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Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America
by Matthew Avery Sutton
Harvard University Press, 2007
(351 pages, $26.95, hardcover)
reviewed by S. M. Hutchens
Matthew Avery Sutton, of the history faculty at Oakland University (of which this reviewer is an alumnus), himself raised in the environs of the Foursquare Church of Sister Aimee’s founding, has done what he can in this book to cast her as something of a world-historical character. Because he has written an honest and workmanlike biography, however, he has in the end drawn the portrait of a woman who, while in many ways extraordinary, and a memorable character in the fantastic cavalcade of American folk religion, lacks something of the symbolic weight he seems to have set out to find.
Walk My Way
Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy, born in Ontario into a pious Protestant family in 1890, was converted to Pentecostalism by Robert Semple, an evangelist she married in 1908. The Semples left their home in Chicago for the China mission field in 1910, where Robert contracted malaria and died. Soon after his death Aimee gave birth to a daughter, Roberta.
She returned to the United States, destitute and miserable, joined the Salvation Army in New York, and married Harold McPherson, a successful businessman who was able to provide her with a comfortable home, and by whom she bore her son, Rolf, who would upon her death succeed her as president of the denomination she founded.
But home life depressed Aimee. She recalled that during this time the Holy Spirit persistently urged her to “preach the Word,” asking, “Will you go? Will you go?” Her health deteriorated, and she came to believe that God was offering her the choice to do his work on earth or be taken to heaven. She agreed to obey, left home with her two children, and went to her parents’ house in Canada without telling Harold.
After her arrival in Ontario, she telegraphed her husband with an invitation: “I have tried to walk your way and have failed. Won’t you come now and walk my way?” Harold responded with letters asking her to return immediately, “wash the dishes,” “take care of the house,” and “act like other women,” but McPherson never again adhered to traditional gender norms or returned to domesticity.
Abandoned by Aimee, and refusing to join her in ministry as a traveling evangelist, Harold divorced her on grounds of desertion.
In 1918 Aimee and her mother arrived in Los Angeles, where they decided to stay. By 1923 her healing services and dramatic preaching had brought her a huge following and enough money to erect the massive, domed, Angelus Temple.
As her fame and finances increased, so did the size and scope of her work. She opened a Bible college, championed social reform causes, began a number of highly effective benevolence ministries, and assiduously used every modern means at her disposal, including the airplane and the radio, and with her famous “illustrated sermon” theatricals promoted the fundamentalist gospel. This included a strong patriotic emphasis on America as a nation built upon and responsible to the Christian faith.
In May 1926 she disappeared while swimming in the Pacific and was presumed drowned. In late June, however, she turned up alive in Mexico, claiming to have been kidnapped. It was noted that her recording engineer, Kenneth Ormiston, with whom she had been rumored to be having an affair, had disappeared at the same time.
Sutton, who shows McPherson every courtesy, acknowledges that her story “is still pretty outrageous,” and if it was not in fact a kidnapping, that makes the allegations of a publicity stunt or an assignation far more likely. McPherson was widely viewed in her day as having a sexually charged aura about her, amplified by her sensational self-presentation, and she was dogged by rumors of sexual misconduct.
The widely reported, wildly sensational, grand jury investigation of her disappearance, treated by the evangelist as part of the cosmic struggle of good and evil—she always maintained her innocence—ended with a verdict that she would be tried for criminal conspiracy to commit acts injurious to public morals, obstruction of justice, and perjury, but the district attorney dropped the charges for lack of evidence before the trial began.
McPherson’s doughty response to her persecutors had by the end of the ordeal put public opinion firmly on her side, but none of the exposure of her personal life that surrounded it comported well with the traditional understanding of what a Christian pastor and evangelist should be—nor did her post-trial purchase of a luxurious suburban home, which, as Sutton observes, “contrasted sharply with the Foursquare idea,” as did her physical re-making, including a (probable) face-lift, and metamorphosis into an undoubted example of what many had previously accused her of being: an expensively dressed, fashionably coiffed, sex symbol.
An Ecumenical Vision
Nor did an impulsive third marriage, ending quickly in her second divorce, continued rumors of sexual indiscretions and heavy drinking, and unquestionable signs of emotional instability, enhance her image among the more serious of her followers, a number of whom withdrew at this time from the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, the Pentecostal denomination that had sprung up in the wake of her ministry.
Until her death in 1944 from an overdose of sleeping pills that was ruled accidental, she consolidated her multifaceted ministry in a manner not unlike a great many evangelist-pastors of large following in our own day.
