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From Rural Ontario a Preacher Who Changed America
It may not be a well-known fact, but Aimee Semple McPherson eclipsed men like Pierre Trudeau as one of the 20th century's most influential Canadians.


Ask people to name the most influential Canadians of the 20th century and they will throw out familiar entries from the centre-left political firmament: Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, Tommy Douglas. Yet there was a woman who eclipsed all these men: a Canadian preacher who reinvented American Protestantism, starred in a crime sensation rivalling that of the Lindbergh kidnapping and helped fuse the alliance between evangelism and right-wing ideology that drives American politics to this day.

Sister Aimee preaching, 1938.

Photo: Los Angeles Examiner Collection, Regional History Collection.

And amazingly, I bet you've never heard of her. Perhaps a newly published biography will change that.

Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy was born to a hardscrabble rural family near Ingersoll, Ontario, in 1890. Her father was a farmer, her mother a Salvation Army officer. A devout girl, seemingly from birth, Aimee was known to arrange her dolls in the form of a congregation, and then sermonize to them. As an adult, she married a Pentecostal missionary named Robert Semple and accompanied him to China—where Robert promptly caught malaria and died.

The widow remarried upon her return home—this time, to a conventionally minded middle-class businessman—and tried life as a housewife. But the Holy Spirit wouldn't let her settle down, and she began crisscrossing North America in a "Gospel Car" emblazoned with the words "Where will you spend eternity?" Like many itinerant dream seekers of the period, Aimee Semple McPherson (as she was now known) wound up in Los Angeles.

From the beginning, McPherson thought big. The end was nigh. And before it came, she wanted to save souls by the thousands. By 1923, just five years after arriving in L.A., she'd built a 5,000-seat mega-church called Angelus Temple. For the city's throngs of alienated, uprooted migrants, McPherson's sunny brand of "Foursquare" Pentecostalism—emphasizing the Lord's powers of salvation and physical healing—was the perfect draw. "What won over audiences was the evangelist's simple presentation of the Christian message," California-based scholar Matthew Avery Sutton writes in his newly published Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. Like Billy Graham, "she humanized Jesus, making Him come to life as a real person who earnestly sought a relationship with every human being."

McPherson wasn't particularly beautiful. But the preacher exuded a robust sexuality that she played on from the pulpit. She described Jesus as "our Bridegroom and lover divine," and spoke of Him in almost coital terms. The relationship between Christ and His Christian "brides," she claimed, was a singularly "romantic story" on a par with "fairy stories about Prince Charming."

The preacher also perfected the art of the "illustrated sermon," whereby she would transform her church into a vaudeville set and cast herself as the star. In a popular number called Arrested for Speeding, for instance, she dressed up as a heavenly motorcycle cop and sermonized alongside an Indian police bike. In The Heavenly Aeroplane, she appeared dressed in goggles and pilot's coat alongside two planes—one piloted by the devil, the other by Jesus. The battle for human souls was like a World War One dogfight: Who couldn't understand that?

Conservative Christian leaders of the interwar period feared the satanic power of the radio, phonograph and movie house. Not McPherson. She started a radio station, made records, told the story of her Canadian childhood on Broadway and even hobnobbed with the Jewish pioneers of an emergent Hollywood. Such was her fame that a mocking 1932 poem by Langston Hughes lumped her with Gandhi and Pope Pius among the dominant religious figures of the age. Two generations before the term "televangelist" was coined, this daughter of Ingersoll, Ontario, effectively became America's first.

Like Jim Bakker and Billy Swaggart, McPherson would suffer her fall from grace. On May 18, 1926, she disappeared while swimming on a California beach—only to reappear weeks later with a fantastic tale of kidnap and desert wandering. When rumours circulated that she had in fact ran off with a married radio engineer named Kenneth Ormiston, the ensuing scandal devastated her reputation and almost landed her in jail. In the lurid media stories of the day, she was portrayed as a sex-addicted Jezebel. McPherson's followers began deserting her.

The usual story of the fallen celebrity evangelist ends here. But McPherson's doesn't. To win back fans, she rededicated herself to public works, establishing Los Angeles' biggest soup kitchen and creating a day care centre for impoverished working mothers. With her renewed influence, she became a force in national politics.

Although it is hard to imagine in this era, the dominant view among religious Christians in the early part of the 20th century was that mixing the realms of Christ and Caesar was unholy business. McPherson smashed that taboo, and turned evangelical Protestantism into a fighting faith. "Christianity does not destroy patriotism, but develops it," she declared. "Christ was a patriot; His mission was first to His own nation."

In her newspapers and radio addresses, McPherson railed not only against atheism and theological modernism but also communism and fascism. Like William Jennings Bryan, she was obsessed with evolution, which she blamed for "jazz, bootleg booze, the crime wave [and] student suicides," among other horrors.

When the Second World War came, McPherson went farther: She cast the Allied mission in Europe and Asia as a Christian holy war—and the United States as the locus for the coming Godly restoration.

McPherson died young in 1944, the victim of an apparently accidental Seconal overdose. But the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel movement she founded would survive her death. It now claims more than six million adherents worldwide and over 50,000 affiliate churches and prayer rooms. Pentecostalism, a fringe movement when McPherson embraced it, has remained a potent force in the United States. As the re-election of George W. Bush shows, the alliance between religious Christians and foreign policy hawks has survived intact, as well.

A Canadian reader of Sutton's book can't help but be struck by the irony at play here. Muscular evangelism and the dominant social-conservative movement it powers are both defining elements of the American intellectual landscape. Nowhere else in the developed world are they nearly as powerful—certainly not in Canada, where our secularism is taken as a badge of sophistication, and where many of us quietly sniggered while Americans delivered their encomiums to the recently departed Jerry Falwell.

Perhaps those sniggering might quiet themselves when they consider that the woman in whose giant footsteps Falwell followed found the good Lord in the heartland of Ontario's southwestern peninsula.

Johathan Kay is a columnist for the National Post: jkay@nationalpost.com.

Originally published in the National Post, July 24, 2007.

 

 
 
 
 

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