Aimee Semple McPherson was the original celebrity evangelist. She preached and performed miracle faith-healings in front of millions of adoring parishioners, fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, guided the lost, and even led efforts to support the troops during WWII. But at the same time, McPherson also performed the world’s most unsolvable disappearing act and blurred the lines between saint and sinner. Here are some faith-busting facts about Aimee Semple McPherson, the disappearing evangelist.
Aimee Semple McPherson (née Kennedy) was born in 1890 in Salford, Ontario—but her adventures in life would take her far, far away. Both her mother, Mildred Kennedy, and her father, James Morgan Kennedy, were devout Methodists. And to say that the forbidden apple doesn’t fall far from the Tree of Knowledge would be an understatement.
From an early age, it was obvious that McPherson was going to follow in her parents’ footsteps—or, rather, in their faith. As a child, McPherson used to emulate her mother’s Christian charity by playing “Salvation Army” with her friends. And when she wasn’t handing out fake soup, she was delivering passionate sermons to her dolls. Call it practice.
When she entered high school, McPherson encountered the first (of many) real tests of her faith. She learned about a shocking new theory—the Theory of Evolution. Her reaction was brutal and immediate. McPherson was so disturbed by this atheistic theory that she wrote to a national newspaper, denouncing these kinds of teachings in public schools. And so began her lifelong crusade—but it was not without its twists in the road.
At just 17, McPherson met a man even more devoted than she was—devoted to her, that is. After less than a year of dating, McPherson abandoned her Methodist roots, converted to Pentecostalism and married Pentecostal missionary, Robert James Semple. The couple dedicated their life to their faith. Sadly, however, their marriage was anything but blessed.
Aimee Semple McPherson and her husband, Robert, traveled far and wide, spreading the good news of the gospel. In fact, their travels took them all the way to China—where their marriage would come to a morbid end. Both McPherson and Robert contracted malaria with the latter also contracting a fatal case of dysentery. At just 20, McPherson was already a widow.
McPherson’s brush with malaria and the unexpectedly tragic end of her first marriage left her with a permanent scar. A permanent emotional and psychological scar. Following her husband’s passing, McPherson developed obsessive-compulsive behavioral traits, washing her hands with religious fervor whenever she traveled abroad.
It didn’t take Aimee Semple McPherson long to recover from her bout of malaria—or the miserable end of her first marriage. By 1912, just two years after becoming a widow, McPherson married her second husband. This time, she tied the knot to Harold Steward McPherson, an accountant. However, the life of a quiet wife didn’t exactly suit her.
Almost as soon as the marriage started, McPherson began exhibiting odd and compulsive behavior. She would furiously weep and pray. According to doctors, McPherson was sick with a severe case of appendicitis and they performed a botched operation. But, according to McPherson herself, appendicitis wasn’t the source of her pain.
Aimee Semple McPherson believed that her physical ailment was the result of her repressed calling in life. She alleged hearing a voice that told her to go out and preach the gospel to the world, just as she had preached it to her dolls as a child. There was just one small problem. With a husband and two kids, she couldn’t exactly just run around and preach. Or could she?
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One day while her husband, Howard, was out of town, McPherson hatched a disturbing plan. Without so much as a note, McPherson scooped up her kids and hit the open road to fulfill her calling. Some weeks later, Howard received a letter in the mail from McPherson, inviting him to join her on her evangelistic journey across the United States.
From the sounds of it, Howard was (understandably) irate. He made up his mind to travel out to McPherson then drag her and their kids back home by the ears if he had to. But there was a higher power at play. Once Howard heard McPherson preaching the good Lord’s word, he completely changed his mind and decided to join her in her evangelical work.
Aimee Semple McPherson and Howard sold their home in Rhode Island and lived out of their “Gospel Car” for years as McPherson built up a following. It wasn’t until 1919—nearly five years after hitting the road—that McPherson began getting national attention for her miraculous faith-healing demonstrations. Too bad she couldn’t heal her marriage.
McPherson decided that touring wasn’t the right way to gather her flock. She decided to build a church in Los Angeles, where the world would come to her. Sadly, there was a dark side to her fame. As flock grew, her marriage faltered. In 1921, Howard filed for divorced, citing abandonment. And that’s just when McPherson struck it rich.
