The 20th-century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson was a woman ahead of her time. She crossed the United States with two young children in an era when women were not permitted to vote. She established an evangelistic ministry and built a large evangelistic center at a time when women were expected to marry, have children and leave religion and other “important” pursuits to men. But God had a plan for her life that did not take into account human ways of doing things.
As an evangelist who preached the gospel not only across the United States but also around the world, Sister Aimee incorporated the cutting edge communications media of her day. People were healed by the thousands when she prayed for them, but she herself took no credit for the healings, instead giving full credit to God.
Upon opening the doors of Angelus Temple in Los Angeles in 1923, Sister Aimee developed an extensive social ministry, feeding more than 1.5 million people during the Great Depression. She summarized her message into four major points, which she called “the Foursquare Gospel”: Jesus is the Savior, Jesus is the Healer, Jesus is the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit, and Jesus is the Soon-Coming King. She founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, also known as The Foursquare Church, which continues to spread the Foursquare Gospel throughout the world to this day.
Aimee Semple McPherson was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on October 9, 1890, near Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada, and was the only child of James and Minnie Kennedy. Although she was reared in a Christian home, she began to question the Bible during her teen years. When she was 17 years old and still in high school, she attended a revival service conducted by Pentecostal evangelist Robert Semple where she heard the message of repentance and a born-again experience. She resisted the message at first, but the Holy Spirit continued to speak to her heart, convicting her of the sin in her life and of her need for a Savior.
After a three-day struggle with doubt and uncertainty, she prayed and asked the Lord to save her. As soon as she did so the weight of sin was gone and she was filled with amazing joy. When Aimee heard the evangelist speak also of the baptism with the Holy Spirit, she became consumed with the desire to experience that Pentecostal baptism. After a time of prayer and seeking the Lord, she was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues. From that time forward, she had a love and compassion for souls and a longing to serve the Lord that remained with her throughout her lifetime.
The revival meeting that changed her life spiritually also changed her life romantically. Before long, the handsome Robert Semple had won Aimee’s heart, and the two were married in August 1908, just shy of Aimee’s 18th birthday. Their individual desires to serve the Lord seemed to fit together perfectly. After ministering in Chicago and the Ingersoll area, the Semples began preparations to go as missionaries to China. In 1910, shortly before Aimee turned 20, she and her husband of less than two years set sail for China. It seemed to the young couple that they would have a lifetime together, preaching the Word of God and ministering to those for whom the Lord had so burdened their hearts. But that was not to be.
Robert and Aimee both contracted malaria within months of arriving in Hong Kong and Robert died only three months after their arrival, leaving Aimee as a nineteen year old penniless widow awaiting the imminent birth of her first child. When her daughter, Roberta Star Semple, was a month old, Aimee returned to the United States to face life as a single mother.
Now Will You Go?
Aimee and Roberta lived in New York with Aimee’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, and assisted her in raising money for the Salvation Army. It was there that Aimee met and married a Christian businessman named Harold McPherson. They had a son, Rolf Kennedy McPherson, and Aimee tried to settle down to a “normal” home life, but knowing that she was not being obedient to the call to preach the gospel began to wear on her and her physical health declined. She had two major surgeries within a two-year period, but still continued to become weaker and weaker. Eventually she lay close to death in the hospital and the doctor called her mother in to say her last goodbye. As Aimee lay dying, God asked her one last time, “Now will you go?” She answered “yes” to God’s call and almost immediately she was healed. She never again questioned the call of the Lord to preach the gospel.
Harold and Aimee Semple McPherson began evangelizing and holding tent revivals on the East Coast of the United States that met with surprising success! Aimee prayed for people, and God honored her prayers and their faith. Thousands were healed. Thousands more became Christians. Life as traveling evangelists was difficult, however. They washed their clothes in streams, and many nights were spent fighting off mosquitoes as they slept in train depots, leaky tents, or their car, often with very little to eat. Eventually, Harold decided that this was not the life he desired and he left Aimee in the middle of a campaign in Key West, Florida.
Sister Aimee continued to faithfully preach the gospel and people gathered in ever-increasing numbers to hear the remarkable lady evangelist. Within a year she was holding revival campaigns throughout the United States. The largest tents could not contain the crowds that gathered to hear her, so she rented the largest auditoriums in order to accommodate the numbers of people who attended. People often stood in line and waited for hours so they could be assured of seats for the next service. In fact, some even hid in bathrooms and attics overnight so they could be at the next day’s services! In San Diego the National Guard had to be brought in to control a crowd of more than 30,000.
