Aimee Semple McPhersonIlove a good story, and all my life I have been connecting with heroes who inspire and motivate me. People who battle through the contradictions of life and swim upstream to make a mark on the world hold a special place in my heart. Someone once said that we are most impacted by the people we meet and the books we read.  I believe this is true. So when I can I try and get two birds with one stone by reading a good biography. Recently I have been plunging into the biography of an amazing woman: Aimee Semple McPherson. Hers is a remarkable story on many levels. Here was a twenty-something mom who threw off the comforts of home, packed her two children, and set off to evangelize America at a time when women could not even vote.  A woman preacher was unheard-of and in some quarters even unthinkable. She stepped out in faith and God rewarded her with one of the most powerful, far reaching ministries in church history. While her story is not without controversy, the fruit of her ministry is incontrovertable. It can be argued that this one woman made a bigger impact on her generation than any Christian in modern times. In baseball, a 5 tool player is someone who can hit for average, hit for power, run fast, field well and throw strong and accurately. Such players are rare. Aimee Semple McPherson was a 5 tool minister of the gospel, a superstar and Titan of the Christian faith.    aimee semple mcpherson

First and foremost, Sister Aimee was a passionate Evangelist.  Born into a Salvation Army family and baptized in the Holy Spirit during the Azusa Street awakening, she was committed to bringing the whole Gospel to the whole world working with the whole Body of Christ. She refused to be boxed in by denominational loyalties. She had a passionate love for Jesus and for people.Tens of thousands of men women and children—blind, the deaf,  the lame,  were healed when she prayed for them. Reporters from the biggest newspapers across the country attested to the authenticity of her healing ministry. As a pastor she preached 21 sermons a week, established a Bible College and in spite of her non-denominational leanings, ended up spawning a denomination—The Church of the International Foursquare Gospel— that would plant missionary focused churches around the globe. Today there are 68,000 Foursquare churches in 136 countries.

First and foremost, Sister Aimee was a passionate Evangelist.  Born into a Salvation Army family and baptized in the Holy Spirit during the Azusa Street awakening, she was committed to bringing the whole Gospel to the whole world working with the whole Body of Christ.
She made a splash everywhere she went packing out the largest auditoriums in the world, launching a media empire that was the envy of her contemporaries, and sharing the Gospel with celebrities and the people of the streets. As an envoy for the kingdom of God she visited with Gandhi, befriended Charlie Chaplin, personally encouraged her friend William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes trial and gained the respect of local and national political figures. She had a heart of compassion and brought women into her home who were pregnant out of wedlock, whether they came from brothels or troubled homes.  She loved to bless and champion children, especially those who were less fortunate and at risk. One  little girl that she dedicated to the Lord at a young age was Norma Jean Baker, a pretty little girl who had a very troubled life, had suffered sexual abuse as a child and was married for the first time at age 16. This young lady would later change her name to Marilyn Monroe. Sister Aimee championed and won the hearts of the police and fire departments in Los Angeles and made a huge impact on the untouchables of her society: the Ku Klux Klan and the Gypsies. Latinos and Black Americans loved her because they knew she cared for them. During the Great Depression her church became a more reliable source of aid to poor families than the State of California. Aimee Semple McPherson was an optimistic dispenser of grace,  showcasing in her sermons the love of God, redemption, the joys of service and the hope of heaven. This contrasted sharply with the fire-and-brimstone style of sermon delivery popular with many of her peers. People from all walks of life loved her and they flocked by the thousands to be where she was.

 

By early 1926, McPherson had become one of the most charismatic and influential women and ministers of her time. Her fame equaled, to name a few, Charles Lindbergh, Johnny Weissmuller, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Knute Rockne, Bobby Jones, Louise Brooks, and Rudolph Valentino. She was a major American phenomenon, who along with some other high-profile preachers of the time, unlike Hollywood celebrities, could be admired by their adoring public, “without apparently compromising their souls.” (Wikipedia)

Aimee Semple McPherson preached American exceptionalism and rejected the pacifism that engulfed much of Pentecostalism in the 30’s leading up to World War II. She played a prophetic role in warning the nation of the impeding threat of Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan, declaring:

“It is the Bible against Mein Kampf. It is the Cross against the Swastika. It is God against the antichrist of Japan,… This is no time for pacifism.”

During the war, she was America’s cheerleader.  Through her efforts,  $150,000 worth of bonds were sold in one hour on June 20, 1942, breaking all previous records. She repeated the performance again on July 4, 1944. The U.S. Treasury awarded her a special citation. The U.S. Army made her an honorary colonel. Get Her Biography on Amazon

Her Healing Ministry

Aimee Semple McPherson had a powerful anointing and gift for healing, prompting one journalist of the time to write:

