A Biography of Aimee Semple McPherson

Aimee Semple McPherson

McPHERSON, AIMEE SEMPLE (1890-1944). Gifted missionary, evangelist, editor, author, and founder of the International Church ofthe Foursquare Gospel (ICFG). Born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on Oct. 9, 1890, on a small farm near Ingersoll, Ont., Canada, to James Morgan Kennedy (1836-1921) and his second wife,"Mildred ("Minnie") Pearce Kennedy (1862-1947), she was reared in a Christian home. Her father, a farmer and bridge builder, was a Methodist organist and choir directorwho taught his young daughter to play the piano and organ, while her mother, orphaned at age 12, had been reared by Salvationists. Aimee was a good student, whose faith was shaken for a time by exposure in her local high school to teaching on the theory of evolution. During the winter months of 1907-8, "Robert James Semple, a pentecostal evangelist, held storefront meetings in an attempt to establish a work in Ingersoll. It was there that Aimee made a firm commitment of faith. On Aug. 12, 1908, Robert Semple and Aimee Kennedy were married in a simple SalvationArmy ceremony performed in the apple orchard of Aimee's parents' home, "Kozy Kot." Following their honeymoon, the couple settled for a short time in Stratford, Ont., then went to London, Ont., where they pioneered a church. By Jan. 1909 they had moved to Chicago. Robert and Aimee Semple were ordained by "William H. Durham on Jan. 2,1909. For severalmonths the couple accompanied Durham on evangelistic tours in the northern U.S. and Canada. From their courtship days, the couple was determined to serve as "faith" missionaries in China. Departing from Chicago in 1910, they left for China with a stop at Semple's home near Belfast, Ireland, and a visit in London; then they traveled on through the Suez Canal. They arrived in Hong Kong in June 1910 and were immediately immersed in language study and literature distribution. Within weeks oftheir arrival, Robert Semple contracted malaria and died on Aug. 19, 1910, leaving Aimee a widow before her 20th birthday. With few financial resources, Aimee stayed in Hong Kong until after the birth of the Semples' daughter, Roberta Star, on Sept. 17, 1910. Aimee returned to New York City that fall, where she was joined by her mother, Minnie. She worked with the Salvation Army, serving lunch in a Rescue Mission, then collecting money in Broadway theater lobbies. While in the city, she met Harold Stewart McPherson (1890-1968). After a brief courtship the couple went to Chicago with Roberta in tow. They were married on Oct. 24, 1911, in a simple parsonage ceremony. While living in Chicago, Aimee again became active in church work, but within a year the couple moved to Providence, RI, where their son "RolfPotter Kennedy McPherson was born on Mar. 23, 1913. After a time Aimee returned to Canada with the children and became actively involved in ministry. Harold followed her, and for a time the two ministered together. Harold acted as the advance man, obtaining the necessary site permits and the tents needed to make possible the evangelistic meetings in which Aimee preached. In 1917 Aimee began to publish The Bridal Call, a monthly magazine in which she wrote many articles on the basic essence ofher teachings. This move helped to solidify a constituency of followers, especially along the eastern seaboard. But the evangelisticactivity of the McPhersons was difficult, and it took its toll on both of them. Ultimately, Harold McPherson left the evangelistic party, returning to Rhode Island. The couple was divorced in Aug. 1921. In 1919 Aimee received ordination with the Assemblies of God (AG) as an "evangelist." She held these credentials until jan, 5,1922, when she returned her fellowship papers to General Council chairman E. N. Bell. While her recent divorce might have posed some problems, it was actually the issue of property ownership that sparked her resignation. Bell responded to her concerns by holding out the possibility that were she to acknowledge that the tabernacle then under construction, Angelus Temple, was not held in her name, the executive committee would look favorably on her continuation in the AG. She chose not to do so and parted from the AG without prejudice. Denominational loyalties were lightly held in those days, especially in Holiness and pentecostal circles. It comes as no surprise, then, that while Aimee had credentials with the AG, because of her popularity she was granted credentials by others, even when she did not seek them herself. In Dec. 1920, for instance, she received membership in the Philadelphia-based C. C. Hancock Memorial Church of the Methodist Episcopal Church. That same day she was licensed as an exhorter with the Methodist Episcopal Church. Her ministry continued through the Midwest, to St. Louis and Wichita, back to Denver, then on to California. There, on