Aimee Kennedy was born on October 9, 1890, near Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada. Her father, James Morgan Kennedy, was a struggling farmer. Her mother, Mildred “Minnie” Pearce was a former member of the Salvation Army (1865; founded by William Booth [1829–1912] as a religious organization with military structure for the purpose of bettering life for the poor and evangelizing the world). Soon after Aimee’s birth, her mother took her to the Salvation Army and dedicated her to God’s service. Aimee’s training was particularly geared toward religious work.
When Aimee was in high school, she began to question her religious beliefs. She began to quiz visiting preachers and local pastors about faith and science, but was unhappy with the answers she received. She wrote to the Canadian newspaper, Family Herald and Weekly Star, questioning why taxpayer-funded public schools had courses, such as evolution, which undermined Christianity. This was her first exposure to fame, as people nationwide responded to her letter. While still in high school, after her Pentecostal conversion, McPherson began a crusade against the concept of evolution, beginning a lifelong passion.
While attending a revival meeting in December 1907, Aimee met Robert James Semple, a Pentecostal missionary from Ireland. There, her faith crisis ended as she decided to dedicate her life to God and made the conversion to Pentecostalism as she witnessed the Holy Spirit moving powerfully.
At that same revival meeting, Aimee became enraptured not only by the message that Robert Semple gave, but also with Robert himself. She decided to dedicate her life to both God and Robert, and after a short courtship, they were married on August 12, 1908, in a Salvation Army ceremony, pledging never to allow their marriage to lessen their devotion to God, affection for comrades, or faithfulness in the Army. The pair’s notion of “Army” was very broad, encompassing much more than just the Salvation Army. Robert supported them as a foundry worker and preached at the local Pentecostal mission. Together, they studied the Bible, Aimee claiming Robert taught her all she knew; though other observers state she was far more knowledgeable than she let on. After a few months they moved to Chicago and became part of William Durham’s Full Gospel Assembly.
Aimee was discovered to have a unique ability in the interpretation of speaking in tongues, translating with stylistic eloquence under Durham’s tutelage
After embarking on an evangelistic tour to China, both contracted malaria. Robert also contracted dysentery, of which he died in Hong Kong. Aimee recovered and gave birth to their daughter, Roberta Star Semple, as a 19-year-old widow. On board a ship returning to the United States, Aimee Semple started a Sunday school class, then held other services, as well, oftentimes mentioning her late husband in her sermons; almost all passengers attended.
While in New York City, she met Harold Stewart McPherson, an accountant.
They were married on May 5, 1912, moved to Providence, Rhode Island and had a son, Rolf Potter Kennedy McPherson, in March 1913.
During this time, McPherson felt as though she denied her “calling” to go preach. After struggling with emotional distress and obsessive–compulsive disorder, she would fall to weep and pray. She felt the call to preach tug at her even more strongly after the birth of Rolf. Then in, 1914, she fell seriously ill, and McPherson states she again heard the persistent voice, asking her to go preach while in the holding room after a failed operation. McPherson accepted the voice’s challenge, and she suddenly opened her eyes and was able to turn over in bed without pain. One spring morning in 1915, her husband returned home from the night shift to discover McPherson had left him and taken the children. A few weeks later, a note was received inviting him to join her in evangelistic work
When he saw her, though, preaching to a crowd, he witnessed her transformation into a radiant, lovely woman. Before long, he became her fellow worker in Christ.
Throughout their journey, food and accommodations were uncertain, as they lived out of the “Gospel Car”. Her husband, in spite of initial enthusiasm, wanted a life that was more stable and predictable. Eventually, he returned to Rhode Island and around 1918 filed for separation. He petitioned for divorce, citing abandonment; the divorce was granted in 1921.
She married again on September 13, 1931 to actor and musician David Hutton, followed by much drama, after which she fainted and fractured her skull. While McPherson was away in Europe to recover, she was angered to learn Hutton was billing himself as “Aimee’s man” in his cabaret singing act and was frequently photographed with scantily clad women. Hutton’s much-publicized personal scandals were damaging the Foursquare Gospel Church and their leader’s credibility with other churches. McPherson and Hutton separated in 1933 and divorced on March 1, 1934. McPherson later publicly repented of the marriage, as wrong from the beginning, for both theological and personal reasons and therefore rejected nationally known gospel singer Homer Rodeheaver, a more appropriate suitor, when he eventually asked for her hand in 1935.