Sister Aimee’s sermons were not “fire and brimstone” messages; instead, her sermons showed the face of a loving God with continually outstretched arms. She spoke of serving Jesus as the only life that offered true fulfillment. She preached a gospel of repentance and believed strongly that everyone in the world had the right to hear the gospel.
Sister Aimee welcomed everyone. She preached to the social elite of the day and also reached out to the poor and to the disenfranchised members of society. She evangelized in the South at a time when segregation was rampant. She broke down racial barriers everywhere she ministered. Sister Aimee established many Hispanic ministries in Los Angeles and established ministries to German, Japanese, Czech, deaf, and other communities also. She recognized no gender, ethnic or status separation line.
When there were questions as to whether or not the miraculous healings people were claiming were real, the American Medical Association investigated. Their report stated that the work of Aimee Semple McPherson met with their approval in every way, and that the healings were “genuine, beneficial and wonderful.”
The City of Angels
Weary of having no place to raise a family, Sister Aimee rejoiced when, in 1918, she heard God instruct her to go to Los Angeles. God told her He would build her a house in Los Angeles and He did, but really He built two houses—one for her family and one for His people.
For several years Sister Aimee continued to travel and raise money to build an interdenominational center for evangelism in Los Angeles. On January 1, 1923, when she was 32 years old, Angelus Temple was dedicated. The building held 5,300 people and was immediately filled to capacity at every service. The Temple became the spiritual home for thousands and a base for evangelistic ministry. What grew out of a desire to have a place from which to send forth the gospel quickly evolved into a church organization.
Sister Aimee developed an educational institution that trained people for ministry. Pastors were sent out, first to cities in California and then to all parts of the country. Missionaries were sent out to various mission fields and were supported by those who had caught Sister Aimee’s vision for reaching the world.
Sister Aimee always looked for creative ways to present the gospel. While holding a revival meeting in San Francisco in April 1922, she became the first woman to preach a sermon over the radio. Intrigued with the possibilities that medium seemed to offer for ministry, she built radio station KFSG, and soon her gospel messages could be heard via radio from Australia to the islands of Cape Verde just off the coast of Africa.
A Recognizable Voice
Sister Aimee had one of the most recognizable voices in the world in the 1920s. Civic leaders, politicians, actors and actresses, pastors from every denomination, as well as average citizens all attended her services. Her sermons were reprinted in hundreds of newspapers in Canada, the United States and Mexico—and were read by millions.
On Sunday evenings Sister Aimee presented illustrated sermons—stage productions—which often drew people who would never have thought to enter a church. In an era prior to television, these entertaining presentations attracted huge crowds and she used these messages to present to even more people the message of salvation through faith in Jesus. She believed that the gospel was to be presented at every opportunity and she truly used the means at her disposal to present the gospel to as many people as possible.
Sister Aimee’s impact was tremendous, and, because of her fame, in 1926 she was kidnapped and held for ransom. While this may sound odd to some today, during the mid-1920s in Los Angeles kidnappings were not uncommon. Prior to her kidnapping on May 18, Sister Aimee had been kidnapped twice and, there had been other threats on her life and other attempts to kidnap her. For example, in September 1925 threatening letters were delivered to the Temple; a man was arrested after he was captured by Angelus Temple workers who heard Sister Aimee scream when he broke into her parsonage. And in the fall of 1925 a woman named Mercie Stannard was arrested after threatening to kill her.
In early May of 1926, a high volume of letters and notes once again arrived at Angelus Temple threatening kidnapping. Then, on May 18, while working on a sermon at Ocean Beach, Sister Aimee decided to go swimming. When she came out of the water a couple asked her to accompany them to their car to pray for their dying baby who was in the back seat. This was not unusual; Sister Aimee made herself available to minister to people whenever and wherever she was called to do so. Upon leaning into the back seat she was pushed to the floor and sedated as the car drove off. A taxi driver saw the kidnapping as it happened and later told the authorities.
Most everyone believed that Sister Aimee had actually drowned however, and when ransom letters came in from the kidnappers, the letters were thrown away because her family thought she was dead! For three weeks Sister Aimee was kept in the Los Angeles area, and then, in mid-June, the kidnappers moved her to a small shack in an isolated canyon in Mexico just south of Douglas, Arizona. When the kidnappers left her alone but bound with rope for several hours while they drove off to buy supplies, she escaped and walked through the night to Douglas where she was entered into the hospital.
