencken had attended the Temple when he would visit Los Angeles, and he'd write columns and say things like, you know, "Los Angeles' Reverend Sister in God did this or that," in a very mocking and belittling way.

Matthew Sutton: But as he began to investigate the trial, Mencken really captured what was going on in Los Angeles -- and that is, if you want to discredit somebody's political agenda, you go after their private sex life. And that's exactly what Aimee's enemies were doing.

Narrator: Mencken learned that McPherson had been lobbying to get evolution out of California schools and Bibles into every classroom. He concluded that the same L.A. civic leaders who had once promoted her were now pressuring the D.A. to pursue her, because they feared her efforts to merge faith and politics were embarrassing their modern city. The whole episode, Mencken wrote, was a "dirty shame."

In the end, the District Attorney did not have incontrovertible evidence that McPherson had lied, and the charges were dropped. But the damage to her reputation had been done.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): Angelus Temple will carry on, and we shall win many thousands of souls. Let's sing that song, "If we all pull together." [singing] If we all pull together, together, together.

Narrator: After the kidnapping saga, Sister Aimee struggled to regain her public image. Given a chance to star in a film about her life, she lost weight and bobbed her hair -- but failed the screen test.

Aimee Semple McPherson (archival): Give me a burden for souls...

Narrator: She opened a show about her life on Broadway, but disappointed critics and audiences alike by refusing to talk about the kidnapping. The show closed in a week. She was named in dozens of lawsuits -- and she even became estranged from her own mother and daughter. She also briefly married a singer from one of her productions.

Matthew Sutton: She decides to elope with Dave Hutton to the horror of church members who believed that divorcees should never re-marry. That to do so was to commit adultery. And this really alienated her even further from members who had stuck by her through the kidnapping, but were now totally confused wondering what in the world their leader was doing.

Edith Blumhofer: And they find themselves distracted by Aimee in the news from doing the work that they had undertaken to do. And so some of them actually withdrew and formed a new denomination.

Daniel Mark Epstein: Sister Aimee's tale tells us what happens when a person is forced into isolation, either through fame, through their great gifts. All of us need to be connected. And it's not enough for a great performer such as Aimee to be connected simply to a crowd and to her followers.

Aimee Semple McPherson and followers (archival): (singing) How happy we'll be...

Narrator: In the 1930s, as Aimee Semple McPherson grappled with how to revitalize her crippled ministry, the nation was in the grip of economic depression. For McPherson, the hard times presented an opportunity -- to minister once again to the disenfranchised, to return to the roots of the Pentecostal movement.

David Daniels: Pentecostalism had already gone through one generation. And a number of Pentecostal pioneers had died. And there was sort of a longing to go back to the power of those golden days.

Anthea Butler: Sister Aimee goes back to where she began, with the downtrodden peoples, and especially African Americans, who had been there to help her put up her tents, to take down her tents, to minister with her and to give out of what they had. She goes back to this community. And in a sense, it's her finding her ground once again.

Narrator: McPherson devoted special attention to the Mexican community of Los Angeles. At a time when California was discouraging charities from giving aid to immigrants, McPherson opened a commissary, stocked with food and clothes, available to everyone, no questions asked, no red tape.

Daniel Mark Epstein: If you ask people in Los Angeles about Sister Aimee, they may or may not remember whether she was Pentecostal, whether she had her hair bobbed. But everyone remembers the extraordinary contributions of the Angelus Temple commissary during the great Depression. They got there first with the most.

Narrator: Even as she fed the poor, McPherson argued that spiritual renewal ranked as the nation's top priority. She preached that economic and social reform would follow when "America returned to God." During one 40-city campaign, Sister Aimee delivered her unique mix of religion and politics to two million people, one in every 50 Americans.

Matthew Sutton: And at the same time, she actually re-embraces the Pentecostalism of her childhood. She begins publicly speaking in tongues. She begins being proud of the fact that she was filled with the spirit. And so we see her not being the Hollywood celebrity, but being the Pentecostal revivalist who is having an impact on individual Christians' lives.

Narrator: In September 1944, McPherson traveled to Oakland, one of the communities that had helped launched her during her early days as an itinerant preacher.

Daniel Mark Epstein: One night, she went to bed kind of late because she always felt very keyed up after a performance and she had some barbiturates, which she frequently used for sleep.

Matthew Sutton: The next morning, her son came in to find her to try and get her prepared for this revival she was having in Oakland. And what he discovered was his mother unconscious on the floor.

Edith Blumhofer: The official coroner's report was that was accidental death, but her death was reported, first, as a suicide.

Narrator: In more than three decades as an evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson had touched the lives of millions. More famous than many movie stars, she had entwined religion with entertainment and politics to an unprecedented degree.

Matthew Sutton: McPherson's story illustrates the rise of a conservative powerful wing within Christianity that is really trying to blend church and state -- that really believes that the United States is a Christian nation, particularly ordained and founded by God, that has a unique role to play in this world. And that's the message she taught her followers, and that's the legacy that she still represents today.

Tona Hangen: A reporter once asked Sister Aimee what was her greatest wish in life. "As a woman," she said, "I would wish that I would have a happy Christian home, a devoted husband and family. But as an evangelist," she said, "I would wish that I would have a public address system mighty enough to reach every person in the world." With thousands of watts behind her every time she opened her mouth to speak and a radio station that never went off the air during her lifetime, I think it's safe to say that she came a lot closer to fulfilling that desire of her heart.

back to top page created on 01.29.2007