On Being with Krista Tippett

Anthea Butler + Arlene Sánchez-Walsh

Reviving Sister Aimee

Last Updated

June 9, 2011

Original Air Date

August 9, 2007

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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Image of Anthea Butler

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

Image of Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Arlene Sanchez Walsh is chair of the Haggard School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University and author of Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Society, and Self.


June 9, 2011

MS. KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson was a multimedia sensation and a celebrity before her time. But she also fed a million people in Depression-era Los Angeles. And she lives on in a global movement that is the fastest-growing face of Christianity today.

MS. ANTHEA BUTLER: She’s a woman doing this at a time when not very many men or women are thinking this way. So I’ve got a church, but not only do I have a church, I’ve got a radio station. Not only do I have this radio station, but I’m feeding everybody in Los Angeles. How many ways can I get this message out that’s possible? And maybe that’s a little bit, you know, televangelist. But televangelists can be very much one-sided. You do not see very many televangelists today figuring out how they’re going to feed the poor.

MS. KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being. Stay with us, for “Reviving Sister Aimee.”


MS. TIPPETT: The closest thing to Oprah Winfrey in early 20th-century America may have been a Pentecostal preacher. Aimee Semple McPherson was the first woman to receive a license from the FCC. She built a 5,000-seat temple in Los Angeles and helped feed over a million people during the Great Depression. And she did this long before most of Christianity began to think about women as leaders.

Aimee Semple McPherson’s preaching was flamboyant, and her personal life no less so. She married multiple times and was once accused of staging her own kidnapping. Yet the contradictions and passions of her life are a window into a larger Christian movement that touches as many as half a billion people globally now.

MS. BUTLER: It’s almost dangerous to say in the same word as Pentecostal, but I’ll go ahead and say it. There’s something sexy about her.

MS. ARLENE SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: I’ve talked to several Foursquare women who are so inspired by the notion of Sister Aimee. And these are Latina women who know that in their home countries, they would not have a voice. But when they immigrate to the United States, they hear this story and they just become excited about the idea that even if they were once divorced, even if they have their own marital problems, even if they’re not the best person, they have a dream.

MS. KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: From APM, American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being, “Reviving Sister Aimee.”

MS. AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: (from archival recording) Lord, bless us and give us a soul-shaking revival tonight. Let everyone in Angelus Temple and listening over the air, down on the ships at sea and wherever they may be, feel God’s motivating power.

[Sound bite of music: “You don’t have to worry…”]

MS. TIPPETT: The woman later referred to by millions as Sister Aimee was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in Canada in 1890. As she grew up in the early years of the 20th century, the Pentecostal movement was just beginning. It took off in 1906 on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, led by an African-American preacher. What started there was almost miraculous in the America of that time — even by secular accounts — in its mix of races and classes of people. They were drawn to an experiential, non-doctrinal faith — and a belief that God could speak directly to anyone, even the lowliest of the societal low. The early Pentecostals were rooted in the social justice impulse of what was called the Holiness movement. But they also wanted to claim the “gifts of the spirit” such as teaching, healing, and speaking in tongues.

Anthea Butler has studied Aimee Semple McPherson and the place of women in the Church of God in Christ. It’s the fourth-largest U.S. Protestant denomination today — and it traces its roots straight back to Azusa Street.

MS. TIPPETT: Let’s just kind of start at the beginning and …


MS. TIPPETT: … and walk through some of the high points. Her mother worked for the Salvation Army, which was a tradition of the Holiness movement. And Aimee Semple McPherson talks about a turning point where she went to a revival, and she would say that when she walked into that revival, she felt cold and far from God and she was born again. And I wonder, when you imagine that revival and from what you know about it and from what you understand of Pentecostal experience, you know, how would you describe what happened to her there?

MS. BUTLER: Well I think she’s really struck. I mean, if you think about — the Salvation Army tradition was sort of, you know, still vibrant. People stand on street corners and preach. But I think the thing about anybody walking into a Pentecostal service for the first time; it’s all this movement with your body. And you’re taught in a certain way to control your body. I mean, think about this. This is just, you know, right at the turn of the century. We’re still sort of Victorian worldview sort of way.


MS. BUTLER: And to see people sort of, you know, women and men letting their bodies loose in worshipping, all these tongue-speaking and people touching each other and all. It’s, I mean, it’s got to put you in a different kind of space, you know? And then you add on the charismatic preacher and then, you know, the rest is sort of history in a certain way.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right. And the charismatic preacher was Robert Semple, a young Irishman …


MS. TIPPETT: … who she, in fact, fell in love with and married. And they went to China as missionaries. And he, her husband, contracts malaria within weeks and dies. So …

MS. BUTLER: Yeah. Yeah. And this is — I mean, it’s awful. I mean, it’s just, you imagine you get married. You’re about to have your first baby and your husband’s dead. And then you’re with all these people you don’t know. And then you’ve got to, you know, get in touch with your mother and try to raise some money to get back home on a boat. I don’t think we really sort of realize now, you know, as a young woman, how daunting that must have been. I mean, all sorts of things could have happened to her. But, I mean, she shows a lot of pluck from the very beginning, really.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And I also could imagine that this story could’ve continued with another person saying, “Well, I don’t believe in all of this anymore,” right?

