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.