Mar. 27, 1922, she was ordained by the First Baptist Church in San Jose, again at their encouragement. This ordination was a controversial one that was never ratified by the larger Baptist association. Her ability to appeal broadly across denominational lines was rare among early pentecostals. Her meetings were always interdenominational or ecumenical. They were supported by many people and pastors within historic mainline churches. Her vision was interdenominational from the start, and the cornerstone of Angelus Temple was inscribed to read that the temple was dedicated to "the cause of interdenominational and world-wide evangelism." In Los Angeles the evangelist looked for a suitable place to preach. She decided in 1921 to build her own and, purchasing the property near Echo Park, designed and built Angelus Temple. She crisscrossed the nation raising funds and proclaiming the gospel. In 1922 she even held an evangelistic tour in Australia. By Jan. 1, 1923, when the 5,300 seat temple was dedicated, it was clear that she needed to settle down and pastor her growing flock. The ICFG was born that day, although its formal incorporation did not come until Dec. 1927. The 1920s were important years for "Sister," as she came to be known. She continued to write and publish her own works. First came such works as This Is That (1919, 1921, 1923), her initial autobiography, then Divine Healing Sermons (n.d.) and The Second Coming of Christ (1921). The year 1922 brought her inspiration for "The Foursquare Gospel" in the midst of a sermon on Ezek. 1:4-10, which she preached in Oakland, CA. Jesus Christ was preached henceforth as Savior, Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, Healer, and Coming King. She preached her first radio sermon that same year and in 1924 opened radio station KFSG in Los Angeles, which is still operated at the ICFG. She was the first woman to receive an FCC license to operate a radio station. She envisioned sending out other evangelists, but she saw the need for training, and in 1923 she established the Lighthouse for International Foursquare Evangelism (L.I.F.E.) Bible College. The early 1920s saw her investing in foreign missions as well, and in 1927 she opened the Angelus Temple Commissary. McPherson captured the imagination of the lower classes while she captivated the hearts of many in the middle and upper classes. Her commissary met the physical needs of over 1.5 million people during the Depression, regardless of race, creed, or color. She fought for higher wages and greater benefits for police and firefighters and railed against organized crime. Her vision provided an expanded role for pentecostal women to engage in ministry. Many Foursquare Gospel Lighthouses were pioneered and pastored by women for whom she became the role model. Black evangelist Emma Cotton was encouraged by McPherson to establish the church that would ultimately become the formidable Crouch Temple of the Church of God in Christ. McPherson also led Angelus Temple to engage in disaster relief efforts when earthquakes hit Southern California. But the latter 1920s were difficult years. McPherson preached sometimes more than 20 times weekly while also overseeing her burgeoning work. In May 1926 she had become a highly publicized international figure when she suddenly disappeared, apparently drowned off Venice Beach while swimming. A month later she was found in Mexico, with a story of her kidnapping by some people who feigned to need her help. Rumors spread, and she was embroiled in controversy about an alleged affair in Carmel, CA, with a former employee, Kenneth Ormiston. A grand jury investigated her, but while it was not in session, the district attorney charged her with the obstruction of justice and suborning perjury. Ordered to stand trial, she was ridiculed daily from pulpit to press. Ultimately, the charges were dropped for lack of evidence, and the district attorney became personally embroiled in his own legal dilemma. McPherson authored her account of things in In the Service of the King (1927); shortly thereafter an unauthorized biography, Sister Aimee (1931), was written by N. B. Mavity. In some minds the issue was never settled, and books and TV reconstructions have not left much to the imagination. But Aimee was much more resilient than is often acknowledged, and Angelus Temple and Foursquare people proved to be loyal to her during this critical time. The 1930s brought their share of problems too. McPherson suffered a nervous breakdown in 1930 and entered an ill-fated marriage to David L. Hutton on Sept. 13, 1931. The vision of the commissary brought with it an increasing indebtedness and threatened to force the work of Foursquare into bankruptcy. But again she persevered, and the work continued to prosper through her hard choices and gifted capabilities. During the 1930s, Aimee took advantage of opportunities to