In late 1918, McPherson came to Los Angeles, a move many at the time were making for better opportunities. Minnie Kennedy, her mother, rented the largest hall they could find, the 3,500-seat Philharmonic Auditorium (known then as Temple Auditorium). People waited for hours to get in, and McPherson could hardly reach the pulpit without stepping on someone. Afterwards, grateful attendees of her Los Angeles meetings built a home for her family and her, which included everything from the cellar to a canary bird. At this time, Los Angeles had become a popular vacation spot. Rather than touring the United States to preach her sermons, McPherson stayed in Los Angeles, drawing audiences from a population which had soared from 100,000 in 1900 to 575,000 people in 1920, and often included many visitors.
Wearied by constant traveling and having nowhere to raise a family, McPherson had settled in Los Angeles, where she maintained both a home and a church. McPherson believed that by creating a church in Los Angeles, her audience would come to her from all over the country. This, she felt, would allow her to plant seeds of the Gospel and tourists would take it home to their communities, still reaching the masses. For several years, she continued to travel and raise money for the construction of a large, domed church building at 1100 Glendale Blvd. in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. The church would be named Angelus Temple, reflecting the Roman Catholic tradition of the Angelus bell, calling the faithful to prayer, as well its reference to the angels. Not wanting to take on debt, McPherson located a construction firm which would work with her as funds were raised “by faith”. She started with $5,000. The firm indicated it would be enough to carve out a hole for the foundation.
McPherson began a campaign in earnest and was able to mobilize diverse groups of people to help fund and build the new church. Various fundraising methods were used, such as selling chairs for Temple seating at US $25 apiece. In exchange, “chair-holders” got a miniature chair and encouragement to pray daily for the person who would eventually sit in that chair. Her approach worked to generate enthusiastic giving and to create a sense of ownership and family among the contributors.
Raising more money than she had hoped, McPherson altered the original plans, and built a “megachurch” that would draw many followers throughout the years. The endeavor cost contributors around $250,000 in actual money spent. However, this price was low for a structure of its size. Costs were kept down by donations of building materials and volunteer labor. McPherson sometimes quipped when she first got to California; all she had was a car, ten dollars and a tambourine. Enrollment grew exceeding 10,000, and was advertised to be the largest single Christian congregation in the world According to church records, Angelus Temple received 40 million visitors within the first seven years
McPherson intended the Angelus Temple as both a place of worship and an ecumenical center for persons of all Christian faiths to meet and build alliances. A wide range of clergy and laypeople consisted of Methodists, Baptists, the Salvation Army, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Adventists, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and even secular civic leaders, who came to the Angelus Temple. They were welcomed and many made their way to her podium as guest speakers. Eventually, even Rev. Robert P. Shuler, a once-robust McPherson critic, was featured as a guest preacher.
Because Pentecostalism was not popular in the United States during the 1920s, McPherson avoided the label. She practiced speaking-in-tongues and faith healing within her services, but kept the former to a minimum in sermons to appease mainstream audiences. Discarded medical fittings from persons faith-healed during her services, which included crutches, wheelchairs, and other paraphernalia; were gathered for display in a museum area. As evidence of her early influence by the Salvation Army, McPherson adopted a theme of “lighthouses” for the satellite churches, referring to the parent church as the “Salvation Navy”. This was the beginning of McPherson working to plant Foursquare Gospel churches around the country.
McPherson’s ability to draw crowds was also greatly assisted by her apparently successful faith healing presentations. Almost by accident she discovered when she laid hands on sick or injured persons, they got well. One early McPherson biographer, Nancy Barr Mavity described the healing power “beyond her conscience control” and “profoundly troubling” however a phenomenon familiar to the psychiatrist although “none the less mysterious.”
During a 1916 revival meeting in Corona, Long Island, New York, a young woman in the advanced stages of rheumatoid arthritis was brought to the altar by friends. McPherson would have preferred to pray with her privately, however upon the insistence of the woman, wanted immediate prayer. McPherson laid hands on her and prayed. Before the gathered parishioners, the woman walked out of the church without crutches. McPherson reputation as a faith healer rapidly became known and the sick and injured people came to her by the tens of thousands.
The Faith Healing Ministry of Aimee Semple McPherson was extensively written about in the news media and was a large part of her early career legacy. No one has ever been credited by secular witnesses with anywhere near the numbers of faith healings attributed to McPherson, especially during the years 1919 to 1922. Over time, though, she almost withdrew from the faith-healing aspect of her services, since it was overwhelming other areas of her ministry. Scheduled weekly and monthly healing sessions nevertheless remained highly popular with the public until her death in 1944.