It happened not in the misty, nebulous long ago, to white robed men and women in a time we cannot quite visualize as ever having had reality, but to children and men and women who had street addresses and telephone numbers, who came in automobiles and not on camel-back by caravan, as it was said they did long ago. The blind saw again; the deaf heard. Cripples left their crutches and hung them on the rafters.” (Louise Weick, The San Francisco Chronicle)
Yet she played down this aspect of her ministry, claiming that her desire was to lead souls to Christ. “I am not a healer,” she would insist, “Jesus is the healer. I am only the office girl who opens the door and says, ‘Come in.’ ” Indeed, Aimee Semple McPherson’s healing ministry was genuine. Unlike many healing evangelists since, Aimee sought to downplay the healings that marked her ministry, emphasizing her passion for winning souls and proclaiming the simple Gospel of Christ. For her, self-aggrandizement was out of the question. “Real children of God do not take credit for themselves,” she proclaimed, “they place the credit where the credit belongs, upon God. For no man or woman ever heals the sick. It is Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Ghost and the love of God who makes them every whit whole.”
 I am not a healer. Jesus is the healer. I am only the office girl who opens the door and says, ‘Come in.’
The story of Aimee McPherson’s life was the story of a woman who pressed on, not afraid to step out and take action to meet a need, any time or any place. Because of her faith and courage millions of lives were changed for the better. And when she  was thrown into the fiery furnace of slander and ridicule by the press, she stood strong. She didn’t get bitter or vindictive. She stayed consistent to her principles and let God fight her battles. Though the scars of misinformation and slander have marked her public persona in many circles to this day, those who take the time to read her story and investigate the facts will come away with genuine appreciation for this woman’s integrity. This was one courageous woman. Setbacks didn’t seem to phase her. There’s an old saying “No good deed goes unpunished.” We could add to that “No good person goes un-persecuted.” The same crowds that shouted “Hosanna in the Highest” and waved palm branches at Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem screamed “Crucify him” just a week later. The same crowd that extolled Paul as a “god” stoned him just a few minutes later for his honesty and humility. So too did Sister Aimee face the furnace of affliction, beginning with her disappearance at Venice Beach on May 18, 1926.

Kidnapped

Aimee Semple McPherson’s disappearance from Ocean Park Beach early in the summer of 1926 was a pivotal event in her life and ministry. Wikipedia provides and concise and accurate summation of the event:

“On May 18, 1926, McPherson went with her secretary to Ocean Park Beach north of Venice Beach to swim. Soon after arriving, McPherson was nowhere to be found. It was thought she had drowned. Searchers combed the beach and nearby area, but could not locate her body. The Angelus Temple received letters and calls claiming knowledge of McPherson, including demands for ransom. McPherson sightings occurred around the country, often in widely divergent locations many miles apart on the same day. As a precaution, the ransom notes were sent to the police who investigated at least one of them. Mildred Kennedy, though, regarded the messages as hoaxes, believing her daughter dead.   As the Angelus Temple prepared for a memorial service commemorating McPherson’s death, Kennedy received a phone call from Douglas, Arizona. Her daughter was alive. The distraught McPherson was resting in a Douglas hospital and related her story to officials.   On the beach, May 19, 1926, McPherson said she had been approached by a young couple who wanted prayer for their sick child. McPherson went with them to their car and was suddenly shoved inside. A cloth, presumably laced with chloroform, was held against her face, causing her to pass out. Eventually, she was moved to an adobe shack far in the desert. Two kidnappers, Steve and Rose, were her constant companions, with a third, “Jake”, occasionally visiting. When at last, all her captors were away on errands, she escaped out a window.   Using a mountain as a landmark, she traveled through the desert for around 11–13 hours across an estimated distance of 20 miles. Around 1:00 am she reached Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican town, and collapsed near a house there. She was assisted by the residents and finally taken across the border to adjacent Douglas. (Wikipedia)

When Aimee turned up missing at the beach, the press spun it into a scandal rather than believe her story that she was kidnapped and held hostage. Instead of acknowledging yet another courageous moment in the life of this spiritual Titan who all her life had poured herself out for others, by covering her brave escape from captors, the liberal elite villainized her. They brought her before a grand jury which ended up being a kangaroo court hearing designed to entertain the press and public. They concocted unsubstantiated stories of her staging the disappearance so she could have a prolonged affair with Kenneth Ormiston, a married man with a small son who had worked as her radio technician at Angelus Temple. During the 1926  grand jury hearing that lasted 3 months, Ormiston’s privacy  was invaded in every way as reporters and investigators tried to link him romantically to McPherson. Ormiston not only denied having romantic ties to McPherson, he also chastised the newspapers that their trying to make such a connection “was a gross insult to a noble and sincere woman.” It should be noted that Ormiston could have profited immensely from an exposé of such an affair with McPherson had it been true.