MS. BUTLER: Oh, absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: “Surely, God didn’t call me to witness the death of my husband in a foreign country and become impoverished.” But she went back and started working with the Salvation Army and, within a very short time, seems to have felt called to ministry in a huge way.

MS. BUTLER: Yeah. Exactly. And in the interim of that, you know, meaning, husband number two.


MS. BUTLER: And this is always very interesting to me because I think, in part, poor McPherson did not know what he was getting into. You still have the sort of conventional, you know, Adam and Eve, everybody gets married, this is part of God’s plan for everyone. But for Pentecostals, I think, which is different than fundamentalists, is that God’s still speaking. And that the fact that God is still speaking and still “calling” people, and put that in quotation marks, makes a difference especially for Pentecostal women when they go, somebody like Aimee who goes off to do all of this, you know, missionizing and traveling without the husband.

MS. TIPPETT: So you tell the story of, you know, how her ministry then develops.

MS. BUTLER: Part of what happens after Aimee gets married to Harold is that she tries to be a housewife for a little while. She tries, and it sort of works in a way because she has her second son, Rolf. But she continues to be sick. There is sickness all the time. And I think one of the big Pentecostal tropes is, “If you don’t do the calling that God has you to do, you get very ill.” And then finally, you know, she’s basically close to death. And she hears this voice, you know, “Are you going to go? Will you go?” And she says yes. So she picks up, she takes off. And she tells Harold, you know, “I tried it your way. Now, will you try it mine?”
MS. TIPPETT: So, I mean, I think she started publishing The Bridal Call


MS. TIPPETT: … while she was there. And tell me about that.

MS. BUTLER: Yeah. The Bridal Call is really great because she, if you think about Oprah’s magazine, O, now …


MS. BUTLER: … what’s always interesting is that she, you know, sort of has herself on the cover a lot, too, in various guises. So she might be dressed up as a shepherdess or something like that on the front of some The Bridal Calls that you’ll see. But it’s about, you know, all early Pentecostals, during this time period, are sort of putting out their own publications. I think this is something that people really miss. But as a woman putting out her own publication …


MS. BUTLER: You know, on the road, think about this, you know, I mean, having to do this.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, she becomes a preacher and a publisher and then a broadcaster.

MS. BUTLER: Absolutely.


MS. BUTLER: Yeah. And I think, you know, this is, speaks to really her entrepreneurial sense. I mean, she’s like, “It’s not enough for me to go in the road. I need to have a broadside to sell.” She’s not thinking about it as being sales; it’s ministry.


MS. BUTLER: But it also puts some money in the coffers so that she could continue this work of the ministry, you know? Somebody’s got to pay for this stuff.

MS. AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: (from archival recording) Hallelujah. And let all the white spots in the world, the United States with its freedom to preach the Gospel, no one to tell us what we can broadcast or print or publish. Thank God that we have the chance to still keep our light burning. Amen.

MS. TIPPETT: She really seemed to have little interest in race or creed or social class.


MS. TIPPETT: Her gatherings were remarkably ecumenical. And, but what’s interesting to me is that diversity and pluralism in the mix of people there was also what was astonishing about the Azusa Street Revival at the very earliest days of the Pentecostal movement. However, very quickly, within the Pentecostal movement in general, that was not maintained, right?


MS. TIPPETT: I mean, blacks and whites and Latinos who’d worshipped together on Azusa Street worshipped apart. But Aimee Semple McPherson is this figure who seems to carry that mind forward in time quite boldly.

MS. BUTLER: Exactly. So I think, for her, it was more about, you know, “What do I think heaven’s going to look like?” What you don’t see a lot of and, I think, what’s always puzzling and troubling about Aimee at the same time is that she could play allegiances across the board. I mean, you do have to remember that this is someone who, on the one hand, has interracial meetings, but on the other hand, you know, has a couple of incidences where the Ku Klux Klan gives her money.

And this is one of the, you know, one of the hard parts of the story. So I think that it works for both sides of her strengths. I think, on one level, I think she’s very much sincere about the interracial context of her revivals and later on at Angelus Temple. On the other hand, she is very pragmatist, in a sense, and knows that if I need some support, I’m going to have to get it from somewhere.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. You mentioned the Angelus Temple, which could seat 5,000 people. And, I mean, it’s not just that there were 5,000 people there once a week on Sunday, either. I’ve seen that it was filled to capacity sometimes three times a day, seven days a week.

MS. BUTLER: All the time. Yeah. And what was great was that she knew how to put on a show for you.