Eventually, McPherson’s church evolved into its own denomination and became known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (usually referenced as the “Foursquare Church”). Foursquare is an alternative word for Full Gospel (a term used by Pentecostals), referencing the nature of Christ’s character: that he was Savior, baptizer with the Holy Spirit, healer, and soon-coming King. The four main beliefs were: the first being Christ’s ability to transform individuals’ lives through the act of salvation; the second focused on a holy baptism which includes receiving power to glorify and exalt Christ in a practical way; the third was divine healing, newness of life for both body and spirit; and the fourth was gospel-oriented heed to the premillennial return of Jesus Christ.
McPherson published the weekly Foursquare Crusader, along with her monthly magazine, Bridal Call. She began broadcasting on radio in the early 1920s. On a Sunday morning in April 1922, the Rockridge Radio Station in Oakland CA; offered her some radio time and she became the first woman to preach a sermon over the “wireless telephone.” With the opening of Foursquare Gospel-owned KFSG on February 6, 1924, she became the second woman granted a broadcast license by the Department of Commerce, the federal agency that supervised broadcasting in the early 1920s.
McPherson racially integrated her tent meetings and church services. On one occasion, as a response to McPherson’s ministry and Angelus Temple being integrated, Ku Klux Klan members were in attendance, but after the service, hoods and robes were found on the ground in nearby Echo Park. She is also credited with helping many Hispanic ministries in Los Angeles.
McPherson traveling about the country holding widely popular revival meetings and filling local churches with converts was one thing, settling permanently into their city caused concern among some local Los Angeles churches. Though she shared many of their fundamentalist beliefs, such as divine inspiration of the Bible, the classical Trinity, virgin birth of Jesus, historical reality of Christ’s miracles, bodily resurrection of Christ, and the atoning purpose of his crucifixion; the presentation of lavish sermons, and an effective faith-healing ministry presented by a female divorcee whom thousands adored and about whom newspapers continuously wrote, was unexpected. Moreover, the Temple, especially the women, had a look and style uniquely theirs. They would emulate McPherson’s style and dress, and a distinct Angelus Temple uniform came into existence, a white dress with a navy blue cape thrown over it. Men were more discreet, wearing suits. Her voice, projected over the powerful state-of-the-art KFSG radio station and heard by hundreds of thousands, became the most recognized in the western United States.
McPherson preaching at the newly built Angelus Temple in 1923: Her messages showcased the love of God, redemption, and the joys of service and heaven, contrasting sharply with the fire-and-brimstone style of sermon delivery popular with many of her peers.
Her illustrated sermons attracted criticism from some clergy members because they thought it turned the Gospel message into mundane theater and entertainment. Divine healing, as McPherson called it, was claimed by many pastors to be a unique dispensation granted only for Apostolic times. Rival radio evangelist Reverend Robert P. Shuler published a pamphlet entitled McPhersonism, which purported that her “most spectacular and advertised program was out of harmony with God’s word.” Debates such as the Bogard-McPherson debate in 1934 drew further attention to the controversy, but none could really argue effectively against McPherson’s results.
The new developing Assemblies of God denomination, Pentecostal as McPherson was, for a time worked with her, but they encouraged separation from established Protestant faiths. McPherson resisted trends to isolate as a denomination and continued her task of coalition-building among evangelicals. McPherson worked hard to attain ecumenical vision of the faith, and while she participated in debates, avoided pitched rhetorical battles that divided so many in Christianity. She wanted to work with existing churches on projects and to share with them her visions and beliefs.
Assisting in her passion was the speedy establishment of LIFE Bible College adjacent to the Angeles Temple. Ministers trained there were originally intended to go nationally and worldwide to all denominations and share her newly defined “Foursquare Gospel.” A well-known Methodist minister, Frank Thompson, who never had the Pentecostal experience, was persuaded to run the college, and he taught the students the doctrine of John Wesley. McPherson and others, meanwhile, infused them with Pentecostal ideals. For about a year, Antonia Frederick Futterer, suggested by Los Angeles Times as the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s film character, Indiana Jones, was also a facility member. McPherson’s efforts eventually led Pentecostals, which were previously unconventional and on the periphery of Christianity, into the mainstream of American evangelicalism.
Disappearance from Venice Beach
The reported kidnapping of Aimee Semple McPherson caused a frenzy in national media and changed her life and the course of her career. After disappearing in May, 1926, she reappeared in Mexico five weeks later, stating she had been held for ransom in a desert shack there. The subsequent grand-jury inquiries over her reported kidnapping and escape precipitated continued public interest in her future misfortunes.
