Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944): The Celebrated Soul-Winner of Echo Park by Chris White

A typical Sunday preaching outfit

I must confess a personal fascination with Aimee Semple McPherson.  She was a 5-star, gold-plated, American Pentecostal preacher par excellence who was so popular, so committed to doing the work of the Lord, so loved by her people, that her deeply flawed personal life seemed to be of little concern to anyone but her detractors.   Her ministry was in Hollywood during the ‘Golden-Age of Hollywood’ and her life seemed to imitate the filmmaker’s art.  Aimee was in fact a glamorous Hollywood star except that her work wasn’t shown on the silver screen but rather at Angelus Temple before capacity crowds three times each Sunday.  She was a tireless soul-winner and her church a model of Christian charity during the years of the Great Depression.  Aimee exploited the opportunities her life and times afforded her to make the Gospel of Christ famous among the nations.  I deeply respect that.  On the other side of the equation there is this person who was often married and divorced, an extreme workaholic, and thrived on public attention that is not appalling, but let’s say very unappealing in someone who is a servant of the Lord.  Hence, a very complex and fascinating subject to my mind and as you read her story I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.

Aimee’s mother, Mildred (Minnie) Pearce was 14 years old when she was hired to come into the household of 50 year old James Kennedy of Salford Ontario.  Pearce was hired as a nurse for Kennedy’s dying wife Elizabeth.  Within a few months, Elizabeth Kennedy passes away and a couple of months later the 50 year old Kennedy and 14 year old Minnie announce their engagement much to the scandal of their small town.  Because of the scandal the couple ends up slipping over the U.S. border where they are quietly married in Michigan.  Several years later (1890), a daughter, Aimee is born to the couple.  

By 1903, Aimee (aged 13) was already showing the promise of her future vocation and controversial life.  Well-known as a gifted public speaker in her rural and largely Christian community, Aimee claimed to be an atheist and was gaining notoriety as an evangelist for Darwin.  But this all changes in 1907 when a young and handsome Christian evangelist from Ireland named Robert Semple holds a revival service near her home town.  Aimee’s intention in attending the rally was to poke fun and be disruptive, but instead she finds herself greatly touched by the message and becomes a convert to Christianity.
Aimee and Robert Semple

By the end of the series of revival meetings, Aimee humbly asks God how she is to serve Him and He impresses on her heart that she is to be a winner of souls.  Not to impugn Aimee’s motives or ability to hear God, but the fact is Aimee was quite in love with the young Mr. Semple and would end up marrying him 6 months later and so it stands to reason she would want to be a soul-winner since he was.  But to her credit, Aimee proved true to this calling the remainder of her life.

The roots of modern Pentecostalism began in 1900.  Although there were many spiritual charisms operating within this branch of Christianity, at the heart of the movement was the charism of tongues which is what came upon Jesus’s disciples on the Jewish holiday of Pentecost and inaugurated the entire Christian movement in the 1st century.  This charism gave them the supernatural ability to speak in languages they didn’t know which attracted the attention of foreigners in Jerusalem that day who then heard for the first time the message of Jesus the Messiah.  Modern Pentecostalism saw this gifting (at least initially) as a new wave of the Holy Spirit’s workings to finish evangelizing the world and usher in the Kingdom of God.  Many Pentecostal Christian missionaries went out into foreign lands in this early period, some thinking that their gift of “tongues” was all they needed.  Many were quite shocked when they arrived overseas and not a soul understood what they were saying! 

Although there is no indication that Robert and Aimee were thinking of going out that ill-prepared, by 1910 the couple were preparing for a move to Hong Kong and join the ranks of missioners in China.  On their way to China, Robert and Aimee stop in England to visit some of his relatives but also to visit a Christian millionaire whom they hope will give them a large gift for their missionary expenses.  The night before their departure to China, the millionaire friend asked Aimee to give the message that night at the Christian services being held in Royal Albert Hall.  She had never actually preached before and was extremely nervous about it, but with a possible large donation in mind, Aimee got up, overcame her fear, and preached a sermon that had the 15,000 people in the auditorium spellbound.  At the end of the evening their hoped for donation was handed to them in an envelope.  When they opened it, it was a measly $15 dollars (I guess this particular Christian man wasn’t a millionaire because he was generous with his money!).   
Aimee and the rotating cross

In June of the same year the couple arrives in China.  Aimee is pregnant with her first child and both Robert and her are sick with malaria and dysentery.  By August, Robert Semple dies of his sickness leaving Aimee a widow heavy with child.  Still sick herself, Aimee returns to the United States with her infant daughter Roberta Star Semple.   There she moves in with her mother Minnie who is now estranged from her husband and living in New York.  With the help of her mother, Aimee is able to recover from the trauma of losing her husband and regain her health again.  From this point forward Aimee’s mother Mildred Kennedy will be, for better or worse, her constant companion and support.

