“A Woman of Destiny”

Show me a better way to persuade willing people to come to church and I’ll be happy to try your method. But please . . . don’t ask me to preach to empty seats. Let’s not waste our time quarreling over methods. God has use for all of us. Remember the recipe in the old adage for rabbit stew? It began, “first catch your rabbit.” 1

Perhaps what Aimee Semple McPherson is most remembered for today is founding the Foursquare denomination that is still growing today. However, her life was marked by an unprecedented boldness in speaking and ministry from early childhood. She accomplished what no man had yet been able to do in ministry when in 1922 she built a five thousand-seat auditorium in a prestigious area of Los Angeles, which became the envy of Hollywood theater owners. On opening day, January 1, 1923, the new Angelus Temple was featured on a float in Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses parade—while the extravagant dedication service was given full coverage in the New York Times. What became the home of “The Church of the Foursquare Gospel” filled four times each Sunday and twice weekly. Aimee also ministered at highly sought after healing services during the week.

Movie stars such as Mary Pickford, Jean Harlow, Charlie Chapman, and Anthony Quinn were known to attend Sunday services at the famous Angelus Temple. As a dramatic, theatrical person herself, Aimee used drama, music, opera, and extravagant stage sets to convey the gospel. Over the course of her life, she composed 175 songs and hymns, several operas, and thirteen drama-oratories.1

In the same year she opened Angelus Temple, she founded the world-renown L.I.F.E. (Lighthouse of International Foursquare Evangelism) Bible college where Aimee was an avid instructor and took part in graduating over 8,000 ministers who gave rise to the countless churches currently associated with the Foursquare denomination. By the following year, in February 1924, she opened the first Christian radio station KFSG (Kall Four Square Gospel), and was the first woman to obtain an FCC license.

Her tenacity, creativity, and courage have left a far-reaching legacy both in Christian broadcasting and entertainment, as well as crusade evangelism and denominational practices. She reached the unreachable, and opened territory for Christ where literally no man had gone before. She set the stage for greats like Kathryn Kuhlman, who was just giving her life to the Lord in 1922, and who would later host the first televised evangelistic healing program. It is interesting to note that in the same year the world famous Aimee Semple McPherson was launching her radio station, Kathryn had just started preaching as a teenager, and Maria Woodworth Etter had breathed her last breath at eighty years of age.

The Birth of a Legend
Aimee Elizabeth was born to James Morgan and Minnie Kennedy on October 9, 1890, in Ontario, Canada, the only daughter of a wealthy farmer. Her mother was a Salvationist and prayed that if the Lord would give her a daughter she would dedicate her to the ministry to fulfill the calling that she had neglected to fill herself. And so the Lord gave her Aimee, and Minnie supported her in the work of the ministry throughout her life. Both her mother and father treasured their daughter and she grew up with all the benefits that doting, wealthy, Christian parents could offer.

Aimee was beautiful and precocious, and as a pre-teen demonstrated her gift for public speaking and debate. She became well known in village theater productions and won the silver medal for speech at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union at the age of twelve. She went on to compete for the gold in London, Ontario. By the time she was thirteen, Aimee was a celebrated public speaker in high demand at church functions and social events. She was headstrong and outspoken, often challenging teachers and church leaders. By the time she was seventeen, she had become disillusioned by the strict, religious doctrines of her Methodist church, being witness to hypocrisy, and struggled internally to reconcile her understanding of religion versus truth.

The Dawn of Destiny
The day after crying out to God to show her His true Self, she happened upon a revival meeting being held by Irish evangelist, Robert Semple. Being curious about the Pentecostal experiences she had heard of, her father took her to the meeting where her life would be forever changed. Robert had come to the experience of speaking in other tongues when it spread from Parham’s ministry in Topeka, Kansas to Chicago. It was there God filled him and called him to full-time ministry. He became a very successful evangelist well known throughout Canada and the northern U.S. and was now speaking in Aimee’s hometown.

