Aimee Semple McPherson

by Lydia Tombarelli

Aimee Semple McPherson, the founder of the Foursquare denomination, was a young 20th-century evangelist known for her elaborate preaching and her zeal for life. McPherson was revolutionary in her preaching not only because she was a young woman, but because of her strong desire for revival within the church. Aimee Semple McPherson was a part of the many evangelists such as Oral Roberts and Billy Graham who paved the way for the late 20th century Pentecostal movements. McPherson is credited with being one of the first evangelists to spearhead the revivals that led to the denominations that we have today within the Pentecostal umbrella of Evangelical Christianity. Though McPherson was not alive during most of these movements, such as the “Jesus Movement” and the “Holiness Movement” of the 60’s and 70’s, her influence from the early 20th century is one of the main reasons Christianity began to flourish during this time. Aimee Semple McPherson was ahead of her time, and we credit a lot of the church growth we see today to her ministry in the 20th century.

Aimee Kennedy was born on October 12th, 1890, in Ontario, Canada to her parents James and Minnie Kennedy. Her father was a farmer and her mother was an officer with Salvation Army. Her family was not particularly religious, and Aimee considered herself an Atheist as a child. When McPherson was just seventeen years old, she attended a revival meeting in Ingersoll, Ontario, where she had her first encounter with Christianity. McPherson quotes “It was loads of fun to go and see them”, speaking of her first few times she had visited these revival meetings.[1] McPherson was intrigued by the Pentecostal practices of speaking in tongues, prophecy, interpretation of tongues, and divine healing. She experienced these occurrences in the people around her at these meetings, and they seemed to leave a lasting impression on McPherson. She continued to learn more about Christianity and these gifts as she continued to attend these revival meetings in Ingersoll. While attending she met Robert Semple, whom within one year would become her first husband. Robert Semple was an Irish railroad worker and Pentecostal evangelist. In August of 1908, they married and began their ministry. For two years the couple preached and traveled the United States, specifically Chicago and Ohio, evangelizing together. At this point McPherson had not yet begun her own ministry, but rather she was supporting Robert and the work he had been accomplishing. In June of 1910, the couple discerned that God was calling them to China to continue their ministry across the world. At this point, the couple was expecting their first child. By the time August came around Aimee and Robert had both fallen ill with malaria. Both were hospitalized and were trying to recover when tragedy struck and Robert passed away on August 17th. In exactly one month on September 17th, Aimee gave birth to her first child Roberta Semple. Within the next couple months McPherson moved back to Canada with her parents and continued to raise Roberta.

By the year 1912, McPherson and Roberta had moved to New York, where McPherson met her second husband Harold McPherson. Harold and Aimee married in the Spring of 1912, and had their first child, Rolf McPherson, on March 23rd of 1913. Within the next five years, while being a mother of two young children in an unsatisfying marriage, she began her evangelical ministry. In the year of 1915, McPherson had taken her children to her parents’ home, dropped them off, and began traveling again and visiting Pentecostal camp meetings. McPherson had officially started her ministry. For some time Harold and the children traveled with her throughout Canada and America visiting these camp meetings, but by the year 1918 her and Harold had divorced due to Aimee’s desire to travel with her ministry. With her husband no longer in the picture, Aimee began her full-time ministry of evangelism. From the years 1915 to about 1923 McPherson began preaching and evangelizing throughout various camp revivals and evangelical meetings. McPherson began to rise to fame in the revival church community. Throughout these years of her ministry, McPherson used various charismatic preaching styles, elaborate sermons, and her gospel car. McPherson’s “gospel car” was a black car painted with scripture and salvation questions, that she drove around cities to evangelize to the public.[2] McPherson gained a following of people throughout the uprising of Pentecostal movements. Throughout her cross country ministry, McPherson eventually ended up in Los Angeles, California and felt the strong call of God to move forward in her ministry.

This ministry all lead up to the year of 1923, when McPherson opened her church, Angelus Temple, in Los Angeles, California and founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (ICFG). McPherson strategically designed the interior and exterior of the Temple for her style of preaching. Angelus Temple was not your small ordinary church, it was a massive theater-like building that held over 5,000 people. The Temple is recorded to have a massive stage for space so that McPherson could have room for her elaborate preaching, which often consisted of a lot of Pentecostal movement. To create more publicity around the opening of the Temple, McPherson designed a Rose Parade float that was an exact replica of the actual Temple. The opening of the Temple was on January 1, the same day as the Rose Parade, making this timely occurrence perfect for McPherson. The thought behind this was to make people aware and intrigue them with the float to attend the opening service, which was happening later that night. Angelus Temple is still active to this day, and is still one of the largest churches in downtown Los Angeles, and is associated and home to the Dream Center, a Christian recovery program.