With her mother’s help, McPherson began work on building her church, Angelus Temple, in Los Angeles. Of course, building a church takes money and McPherson didn’t have a lot of that—but she did have faith. She managed to engage the services of a contractor for $5,000, “on the faith” that she would get the rest of the money to complete the project.
McPherson’s faith in the Lord was well-placed. In just a few years, her congregation had grown large enough to fund the completion not just of a church, but one of the biggest megachurches of all time. In no time at all, she had amassed the “single largest Christian congregation in the world”. And that was just the beginning.
In the first seven years of the Angelus Temple, Aimee Semple McPherson drew crowds that would make rock concerts and football arenas look positively quaint. According to the Angelus Temple church records, upwards of 40 million parishioners and visitors stopped in to listen to this charismatic preacher from Canada. There was certainly something special about her.
Faith-healing was, arguably, the primary reason that so many people showed up to hear McPherson preach. In 1921, for example, she drew a crowd of 30,000 people. And McPherson didn’t disappoint. Allegedly, over the course of five weeks, McPherson healed an abscessed arm, shrunk a goiter and made one person walk without crutches. That was just the appetizer though.
Aimee Semple McPherson really stunned her tens of thousands of congregants when she performed a truly spectacular faith-healing. “Filled with sincere passion” and brimming with faith in the “living Christ”, McPherson prayed over a woman who had been paralyzed since childhood. To the amazement of the crowd, when McPherson finished her prayer, the woman stood up and walked without her wheelchair.
We’ll never know whether McPherson’s faith-healings were all an elaborate magic trick, a potent placebo or genuinely divine miracles. But we do know that healing others came at a great cost to her own health. During faith-healings, McPherson prayed feverishly from dawn to dusk, often without food or water. Her own health always came last.
McPherson always put others before herself. She believed that “true Christianity is not only to be good but to do good”. And she did a lot of good. McPherson mobilized her congregation to perform charitable tasks such offering disaster relief and finding jobs for the unemployed. During the Great Depression, she managed to feed an estimated 1.5 million people.
McPherson and her Foursquare Gospel Church didn’t just provide the necessities of life. They also provided some much needed “escape” from hardship. In 1932, authorities raided McPherson’s commissary after a source tipped them off with a chilling claim. They’d heard that she for allegedly making distilled spirits from donated apricots. It’s not clear who tipped off the fuzz—but McPherson had her share of enemies.
With her church established in Los Angeles, it was only natural for McPherson to capitalize on the glitz and glamor of Hollywood to spread the gospel. But not everyone liked her “modern” approach to preaching. In 1929, one of her church officials hired private investigators to secretly follow McPherson and dig up some dirt.
After tailing McPherson for days on end, the private detectives had something shocking to report. The superstar preacher had no dirty laundry. That didn’t stop the rumors from spreading, however. Everyone from her biographer to random journalists claimed to have had affairs with McPherson. But none of those allegations seem likely.
In the early 1930s, Aimee Semple McPherson began taking precautions against any whiff of scandal. She traveled everywhere under the watchful (and maybe a little judgemental) gaze of a chaperone. Her need for constant companionship might, however, have had more to do with a terrifying incident back in 1926. An incident that nearly claimed her life.
In mid-May 1926, McPherson went to the beach with her secretary. Shortly thereafter, the charismatic preacher disappeared. It was almost as if the good Lord had taken her to Heaven in the rapture. In that moment, McPherson’s secretary lost her faith and assumed the worst—i.e., that the waters of Ocean Park Beach had claimed McPherson.
That night, McPherson’s mother, Mildred Kennedy, delivered her daughter’s sermon in her stead. Then she ended the sermon with a few ominous words that would turn the world upside down. Kennedy ended by saying, “Sister [McPherson] is with Jesus”. The parishioners in attendance immediately broke out into uncontrolled displays of mourning.
In the days following her disappearance, tearful parishioners held vigil at the seaside at all hours, day and night. Others made the ultimate sacrifice. Allegedly, two mourners had gone out in search of McPherson’s body only to find their own watery graves instead. It wasn’t long, however, before grief turned into speculation.