MS. BUTLER: So, I mean, why wouldn’t you line up to go see the illustrated sermon, or to see her preach, or to see this fabulous choir, or the many guests who would come through to see it. I mean, it was the greatest show sitting right there on Los Angeles that you could, you know, line up for, even better than the movies. And they’re still silent.

[Sound bite of archival recording]

MS. AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: And this evening, our sermon is to be rebroadcast at 12:15. I understand now on the radio they are making a large record in Hollywood at the company, which’ll be replayed, and I presume, kept as long as the world stands. So I would like to be sure before they start the needle working there that you people understand how to say “amen.” Let me hear you say it.


MS. AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: That’s a Methodist amen. I was brought up in Methodist church. Now, let’s hear a real Holy Ghost, on-fire, Pentecostal amen.


MS. AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: That’s better. Let’s hear a “hallelujah.”


MS. AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: And now you listen to yourself at 12:15. See if you can pick out your amen, your hallelujah. Let the world know that we still believe in the old-time gospel.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Reviving Sister Aimee.” Aimee Semple McPherson’s theatrical style was easy to parody for intellectuals of her day, like Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Parker. She often donned a nurse’s uniform when she spoke publicly. Her popular illustrated sermons at Angelus Temple included lavish moving sets, live animals, and Aimee in starring roles as a milkmaid, motorcycle cop, and pilot. And she once posed with a large, constructed gorilla to promote her rejection of Darwinism.

MS. TIPPETT: I think it was easy then and it’s easy now to just say she was a show person. She was a movie star. She had charisma and a charisma in the way we think of it now.


MS. TIPPETT: And that that’s really essentially the way to explain this woman. I mean, how importantly does that figure in how you explain this woman?

MS. BUTLER: I think it’s important. But I think there’s, there’s something deeper. And, and It’s almost dangerous to say in the same word as Pentecostal, but I’ll go ahead and say it. There’s something sexy about her. And it’s this, it’s the thing in the …

MS. TIPPETT: And beautiful, she was beautiful.

MS. BUTLER: And beautiful, yes. She looked like she could be, you know, a very much, a femme fatale or somebody’s mother at the same time. I mean, I think seeing her evokes, you know, especially in her, I call it the heavier phase, pre-1926, in her heavier phase, she looks like, you know, a woman who can stand her ground. But she still looks very attractive. And so I think that drew people in. But for her, it’s, “I know I’ve got to get them in. But when I get them in, I’m going to give them the message.” And that’s what becomes more important for her.

I mean, I think she realizes that she’s got to marry sort of this Pentecostal embodiment with a strong sort of, you know, message of, “Here is this message of the Gospel. Here’s this Pentecostal experience. Here’s how it can work out in your life and, and change things.” And so for that, I think, she’s totally holistic in a certain way. I mean, I think it’s just, it’s easy to see her as an entertainer, but she’s much more than that.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And what — something I’ve noticed is then — that in articles that emphasize her as this entertainer, they often don’t mention or kind of downplay the work she did during the Depression, feeding the hungry, I mean, feeding 1.5 million people.

MS. BUTLER: Absolutely. And the commissary was — you know, you’ve got this commissary where people were not turned away. She has food there. You know, she’s feeding people at least once or twice a day. She’s got workers in the commissary. She is actually passing out food there. I mean, all of this sort of gets missed in the, you know, sort of the more salacious aspects or maybe more sensational aspects of her story. And I think what she does is this great service. It’s this other piece of Pentecostalism. It’s the social justice piece …


MS. BUTLER: … that gets missed, you know? Because people just look at, “Oh, they’re lifting their heads and they’re shouting. And they’re speaking in that little, funny language.” But it’s much more. And for her, it’s like, “I’m not going to just give you this message. I’m going to show you how I love you. So — ’cause I’m going to feed you. And I’m going to help you get out of this.” And even before the Depression, she’s working with prostitutes and women who are abused. I mean, there’s something that’s there in her that’s much stronger than this just, “I’m going to feed people, so I can tell them about the Gospel.” It’s that this is a real need. “I want to see people get better. I want to see them helped.”

MS. TIPPETT: And — and, I mean, that is very striking to me, too, that that was such an aspect of — again she doesn’t turn anyone away, I think it was the actor Anthony Quinn, who was Mexican-American, who said she kept the Mexican community alive and — and what did she do? She expanded the temple to include a laundry, a day nursery, an employment program, sewing rooms, and a free dining hall. And that is so much an important aspect of the spirit of that early Pentecostal movement that emerged from the Holiness movement that had big social justice emphasis.

MS. BUTLER: Yeah, yeah, definitely and I think, you know, it’s — it’s a testimony to her that she doesn’t give all this way despite all of her notoriety, I mean, she’s really involved in all of it, even though she’s got faithful workers there. It’s about you know not just feeding the body but sort of feeding the intellect, too. I mean she’s got a Bible school. You’ve — you know, you’ve got women who get empowered because they go to Life Bible College. So this is kind of incredible to me that she’s got a whole sort of physical plant there at Angelus Temple, which is you know feeding people, taking care of babies, doing all this. And then if you’re old, you know, she’s got something for everybody.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Is this kind of story — did you grow up in the Church of God in Christ?