Aimee Semple McPherson founded the Foursquare denomination on four foundational truths. It is based on four pillars of truth, which were first attributed to Albert B Simpson.[3] His four pillars were; Christ as Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, and Coming King. Simpson, of whom was associated with the Holiness Denomination and teaching, coined these four beliefs. Later McPherson came and used them within forming of the Foursquare denomination. The four foundational beliefs of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel are: Christ as Savior, Christ as Baptizer, Christ as Healer, and Christ as Coming King. These four pillars and overarching statements of faith are the foundation and core of the Foursquare denomination.

According to the official Foursquare webpage, the basis of this denomination is founded on Hebrews 13:8, which states “Jesus Christ the same, yesterday, today and forever”. Christ being Savior, Baptizer, Healer, and Coming King are all characters of Christ throughout the New Testament that the Foursquare denomination holds true today.

Christ as Savior, is that Christ is the only way to salvation and is a part of the Trinity. Isaiah 43:10, Isaiah 44:8, Exodus 33:20, John 3:16, John 1:1-3, Matthew 1:23, and Ephesians 2:18, are some of the scripture references noted from the article, Declaration of Faith, written by McPherson.[4]

Christ as Baptizer means that Christ is the baptizer of water and of Spirit. This shows itself in water baptism as a statement of faith, and baptism in the Holy Spirit as seen through speaking in tongues. To clarify, neither of these are needed for salvation. As stated above Christ is the only savior; these are just two avenues to which our faith is shown. The basis of this belief is from the scriptures: Galatians 3:27-28, 2 Corinthians 13:5, John 14:16,17, Acts 2:4, Acts 10:44-46, and 1 Corinthians 3:16.[5]

Christ as Healer is the pillar that is founded on the belief that Christ was a healer in the scriptures as well as current day. This is the belief in divine healing. The scripture references for this pillar are Matthew 8:17, Mark 16:17,18, Acts 4:29,30, and James 5:14-16.[6]

Christ as Coming King is the belief in the second coming of Christ. That Christ has not had his final reign on earth, and that He will come again for His church. Some scripture references for this are 1 Thessalonians 4:16,17, Titus 2:12, 13, Luke 19:13, and Matthew 24:36.[7]

Each of these four pillars is the foundation the Foursquare church.

Three years after founding ICFG and Angelus Temple on May 18, 1926, Aimee Semple McPherson went missing in Venice Beach, California. A little over a month later she was found in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. McPherson claims she was kidnapped and tortured for these five weeks, but suspicion surrounded the validity of what actually happened.

At this point in her life, there was a lot of stress and tension that had built up in her church and in her personal life. McPherson traveled to Venice Beach with her secretary and friend, Emma Schaffer, to spend a day relaxing in the sun. Hours had passed and the two had spent their time reading their Bibles, writing sermons, eating, and swimming in the water. At 3:30 in the afternoon, Schaffer had noticed that Aimee was nowhere in sight. Assuming she had been swimming and may have drowned, Schaffer alerted the authorities and began to look for her friend. McPherson was scheduled to speak at Angelus Temple that evening. Due to her disappearance, McPherson’s mother preached the sermon in her place.

The two possibilities were that McPherson had drowned or that she had been kidnaped. Despite these two terrible outcomes, some thought that it had been a publicity stunt or a faked death. Suddenly on June 18, McPherson reappeared on the doorsteps of a home in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. She had scars, bruises, cigar burns, and blisters, as well as other “marks of torture” on her body.[8] Once McPherson returned to United States she began to open up about her side of the story and the kidnappers she claimed tricked her. McPherson claimed that while she was at Venice beach on that May afternoon, a couple, Steve and Rose, had approached her and asked if she would pray for their sick baby. Aimee followed them to their car, where she was pushed in and drugged unconscious. During her disappearance McPherson’s claimed kidnappers repeatedly sent ransom notes to Angelus Temple, to which the church thought that these notes were a hoax. Authorities came to find out that Steve and Rose were associated with a man by the name of Felipe, of whom had been connected to multiple slave trafficking rings throughout Mexico and the United States. Despite the signs of torture, some believe that her disappearance was faked. Many critics believe that this was either a publicity stunt or a way to cover up an ungodly affair. Regardless of what the majority of people believed what had happened to McPherson, it does not negate the change that occurred to her after her return. After McPherson’s disappearance, she began to live a very different and somewhat luxurious life. She moved to a five-thousand square foot home that overlooked the lake and was filled with numerous expensive items. McPherson stated that this was “a place to get away completely, into a different world”.[9] Once the aftermath of McPherson’s disappearance began to settle down she once again began to ramp up her ministry.