Authorities investigating McPherson’s sudden disappearance became interested in one Kenneth G. Ormiston. He was a married man and engineer who had only recently left a job at McPherson’s Angelus Temple. Some newspapers reported that passers-by had spotted Ormiston “driving up the coast with an unidentified woman” following McPherson’s disappearance.
Theories ranged from the perfectly innocent…to the wildly wicked. Some believed that McPherson and Ormiston had been carrying on an affair and arranged the whole thing so that they could be together as lovers. Others speculated that Ormiston might have taken McPherson against her will. The truth, however, was even worse than that.
Kennedy, McPherson’s mother, was so desperate to find her daughter that she offered a massive cash reward for any information that might lead to her discovery—alive, preferably. It seems, however, that the cash reward only heightened the sense of frenzy. On one day alone, authorities received 16 separate “sightings” of McPherson—in 16 separate cities.
Kennedy’s cash reward—and the fact that the Angelus Temple had more money than God (literally)—also sparked a rash of ransom hoaxes. During her disappearance, authorities received obviously fake ransom notes from “terrifying” offenders such as the “Revengers” and the “Avengers”. But one of those notes might have been real.
One month after her disappearance, McPherson turned up in the least likely place. No, she didn’t descend from Heaven on a golden chariot. Exhausted, dehydrated and only barely clinging to life, McPherson hobbled out of the Sonora Desert in Mexico and collapsed into the front yard of the Gonzales family. And, boy, did she have a story to tell.
In the hospital, McPherson recounted her grueling ordeal in excruciating detail. She claimed that, on the day of her disappearance, a couple had approached her to heal their son. She followed them back to their van only to discover that there was, in fact, no sick child. Before she even knew what was happening, they knocked her out, shoved her into the back and sped off.
McPherson’s claims were bone-chilling. She claimed that she had been abducted, held in a shed in the middle of nowhere, drugged, and mistreated for five weeks. According to her, she only managed to escape by cutting her bindings on the sharp edges of an open can and making a run for it. She then staggered through the desert until she fell onto the lawn of the Gonzales family.
McPherson spent a few weeks recovering and recounting her unlikely story to a skeptical press—and even more skeptical politicians. Eventually, she was feeling well enough to return to her home in Los Angeles. Somewhere between 30,000 to 50,000 people turned up to welcome her back (more than President Woodrow Wilson’s welcome wagon).
But not everyone believed McPherson’s story or was happy to have her back.
Competing churches and the Chamber of Commerce had grown tired of McPherson and her rapturous sermons. In fact, they had probably toasted her disappearance, celebrated her likely drowning then cursed the day she came back, staggering out of the desert like the second coming of Jesus. So they conspired to discredit her story.
Against the advice from her mother and lawyers, McPherson spent the rest of 1926 and much of 1927 in and out of court. If her enemies could prove that she was lying, she’d have to pay a brutal price. McPherson would have to spend the next 42 years behind bars. The prosecution’s main theory was that McPherson had, in fact, been with her lover Ormiston at a seaside resort.
Witness after witness testified to having seen McPherson at Carmel-by-the-Sea with Ormiston during her alleged abduction. The newspapers ran with the story and, for a time, it seemed as though McPherson had run out of miracles. Then Ormiston himself took the stand and confessed that he was, in fact, having an affair. But not with McPherson.
Eventually, the prosecution’s case fell apart. Most of their witnesses confessed to having never actually seen McPherson prior to her disappearance—but that wasn’t the most shocking discovery of all. The mayor of the town where McPherson had reappeared, Ernesto Boubion, admitted that the prosecution had bribed him to call McPherson a liar. The damage to McPherson’s reputation, however, wouldn’t go away.
Following her disappearance, the media turned on McPherson—so McPherson turned to Hollywood. She used the media attention from her abduction story to go on a massive tour where she unveiled her new style. She ditched her conservative outfits, lost weight, styled her hair like a film star and—most shockingly—wore makeup. The press had a field day.
While on tour in 1927, McPherson took her high-minded morals into some low-down places. To the media’s delight, she preached at nightclubs and speakeasies. In an effort to further discredit her, the media claimed that McPherson had taken up partying, drinking, dancing and even substance use. Sadly, there was some truth to that last one.