MS. BUTLER: No, I didn’t. I’m actually Catholic. But I had gone to a Pentecostal church for 10 years and sort of, you know, and Foursquare Church actually, Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California. And that’s how I learned about Aimee. And what struck me about the story in Foursquare was that most people looked at Aimee as this person who had been forgotten now. She started the denomination, whatever. And then you saw these men up here every Sunday …


MS. BUTLER: … doing the Sunday service. But the only person that I felt, you know, really revered her history in the proper way is now — is the president of International Foursquare, Jack Hayford. And he gave this message one evening about rescuing one of her shoes off the trash heap at Angelus Temple. And he talked about people throwing away their history and throwing away the history of this great woman who started the denomination. And it got me to thinking about, well, if this got all started by a woman, why can’t you see women now?


MS. BUTLER: Why don’t you see women in the more prominent places, not just in Foursquare, but in other churches as well? And that sort of started me out on this quest to try to find out any more about Aimee Semple McPherson, but then to find out about women in Pentecostalism more broadly, because I could see the sort of backlash, in a sense.

MS. TIPPETT: When you started asking that question, I mean, who did you ask? And what kind of response did you get?

MS. BUTLER: Well, it was funny. You know, I asked a couple of people that I knew. And they were like, “Oh, I don’t know,” you know? Maybe it’s just because of history and that’s the way it is now. Maybe a lot of women aren’t going to school. But I found out the opposite. I found out that, you know, there’s tons of women entering in the seminary and women that were at Life Bible College and other places and the women that I saw in church. And I think, you know, what happened here? And I think part of it, in the story of Pentecostalism at least, has been this story of becoming the mainstream. And when you have, 100 years ago, Pentecostalism is looked at as this aberration, the crazy people who are waiting for Jesus to come. And then you get 20 and 30 years in, and people get a little bit more settled and denominations are formed. They have to decide how much they’re going to acquiesce to the general public viewpoint and, or …


MS. BUTLER: … you know, or what they think the Holy Spirit has said to them.

MS. AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: (from archival recording) I have come to Broadway, the Mecca of sin, the citadel of worldliness. Oh, I feel, in answering this invitation, as though I should like to stand in the midst of the Broadways of America and lift up my hands and cry, “Stop. You’re drifting away from the faith of your fathers. You’re drifting away from prayer, drifting away from the Bible-reading, drifting away from the family altar. And only ruin and the heartbreak and the home-break lay in the direction of backsliding.” I am coming out to help bring you back, as if can, to the fold. Give me a burden for souls, Lord. Give me a love for the lost. Let my heart bleed as thy own, Lord. Give me a burden for soul.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I’m curious. Aimee Semple McPherson has been rediscovered by a whole knew generation of scholars, and there are just a number of biographies on her, and there was a PBS program on her. But some of those seem to want to draw a line between her and televangelism, right?


MS. TIPPETT: She was a controversial figure they say, she’s like Jimmy Swaggart. Or she was the predecessor to today’s megachurches. Or she was a prime example of the mingling of politics with religion that has come full flower in our culture. What do you think of these analyses from the vantage point you have on all this?

MS. BUTLER: I — I think all of that is partially true. What I think gets missed on all of this is simply the fact that she is a woman doing this at a time when not very many men or women are thinking this way. I mean that’s just the beauty of it.

MS. TIPPETT: Thinking this way, what do you mean just …

MS. BUTLER: Thinking in the way of how do I make everything work together. So I’ve got a church, but not only do I have a church, I’ve got a radio station. Not only do I have this radio station, but I’m feeding everybody in Los Angeles. Not only do I do that, but I travel around the world, how many ways can I get this message out that’s possible? And I think the other thing too — is you brought this whole thing up that people sort of try to link her. I think that other piece — the value of her story is that, you know, she’s around at the same time Billy Sunday is. But we forget about her in America religious history.

MS. TIPPETT: You’re right.

MS. BUTLER: We talk about Billy Sunday.


MS. BUTLER: And how powerful of a speaker he is. But she’s powerful in her own — in a very different kind of way. Aimee is a whole package before you get a whole package.

MS. TIPPETT: You know I was amazed to find this quote from Anthony Quinn, the actor, who again was Mexican-American and he met her as a teenager and she fed his people he knew during the depression. And he said she was the most magnetic personality he had ever encountered — that Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn all fell short of that first electric shock Aimee Semple McPherson produced in him.

MS. BUTLER: We could hear her speak. This is really great. But I mean, just think, this is, you know, we’re starting to get into the age of the talking movie. And then when we move, move forward, she’s a different kind of media figure altogether. I’m very sorry she passed away when she did because, I thought, I wonder what she will look like on TV?


MS. BUTLER: But, you know, there you go.

