In these excerpts, historians reflect on Aimee Semple McPherson's life, her faith, and issues of race and religion.
Professor Anthea Butler teaches at the University of Rochester. She specializes in American religious history, including African American religions and the history of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.
Professor Matthew A. Sutton teaches U.S. cultural, intellectual, and religious history at Oakland University. He is the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
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Butler: Sister Aimee is... the very determined, successful woman who is not just a businesswoman, but she's created a sort of religious empire in a sense.
Sutton: Aimee Semple McPherson was the most exciting, enthusiastic, controversial evangelist between World War I and World War II. Everybody in the United States knew about her. She was basically a combination of Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, Billy Graham, and to add a political dimension, Pat Robertson. She was the person everybody was talking about, she was the patron saint of California.
Butler: What influences Aimee growing up is watching the Salvation Army... Women get to wear their great epaulets, and the suits, and the fancy uniforms, everything that's there. But even more important than that, she sees men and women working together equally. And that's very important, because there's not very many models for that. And when Aimee sees women standing on the street corners just like men, leading the worship services just like men, she begins to form an image in her mind... "I can do this too, despite the fact that I'm a woman."
Sutton: Aimee's life with [second husband] Harold [McPherson] probably began pretty well, but almost immediately it began to just fall apart. She had found that she was not happy. She was experiencing what Betty Friedan called "the problem that has no name," this kind of lethargy, this kind of dissatisfaction. She's looking out at her parlor, she's looking out at her baby furniture, she's asking, "Why can't I be happy? Other women are happy with this." But she was not. She felt like God was constantly prodding her, God was calling her to go and preach the Word, "Go and preach the Word." And she just couldn't get this voice out of her head.
Butler: She's plucky in a different sort of way for women during this time period. She knows that most of the men don't really want to see a woman preacher... she is tenacious, but she's also a good purveyor of this gospel message. She knows how to give people a good show, but it's more than just a show... She knows it, she believes it, and she puts her whole heart and soul into it... And in the midst of all this she's trying to balance out being a mother, sometimes being a wife...
Aimee Semple McPherson turned out to be the great celebrity... with the flowers, the vibrant woman who's out preaching the gospel... It's the image of celebrity. Perhaps if Aimee's life had been different, if [her first husband] Robert Semple had not died, she would have had a different life. She would have been in China, she would have had children, she would have ministered with her husband for the rest of her life.
And I think, in a way, she would have liked that life just as much as she liked the life at Angelus Temple... [But] she's given us a great story about what women can do.
Butler: In 1907 [McPherson] saw worship that she'd never seen before. She saw [Pentecostals] speaking in these strange gurgly tones that she wouldn't have understood. She saw people jumping up and looking as though they had a little bit of a nervous tic, or a dance. And this was very different from the Salvation Army services... when she began to hear the speaking in tongues and other things, she began to feel a draw. Something different was happening here.
Sutton: Aimee's on her way home from school one afternoon... it's at that moment that the heavens open, that she recognizes that God is there, that God has been calling to her her whole life. And so she dedicates her life to God and has this born again experience.... She decides she wants the Pentecostal experience, she wants the full blessing, she wants everything Robert Semple's promised, she wants what she sees with these other Pentecostal worshipers.
So she begins to do what she calls "tarrying", to pray, and pray, and pray, and to beg God, "Please give me this experience. Please let me speak in tongues. Please fill me with the Holy Ghost." And finally, after weeks of pleading, it happens. She feels her body slowly fall to the floor, and then she says she's praying. She's saying, "Praise God, praise God," louder and faster, and louder and faster, and then all of a sudden, words she doesn't know start coming out of her mouth. She began speaking in tongues... this is the language of the Holy Spirit... she's had the Pentecostal experience...
Butler: Aimee went because she thought she could get a laugh, like most people who went to early Pentecostal services. 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 on the floor? Who wouldn't go? And it's free.
Well, she went there to get a laugh... But something else happened... She was mesmerized.
Sutton: Pentecostals had faith. And when I say faith, that's to the exclusion of preparation, planning, and finances. If you were going to be a Pentecostal missionary, you just went. God calls and you go, you don't hesitate. 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.
Aimee's favorite Bible verse, the thing that really defined her life, came out of the New Testament book of Hebrews. It said, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever..." She believed that Jesus worked today the same way he had worked in the first century. Jesus did miracles in the first century, so Jesus does miracles today. Jesus healed the sick, Jesus looked after the poor, so Jesus heals the sick and looks after the poor in the 20th century... She saw Christ as imminent. Christ was among the people.
As Aimee's popularity spreads, as more and more people are coming to her meetings, she realizes she needs to rethink what she's doing... She wants to move Pentecostalism out of the margins and into the mainstream of American society. The way to do that is to separate it from its earlier reputation as a bunch of crazy "holy rollers" speaking in tongues, rolling down the aisles, swinging off the chandeliers... She never wants to quench the spirit, she doesn't want to discourage people from seeking the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but she wants it under control.
Butler: The Azusa Street revival... started in April, 1906, with a group of African American washpeople... When the Azusa Street revival happened and Pentecostalism came to Los Angeles, it was a new thing... You had people being slain in the spirit, falling on the ground, speaking in tongues, holding hands with each other, gender barriers were broken, racial barriers were broken...
It's this ecstatic free worship, a touch of the body, bodies touching where you had not had that so much in religious services before. And second is the interracial component of the revival. That... sets a stage... In one sense, the tensions that arise between African Americans and whites, Asian Americans, Latinos. But on the other hand, it opens up new vistas for the people who come to the revival to have another experience that they would not have had before.
When [the Azusa Street revival] happens, you see a totally different experience in Los Angeles than you've ever seen before. You see racial mixing, you see an African American man, William J. Seymour, leading the revival. You see women as well as men as a part of the board of the Azusa Street mission... The established churches hated it, because it took numbers away from them. People did not like it. The newspapers hated it because they talked about the race mixing, women leaving their husbands. There's an amalgamation of, how do they put it, "Caucasian insanity and black voodoo..."
Sutton: Aimee has launched a nationwide revival tour in the 1910s and she finally moves into the South... she's holding huge revivals, people are turning out in record numbers to see her.
[In Florida], Aimee decides to move into the African-American part of town to hold a revival... But she is so interesting, she's so exciting, she has so captivated the white folks in town that they follow her. They decide to defy... the Jim Crow laws that they had established...
So in this one tent for the first time, she claims, in Florida we have whites and blacks worshipping side by side. She says, "Glory, the walls of prejudice are finally coming down..."
During her revivals in the South Aimee was so interested in racial reconciliation and working with all people that she actually recruited an African American minister to baptize her daughter Roberta in one of the local rivers... this really becomes a symbol of Aimee's effort to work with all people, of all races, creeds, cultures, and classes.
Butler: Sister Aimee has a big year in 1936. It's the 50th anniversary of the Azusa Street revival and as one of the leading ladies... of Pentecost, she decided that she'll hold a big anniversary meeting in Angelus Temple. And this is a time when she begins to reach back to a community that she's forgotten a little bit about in the Twenties, and that's the African American community. She invites several speakers to come to Angelus Temple to preach and be on the pulpit, and she begins to reach back to that community...
She reaches back to where she began, with the downtrodden peoples, and especially the 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 again, and in a sense it's her finding her ground once again.