Despite the bad press, McPherson’s Angelus Temple church still boasted massive membership numbers. But the members of the media weren’t the only ones who didn’t approve of McPherson’s post-abduction preaching style—and McPherson soon experienced a brutal betrayal. Her own mother, Mildred Kennedy, believed that McPherson had blurred the lines between their religion and the ridiculous and resigned in protest.
Without her mother, McPherson struggled to manage the administrative responsibilities of the Angelus Temple Church. But if there was anything she could do, she could preach like no other. One newspaper reported, “Aimee's religion is a religion of joy[...]Fundamentally she takes the whole Bible literally, from cover to cover”.
Behind the scenes (or the altar, as it were), however, McPherson feared a coup. She believed that one of her fellow evangelists, Rheba Crawford, was plotting to take over the church. Exercising her divine authority, McPherson told Crawford, in no uncertain terms, to get the heck out of Dodge. But Crawford had allies…or so McPherson thought.
In dismissing Crawford, McPherson had inadvertently insulted her daughter, Roberta Star Semple. Then, as if they had coordinated it, both Roberta and Crawford sued McPherson for more than $1 million. The media jumped on the story but McPherson defended herself, tearfully proclaiming that her own daughter had betrayed her.
Even McPherson’s own mother, Kennedy, waded into the battle. She publicly denounced and disparaged McPherson, much to the delight of the media. The aftermath was brutal. The courts sided with Roberta and forced McPherson to pay her daughter out—a betrayal that McPherson never forgot. She managed to settle with Crawford, but the legal woes had taken their toll on her.
At the outbreak of WWII, despite her own personal troubles, McPherson developed a fighting spirit. She denounced pacifism of any kind and fully supported the efforts in Europe. Famously, she said, “It is the Bible against Mein Kampf. It is the Cross against the [tetra-gammadion]. It is God against the antichrist of Japan [...] This is no time for pacifism”.
McPherson completely dedicated her church to the WWII efforts. In anticipation of air raids from Japan, she painted the roof of the Angelus Temple black and covered the windows, reverted to horse and buggy to save gas and rubber, collected more than 2,800 pints of blood and raised record-breaking funds for the cause.
In addition to her material contributions to the WWII effort, McPherson provided the troops on the ground with much-needed hope and faith. On their way through Los Angeles, McPherson gave autographed Bibles to the troops and wrote, “What a privilege it was to invite the servicemen[...]to come to the platform, where I[...]gave each one a New Testament, and knelt in prayer with them”.
In light of her Herculean efforts during WWII and her constant fight for racial justice, the media once again wrote favorably of McPherson. In 1943, Newsweek published an article about McPherson titled “The World’s Greatest Living Minister”. Sadly, after all of her enormous contributions, McPherson wouldn’t make it to V-Day.
On the morning of September 26, 1944 Aimee Semple McPherson called her doctor because her medicine was making her feel ill. However, her regular doctor was in the operating room and missed her call. This twist of fate had dire consequences. She called up another doctor who was only able to refer her to yet another doctor—isn’t that always the way? But she never made that third call.
At precisely ten o’clock in the morning, McPherson’s son, Rolf McPherson, went to her hotel room. What he discovered must have shaken his faith. When he opened the door, he discovered his mother, unconscious with a half-empty bottle of pills and capsules strewn about. The tragic scene raised as many questions as it did tears.
McPherson’s tireless life—faith-healings, abductions, family betrayals, and endless charity—had taken its toll on her health. Allegedly, she had been taking sleeping pills for quite some time to soothe her own suffering. But sleeping pills weren’t the only kind of pills that authorities found in her hotel room that fateful morning. And it all led to speculation that she’d perhaps taken her own life…
Mixed in with her sleeping pills strewn about all over the hotel room, authorities found secobarbital. That’s science-talk for “very powerful sedative”. There was just one curious thing about those pills. McPherson didn’t have a prescription for them and authorities had no idea how she had come to get them. Divine intervention, perhaps?
The coroner made the official announcement shortly after 11 that morning—Aimee Semple McPherson had died. Tens of thousands of adoring parishioners gathered outside the Angelus Temple to pay their respects as her body was laid to rest. The outpouring of support was overwhelming. Eleven trucks had to transport $50,000 worth of flowers to her gravesite. And even McPherson’s estranged mother and daughter grieved and attended her funeral.
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