MS. TIPPETT: So, but, right. But this whole, this glamorous quality of her, this stage presence also is part perhaps of the attention she got. And there was this bizarre incident, which is always told when people tell her story.


MS. TIPPETT: They may forget her feeding the hungry during the Depression. But, and then, you know, it’s fascinating. She disappeared. She was on Venice Beach. She’s found a month later in Mexico. She has this story that doesn’t seem to add up about being kidnapped. There are all kinds of explanations of what may really have been going on, including she may have been having an affair with somebody who worked in her radio station.

She had a nervous breakdown a few years later. She had these failed marriages. And some people would say, this proves that this was not a woman of God, but just a flawed human being with a big ego, who liked to be on stage. I mean, I think some people would hold the whole Pentecostal enterprise in suspicion, seeing this …


MS. TIPPETT: … and seeing her as a representative of it.

MS. BUTLER: If you’re narrow-minded, yes. But I think, and what’s more interesting to me is that she managed to not mess it up as much as she could have. And what I mean by that is this. I mean, if you think about the fact that you’ve done all of this work and you’re constantly traveling. You’re taking care of two little kids. And you’ve got, you know, your mother’s kind of always there sort of nagging at you all the time, even though you’ve done all this stuff. And, you know, everybody wants to feel a little bit of personal love and attention. It’s not enough to have a crowd of 5,000 in front of your face all the time. They don’t go home and tuck you in at night.

And I would imagine that this place of prominence that she had was — it was a very lonely place. And so, you know, you can read the story of her disappearance and, you know, whether or not she’s with the radio operator and all this. You can read that as, “Oh, this is salacious. It’s terrible, all of this.” Or you could read it as, “This is somebody who hadn’t had a break in, how long?”

MS. TIPPETT: You know, there are — there’s some sadness when you kind of, when you read her story. And you, and as you’ve been describing, you see all she accomplished. You see how uneven it was. You see how she collapsed occasionally. And she dies of what looks like an accidental overdose. Although, I read somewhere that her funeral was still one of the largest funerals ever to be held in Los Angeles. So many people were there.

MS. BUTLER: I — I think it’s an indictment against the rigor of religion, actually, to be quite honest. And I’ll — and I’ll mean it by this. What becomes the issue is how much are you supposed to give up of yourself to live for God? I mean, this is always the big question. And, you know, and there’s all these great songs about, “I surrender all, put your all on the altar” …

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. BUTLER: … all these sorts of things. And people saying these things, they really mean them. But nobody ever bothers to think of a life like Aimee’s. And, you know, Aimee just decided to go headlong into all of this. And, you know, there is a point in which you have to count the cost of what it’s going to do.

And, you know, do you pull back when your family starts to fall apart or your daughter doesn’t like you anymore? Do you pull back when your mother turns against you? Do you pull back from it when, you know, you’ve had this accusation against you that you really ran off with the radio operator? Do, do you pull back? And I think someone like Aimee says, “No, I don’t pull back from it.” But at the same time, in not pulling back you pay — you pay a personal price. And I also think that too — you know, Protestants don’t have saints, you know?

MS. TIPPETT: Don’t have saints, yeah.

MS. BUTLER: But they don’t have saints. But they like to make saints, even though they don’t want to make saints. And by that, I mean this. There will always be said that the leaders should be held to a higher standard. But the fact of the matter is, is that the leaders have more opportunity to fall. And I think part of what happens is that the people who are usually the very closest to these people see them as being almost these demigod figures. And they don’t see them as being human beings.

And so the frailties of the, you know, the Jimmy Swaggarts or the Jim Bakkers or the Aimee Semple McPhersons, I mean, you could just make a list a thousand miles long. But I think it, to me, those stories speak more to — this Pentecostal experience is a very powerful experience. But it doesn’t — it ties into the human experience. Everybody fails. And, you know, the question about the Pentecostal experience is that, is there redemption after the failure? And I think that there is. I think, you know, Aimee tried to work towards that. Unfortunately, up to now, history has not been very kind to her. I mean, I think in the last 10 to 15 years it’s been a lot kinder to her.

But, you know, I wonder, you know, will Jimmy Swaggart or the Jim Bakkers have the same story? And I think that, you know, unfortunately, they’re going to be more remembered for the transgressions more than anything else. I think Aimee can be rehabilitated because there’s a corpus of material there that shows something else entirely.

[Sound bite of music: “If I have wounded any soul today, if I have caused one foot to go astray …”]

MS. TIPPETT: Anthea Butler is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Graduate Chair of Religion at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s the author of Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World.

[Sound bite of music: “… dear Lord, forgive …”]

MS. AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: [from archival recording] Leaving Los Angeles for New York, and the boat upon which we sail immediately, I was met in route by multitudes of our friends. Among them ever was a liberal sprinkling of newspapermen. And in each city, they ask the same question: “Sister McPherson, what do you think of Prohibition?” It was rather difficult to answer the question in such a few words as one must use then. But I told them that the case of our Prohibition here in the United States reminds me of the story of the lecturer who gave a marvelous address on Prohibition. And he wound up in blaze of glory that brought everyone to their feet enthusiastically. “Why my friends if I had my way, do you know what I would do? I’d take every barrel of liquor, every bottle of booze, every crate and I’d empty it in the river. Yes, sir.” Then he said, “Shall we now close our meeting by rising and singing together ‘Shall We Gather at the River?'”