When Robert Semple spoke, his words pierced Aimee’s heart like an arrow and when he began to minister in other tongues, she understood every word. Three days later, Aimee stopped her carriage in the middle of a lonely road, lifted her hands toward heaven and cried out for God’s mercy. It was there she was powerfully born again. Shortly after committing her life to the Lord, she was given a vision of a black river rushing past with millions of people being swept into it. They were helplessly pushed along by the current and falling over a waterfall. It was then she heard the Lord say, “Become a winner of souls.”

She became hungry for more of God and the power to fulfill her calling. She began to attend “tarrying” meetings where believers sought the baptism of the Holy Spirit, even skipping school to “tarry,” causing great alarm to her parents. One day, as she passed by the house where the tarrying meetings took place, she couldn’t resist going inside. She went in and explained how she longed to stay and receive the baptism. As they began to pray, Aimee asked God to delay school, and moments later an icy blizzard hit preventing her from traveling further. She was snowed in for the entire weekend. By the following morning, she began loudly speaking forth in other tongues waking the entire household. Among them was Robert Semple.

Robert traveled extensively but corresponded regularly with Aimee and by the spring of that year he proposed marriage to her in the same house she received the baptism a few months earlier. Six months later, on August 12, 1908 they were married in her family’s farmhouse.

Stepping Out In Ministry
The Semples moved to Chicago in January 1909 where they ministered with William Durham. Later in the year they traveled with Durham to Ohio to work in another mission. It was here that Aimee had her first experience with divine healing. After breaking her ankle, she was told she would never have use of four ligaments again and to stay off her feet for a month. As she sat in frustration and pain staring at her black and swollen toes, she heard the Lord say, “If you will go over to the (mission) and ask Brother Durham to lay hands on your foot, I will heal it.” She obeyed, and after Durham prayed for her foot she felt the bones and ligaments mend. Excitedly she asked someone to cut the cast off and as soon as they did she sprung up and danced around the church. 3

Not long after, early in 1910, when the Semples were expecting a child, they set sail for China. On the way they traveled to Ireland to visit Robert’s parents and then went on to London where Robert preached several meetings. While in London, Aimee was asked to preach for the first time in public. Although she was only nineteen, she wanted to be obedient to God’s call. She ministered to the people from Joel 1:4 and got so caught up in the anointing that she couldn’t remember anything she said, only the power of the anointing and the clapping and wiping of eyes when she had finished.

Trial by Fire
In June of 1910, the Semples arrived in Hong Kong where they were unprepared for the culture and living circumstances they found themselves in. The poverty and filth were alarming. Aimee was revolted by the Chinese diet of caterpillars, bugs, and rats. They got little rest in their tiny, noisy apartment, which they discerned was “haunted” by demon spirits. One day the Hindus burned a man alive outside their kitchen window. Aimee was beside herself trying not to give into hysteria. Because of their poor living conditions, they both contracted malaria and not two months after they arrived, on August 17, 1910, Robert was pronounced dead.

One month later, on September 17, 1910, Aimee gave birth to a four-pound baby girl, Roberta Star. As she lay exhausted and mourning in the Hong Kong hospital, she was overcome by grief at the loss of her husband and overcome by the thought of carrying on alone. She was inconsolable. Finally, she received word that her mother was sending money enough for her to return home. As this young, grief-stricken missionary steamed back across the ocean, the tiny baby she held in her arms brought her comfort and hope.

The Turning Point
After mourning the loss of Robert for a year in her childhood home, Aimee became restless for the ministry and returned to Chicago and New York seeking to minister in the churches that Robert left behind. In New York she met Harold McPherson who was a solid and kind Christian man who offered Aimee a proposal of marriage. She accepted and they were married on February 28, 1912. By July Aimee was expecting her second child. A boy she named Rolf was born on March 23, 1913. As a mother, Aimee began to realize that an emotional maturity and stability were being built within her that would benefit her future ministry.

God continued to call Aimee into the evangelistic ministry. She worked around the community, teaching and preaching, but this did not satisfy the deep yearning God birthed in her to reach the multitudes. In 1914, she became gravely ill. After a series of surgeries there was no improvement. She became so despondent she even begged God to let her die. The physicians called for her mother and Harold’s mother to inform them of Aimee’s approaching death. As she lay in a lifeless coma, Aimee heard God’s voice asking her, “Will you go?” From somewhere deep within her, she managed to whisper that she would. When she opened her eyes all the pain was gone and within two weeks she was up and well.