When Sister Aimee had gone missing, rumors of sightings came in to newspapers all across the country. She was reportedly seen in sixteen cities on the same day! When it was learned that an employee of Angelus Temple’s radio station who had left his job the previous December was in Carmel during the month of May, the media immediately began writing articles insinuating that Aimee faked her kidnapping in order to have an affair with him.
A media circus erupted, and soon Sister Aimee found the district attorney working hard to try her on charges such as “conspiracy to commit acts injurious to public morals.” There was never a trial, however. During the preliminary hearings, the witnesses that the D.A. brought forth were either found to be untrustworthy or had their testimony soundly refuted. The charges that she had been in Carmel having an affair were also proven to be false when the two parties involved in the affair actually confessed to the judge. With the Carmel episode fully and undeniably explained and the rest of the witnesses’ testimonies thoroughly refuted, in January of 1927 the D.A. ceased his efforts to try Sister Aimee as a criminal, acknowledging that he did not have even one witness who could testify against her.
During the entire episode Sister Aimee continued to minister in Angelus Temple and publicly asked everyone to forgive any persons who were acting antagonistically toward her and to model Christ in their hearts, prayers, and attitudes.
Continuing her life in service to Christ, in 1927 she opened a commissary which had the purpose of feeding the impoverished as well as supplying them with clothing and other necessities. Each person was given physical nourishment, but was also given spiritual nourishment. Over the next several years and during the depression, it was through the commissary that more than one and a half million people were fed.
By 1931, Sister Aimee had been based in Los Angeles for thirteen years, and she had been raising her children as a single mother for longer than that. Harold McPherson had been granted a divorce and had remarried many years earlier. Both Roberta and Rolf married in 1931, and Sister Aimee found herself alone.
When Sister Aimee met David Hutton, the man who was to play the lead in her opera The Iron Furnace, she knew she was going to like him. Eventually love developed between the two, and he proposed. Since she was no longer bound to her prior husband, she said “Yes.” On the night of their wedding a newspaperman informed them that Hutton was being sued by another woman whom he had promised to marry! In July 1932 he was found guilty and was ordered to pay $5,000.
Upon hearing the news Sister Aimee fainted and fractured her skull. When she regained consciousness, she was told that her life had been hanging by a thread for two weeks. The fracture been life-threatening, but the doctors also told her that they had been treating her for a dangerous intestinal malady she had contracted during a trip to Guatemala. The ensuing months brought little improvement in her health, and it was decided that her health might improve if she took a cruise to Europe accompanied by a private nurse.
When she returned to the United States ready to join her husband in ministry again, the first person to greet her was a newspapermen informing her that Hutton had filed for divorce while she was gone and had started appearing in theaters with a show talking about his life being married to her. Though her heart was broken and human love had failed her, the love of God had not; in His strength she carried on in ministry and in reaching out to people in Jesus’ name—and God continued blessing her ministry.
People still came by the thousands to be touched by God through Sister Aimee’s ministry. In one 150-day period she toured the country, traveled more than fifteen thousand miles, visited forty-six cities, broadcast on forty-five radio stations and delivered three hundred and thirty-six sermons, sometimes as many as five in a single day! In that one year she was seen by more than one out of every fifty people in the United States personally!
For the next decade Sister Aimee continued ministering and thousands of people continued to be healed and find salvation in Jesus each year.
While ministering in Mexico in 1943, Aimee Semple McPherson contracted a bacillus that began eroding the walls of her intestinal tract. In May 1944, her son, Rolf, announced that she appeared to be improving. Although she had been ill many times over the previous ten years, including two occasions in which her family was told to prepare for her funeral, she had always recuperated. This time it was not to be. The tube running to her kidneys ruptured on September 27, 1944, after she conducted a revival service in Oakland, Calif.
Because Sister Aimee regularly took sleeping pills, the medication in the pills went directly into her system after the rupture and contributed to her death. The coroner, however, stated that the sleeping tablets would not have had their disastrous effect if it had not been for the kidney ailment that allowed the medication to go directly into her system.
Upon Sister Aimee’s passing, her son, Rolf K. McPherson, became president of The Foursquare Church providing stability, strength and growth to the denomination for 44 years until his retirement in 1988.