[Sound bite of choir singing, “Shall We Gather at the River?”]

MS. TIPPETT: On our website, you can listen to this show again or my entire unedited interview with Anthea Butler. You’ll also find audio clips of Aimee Semple McPherson from film and audio reels of the 1930s as well as archival footage and vintage photographs. On our blog, we continue to cover events of the present day too — from video of my recent conversation with musical legend Bobby McFerrin to our coverage of Israel and the West Bank. Right now on our Facebook page, there’s a searching discussion going on about that. Many have a fatigue with stories from this part of the world, though it is so important. Join your thoughts. Find links to that and much more at OnBeing.org.

[Sound bite of choir singing, “Shall We Gather at the River?”]

Coming up, with Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, we hear how Aimee Semple McPherson lives on as a powerful role model for women in Latin America and across the world.

I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being, “Reviving Sister Aimee.” We’re exploring the meaning and lasting imprint of the early-20th-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. She was the first woman to receive a license to operate a radio station from the FCC. She founded a 5,000-seat temple and fed over a million people during the Great Depression. Sister Aimee, as she came to be called, was a celebrity before her time, with a famously tumultuous personal life to match. But she continues to inspire women around the world today, most directly in the denomination she founded. The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel has nearly 8 million members in over 140 countries. Arlene Sánchez-Walsh has been a member of a Foursquare church in Pasadena, California; and she’s also a scholar of Latino Pentecostal and Evangelical spirituality.

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MS. TIPPETT: The pope, in 2007, went to Latin America to reckon with how incredibly powerful Pentecostal spirituality has been. And I just wanted to ask you about that, because you are also part of that story and you’re helping to tell that story. So, you know, how would you talk to somebody about that as a part of what Aimee Semple McPherson was kind of bringing into the world?

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: I think the idea of mission. The idea of it’s not just here that you do your church, but you are equipped, and they always talk in that language, you are equipped to go out to spread this message around the world. Starts at the beginning and it keeps going. There are constant appeals to mission even today. Foursquare is five, 10 times larger around the world than it is in the United States. And as a matter of fact, probably, like many other classical Pentecostal denominations and the global Foursquare movement, it’s growing. And that’s definitely a part of her legacy. It’s got to go out. And so you see just a barrage of activity throughout the world. Foursquare starts a lot in Central South America. I think Panama’s is its first outpost.

MS. TIPPETT: But here’s what I’d like to get at, as well. I was interested in the press reporting around the pope’s trip to Latin America, which was, you know, which is very explicitly in part about, kind of, reaching out to that Roman Catholic base, which seems to be …


MS. TIPPETT: … which is being eroded mostly by Pentecostal spirituality. What I don’t think journalists knew how to describe or even explain was, what is that appeal? You know?


MS. TIPPETT: What is it that is eroding that base, that is, that is drawing people into this world? I mean, you’re talking about the mission. But what is it that is happening then that they take out there.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: OK. I think there’s about three things that are happening. One of them is that Pentecostalism is kind of an unvarnished, if you will, spirituality. It’s embodied, it is highly personal and very intense. And so for people who are used to a kind of hierarchical traditional, liturgical religion, this, kind of, breaks all boundaries because you don’t have mediators anymore. You don’t have …

MS. TIPPETT: Priests.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: You don’t have priests …

MS. TIPPETT: Or bishops.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: … you don’t necessarily even have sacraments. You just have you and God. And God can work those same miracles that they know about in terms of healing, that people are used to praying through saints or through Mary for, that they can occur immediately in one’s life. So I think the immediacy, the immediate experiential nature of Pentecostalism, it’s just a powerful magnet for people.

Secondly, I think Pentecostal churches, they’re small. So there’s an intimacy. In a Pentecostal church in the outskirts of Mexico City, where there’s, like, 75 people — or even in East LA where there’s about 50 people — there’s an immediacy in that you know your pastor, and the chances are your pastor’s just like you. They’re probably bi-vocational. They are probably not seminary educated. And so they, there’s something about the tangibility of reaching out to someone who’s just like you that makes it more attractive.


MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: And, I guess, thirdly is that Latinos have the sense of empowerment. That they have now taken control of their spirituality. It isn’t part of a hierarchical church function. It’s me. And I can do with it what I will. So if I want to pray, I can do that. If I want to help out, I can do that. There are more places for me to help out. If I want to become a part of, quote, unquote, “The priesthood of all believers,” if I want to do that, I can do it immediately. So I don’t need to wait for training. I don’t need to wait for church sanction. I can do it now. And so, I think, finding a place for Latinos to be who they are spiritually and otherwise — that creates a very exciting picture.

