Scandals and charity of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson

Stunning costumes of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson are said to have made Los Angeles gasp. Photo: The Four Square Church.

“Los Angeles gasped at the costumes worn” by Ontario-born Pentecostal evangelist, radio preacher and faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson when she testified before a committee of the California legislature during impeachment hearings of state Supreme Court Judge Carlos Hardy, the Vancouver Sun reported, February 5, 1929.

McPherson had given Hardy a $2,500 cheque, an alleged “love offering.” McPherson said it was payment for services to her International Church of the Four Square Gospel. But it was “Aimee’s” clothes that drew the Sun’s attention:

“From her tight-fitting dresses to her cloche hat to her snakeskin slippers, her outfits changed daily, and fairly shrieked ‘Paris.’ Spectators at the hearing were more interested in the fashion parade than the drab details of the cheque case.”

The charges against Hardy included more than allegedly accepting a loving offering. They sprang from an earlier headline case in which it was McPherson who was charged—with “corruption of public morals, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy to manufacture evidence.”

Born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in a farmhouse near Ingersoll, Ontario, October 9, 1890, she was reared in the Salvation Army faith and work of her mother. She preached the Christian gospel at 17 and at 18 married 50-year-old Pentecostal evangelist Robert J. Semple, accompanying him to China on missionary work until he died two years later. Another two years later, while working in New York with the Salvation Army and her mother, she married Harold S. McPherson.

In 1915, she preached her first official sermon at Mount Forest, Ontario, and left her husband. Clad in a white dress and military cape, she became a full-time revival preacher and faith healer. She prayed when she broke an ankle and tore leg ligaments. An electric shock caused her, she said, to “shake and tremble under the power of God. Instantly my foot was perfectly healed.”

She preached in a hundred cities across the United States. Her simple and compelling messages of hope and comfort for the distressed and afflicted, her flair for the dramatic, and her great showmanship, drew big crowds. In 1918, McPherson and her mother established their gospel church in Los Angeles. They called it the Angelus Temple. It seated 5,300 and was topped by a revolving lighted cross that could be seen for 50 miles. They established a religious newspaper, a radio station to broadcast McPherson’s sermon, and published books and magazines. A 50-piece orchestra and a choir backed her sermons. And the money rolled in.

In 1928, the International Church of the Four Square Gospel became international with the establishment of the Kingsway (implying God’s way) Four Square Gospel Church on Vancouver’s busy Kingsway thoroughfare.

Her glamour, scandals and notoriety helped make McPherson one of the most famous women in North America. There were charges of financial improprieties, none of them proven, and endless lawsuits. But the most scandalous was the kidnapping case.

On May 18,1926, McPherson went for a swim at a Los Angeles area beach, and disappeared. She was thought drowned. Five weeks later, she dramatically re-appeared, as glamorous and stylish as ever. She had been kidnapped, she said, by two thugs and a woman she called Mexicali Rose, and held in a remote shack. She said she escaped by cutting her bonds with the jagged edge of a can, and walking 17 hours across the desert. There were skeptics. She looked as fresh as a daisy, her shoes were unscratched by a long desert march, she wore a wristwatch that was not with her when she went for her swim, and the shack was never found. She was suspected of having disappeared for a tryst with her lover. The state’s attorney general laid his charges. The trial drew front-page headlines. She was acquitted the following year.

It was the kidnapping case that snared Judge Hardy in the impeachment hearing. He was charged with having accepted the $2,500 love gift; illegally advising her on church matters while the kidnapping story was being investigated; attempting to prevent her from being brought to trial, and trying to intimidate a potential witness against her.

On a break in the Hardy hearings, McPherson travelled to Vancouver to preach at the Kingsway church. The following day—the same day it described McPherson’s fashion parade—the Sun also provided a vivid account of her Kingsway sermon before a crowd of some 2,600:

“Standing with the spotlight gleaming on the white satin facing of her cape, a striking figure in cream from head to foot, her tawny, coiffured head thrown back and her face bright with smiles, she led them while the huge orchestra chimed in.

“On the stage behind her, gleaming against a black velvet drape, stood the properties of her ‘illustrated’ sermon—a huge, blood-stained wooden cross with a blood-stained spear leaning against it, and a crown of thorns beside it; a golden throne with a royal robe drape, a shining sceptre alongside a golden crown. Her subject: ‘Crown or Crucify.’ And as she talked she added great spines to the crown of thorns, one-by-one, naming each, and fashioned jewels to the crown of gold.”

Like McPherson earlier in the kidnapping case, judge Hardy was acquitted. Only a minority of the legislative committee members voted for conviction.

In the Great Depression years of the 1930s, Angelus Temple, with hundreds of women volunteers, was one of the most effective and inclusive welfare agencies in Los Angeles. Hot meals were served to more than 1.5 million people. “Angelus Temples was the only place anyone could get a meal, clothing, and blankets, no questions asked,” writes biographer Daniel Mark Epstein in “The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson.” At a time when bitter racial discrimination was still rampant, Angelus Temple warmly welcomed both black members and visiting black preachers, to its pews and its pulpit.

At age 54, McPherson died in 1944, from an overdose of sleeping pills, an accident, it was said. Her church continued to grow. Headquarters of the Foursquare Gospel Church of Canada moved from Vancouver to nearby Port Coquitlam, and established churches across Canada. Internationally, the Four Square Church in 2015 embraced 66,000 churches in 140 counties with 8.9 million members and adherents, as reported in the church web site.

Unfamiliar Canadian History Stories 122

 

 

 

 

 

 

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