Aimee Semple McPherson's career spanned almost 40 years, starting out working with her first husband as a missionary. From there she was a traveling evangelist finally settling in Los Angeles and founding The Foursquare Church. Chrisma and controversy was the hallmark of her career and life.
Aimee spent her life from 18 years-old until her death at 54 years old as an evangelist. In the beginning, she started her life as a minister with her first husband, Robert Semple, who was an Irish evangelist in the United States. After marrying Semple, the couple moved to Chicago where where they worked with William Durham, a Pentecostal minister. Later they followed Durham to Ohio.
A year after their wedding in 1908, the Semples felt a call to minister to the people of China so a pregnant Aimee and Robert set sail for China. After visiting Robert's family in Ireland, the couple arrived in Hong Kong. Two months months later, the couple contracted malaria. Aimee recovered but Robert died of malaria and dysentery one month before his daughter, Roberta, was born in 1910. As soon as she and the baby could travel, Aimee's mother, Minnie Kennedy, sent her money to travel back home to Canada.
After mourning for her husband, Aimee went back to Chicago then on to New York where she worked with her mother and the Salvation Army. Minnie Kennedy was a devout believer in the tenets of the Salvation Army. Aimee grew up watching her mother work with the Salvation Army and firmly believed that it was important to back up your faith with good works.
While working in New York, Aimee met and married Harold McPherson in 1912. The union produced a son, Rolf. By all accounts, McPherson was a good man with the same Christian beliefs as Aimee. An accountant by profession, he traveled with her for a while but soon realized that he wanted to settle down in one place with his wife, son, and step-daughter. Aimee couldn't give him that. Eventually he filed for divorce giving the reason as abandonment.
The Gospel Car
Aimee, her mother, and her children traveled the East coast in her gospel car. The gospel car, a Packard convertible, featured religious slogans written on it and Aimee often used it as a pulpit, standing in the back seat delivering her sermons. While her mother drove, Aimee sat in the back seat writing sermons or writing for her magazine, The Bridal Call. The Bridal Call was about the role of women in religion. The title of the magazine is about how, in the Bible, the collective church is referred to as the bride and Jesus is called the bridegroom.
Eventually, Aimee bought a tent and began preaching the gospel in tent revivals wherever she could. It was during this time that she perfected her preaching techniques and delivery. As she traveled around preaching, her national reputation was starting to grow.
About the time that Harold McPherson filed for divorce in 1918, Aimee, Minnie, and the children headed out across the country for Los Angeles, stopping to preach revivals along the way. During that time is when she named the foundation of her message the Foursquare Gospel. Aimee chose this name because of the four foundations of her beliefs: Jesus as the Savior, baptism, healing, and the second coming of Christ. When the family reached Los Angeles, Aimee and Minnie set up at the Victoria Hall Mission associated with the Assemblies of God.
1921 was a year of abundance for Aimee. Her popularity sky-rocketed when she healed a woman in a wheelchair and became known as a faith healer. It was hard to imagine that her popularity could go higher but it did. Even after settling in Los Angeles in 1918 and setting up the mission, she continued traveling and preaching to raise money to build a church building. In 1921, Aimee and Minnie bought land in Echo Park and started construction on a church building for The Foursquare Gospel.
Angelus Temple was dedicated January 1, 1923. Designed by Aimee and Minnie, the temple originally seated 5, 300. Believing that all art belonged to God, she backed that up by staging over the top performances in the temple even writing over 100 songs, several operas, plus some dramas. There were practical reasons for the theatricals, bringing people into the church.
Aimee, who acted in local theater as a teenager and wanted to be an actress, knew her target audience and knew what would bring them into the church. One of her favorite tools was the illustrated sermon. She used actors, costumes, and lighting to illustrate her sermons. For her sermon titled "The Green Light is On", Aimee rode a motorcycle down the aisle.
Though the doctrines of the church were considered fundamentalist and very conservative, Aimee walked a fine line between conservative and over the top, offering just enough sex appeal to keep people interested. She followed the fashions of the day from her hair to her clothes. People seemed to want the conservative message but not from a dowdy minister.
Aimee encouraged her followers to shun modern things and modern ideas but didn't see anything wrong with using those things to spread her message. As the first woman granted a broadcast license, she used her radio station, KFSG to spread the gospel. She was also the first woman to preach a sermon over the radio.
Even though Aimee seemed to set herself up on a pedestal, she was not immune to scandal. From the 1926 kidnapping scandal to rumors of a secret apartment love nest, she was able to weather these scandals with barely a drop in her popularity but a big hit to her credibility. As a matter of fact, her congregation followed these scandals religiously, so to speak.
Strangely, one thing that seemed to bother her followers was her third marriage to David Hutton. One of the tenets of the Foursquare Gospel is that people who are divorced should not remarry if their former spouse is still alive. Harold McPherson was still alive when Aimee married Hutton. Not only was the marriage a scandal, Hutton brought a scandal of his own to the marriage. Two days after the wedding, he was sued for alienation of affection by a woman he claimed not to know.
Beginning with the malaria that took her first husband, Aimee's health was fragile for much of her life. She was also involved in some accidents that took some time to recover. In 1931, she had a nervous breakdown as the result of church power struggles with her mother and daughter, resulting in the excommunication of her daughter from the church.
In 1944, Aimee died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates. There were rumors that she committed suicide. She was taking several drugs for different health problems including some to help her sleep. After her death, an autopsy was performed but there was not a conclusive cause of death. One of the sedatives she was taking, Seconal, was known to cause confusion. The coroner speculated that she accidently took a second dose of barbiturates not realizing that she took the first dose. The cause of death was listed as an accidental overdose compounded by kidney failure. Over 50,000 people paid their respects to Aimee as she laid in state in Angelus Temple.