MS. TIPPETT: And in Latin America, as elsewhere in the globe, and as you described, in Los Angeles, in the United States in the earliest years of Pentecostalism, those empowering messages were coming to people on the margins of a society.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: And something else we should mention, especially since the larger context of this conversation is Aimee Semple McPherson, is that women have been some of those marginalized people, that also women who have had no social standing are hearing that God can speak directly to them, that they can control their destiny.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: Well, I, I’ve talked to several Foursquare women who are so inspired by the notion of Sister Aimee. And these are Latina women who know that in their home countries, they would not have a voice — in Guatemala and in other places in Argentina. But when they immigrate to the United States, they hear this story and they just become excited about the idea that even if they were once divorced, even if they have their own marital problems, even if they’re not the best person, they have a dream. They have a dream of wanting to preach. They want to open a church.

They want to be in charge, you know? They — are not satisfied with being, kind of, a handmaiden of their pastor husband. They want to do something independently. I think the spirit of independence is very attractive to Latina women, many of whom have that glass ceiling in almost all denominations, Evangelical or otherwise, who cannot break beyond that glass ceiling of being a senior pastor or being someone who can actually preach aside from teaching. There’s always, kind of, semantic games people play with what women are actually doing.


MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: But there’s no question that in Pentecostal churches, women, who are more than half of the congregation, prophesy, preach, teach, and they do things that would be viewed as unseemly in other theological settings.

MS. TIPPETT: Pentecostal scholar Arlene Sánchez-Walsh. I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Reviving Sister Aimee,” exploring the life and ongoing legacy of the flamboyant early-20th-century preacher and multimedia sensation, Aimee Semple McPherson.

MS. TIPPETT: My sense is that she was not, not very concerned with theology, I mean, clearly, she had a theological basis. She was a preacher, she was an organizer, but she did grapple with, she had those Bible verses thrown at her about women staying silent …


MS. TIPPETT: … and she did, kind of, look at all the different kinds of messages there are about women in scripture, and she found her own ministry validated by statements such as, “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.” I mean, she did, she did find what she was doing, also, to have its basis in the Bible.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: Probably more powerful than that, and I don’t discount that, is the Joel passage where, “Your sons and daughters shall prophesy.”

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: And so if that’s our anchor text, aside from all the stuff in Acts, which is almost everything, then it’s hard to discount that. If women can prophesy, then what do we do with that? If the spirit falls on all flesh, then what do we do, not only with women, but with people who are not Christian? The spirit has fallen on all flesh. Pentecostalism has wrestled with women for a while, and it’ll — it’s still wrestling with women.


MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: I think Pentecostalism, theologically, needs to wrestle with the rest of it, with the rest of what that statement means because it’s a radical statement. And it will. It will take a generation or so, but it will.

MS. TIPPETT: I think that is an interesting point, though, that Pentecostalism, by its very nature, maybe in a position to wrestle with those kinds of questions creatively and expansively in a way that it may be harder for evangelical Christianity to kind of, take on.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: Yes, because of its history and because of where it’s placed in the world, because it has to wrestle with pluralism if it’s in Africa, if it’s in Latin America, to certain extent with Catholicism, obviously. And if it’s in Asia, it has to wrestle with gender, it has to wrestle with race, it has to wrestle with all these big questions. Does it have the capacity to, does it have the theological capacity to ask these questions? That’s a question that I haven’t had answered yet.

MS. TIPPETT: Let’s talk about other aspects of Latino Pentecostalism presently or projects that you know about where you see the legacy of Aimee Semple McPherson or strains of early Pentecostalism she represented, kind of, still at work and evolving. And I’m thinking of, for example, the notion of healing. And I think that’s something you talk about a lot as part of really vibrant ministries in the world now.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: I think that’s a really important part of the reach of global Pentecostalism. I think, an interesting study that came out from Pew mentioned that 49 percent of Pentecostals, as they call the Renewalist, which is Pentecostal/Charismatic, 49 percent report never speaking in tongues, but 60 percent believe that the most important part of Pentecostalism is healing. And for Latinos, I don’t think healing has ever really stopped. I mean, one of the things that I’m — that I’ve been looking at is at how ethnic churches, not just Latino, but Asian, African, African-American, other racial, racial churches, rather, how they seem to maintain a more heightened sense of Pentecostal spirituality than Anglo churches. If you go to a typical Anglo Pentecostal church in the United States, for example, it seems, again, to be fairly generically evangelical, there’s not a lot of prophecy …


MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: …or tongues, et cetera. But if you go to an ethnic church or a racial church, there’s a lot of that.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And I also think that when you talk about healing, and maybe this is the way, for example, that our culture evolves, and Pentecostalism evolves …


MS. TIPPETT: … I mean, Aimee Semple McPherson was part of that generation where healing meant somebody walked in and — or rolled in in a wheelchair and was supposed to stand up and walk out on their two legs, right? It was that kind of public, that physical healing.