Media and Mafia One-Two Punch

The trial of 1926, in hindsight, has been evaluated by  historians as a media circus with no substance. Corruption was rampant in the police department and the district attorney’s office in the mid-1920’s. Dope peddlers and bootleggers bought protection and openly operated speak-easies.  Aimee McPherson infuriated the underworld by publicizing secrets that her converts confessed, reading names over radio station KFSG. Aimee was warned to stop it but did not take the warning seriously. The kidnapping took place not long after the unheeded warning. The scandal that was produced by the press feathered in nicely with that strategy and served to give reporters and newspapers what they wanted: sensational headlines. The 6 newspapers in Los Angeles competed for the best headlines and they actually bankrolled the District Attorney’s office to keep the story alive!  It was a WIN-WIN situation for everyone but Sister Aimee. After 90 consecutive days of media hype, the district attorney  decided not to proceed with the trial, admitting he did not have a case. Wikipedia provides a good summary of the case:

“…the evangelist maintained all along, without changing anything in her story, that she was taken, held captive by the kidnappers, and escaped as she originally described. As the prosecution tried to break down her story, defense witnesses corroborated her assertions or McPherson herself demonstrated how the disputed parts were plausible. In contrast, the prosecution’s case developed serious credibility issues. Witnesses changed their testimonies and evidence often had suspicious origins or was mishandled while in custody. Finally, on January 2, 1927, Ormiston identified Elizabeth Tovey, a nurse from Seattle, Washington, as his female companion and the woman who stayed with him at the seaside cottage. All charges against McPherson and associated parties were dropped by the court for the lack of evidence on January 10, 1927.”

The Case Against McPherson Was A Sham…and A Shame

In spite of the barrage of bad media and the heat from the corrupt DA office, Aimee held her head up amidst the allegations and refused to back down on her story, the details of which  never changed and were never dis-proven.  Lacking any evidence, the case was closed.  McPherson’s case was so strong that presiding Judge Jacob F. Denny wrote:

The vindication of Mrs. McPherson and Mrs. Kennedy (Aimee’s mother) could not be more complete. It is infinitely stronger than if it had been determined by a jury after hearing all evidence and resulting in an absolute acquittal…the State of California, with all its machinery, power and prestige, spent many thousands of dollars in the investigation of the truth of the charges which it had made against these women. These charges they admitted were all false…Seldom, if ever, in the history of American or English jurisprudence has so signal a vindication been achieved without a single gun being fired by the defendents in their own defense.
The renowned journalist H.L. Mencken,  no friend of evangelicals and previously a vocal critic of McPherson’s,  came away from the trial impressed with Aimee and disdainful of the prosecution. Known as the “Sage of Baltimore”, Mencken is regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the first half of the twentieth century. Sent by the Baltimore Sun to cover McPherson’s trial, he concluded that that if you want to discredit somebody’s political agenda, then you go after their private life (now a fact of life for politicians but still somewhat new at the time.) Mencken concluded, with good reason, that she was persecuted by the Babbitts and official bullies of Los Angeles.

Vindicated Again in 1990 Re-trial

The Court of Historical Review and Appeal in San Francisco, which holds no legal authority, is made up of members of the bench who examine and retry historical cases and controversies. In April 1990, a decision was handed down regarding the matter of McPherson’s kidnapping story. George T. Choppelas, the then presiding judge of the San Francisco Municipal Court, ruling for the Court of Historical Review, found the issues involved both serious and fascinating. He concluded that “there was never any substantial evidence to show that her story was untrue.” But unfortunately, the constant barrage of slanderous headlines from the mainstream media of the day damaged much of the public’s perception of Sister Aimee. An ugly cloud of suspicion in the minds of misinformed people has rested over this woman of God until this very day.  Jesus warned:

Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. ((John 15:20)

Aimee understood this, and she took the high road. When the District Attorney who prosecuted her case was later sentenced to San Quentin on charges of taking bribes, she went out of her way to visit him in prison to encourage him and pray for his speedy release. This is the kind of woman she was.

 My Family Connection to Sister Aimee

Bonnnie-&-Dwight-1943

My parents, Dwight & Bonnie, 1943.

Growing up I had heard of “Sister Aimee” through my parents. My mom and dad served under her ministry in the late 30’s and early 40’s. My mom and dad came to Christ under Aimee’s ministry, my mom at age 5 and my dad at age 18. Raised in Utah, he had grown up in  a Mormon family with 12 boys and 2 girls. His oldest sister Nelda lived across the street from Angelus Temple, the 5,500 seat church Aimee built in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. She  found Christ through McPherson’s ministry and was an enthusiastic member the church. Aunt Nelda loved her little brother and wanted to share the Good News with him, so she invited him to come and stay with her in the summer of 1936. It was the summer that changed his life forever.

Aunt Ruby's Wedding Certificate, signed by Aimee Semple McPherson.

My Aunt Ruby’s Wedding Certificate, signed by Aimee Semple McPherson.

My dad was radically saved,  baptized in water and baptized in the Holy Spirit under Aimee Semple McPherson’s ministry. He went on to attend L.I.F.E. Bible College and served as youth pastor, conducting services in the Temple’s “500 room.” My mom grew up in the Los Angeles area and was raised in a Christian home. Both her parents were missionaries before settling down to raise a family. Like many thousands of  people at the time her family was swept up in the what God was doing in and through  Aimee Semple McPherson’s ministry. Mom’s older sister Ruby was a Foursquare minister who planted a large number of Foursquare churches. Sister Aimee performed her wedding in June, 1935. Here is a clip describing McPherson’s 3 week revival in Dayton, Ohio cerca 1920… Read More On Wikipedia Get Her Biography on Amazon

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