The following year (1911), Aimee meets her 2nd husband Harold McPherson and remarries giving birth to a son the following year.  After child-birth Aimee goes into a deep, post-partum depression.  Around this time she receives a reminder from the Lord of her calling to win souls and her health does not improve until she agrees to follow her calling.  With her marriage on the rocks in 1915 Aimee leaves Harold McPherson to become a traveling revivalist on the east coast.  She was moderately successful in the enterprise and was able to raise enough money beyond expenses to purchase a used canvas revival tent and her trademark “gospel car”, a 1912 Packard that doubled as transportation and her headquarters.  On the doors of this car were painted “Jesus is coming soon—get ready!” and “where will you spend eternity?”  She traveled in this car through neighborhoods passing out gospel tracts, preaching to crowds from the backseat, and even typed up her sermons in the car balancing a typewriter on her lap.  During this venture, her estranged husband joins her, gets saved, and even becomes a revivalist himself, but the marriage never works and the couple end up formally divorcing a few years later.
Aimee and the "Gospel Car"

In 1918 Aimee drives across the U.S. continent with her mother and two children to settle in Los Angeles.  She is the first woman to accomplish this feat in an era long before freeways or even a lot of paved roads had joined the nation together.  No doubt Aimee stopped and preached on every leg of the journey.

The next year (1919) Aimee joins the fledgling Assembly of God denomination as an evangelist and envisions Angelus temple—a facility for continuous revival and ministry training.  This building, located across from Echo Park, was by far one of the largest church buildings of its day with seating for over 5000 people.  It took several years to raise the funds, but as Aimee continued to itinerate, she was able to raise the $1.5 million dollars required to build and in 1923 Angelus Temple is dedicated and opened completely debt-free. 
Souvenir Postcard
 When the people of Los Angeles first walked through the doors, I can only imagine the surprise as this was a church like no other.  It’s sanctuary was round and the ceiling which was painted with clouds and a sky was 125 feet tall.  The building was topped with a rotating and illuminated cross which could be seen for 50 miles.  The temple had a huge velvet throne for Aimee to sit on, an orchestra pit, a fabulous parsonage for her and her family, a radio station and eventually a Bible college.  Aimee is the first woman in the U.S. to hold an FCC license for a radio station and hers was only the 3rd station on L.A. at the time.  Angelus Temple (still in use today and on the National Register of Historic Places) is an amazing building and in many ways a reflection of Aimee’s larger than life personality, frenetic lifestyle, and bold vision for ministry.

Aimee with sermon props

Two events in 1921 are quite important  to her future ministry.  First, Aimee had an epiphany based on the vision of the four faced winged creatures of Ezekiel chapter 1 (verse 10).  Although it is a relatively obscure passage of scripture to most people, Aimee’s understanding of it is in the van of a long tradition of Bible interpretation which considers the odd creatures to be pictorial representations of the Messiah.  And so, the ox which is a beast of burden speaks to the messiah’s ministry of bearing our sins; the eagle, which is a bird that goes wherever it wishes, speaks of the Holy Spirit which is sent to the church by the Messiah; the face of a man speaks of the incarnation of the Messiah in which his life imparts healing to a race living under the curse of Adam; and the lion, which is the king of beasts, speaks of the Kingdom of God which will be realized in the second coming of Christ.  Aimee saw in this fourfold message of salvation, spirit baptism, divine healing, and the 2nd Coming of Christ, a mission statement.  These were the cornerstones of the gospel of Christ from which she would later name her organization the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.  

The second event happens at a revival service she is conducting in the Midwest.  There, Aimee pulls a paralyzed woman from a wheelchair and gains a reputation for being a preacher with a gift for physical healing.  This is a genuine charism given to some in the church by the Spirit of God that is often looked upon, and often rightly so, with suspicion because some people have faked healings as a means of ginning up attendance at their churches and revival services.  There is no evidence that Aimee was a charlatan in this regard and in fact over the next 21 years of her ministry there was a room in Angelus Temple called the “miracle room” which was filled with a display of crutches, braces, and other personal artifacts people left behind in the church after they had been spontaneously healed at a service. 

Three years after the opening of Angelus Temple (1926) Aimee is caught in a great scandal that is almost as big as her personality.  Called “The Great Kidnapping Scandal”, it starts in late May as Aimee and her secretary go to Venice beach to rest, swim, and work on sermons.  Aimee leaves her secretary to go take a swim and never comes back.  Fearing that she has drowned, a frantic search is made for her which eventually turns to an effort to find and recover her body.  As the news spreads across Los Angeles, thousands of her congregants keep a day and night vigil on the beach waiting for her to come back.  Her church members cannot believe she is dead, her mission was so important, her life too great to end this way.  Surely God will work a miracle and restore her life if she is found dead.  But as days pass, hopes wane and Aimee is thought gone forever.