MS. TIPPETT: And yet, I mean, you’ve written about Pentecostal groups and projects, Victory Outreach, for example …


MS. TIPPETT: … which is about being there for people who are wounded in every conceivable way in our society.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: That’s correct.


MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: Mm-hmm. Yes. It’s an anti-drug ministry, anti-gang ministry. And so they, they are still very much rooted in the classical, Pentecostal form. Meaning that you’re — one day you’re a heroin addict, they’ll lay hands on you, pray for you, the next day, you don’t want any more heroin.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I’m sure that someone would listen to you and just be very skeptical. And I will say that, as a journalist who’s looked at this, this is something that is said of Pentecostalism globally that it does seem to have this body of testimony, let’s say, and I think some evidence in there where people emerge from addiction who maybe, could not find help any other way.

And those stories are kind of — are so dramatic. And I was actually thinking about this as I was preparing to interview you. And thinking about Aimee Semple McPherson and how people sometimes write off her seriousness by saying, “Well, it was all about showmanship, it was all about the drama and the stage.” And then it occurred to me Pentecostal experience, maybe at its best or at its most dramatic, is kind of larger than life, and that there is something magnetic about that.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: Right. I don’t know. There are, you know, I don’t know other realms of life where people normally make claims like this. Pentecostalism’s great genius is to say, well, it really isn’t about explaining it, it’s about experiencing it. And so what I do in my writing is, I try to let people speak for themselves, particularly people of color because I think there is some agency, some religious agency, an empowerment that comes from telling your own story, free of the lens of any kind of preset theological notion that it’s impossible, it can’t happen, it’s, you know, there’s wish fulfillment.

There’s all kinds of theories as to how this cannot happen. And I can be quite as incredulous as anybody else, but the power of creating your own, kind of, spiritual life story, that in and of itself is something that I think we have to consider in terms of how these testimonies affect others. What does it do to other people to hear this in an informal setting, at a house, with friends or in a formal setting at church? It, it shakes you. It validates you. I think we are people in search of a mystery.

We’re in search of some kind of transcendence that we need a new language to describe what’s going on here, other than these are just poor masses of disinherited people who can’t find anything better and who are searching for moral order. No. They are middle class, many of them highly educated, and they are searching for something, because something has happened to them.


MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: Which is, I think, a different way of looking at it.

MS. AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: (from archival recording) Today, I believe there are millions of people baptized of the Holy Ghost on this earth. We’ll find them in India, China, the Philippines, Africa, and at home and abroad. The rich, the poor, the high and the low. Yet. we are all baptized by one spirit in the one body. Amen. And this …

MS. TIPPETT: What do you think Aimee Semple McPherson would say — how would she react if she came back today and could see the International Foursquare Gospel Church or if she could walk into your Foursquare Church in Pasadena?

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: Yeah, she would, she would like my church.


MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: I think it represents what she wanted. I won’t put that positive a spin on it: I mean, I don’t want to be that self-aggrandizing. She would like it, because it’s multicultural and multiracial and it appears to be very much in keeping with what she wanted Foursquare to be; missions-oriented and diverse. She would also like it, probably, less so because it doesn’t exhibit a lot of social concern at the ideal …

MS. TIPPETT: She might be a little disappointed in that.

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: She might be a little disappointed there. So on the surface, she might like it. Globally, I think she’d love Foursquare, because it does what she wanted it to do. She wanted, for example, for higher education — she wanted us to set up Bible training institutes simply to train ministers. There is still an impetus to make theological training wholly practical, wholly local, and strictly for the training of pastors and ministers and not for any other type of intellectual exercise.

MS. TIPPETT: Do you think she would be happier with the social justice element of the global church than the church in Pasadena?

MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: Yes. Yeah, sadly. And quite frankly, most Foursquare churches in the United States.


MS. SÁNCHEZ-WALSH: My church is not unique. My church mirrors greatly what many other churches that I’ve visited and seen across the United States, when I’ve had a chance to visit them. She would be much happier with the global outreach, with the emphasis on healing and with the emphasis on social concern. So, I think, globally, her movement is, is doing fine.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Arlene Sánchez-Walsh is Associate Professor of Church History and Latino Church Studies at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. She’s the author of Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society.

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MS. TIPPETT: Download free MP3s of this radio show and my unedited interviews with Arlene Sánchez-Walsh and Anthea Butler; you can get them through our weekly e-mail newsletter and podcast. Look for links at OnBeing.org. Right now find archival film footage and photos of Aimee Semple McPherson from the 1920s and ’30s. And as always, join us by following along in real time on Twitter — at Beingtweets — and on our Facebook page. On our blog, many are enjoying the new “Tuesday Evening Melody” feature. Check it out. It’s a great space to learn more about the world and about yourself: OnBeing.org.

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This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.

Our audio of Aimee Semple McPherson was provided by the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Special thanks this week to professor Margaret Poloma and archivist Janet Simonsen.

Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.