On May 18, 1926, McPherson went with her secretary to Ocean Park Beach north of Venice Beach to swim. Soon after arriving, McPherson was nowhere to be found. It was thought she had drowned. Searchers combed the beach and nearby area, but could not locate her body. The Angelus Temple received letters and calls claiming knowledge of McPherson, including demands for ransom. McPherson sightings occurred around the country, often in widely divergent locations many miles apart on the same day. As a precaution, the ransom notes were sent to the police who investigated at least one of them. Mildred Kennedy, though, regarded the messages as hoaxes, believing her daughter dead.
As the Angelus Temple prepared for a memorial service commemorating McPherson’s death, Kennedy received a phone call from Douglas, Arizona. Her daughter was alive. The distraught McPherson was resting in a Douglas hospital and related her story to officials.
After emerging from the Mexican desert, McPherson convalesces in a hospital with her family in Douglas, Arizona, 1926. District Attorney Asa Keyes stands to the far left with Mildred Kennedy (mother) next to Roberta Star Semple, middle left (daughter). On the far right, Deputy District Attorney Joseph Ryan is alongside her son, Rolf McPherson.
On the beach, May 19, 1926, McPherson said she had been approached by a young couple who wanted prayer for their sick child. McPherson went with them to their car and was suddenly shoved inside. A cloth, presumably laced with chloroform, was held against her face, causing her to pass out. Eventually, she was moved to an adobe shack far in the desert. Two kidnappers, Steve and Rose, were her constant companions, with a third unnamed man, occasionally visiting. When at last, all her captors were away on errands, she escaped out a window.
Using a mountain as a landmark, she traveled through the desert for around 11–13 hours across an estimated distance of 20 miles (32 km). Around 1:00 am she reached Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican border town, and collapsed near a house there. She was assisted by the residents and finally taken to adjacent Douglas.
On September 26, 1944, McPherson went to Oakland, California, for a series of revivals, planning to preach her popular “Story of My Life” sermon. When McPherson’s son went to her hotel room at 10:00 the next morning, he found her unconscious with pills and a half-empty bottle of capsules nearby. She was dead by 11:15. It was later discovered she previously called her doctor that morning to complain about feeling ill from the medicine, but he was in surgery and could not be disturbed. She then phoned another doctor who referred her to yet another physician. However, McPherson apparently lost consciousness before the third could be contacted.
The autopsy did not conclusively determine the cause of McPherson’s death. She had been taking sleeping pills following numerous health problems – including “tropical fever”. Among the pills found in the hotel room was the barbiturate Seconal, a strong sedative which had not been prescribed for her. It was unknown how she obtained them.
The coroner said she most likely died of an accidental overdose compounded by kidney failure. The cause of death is officially listed as unknown. Given the circumstances, there was speculation about suicide, but most sources generally agree the overdose was accidental, as stated in the coroner’s report.
Forty-five thousand people waited in long lines, some until 2 am, to file past the evangelist, where, for three days, her body lay in state at the Angelus Temple. Within a mile-and-a-half (800 m) radius of the church, police had to double park cars. It later took 11 trucks to transport the $50,000 worth of flowers to the cemetery which itself received more telegrammed floral orders than at any time since Will Rogers’ death almost 10 years earlier. A Foursquare leader noted that to watch the long line pass reverently by her casket, and see tears shed by all types of people, regardless of class and color, helped give understanding to the far-reaching influence of her life and ministry.
An observer, Marcus Bach, who was on a spiritual odyssey of personal discovery, wrote:
“Roberta, who had married an orchestra director, flew in from New York. Ma Kennedy was at the grave, Rheba Crawford Splivalo had returned to say that there was never a greater worker for God than Sister. A thousand ministers of the Foursquare Gospel paid their tearful tribute. The curious stood by impressed. The poor who had always been fed at Angelus were there, the lost who had been spirit-filled, the healed, the faithful here they were eager to immortalize the Ontario farm girl who loved the Lord. Here they laid the body of Sister Aimee to rest in the marble sarcophagus guarded by two great angels on Sunrise slope. “
Millions of dollars passed through McPherson’s hands. However, when her personal estate was calculated, it amounted to $10,000. To her daughter, Roberta, went $2000 the remainder to her son Rolf. By contrast, her mother Mildred Kennedy had a 1927 severance settlement of as much as $200,000 in cash and property; the Foursquare Church itself was worth $2.8 million
McPherson is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Following her death, the Foursquare Gospel church denomination was led for 44 years by her son Rolf McPherson. The church claims a membership of over 7.9 million worldwide.