Answering the Call
From that point on, Aimee was determined to follow the call of God no matter what the cost. When Harold did not want to follow with her, she took her children and left for a camp meeting in Toronto, Canada. Soon she began preaching on her own, using any method to draw a crowd. In 1915, one of her meetings drew more than five hundred people. Her mother agreed to care for the children while she built her ministry. Besides her dramatics and anointing, she was a woman preacher, so everyone was curious to see and hear her.

The first $65 Aimee earned went towards buying a much needed tent which was worth over $500 dollars. When she unrolled the seasoned canvas she found that it wasn’t such a bargain after all. It had been ripped to shreds in some places so she and her volunteers sewed until their fingers were sore managing to erect the patchwork tent by sunset. She continued to draw large crowds, and once saw Harold in attendance, who, before the night was over, was filled with the Holy Spirit. He joined her briefly in the meetings but could never reconcile himself to her vagabond lifestyle and eventually returned home and filed for divorce.

For the next seven years, Aimee traveled across the United States preaching and ministering divine healing in more than 100 cities, holding meetings that lasted from two nights to a month. By 1919, her message of healing and restoration was in such high demand that she realized a permanent place to minister would be of great benefit. The Lord led her to settle in Los Angeles in the wake of the Azusa Street revivals where the people were ready to receive her ministry; her supporters there even donated land and built her a home. Between 1919 and 1923 she traveled the country nine more times raising money for the building of Angelus Temple.

Momentous Times and Mysterious Headlines
After a meeting in Denver in June of 1922, when Aimee was interviewing with a reporter, someone asked her to pray for an invalid outside. She invited the reporter to accompany her and when they walked out a side door they were abducted by the Ku Klux Klan. Blindfolded they were taken to a secret meeting where the Ku Klux Klan requested Aimee to deliver a special word meant for them alone. She delivered a message out of Matthew 27 on “Barabbas, the man who thought he would never be found out.” Afterward they pledged their national and “silent” support. Then the two were returned blindfolded to the hall in Denver.

The reporter published a great story about the kidnapping which brought Aimee even more publicity and garnered more funds for the building of the Temple. The Temple was completed in December 1922 and dedicated on January 1, 1923. While continuing to lead multiple services each Sunday, and conducting healing services throughout the week, Aimee launched the Bible college later that same year adding bible instruction to an already demanding schedule. Early in the following year, February 1924, she opened her radio station delivering messages across the radio waves.

The Kidnapping
By 1926, Aimee was in need of a vacation. Early in the year she traveled to Europe and the Holy Land although she ended up preaching and ministering throughout most of her visit abroad. On May 18, she and her secretary enjoyed an afternoon at the beach. There she made some final notes on a sermon to be given that night and asked her secretary to call the information back to the Temple. When her secretary returned, Aimee was gone.

Over the next thirty-two days, Aimee’s disappearance became the hottest news story in the world. The beaches were combed and the outlying waters searched for any trace of her. When a ransom letter for $500,000 was received, the press went wild. “Aimee sightings” were reported from coast to coast. A memorial service was finally held on June 20. Then three days later Aimee walked into Douglas, Arizona, from the desert at Agua Prieta, Mexico. 4

Aimee reported that a man and a woman approached her on the beach asking her to please come pray for their baby. She went with them and was forced into a car where another man was at the wheel. They used chloroform to subdue her and when she awoke she found herself in a shack with the same woman and two men. At one point, the two men left her with the woman who tied her up with bed cloths before going to the store. She managed to cut through the cloth with the jagged edge of a tin can. Once free she crawled through a window and walked through the desert for hours until she came upon a cabin in Douglas, Arizona.

