Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), American evangelist, symbolized important attributes of American popular religion in the 1920s and 1930s.
Aimee Kennedy was born on Oct. 9, 1890, near Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada. Her father was a struggling farmer, her mother a former member of the Salvation Army. Aimee remained a nonbeliever until, at the age of 17, she experienced conversion under the guidance of Scottish evangelist Robert Semple. In 1908 she married him and followed him to China as a missionary. He died soon after arriving in China, leaving her penniless and with a month-old daughter. Returning home, Semple married a grocery clerk, Harold S. McPherson, in 1913; this marriage ended in divorce five years later. Thereafter she set out as an untrained lay evangelist to preach a Pentecostal-type of revivalism to the people of Ontario.
Physically attractive and possessed of a dynamic personality and instinctive ability to sway crowds, Aimee Semple McPherson gradually perfected her skills. By this time professional revivalism had achieved a distinctive style and organization; McPherson illustrated the newer tendencies. Though she initially lived an almost hand-to-mouth existence following the route of itinerant evangelists from Maine to Florida, success meant a move into larger cities in America, England, and Australia. In the cities audiences were often immense, with 10,000 to 15,000 partisans deliriously applauding her. McPherson's preaching also identified her with the "fringe" sects of American Protestantism that were especially influential among the masses in America's newly emerging urban centers. "Speaking with tongues" and successful efforts at faith healing—both practiced by the Pentecostal churches—were a part of her performance.
By 1920 McPherson was permanently established in Los Angeles. In 1923 she and her followers dedicated Angelus Temple. Seating over 5,000 people, this served as her center of activity. Backed by a shrewd business manager (her mother), the evangelist organized a private cult of devoted followers. She also became a public figure in tune with the garish, publicity-oriented life of the film capital of the world.
As a popular evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson symbolized the vulgarization that occurred when grass-roots religion fused uncritically with secular mass culture. Popular evangelists always ran the risk of identifying their personal concerns too much with the nonreligious aspects of culture. This tendency was strikingly illustrated by McPherson. She thrived on publicity and sensationalism. The most astounding incident occurred in 1926, when McPherson, believed to have drowned in the Pacific Ocean, "miraculously" reappeared in the Mexican desert. Her tale of kidnaping and mistreatment was challenged by some who claimed she had been in hiding with one of her male followers. The ensuing court battle attracted national attention.
McPherson continued her unconventional ways until her death in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 27, 1944. She engaged in a slander suit with her daughter, publicly quarreled with her mother, and carried on well-publicized vendettas with other religious groups.
Further Reading on Aimee Semple McPherson
Aimee Semple McPherson's own reminiscence, The Story of My Life (1951), is too romanticized and sketchy to be of much value. A biographical study is Lately Thomas, Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson (1970). One account dealing principally with the celebrated "kidnaping incident" of 1926 is Thomas's The Vanishing Evangelist (1959). An older though valuable study is Nancy Mavity, Sister Aimee (1931).