Magazines 2018 Jul - Aug The case of the missing evangelist

The case of the missing evangelist

25 July 2018 , 2018 Jul - Aug By Kevin Flatt

Aimee Semple McPherson

Kevin Flatt - History Lesson icon
KEVIN FLATT

Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont. Read more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/HistoryLesson.



May 1926. Over a hundred people searched Venice Beach near Los Angeles. They were looking for a missing 34-year-old Canadian woman. But even the Coast Guard and deep-sea divers failed to find her – or her body.

A month later she showed up out of the blue in Agua Prieta, Mexico, 1,000 kilometres away, exhausted but alive. Who was this woman? What had happened to her?

Aimee Semple McPherson was born near Ingersoll, Ont., in 1890. She initially chafed at her Christian upbringing, but gave her life to Christ as a teenager at a Pentecostal revival meeting. She later married the revivalist Robert Semple, and the couple sailed to China to serve as missionaries. But Robert soon died of malaria in Hong Kong, and Aimee returned to the U.S., a 19-year-old widow expecting her first child.

Later she married businessman Harold McPherson. When they tried a life of travelling evangelism at Aimee’s insistence, the strain ended their marriage. Each later felt deserted by the other.

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Aimee still believed God was calling her to preach the gospel, and carried on with a growing following as an itinerant revivalist and faith healer. In 1923 she raised funds to build a permanent base called Angelus Temple in Los Angeles.

Sister Aimee, as she liked to be called, had a genius for making use of modern communications and entertainment techniques. Services at Angelus Temple were like high-end theatrical performances with elaborate sets and sophisticated lighting. Worshippers routinely packed out the temple’s 5,300 seats. McPherson even established her own radio station, becoming the first woman to preach a sermon over the radio.

Then, at the peak of her popularity, she disappeared.

When she surfaced in the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta, she claimed she had been kidnapped from the beach in May and then held for ransom in a shack in Mexico. Angelus Temple had in fact received several kidnapping threats and ransom notes before and during her disappearance, though police dismissed them as hoaxes.

5,300 SEATS IN AIMEE MCPHERSON’S ANGELUS TEMPLE IN LOS ANGELES, BUILT IN 1923

But it did not take long for rumours to circulate about what had really happened to Sister Aimee. Some accused her of running off with Kenneth Ormiston, a former engineer at the temple’s radio station. Suspiciously, Ormiston had departed incognito for a northern California beach town with a disguised lover at the same time Mc- Pherson disappeared.

A media circus ensued. The district attorney’s office used the kidnapping investigation to probe her private life and charge her with various offences, though their case turned out to be based on unreliable witnesses and never went to trial.

Neither the kidnappers nor the shack were ever found. But Mc-Pherson was always consistent in her story, and despite their best efforts, neither the police nor the newspapers uncovered any solid evidence to contradict it. Historian Matthew Sutton, who wrote a biography of McPherson, is personally "ninety-nine per cent confident" based on the circumstances that she had indeed run off with Ormiston, but readily acknowledges the lack of hard evidence.

For his part sharp-tongued journalist H.L. Mencken, no friend of Evangelicals, believed the accusations against McPherson were driven by local churches jealous of her success, and the political elites who worried she was bringing fundamentalist influences to California. It does seem unfair to condemn McPherson in the absence of clear evidence.

This fascinating episode has overshadowed other important elements of Sister Aimee’s work.

Despite her false starts, she was able to become one of the most influential evangelists in America in the early 20th century. Her pioneering use of modern media and entertainment heralded a new era of outreach. Her ministry transcended ethnic and class barriers, and provided substantial relief to the desperate poor of Los Angeles during the Great Depression.

Perhaps her most tangible legacy today is the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal denomination with over 70 churches and church plants in her Canadian homeland. The term foursquare refers to McPherson’s emphasis on four aspects of Jesus’ ministry – Saviour, Healer, Baptizer with the Holy Spirit and Coming King. Today the Foursquare Church has nearly 70,000 congregations around the world, a fitting tribute to Sister Aimee’s mission of promoting "the worldwide spread of the gospel."