Following a night in the hospital, some fifty thousand people welcomed Aimee back to Angelus Temple. But the Los Angeles District Attorney accused Aimee of lying and went to great lengths to discredit her. He produced witnesses who said they had seen her at a Carmel Bungalow with her radio producer. The witnesses’ stories were never the same, while Aimee’s story was always consistent. Eventually no malice was proven, nor were any kidnappers prosecuted. Oddly, the District Attorney was eventually sentenced to San Quentin and sadly Aimee’s attorney was later found dead. It has been suggested and believed highly probable that the mob was behind the ordeal.

In Search of Refuge
As her popularity increased, so did the misguided investments of her promoters who involved her in all kinds of business ventures. When they failed, the blame and unpaid bills fell on her. Lawsuits, settlements, and the depression weighed heavily on Aimee and it took the next ten years to pay off all her debtors. The strain turned out to be more than she could handle and in 1930 she suffered a complete emotional and physical breakdown.

Aimee was confined to a Malibu cottage for ten months under a physician’s constant care. When she returned to Angelus Temple she had recovered to some extent but never regained her former vigor. By 1931, the price of fame had caused great loneliness. In desperate need of companionship, love, and protection, she married David Hutton. He was not the virtuous man she believed him to be, and not long after they were married, another woman sued him for breaking his engagement to her. After a year of proceedings, the court ruled against him.

While Aimee was away in Europe, in accordance with her doctor’s advice, Hutton filed for divorce. The years between 1938 and 1944 were very quiet years. There was very little said about her in the press. Much of Aimee’s efforts during these years were given to pastoring and training future ministers, as well as establishing hundreds of churches.

In 1942 she led a brass band and color guard into downtown Los Angeles to sell war bonds and sold $150,000 worth of bonds in one hour. The U.S. Treasury awarded her a special citation for her patriotic endeavor. She also organized regular Friday night prayer meetings at Angelus Temple for the duration of World War II, gaining the expressed appreciation of President Roosevelt and California’s governor.

An Unexpected End
By 1944, Aimee’s health was very poor. In September, she and her son flew to Oakland to dedicate a new church. Due to a blackout in the city, she and Rolf spent the evening together in her room for some ministry and family talk. When the evening drew to a close, Rolf kissed his mother goodnight and left the room.

Plagued with insomnia, Aimee was taking sedatives prescribed by her physician to help her sleep. As she continued to battle sleep, she took another dose and by dawn she knew something was wrong. She called her doctor in Los Angeles who was in surgery so she called another doctor who referred her to Dr. Palmer in Oakland. Before she could make the third call, Aimee fell unconscious. At 10:00 a.m. Rolf found her in bed, breathing hoarsely, and tried to wake her. He called for medical assistance, but it was too late. On September 27, 1944, Aimee Semple McPherson went home to be with the Lord at the age of fifty-three.

Sixty thousand people came to pay their respects over the course of three days as Aimee’s body lay in state at Angelus Temple. The stage, orchestra pit and aisles were filled with flowers. Then on Aimee’s birthday, October 9, 1944, a motorcade of six hundred cars drove to Forest Lawn Memorial Park; two thousand mourners along with seventeen hundred Foursquare ministers whom she had ordained looked on as she was laid to rest.5

A True Hero of the Faith
Not only did Aimee Semple McPherson break the barrier for woman evangelists during a time when women were not accepted in the pulpit, but she also built the largest church auditorium of her day, launched the first Christian radio station, established a Bible college, and birthed an entire denomination that is still growing today. She did all of this in the midst of the Great Depression during which one and a half million people received aid from her ministry.6 She was acknowledged by the President of the United States and U.S. Treasury for her war efforts—and by the media for her enterprising theatrics and daring in reaching the lost. She was and remains a true hero of the faith.

Works Consulted

  1. Daniel Mark Epstein, Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson (Orlando, FL: Daniel Mark Epstein, reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993), 259.
  2. Roberts Liardon, God’s Generals: Why They Succeeded and Why Some Failed (Laguna Hills, CA: Roberts Liardon Ministries, reprinted by permission of Whittaker House, 1996), 265.
  3. Ibid, 240
  4. Ibid, 257
  5. Ibid, 265
  6. Ibid, 265