Ever since discovering radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in Kevin Starr’s invaluable California history books years ago, I’ve long been fascinated by her. McPherson is often a forgotten historical figure: a woman who built up a mass audience by preaching her gospel through the radio, but who didn’t entirely hold herself to the same standards, which involved a decidedly less pure “kidnapping” that had troubling evidential contradictions. She created the Angelus Temple, a $1.5 million edifice financed entirely by donations and still existing today. She proved so charismatic that she even charmed H.L. Mencken.
In fact, I have a file with notes and an outline for a play centered around her staged disappearance from Venice Beach. One of these days, I will find the time to write it.
The kidnapping got serious press and even inspired Upton Sinclair to compose a poem. McPherson emerged later in Mexico, claiming that she had hiked many miles back to civilization. Alas, there were no scuff marks on her shoes. There was McPherson’s troubling involvement with a married man — an engineer by the name of Kenneth G. Ormiston. Ormiston, however, was a gentleman and kept his tongue firmly unflapped. Despite the shaky evidence available to a grand jury and public scrutiny over this “publicity stunt,” McPherson’s ministry carried on.
For those who wish to learn more about this fascinating pioneer, there’s now a new biography available about McPherson from Matthew Sutton, which John Updike has reviewed in the latest issue of the New Yorker.
Hate to break the news….but a full-scale musical about Sister Aimee is now playing in the Washington DC area. Directed by Eric Schaeffer (not the same as the filmmaker who just published his diaries at Thunder’s Mouth). And with book and lyrics by….Kathie Lee Gifford (though someone else plays Aimee).
I didn’t realize you were also a fan. I think we’re due for a full scale Aimee Semple McPherson revival (no pun intended). If some generous academic press decides to publish my dissertation, there’s an entire chapter on McPherson’s many appearances in LA literature in various disguises. Some fun facts:
She’s thought to be the first woman to cross America in an automobile without a man’s help. She was the first woman to lead a religious service in London’s Royal Albert Hall, the first woman to preach a sermon over the “wireless telephone,” and the first woman to receive a commercial license from the FCC. She founded the first religious broadcasting station, KFSG (Kall Foursquare Gospel), preaching to hundreds of thousands of people daily. McPherson was the first evangelist to bring revivalism into large-scale commercial stadiums, and she preached in more than 100 cities and towns from 1917 to 1923 and later alleged that she gave more sermons than any preacher who ever lived. She was even made an honorary colonel by the U.S. Army. When an earthquake devastated Santa Barbara in 1925, she was there with her disaster team before the Red Cross even met to discuss aid strategies. Actor Anthony Quinn credited her with keeping LA’s Mexican community alive during the Depression through her temple commissary.
P.S. Kathie Lee Gifford? Yikes.