After her disappearance, Aimee Semple McPherson was a well-known celebrity of some sort. Her name had been in every newspaper and plastered all over Los Angeles, California. Some say “she was the most famous woman in America”.[10] Throughout the next couple years, McPherson’s life consisted of ministry at Angelus Temple and some revival camp meetings. It is said that McPherson had two goals during her last years of ministry “to create a living tradition of religious theater and to lead a growing denomination of Fundamentalists into the twentieth century into social action”.[11] On September 25, 1944 McPherson traveled out to Oakland to dedicate a new church plant, where she was scheduled to speak on the opening day. McPherson’s fame, Angelus Temple, and the Foursquare denomination were all growing at this point in time. The night before her sermon at the new church plant, McPherson had been showing signs of stress and exhaustion. On September 27, 1944, Aimee was found dead in her hotel bed from a drug overdose. It is reported that she had been taking sleeping pills for years under a doctor’s supervision. An autopsy found that there were multiple drugs in her body that she had not been prescribed and it is unknown where she was getting these from. Her body was sent back to Los Angeles where her funeral was held. McPherson died at the age of fifty-three. Though Aimee Semple McPherson passed away at such a young age her legacy is seen through the Foursquare denomination. After her death her son, Rolf McPherson took over the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

In the year of 1998, the Foursquare denomination founded the “Pentecostal Fellowship of North America”, where multiple Pentecostal denominations met together and created a modern-day Pentecostal group. Throughout the past twenty years, the Foursquare church has been growing massively. In the year 2014, the Foursquare denomination had 64,389 churches and meeting places globally.[12] In the year 2016, the denomination had grown to 68,503 churches and meeting places globally.[13]This is over 4,000 churches and meeting places globally that have been created. The Foursquare denomination is making a huge impact in the church scene, specifically in the Pentecostal world.

Though Aimee Semple McPherson had somewhat of a crazy and elaborate celebrity life, her legacy has forever left its mark on the modern day church. She ultimately achieved her two goals. McPherson left her mark on the theatrical church stage, by making the Pentecostal church known, and she left a legacy through Foursquare by the growth of the denomination. The Foursquare denomination is booming through the world, and we owe this to Aimee Semple McPherson.

 

NOTES

[1] Daniel Mark Epstein, The LIfe of Aimee Semple McPherson, (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), 41.
[2] Michael James, Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals In America, (Connecticut, Greenwood PRess, 2007), 264.
[3] IBID, 267.
[4] Aimee Semple McPherson, What We Believe, (California, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel), 1.
[5] IBID, 2.
[6] IBID, 3.
[7] IBID, 4.
[8] Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, (Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2003), 98
[9] IBID,151
[10] Daniel Mark Epstein, The LIfe of Aimee Semple McPherson, (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), 315.
[11] IBID, 361
[12] The Foursquare Church, Annual Statistics, (California, Foursquare Church, 2015).
[13] The Foursquare Church, Annual Statistics, (California, Foursquare Church, 2017).

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Blumhofer, Edith Waldvogel. Aimee Semple McPherson : Everybody’s Sister. Library of Religious Biography. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1993.

C. H. BRETHERTON. “A Prophetess at Large.” The North American Review (1821-1940) 12 1928: 641. ProQuest. Web. 28 Apr. 2018.

Epstein, Daniel Mark. Sister Aimee : The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.

Foursquare Church. “Annual Statistics.” The Foursquare Church. July 02, 2015. Accessed May 02, 2018. https://www.foursquare.org/about/stats.

McClymond, Michael James. Encyclopedia of Religious Revivals in America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007.

MISS, REVIEW BY. 1923. “Aimee Semple McPherson and Her “Angelus Temple”.” Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine (1868-1935), 03, 1. https://librarysftp.whitworth.edu:2443/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/137400816?accountid=1149.

Semple McPherson, Aimee. “What We Believe.” International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Los Angeles, California. June 28, 1527. Accessed May 02, 2018. https://www.foursquare.org/about/what_we_believe.

Sutton, Matthew Avery. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Pope-Levison, Priscilla. Building the Old Time Religion : Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

Pope-Levison, Priscilla. Turn the Pulpit Loose : Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists. 1st ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.