By Vern Bullough
The Blond Bombshell Evangelist
Aimee Semple McPherson (October 9, 1890 - September 27, 1944)
Sister Aimee McPherson was a 20th Century phenomenon, a glamorous, superstar evangelist who managed to find and retain followers even as scandal after scandal rocked her life.
In the words of one reporter, she was the "evangelist with pulchritude." And foreshadowing the rise of todays TV preachers, she was one of the first evangelists to use the radio to attract a huge, adoring following.
Born into a deeply religious family in 1890, Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy was consecrated by her mother to the service of God a few weeks after she was born. Growing up she aspired to be an actress, but her shocked parents forbade it, and instead she became an evangelist who was also an actress.
At 17, she married a fiery Pentecostal preacher, Robert Semple, and went on the revival circuit bringing individuals across Canada and the U.S. to Jesus. In 1910, the couple went to China as missionaries, and while serving there her husband died of malaria just one month before the birth of their daughter, Roberta.
Aimee returned to the United States where she married Harold McPherson, a grocery clerk. Shortly after the birth of their son, Aimee, with her new husband in tow, resumed her career on the revival circuit. Energetic, attractive, and a show woman at heart, she drew huge crowds with her faith-healing performances.
Other evangelists berated McPherson because they did not believe in women speaking from the pulpit, especially a woman as flamboyant as Aimee Semple McPherson. But she was not deterred, even when husband Harold tired of the traveling tent show life, and ordered her to settle down. Instead she went on without him, and he later divorced her for desertion.
In 1918, Aimee set up headquarters in Los Angeles and became a media superstar. She wore Paris gowns, dyed her hair blond, wore jewelry, makeup, and put on performances that can only be described as spectacles. For one, billed as Sister Aimee preaching on the consequences of breaking Gods law, she entered the church on a motorcycle in a police man's uniform, driving down the center aisle to the pulpit.
But Sister Aimee wasnt simply a show-woman. She was also an organizer with an eye on building a monument to herself. The money she took in enabled her to build her own massive concrete church, the Angelus Temple, where she held forth to ever-growing crowds. She also established an evangelical and training institute even before her temple was dedicated, and she quickly drew her followers into the formal association that eventually became known as the Foursquare Gospel Church, of which she was president.
Sister Aimees main weakness was men. Since her own churchs rules, which she had been instrumental in drawing up, prohibited divorce, Aimee found herself in a quandary. What to do with her husband and what to do for romance?
On May 18, 1926, Sister Aimee was reported missing while swimming in the ocean off Venice beach in Los Angeles. For days her followers searched in vain for her body.
Five weeks later she turned up in Mexico, telling a fantastic story of having been kidnapped and held captive. Her story stretched credulity and an investigation by the County Grand Jury found that instead of being kidnapped Aimee had spent an idyllic month with Kenneth Ormiston, a radio engineer for her church station. Ormiston was not only married, but an avowed agnostic.
The scandal was national news. Yet, amazingly, Sister Aimee survived, in part by positioning herself as a repentant sinner. In fact, as repentent Sister Aimee she achieved even greater success. Rather than abandon her as a hypocrite, McPhersons followers saw her as a point person on the path of salvation for herself and them.
In 1931, 40-year-old Aimee eloped with 30-year-old David Hutton, Jr., a singer who met her while playing the role of Pharoah in one of Aimees biblical spectacles. However, the happy couple was married only a few days when Hutton was named as defendant in a breach of promise suit. The court eventually ordered him to pay $5,000. On hearing the decision, a shocked Aimee fainted and fell, fracturing her skull.
After her recovery, she left on a European tour without her husband who, after divorcing her, made his living as a night club singer billed as "Aimees man."
After her return from Europe, Sister Aimee indulged in a series of somewhat more discrete affairs in an out-of-the-way apartment. Among her lovers was a ghostwriter she hired to do her autobiography and a young comic named Milton Berle. He later described her apartment as a love nest with a homemade altar in front of which she engaged in sex with him.
Though never publicly embarrassed on such an operatic scale again, McPherson remained a target for gossip and innuendo for the rest of her life. In 1936 there was a story that reported her being blackmailed by someone who threatened to release nude photographs of her.
At the time of her death in 1944 -- from an accidental overdose of barbiturates -- Sister Aimees church had more than 80,000 members.