I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it: Pentecostalism is one of the great underreported and misunderstood “religion stories” of our time. This faith with a strong egalitarian, populist instinct has always empowered people on the margins of society, culture, and religion itself.
And so it is not remarkable — yet this memory surprises nevertheless — that one of the most influential women in American religious history was Pentecostal. Aimee Semple McPherson was a famous preacher and worship leader decades before the most liberal denominations in the United States ordained women as ministers. She was the first woman to obtain a license from the FCC to run a radio station. She helped to feed 1.5 million people in Los Angeles during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Among other things her commissary, it is said, “kept the Mexican community alive” — the lowest rung on that city’s Depression-era socio-economic hierarchy.
Sister Aimee, as she was known then, also generated controversy to rival her accomplishments. She was not just a powerful woman when women were not generally powerful; she was sexual when women were not supposed to be sexual — or, rather, only women of a certain kind. She had a famously tumultuous personal life, was accused of staging her own kidnapping in 1926, and created an extravagant worship style replete with lavish costumes, moving sets, and live animals. We heard from one listener who remembered his mother’s account of a Sunday service where Sister Aimee came down the aisle of Angelus Temple — the 5000-seat church she built in Los Angeles — atop a white horse.
I confess that it is probably easier for me to admire Aimee Semple McPherson from a distance of several decades. The journalist Dorothy Parker called her “Our Lady of the Loudspeaker.” For those who were not captivated by her, her love of the limelight seemed to defy the very spirit she preached. I might have had the same reaction. Her preaching voice, heard in this show by way of archival recordings, is by turns moving, alarming, and histrionic. Some recent scholars and documentarians have called her a precursor to modern televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, or a harbinger of the brand of highly politicized Christianity that has garnered so much attention in our time.
I can’t say those analyses are wrong, but they are certainly incomplete. Unlike many televangelists, she amassed no great fortune and fed many hungry people without strings attached. Unlike the politically mobilized Christianity of our time, her life and message always returned to the simplest themes of Christian faith, presented most effectively to people without clout. In the U.S., Pentecostal women have become less prominent in ministry as Pentecostalism has entered mainstream culture. But “Sister Aimee” is a source of hope for women now embracing charismatic faith in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Anthea Butler says that what was viewed as scandalous in her time — her volatile family life, her failed marriages, her evident humanity — makes her more inspiring, not less so, in ours.
In not wanting to reduce Aimee Semple McPherson to analogy or analysis, I find myself in company with one of her more unlikely recent chroniclers — the novelist John Updike, who reviewed a spate of new biographies about “Famous Aimee” for The New Yorker in 2007. Here is how he ends that essay:
“The reality of her, gone from the scene for most of a century, emerges affectingly not in sociological boasts but in anecdotes that take her as she came. In 1927, a month after the charges against her were dismissed in Los Angeles, she arrived in New York in furs and a yellow suit, and was taken to a prime watering spot of the Roaring Twenties, Texas Guinan’s speakeasy, on Fifty-fourth Street. A reporter called out, with whatever sardonic intent, that she should be invited to speak. Guinan agreed, and, as Epstein tells it, ‘Aimee, demure, dignified, stone sober … left her table and stood in the center of the dance floor, smiling until everyone was quiet.’ Then she said:
‘Behind all these beautiful clothes, behind these good times, in the midst of your lovely buildings and shops and pleasures, there is another life. There is something on the other side. “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” With all your getting and playing and good times, do not forget you have a Lord. Take Him into your hearts.
‘And that was all — a miniature masterpiece of the evangelist’s art, silencing a boozy crowd in no mood to hear it. Epstein writes, ‘All at once they applauded, and Tex put her arm around Aimee. The clapping went on for much longer than her speech had taken.’”