On average, Aimee Semple McPherson made the front page of America’s biggest newspapers three times a week throughout the 1920s. Yet, as she often recalled, her beginnings were nothing out of the ordinary.
Every year on her October birthday, she retold the story of her childhood in the Canadian farm near Ingersoll, Ontario, where she was born in 1890; her conversion in 1907; her marriage in 1908 to Robert Semple; his death in 1910; and the beginning of her preaching career.
After several years of itinerant evangelistic ministry, Sister, as she became known, based her ministry in Los Angeles, and there, on New Year’s Day in 1923, she opened Angelus Temple, a modern structure that, she claimed, boasted the largest unsupported dome in the United States.
She billed herself simply as a New Testament—or a Bible—Christian who preached the “old-fashioned gospel.” She claimed she prayed for the sick not because she was Pentecostal, but because Jesus had done so, and He was still the same.
In “after meetings” people sometimes spoke in tongues and prophesied, but Sister did not envision Pentecostalism primarily as a distinct religious movement. Rather, she embraced it as an expression of New Testament Christianity.
Before forming her own organization, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, she held (simultaneously) Assemblies of God ministerial credentials, a Methodist exhorter’s license and a Baptist preaching license.
Ministerial credentials were more important for the access they offered her to various networks than for the theological commitments they suggested. For her, the lines distinguishing mainline Protestants, evangelicals and Pentecostals were not nearly so visible. And the Pentecostal idiom, at least in Sister’s hands, did not in itself alienate. To the contrary, it was unitive.
She rejected the sectarianism that marginalized most Pentecostals, endorsing the enduring American revival emphasis on the recovery of biblical Christianity.
For Sister, religion was an earnest proposition, but it did not interfere with fun and laughter. She laughed easily and often, and her audiences did, too. She involved them in her preaching, asking questions, demanding answers and challenging them to immediate responses as well as to long-term commitments. She seemed to be transparently accessible.
She found the stamina to persist when others lagged; she had the practical creativity to make or acquire what she wanted while others simply craved it; she had the knack of enlisting cooperation and putting everyone to work. She loved people, and she lived out—at considerable personal cost—dreams many shared but for which few were willing to pay the price.
Even as she thrived publicly, basking in the adulation of tens of thousands, she failed to find contentment privately. The public’s Sister was partly its creation and only partly a real person. The private Sister was far more vulnerable than her adoring public imagined.
From her two divorces to her mysterious temporary disappearance in 1926 and untimely death in 1944, Sister’s life swirled with controversy. Like her modern counterparts, this evangelist’s flamboyant style of ministry made her an easy target for media criticism and ecclesiastical jealousy. But the denomination she founded now claims more than 4 million adherents and nearly 38,000 churches in 142 countries.
Her story is that of an ordinary woman with an ordinary message whose extraordinary determination and flair in a particular cultural moment struck a chord with a cross-section of Americans, and catapulted her to prominence and an enduring place in the unfolding of 20th-century evangelicalism.
An expert on Pentecostal history, Edith Blumhofer, Ph.D., is professor of history at Wheaton College.
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