expand the ministry. In spite ofsome trouble with the loyalties of a few of her associates, she consolidated the work of the temple with a few well-chosen appointments. Among them was "Giles Knight, a minister and administrator who helped put the organization on solid financial footing. In 1934 she engaged in several widely publicized public debates, arguing with avowed atheist Charles Lee Smith about the existence of God, and in North Little Rock, AK, she engaged in debate with Elder Ben M. Bogard on the subject of the continuation/cessation ofmiracles and divine healing. Issues such as the efforts of the higher critics, modernism, and evolution led her to pen the statement "What's the Matter?" in 1928. These issues remained problematic in her portrayal of the larger church throughout the 1930s. Always one who enjoyed music, as early as 1923 Aimee had published the Tabernacle Revivalist, including her own composition "Former and Latter Rain" and her own selection of responsive readings covering the four cardinal doctrines she preached. In the 1930s came Four-Square Melodies, including more of her compositions. To this volume she appended the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, and additional readings from the Psalms. In 1937 she published her Foursquare Hymnal with a supplement featuring 64 of her own compositions as well as those of other pentecostals, including Thoro Harris and C. W. Walkem. This work was revised in 1957. In all, she wrote some 180 songs, many of which have never been published. She composed, with the aid of arranger Walkem, seven full length sacred operas, including The Bells of Bethlehem, Regem Adorate, and The Crimson Road. Several of her works were also released as sheet music in arrangements for use by soloists and choirs. A 1936 trip around the world resulted in her plea Give Me My Own God (1936), published in a revised format from London under the title I View the World (1937). Her travels reinforced her concerns about Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, and she spoke often of them and the danger they held for world peace. When war finally materialized, she actively participated in raising money for war bonds and drew many illustrations from the conflagration for her vividly illustrated, partially acted sermons. She also did much to popularize a restorationist view of church history with her vision the "Dispensation of the Holy Ghost" repeatedly shared in her very popular sermon "Lost and Restored." During the 1930s this was reinforced through an annual "Cavalcade of Christianity" and other similar productions on the Angelus Temple platform or in the Shrine Auditorium of Los Angeles. During WWII Aimee paid special attention to military personnel who visited Angelus Temple, inviting them to the platform and giving them Bibles. She continued to hold evangelistic meetings around the U.S. and in Canada, though on a sharply reduced scale. She did much to demonstrate Foursquare loyalty to the war effort and sent her magazine, the Foursquare Crusader, to army camps. In 1943 she was able to take a vacation in Mexico, but while there she contracted a tropical fever that sometimes left her incapacitated for weeks. In 1944, perhaps for the first time recognizing her own physical limitations, "Sister" named Rolf McPherson vice president of Foursquare. She also called "Howard Courtney to serve alongside him in the national office as general supervisor and director of foreign missions. These were among the last appointments she made. During Sept. 1944, she began a crusade in the Oakland, CA, Civic Auditorium. She preached a sermon the evening of Sept. 26. That night she went to bed and was found the following day, dead from what was described as "shock and respiratory failure" following an apparently accidental overdose of a medical prescription. She was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA, on Oct. 9, 1944, in one of the largest funerals ever held in Los Angeles. The impact of the life and ministry of Aimee Semple McPherson is a significant one by all accounts. She was a colorful, sometimes controversial, figure. But she was also an extremely gifted communicator and organizer; a competent musician; a prolific writer; in many ways a servant of the people, especially the poor; and an instiller of vision who challenged her followers to trust in Jesus Christ, "the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb. 13:8), a theme prominently displayed in many Foursquare churches today. She was undoubtedly the most prominent woman leader pentecostalism has produced to date. This entry was originally published in The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements and is reprinted with permission of the author and Zondervan.

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

is an associate professor of Latino Church Studies at Azusa Pacific University.