She became heavily involved in politics and social activism, preaching and strongly supporting the cause of Americanism—belief that the United States was a Christian nation and accordingly responsible to God for social and political morality—which included active solicitude for the poor and resistance to godless ideologies like communism. In the wake of her radio ministry a large following had sprung up, for which her Bible college was producing a ready pastorate—hence the genesis of the denomination known today as the Foursquare Church, a small but active Pentecostal denomination led today by the well-known Van Nuys megachurch pastor Jack Hayford.
McPherson claimed that the Foursquare idea came to her by inspiration. Sutton indicates its main signification is Evangelical completeness, and is connected, through Ezekiel’s vision of a heavenly creature with four countenances, to her own ecumenical vision of a “gospel that could best be served by integrating aspects of both the Pentecostal and the more mainstream branches of Protestantism.” This would create
a reciprocal relationship in which traditional churches appropriated revival techniques and a new awareness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit from Pentecostals, while Pentecostals learned from other theological conservatives to articulate and defend the “historic” doctrines of the Protestant faith.
An Evangelicalizing Movement
Although Sister Aimee was a strong and consistent egalitarian, believing the Scriptures allowed for no differences in membership or church office based on sex or race, the Foursquare churches, led by her son Rolf until the 1980s, have always been strongly dominated by male leadership. Today all seven of its vice presidents serving under President Hayford are men; of its twenty-six Directors, only four are women.
Sheri R. Benvenuti, writing in the Cyberjournal for Pentecostal-Charismatic Research, notes that when McPherson died, 67 percent of the ordained clergy in her denomination were women, but after her death, the percentage began to fall, reaching 42 percent in the late seventies and 38 percent in 1993. And “a great percentage of these ordained women,” she notes, “are wives of ordained pastors who do not necessarily function in legitimate church leadership roles, with only a handful of these women functioning as senior pastors of a congregation.”
Benvenuti proposes two principal reasons for the defection: first, the formalizing of the denominational structure, which favored a tendency to exclude women. The second is what the church historian Cecil Robeck calls the “evangelicalization of Pentecostals”: As Pentecostals sought to be recognized within the larger world of conservative Protestantism, they fell in with, and were influenced by, an Evangelical movement that resisted giving women the same freedom in ministry as they had historically found in Pentecostalism.
Clearly the male leadership of the Foursquare Church has always found the influence of its principal woman something to alternately celebrate and “deal with,” Charismatic churches in general discovering that their ministry as such is difficult to sustain without a significant measure of institutional control over giftings which often conflict—control that includes, in the nominally egalitarian Foursquare Churches, no less than denominational ownership of local church property.
A Malleable Symbol
While pressing the significance of McPherson as an icon of feminism, independent motherhood, fundamentalism, God-and-country Americanism, social progressivism, and a progenitor of the modern, media-savvy, politically active, empire-building evangelist and pastor, Sutton notes that as such she was a “malleable symbol, one onto which different groups pressed different meanings.”
I would go further to note that this combination of symbolic valences sets up patterns of interference that, while making a very large noise, in the end leave a less than coherent impression in history—a “shining niche” for a remarkable and highly memorable character, but a character who is difficult for many who admire her—starting with the denomination she mothered—to own fully.
McPherson was a feminist, to be sure—but also an aggressive and unabashed theological conservative who left her church with an egalitarian charter but without a liberal religion to support it. Her church has survived by striking out on a course quite different from the one she envisaged for it, while she remains a legitimate progenitor of her modern counterpart who hopelessly attempts to recast the Scriptures into an egalitarian tract.
As an unmarried, undomestic mother, she was a “modern woman” who in many regards showed signs of emancipation from male domination—yet who consistently demonstrated a deep emotional and practical need for men, and as such became a symbol of another particularly acute form of alienation and unhappiness. She was politically active, but experienced in that activism, as have all ministers of that sort from the beginning of the Constantinian age, the unpleasant vagaries that result from every attempt to draw together the kingdoms of God and Caesar.
At the end a remarkable and memorable woman remains, and Sutton has allowed his readers to see this by the service of careful work and an even hand. He has also shown them, in his somewhat frustrated search for McPherson the Symbol, that the iconic quality of her life is seriously compromised by a host of ambiguities, ambiguities that make for a fascinating character, divided in many ways against herself, an interesting link between one age and another, but with a significance that is difficult to ascertain, formed as it is by a welter of mixed messages.
Benvenuti’s paper can be found at www.pctii.org/cyberj/cyberj1/ben.html.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.