Anthea Butler and Arlene Sánchez-Walsh —
Reviving Sister Aimee

A look back at the closest thing the early 20th century may have had to Oprah Winfrey. The flamboyant Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson was a multimedia sensation and a powerful female religious leader long before most of Christianity considered such a thing. The contradictions and passions of her life are a window into the world of global Pentecostalism that touches as many as half a billion lives today.

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Guests

is an associate professor of Religious Studies and graduate chair of Religion at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

is an associate professor of Latino Church Studies at Azusa Pacific University.

Pertinent Posts

1

A reflection that life-altering moments are often informed through faith and a conviction and willingness to submit to that faith — setting aside a life of certainty and proceeding without a road map.

SoundSeen (our multimedia stories)

The Illustrated Sermon

Get a sense of Aimee Semple McPherson's theatrically staged sermons that packed Angelus Temple while listening to the Pentecostal preacher in various settings around the world.

Practicing What We Preach

Archival film footage of Aimee Semple McPherson included in Hearst Metrotone News reels. View the charismatic, and slightly quirky, delivery of a tech-savvy evangelist of the 1930s.

Saving Sinners on Broadway

Archival film footage of Aimee Semple McPherson

Selected Readings

A Biography of Aimee Semple McPherson

Margaret Poloma recommended to Krista that she read historian Mel Robeck's "readable and very good" entry on Sister Aimee's life and acts — a concise couple of pages well worth your time.

Acts 2:1-41

Rendering of the Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

About the Image

Aimee Semple McPherson preaches to her flock at Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, California in 1931.

(Source: Heritage Department of the International Foursquare Gospel)

Episode Sponsor

Funding provided in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Reflections

What I began to think about as the broadcast progressed (and in part due to the fact that one of the interviewees is from University of Pennsylvania, where I studied classics) is how Sister Aimee might fit into the larger context of women in the church throughout history. In particular, much of what I heard reminded me of St. Margaret of Scotland, who, in the 11th century, was at once a wife, mother, educator and reformer. Granted, she married into royalty, and so had by dint of circumstances a very different personal context. Moreover, St. Margaret's life could hardly be described as "flamboyant." Still, I think that she and Sister Aimee would have a very interesting dinner conversation.

http://mw.mcmaster.ca/scriptorium/margaret.html

Joining these two at dinner could also be St. Brigid (5th-6th century, http://www.roca.org/OA/107/107e.htm) and St. Macrina the Younger (4th century, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macrina_the_Younger) and, nearer to our time, Dorothy Day and Flannery O'Connor.

I have an intuition that Sister Aimee, among these luminaries, would undoubtedly raise an eyebrow, perhaps two, every now and again. Still, there is a significance and substance among all of them that is at once illuminating, inspiring and worth knowing.

I came in a bit late, but the question of "how far are you willing to go?" is a question I wrestle with in between dishes and meditation. My beloved Guru lost much in her God-intoxication, only to emerge with an extraordinary capacity to serve, teach and a capacity to embrace without judgment. Indeed, when your lover is God, what won't you surrender for that? What will you? - Thank you Krista! Namaste, Saivite

This is why I love your church!Truelly catebreling Jesus.My husbands exacts words after the first Power and Praise night we attended were I feel like I was just at a Jesus party .Its moving freely in the Holy Spirit,I wish more churches would allow that.The sermons are so well absorbed(at least for me)when humour is thrown in.The fun and enthusiastic energy you have while preaching Gods word trickles into the congergation..I love that!And yes,wont it be a party once we reach heaven!Something I am so looking forward to one day,to party with my loved ones already there and Jesus himself ..

This is a good presentation. Overall I recommend its viewing. It is a bit thin, as with other presentations are on the 1926 kidnapping, which seem to work to preserve the mystery rather than really working to get at the behind the scenes facts.

I found the 1926 disappearance incident quite disturbing and to a lesser extent her alleged affairs. A person embed with the healing power of God to assist 10's of thousands; more persons witnessed healed by secular observers than anyone before or since in history, did not make sense to me. How could she have this level of immorality and yet remain, among other things, an effective minister and faith healer, even to the end of her days? I investigated the situation and there are some interesting facts to consider:

--Until the 1930's when the FBI became actively involved in kidnapping cases, the local authorities were responsible for investigating, with all the political debris that may imply of the LA Police Department.
-- McPherson, according to journalist from New York, H. L. Mencken, sent to cover the 1926 grand jury inquiry determined the evangelist was being persecuted by two powerful Los Angeles city groups. The "town clergy" were concerned she was taking too many of their congregants and did not like her theatrical style in presenting the Gospel. The other was "the Babbits", the power elite of California. McPherson's strong stand on Bible fundamentalism and "against evolution" in the public classroom was not popular with them.
--The Los Angeles law enforcement was actually originally empathetic with McPherson's story. But inexplicably, when the grand jury inquiry began in earnest, they were no longer interested in seriously pursuing a possible kidnapping and instead tried hard to prove McPherson's story false trying to show she was involved with a married man in a cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea..
--Faulty eyewitness accounts against McPherson were on the front-page news headlines, while evidence supporting her was on the back pages, if printed at all.
--The grand jury investigation aided by newspapers and their hundreds of reporters, spent $500,000 (around 6.4 million in 2013 cash), all to prove McPherson's story false. They ended up dropping the case for lack of evidence.
-- The newspapers made lots of money on the 1926 disappearance controversy. LOTS.
--Few paid any attention to Kenneth Ormiston, her supposed Carmel lover. He stated his name "connected to the evangelist was a gross insult to a noble and sincere woman." He admitted to having an affair there at the time and sold his story to the NY Times. The mistress, though, was Elizabeth Tovey.
--In 1990 The Court of Historical Review and Appeal in San Francisco, which holds no legal authority, is made up of members of the bench handed down regarding the matter of McPherson's kidnapping story. "there was never any substantial evidence to show that her story was untrue.
---her alleged affairs (most supposedly taking place in the 1930's): Stuff of old ladies leaning on backyard fences and gossiping. Nothing that anyone can put their finger on.

Referencing biographies
1. Raymond L. Cox: The Verdict is In 1983
2. Daniel Mark Epstein Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson 1994
3. Edith L Blumhofer: Aimee Semple McPherson Everybody's Sister 1993
4. Matthew Avery Sutton: Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. 2007