Now You See Her – Now You Don’t – Now You Do

Aimee Semple MacPherson
Los Angeles – 1926 – Aimee Semple McPherson was something of a celebrity and an Evangelist. Normally I ask myself how is it that these Evangelists get to be famous? But in Aimee’s case it’s easy to understand. Aimee was born in Canada and at only 17 she married Irish Pentecostal preacher Richard Semple. Alas after only 2 years of marriage Semple died of malaria and dysentery. Ick. Semple was now a pregnant widow who gave birth to a daughter in New York and  met the man who’d be her second husband, and the father of her son: Harold McPherson. That marriage lasted slightly longer, but ended in divorce, and Aimee was single again by the time she was 23. This woman had a hard time holding onto husbands.

aimeeSister Aimee believed that God told her to move to Los Angeles in 1918. In 1922 she became the first woman to preach on the radio. She was believed to be a faith healer and capable of speaking in tongues (glossolalia). Glossolalia is the fluid vocalizing of speech-like syllables that lack any comprehended meaning. Well, some would argue that where religious worship is concerned, any type of speech lacks comprehension. Sister Aimee was very theatrical in the way she presented her sermons (typical of Pentecostal types). Her sermons attracted criticism from some clergy members because they thought it turned the Gospel message into theater and entertainment.

The Foursquare Gospel
By 1923 Sister Aimee built a megachurch which had a capacity of over 5,000. Naturally it was always packed whenever Sister Aimee preached the word of God. She hit the big time in LA, right at the moment that the expression “movie star” was coined. She was as popular in her day as Princess Diana. News coverage sensationalized her misfortunes with family and church members. Sister Aimee’s true claim to fame was that she welcomed everyone into her church. She preached to the elite and to the poor. She evangelized in the South when segregation was rampant. She broke down racial barriers everywhere she ministered.

Eventually, Sister Aimee’s church evolved into its own denomination and became known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The new denomination focused on the nature of Christ’s character: that he was Savior, baptizer with the Holy Spirit, healer, and coming King. The four main beliefs were:

  1. Christ’s ability to transform individuals’ lives through the act of salvation
  2. holy baptism which includes receiving power to glorify and exalt Christ in a practical way
  3. divine healing, newness of life for both body and spirit
  4. gospel-oriented heed to the premillennial return of Jesus Christ

.The Disappearance
1926 marked the most bizarre five weeks of Sister Aimee’s life. She disappeared from her ministry and from the public entirely.  Most everyone believed that Sister Aimee had drowned. Along Ocean Park small groups of mourners wandered occasionally, unable to stop crying. “Aimee is with Jesus; pray for her,” they chanted. “God wouldn’t let her die,” one of her believers told a reporter. “She was too noble. Her work was too great. Her mission was not ended. She can’t be dead.” In the coming days her followers would dynamite the waters of Santa Monica bay. Yet the blasts surfaced only dead fish. So devoted was her following that one man drowned during the underwater search for Sister Aimee, believing he’d spotted her body in the waves (it was actually a dead seal). A rescue diver also died during the search. However the passing time gave rise to rumors. She’d disappeared to have an abortion. Or plastic surgery. Or an affair.

Then suddenly, she reappeared, none the worse for wear. When Sister Aimee came home, a throng of more than 50,000 showed up at the train station to welcome her. In a massive parade featuring airplanes that dropped roses from the skies, the evangelist made a grand re-entrance. Sister Aimee declared that on May 18, while working on a sermon at Ocean Beach, Sister Aimee decided to go swimming. When she came out of the water a couple asked her to accompany them to their car to pray for their dying baby who was in the back seat. This was not unusual. This time however she was pushed to the floor of the car and sedated as the car drove off. For three weeks Sister Aimee claimed was kept in the Los Angeles area, and then in mid-June the kidnappers moved her to a small shack in an isolated canyon in Mexico south of Douglas, aimeeArizona. One day the kidnappers left her alone while they drove off to buy supplies. She escaped.

Others, however, were not so convinced by this tale. One Sister Aimee expert shared a different version of the story : Some people believed she ran away with her sound engineer. a married man called Kenneth Ormiston, who also disappeared at the same time. A critic claimed, “I suspect she ran away with Ormiston then ultimately after a month reading the newspapers and seeing what was happening she decided to make this dramatic return. The kidnapping story was the best means she came up with for doing it.”

Others believed that she suffered a“nervous breakdown.” Her own mother (with whom she feuded for years, along with her daughter) suspected the five weeks was actually downtime needed to recover from a facelift. Such a supportive mother. However Sister Aimee was known to be obsessive-compulsive and the possibility of a breakdown wasn’t inconceivable. Months of unfavorable press reports emphasized her wrongdoings. The newspapers had a vested interest in keeping the controversy going, since it generated huge sales.

The Return
aimeeHer return to Los Angeles attracted a crowd of 50,000. It was a scandal of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker proportions and possibly bigger. Notably, nobody was a suspect or charged with her kidnapping, and the notoriety made her even more well-known than she was before.  Sister Aimee was made to answer for her disappearance before a grand jury inquiry. The grand jury inquiry concluded while enough evidence did not exist to try her, it did not indicate her story was true with its implication of kidnappers still at large. Evidence was never uncovered that Sister Aimee had actually been kidnaped. Some supporters thought Sister Aimee should have insisted on a jury trial and clear her name. Court costs to Sister Aimee were about $100,000 dollars, a small fortune today. A jury trial could take months. Sister Aimee moved on to other projects.

In 1927, she published a book about her version of the kidnapping: In the Service of the King: The Story of My Life. Though her celebrity status faded as time passed, her ministry continued to grow. At first, it was suspected she’d succumbed to a heart attack, but an autopsy revealed she’d overdosed on sedatives, apparently an accident.

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