But on the third day, no, check that, the third week, Aimee shows up in a small town on the border of Arizona and Mexico.  She claims she was kidnapped by some people who recognized who she was at the beach and got her in their car to go and pray over their sick child.  Instead she was taken to a small shack 50 miles in to the Mexican desert and where she was held captive in hopes of getting a sizeable ransom.  Somehow Aimee was able to escape and walk out of the desert to safety.  After a few days of recuperation in an Arizona hospital she returns to Los Angeles and is cheered by a crowd of 50,000 people when she arrives at the train station.
The crowd welcomes Aimee back

But the story seems suspicious to some, incredulous to others, and pressure from the press and other groups in the city including a ministerial association brings about the convening of a grand jury to consider a criminal case against her not once but two times.  It proves to be a firestorm with evidence presented that Aimee and her radio station engineer Kenneth Orniston (who was married and had children) had run away to Carmel for an illicit tryst.  Other claims were made that Aimee was seen with another man at various hotels in Los Angeles during this time using an assumed name.  Claims are made that Aimee’s clothing and shoes were pristine and shiny which would be inconsistent with someone who had escaped through the desert.  Worst of all there were claims that Aimee had snuck over the border to get an abortion (which was proven untrue because she had a surgery long before this that rendered her unable to conceive any more children).  That said, there were plenty of reasons to believe Aimee’s story which she stuck to without ever incriminating herself under court examination and that many witnesses and evidences against her were disproven and even published in the newspapers (usually deep within where they wouldn’t be read). 
Aimee and Ken Orniston her engineer

This was truly a case tried by the press and though in the long run Aimee did prevail, the reality was her reputation received a real smearing even if her guilt couldn’t be proven in any legal sense.  My opinion is that most of those who brought a case against her stood to benefit in some way from either bringing her down or at least scandalizing her.  I would rather give her the benefit of the doubt and have my charity proven foolish and misguided than take the other side of pronouncing someone guilty without proof when in fact they are innocent.  Bearing false witness is a violation of God’s 10 Commandments.  It is not a sin to think the best of someone.  But that said, Aimee was a public person with celebrity status and she loved publicity and when you live that kind of life you have to realize your life will be under greater scrutiny.

Well, some costumes were over the top!

The decade of the 1930s is a period of full-flower for her ministry.  She breaks her ties with Assembly of God to found the independent Foursquare Church.  She is on the radio more than 20 times a week and producing new material for each broadcast.  She also publishes several magazines and is the pulpit 5 or more times a week.  She will always be remembered for the incredible spectacles her Sunday evening services frequently were.  With her proximity to Hollywood she had access to props and scenery and sometimes had live animals in her illustrated sermons and many times she herself appeared in costume.  One time she arrived on the stage of her church on a motorcycle and it is rumored that film-actor Charlie Chaplin advised her several times of staging and special effects.  Aimee wore make-up and jewelry which is quite commonplace in church today, but in her era was considered questionable for a woman of God.  She wasn’t afraid of the arts or looking pretty and tried to turn all her efforts to win a hearing for the Gospel.
Just another service at Angelus Temple

What is less remembered about her was her great relief efforts during the years of the Great Depression.  Angelus Temple was the center of extensive relief and Aimee herself a tireless fundraiser.  She also used her community ties to arrange for free dental and medical clinics to help those who couldn’t afford a doctor.  When World War 2 broke out  Aimee was probably more patriotic than anyone in Hollywood and when it came to selling War Bonds, her charisma often outsold the other stars making the same effort.

Aimee doing food relief in Depression

But once again, it is not all sweetness and light in her personal life.  In 1930 Aimee is hospitalized with a nervous breakdown (no doubt from overwork) and then the next year enters into a secret marriage against the rules of her church with David Hutton that ends in another divorce three years later.  All along the way there are also family problems and strains between she and her mother over the business affairs of the church.  It seems like her ministerial success took a great toll on her personal life  It seems like her ministerial success took a great toll on her personal life which is not uncommon to people in other professions.

In late September of 1944, Aimee flies to Oakland to speak at the opening of a new Foursquare Church.  At this time she struggles greatly with insomnia due to her erratic hours, overwork, and family problems.  She had a new prescription for sleeping pills and was used to taking several to knock her out.  Apparently she had awakened in the night and took a few more not understanding how powerful they were and went into shock.  By morning she was dead at age 54.   In true fashion with who she was in life, in death she was buried in an elaborate grave alongside the many other celebrities of her day in Forest Lawn cemetery in Los Angeles.

Aimee in costume for sermon

So what should we think about Aimee Semple McPherson?   First of all, big people usually have big faults.  By every assessment one could make, Aimee was a larger-than-life person.  She was flamboyant, big hearted, she loved deeply and she served greatly.  She also was racked with family strife, was divorced twice, and seemed to have an inordinate desire (or need) to be in the spotlight of media attention.  Thank God, he uses flawed people to do his will.  True to the vision of the Foursquare gospel—thousands were saved, healed, helped, and trained for service through her ministry.

Aimee was an innovator and trail-blazer in many respects.  She lived at the dawn of the media age and used broadcasting, drama, print, and media attention to spread the gospel ahead of almost everyone else.  While commonplace today, the church in general shunned most of these things (except the printed word) for quite some time.  Aimee saw the opportunity and embraced them to great effect.

She was obedient to her calling as a soul winner and though she was vilified as a charlatan and fraud by some, to the masses, she was a true heroine and mother of the faith.  She was a complex person and a product of the modern era that made a great impact for Christ in her generation.  And that was the purpose for which she and all of us are made.

The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel today has about 3 million members worldwide.

No comments:

Post a Comment