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Christian History Home > 1998 > Issue 58 > Sister

Aimee Semple McPherson was the first Pentecostal to become a national sensation.
Edith L. Blumhofer | posted 4/01/1998 12:00AM

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In the spring of 1913, a 23-year-old Salvation Army lass was rushed to the hospital with appendicitis. Her husband wired her mother that her life hung in the balance.

For months the young woman had felt her spiritual life also was in peril. Though she had been working in the Salvation Army, she'd had a deep gnawing sense that God expected more of her.

In later sermons, she often recounted dramatically what happened in that hospital: her condition deteriorated until a hospital attendant came to move her into a room set apart for the dying. She struggled to breathe as she heard a nurse say, "She's going."

Then she heard another voice: "Now will you go?" She understood it to mean she was to choose between going into eternity or going into ministry. She yielded to ministry. Instantly, she said, the pain was gone, her breathing eased, and she soon regained her strength.

Within a decade, the young woman would become an American phenomenon. Though hardly known today, during the 1920s, her name—Aimee Semple McPherson—appeared on the front page of America's leading newspapers three times a week. Today historians consider her, along with Billy Sunday, the most significant revivalist in the early twentieth century.

Gospel car

Aimee was born in October 1890, to James and Minnie Kennedy, a Methodist and a Salvation Army devotee respectively, in Ontario, Canada. As a teenager, Aimee was introduced to Pentecostalism through the preaching of Robert Semple. Much to the alarm of her parents, she began praying for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Her prayers were eventually answered, and she quit high school to give more time to the local Pentecostal mission. When Robert proposed, she promptly accepted. She was 17 when they married, but two years later, in Hong Kong, just as the couple began a missions career, he died.

Aimee returned from Hong Kong to join her mother and to don the Army uniform. She also married a young businessman named Harold McPherson, who loved her enough to try to go her way after her hospital experience. For a few years, they shared a hand-to-mouth existence. They lived in a gospel car plastered with Bible verses and slogans—Where will you spend eternity? and Jesus saves—and loaded with religious tracts.

In the summer of 1917, Aimee began issuing The Bridal Call, a monthly magazine that mobilized her scattered following into a network of supporters and began attracting the attention of the press.

But neither adoring crowds nor a friendly press could heal a growing rift between husband and wife. After a short preaching stint, Harold McPherson quietly filed for divorce.

Still Aimee was on the upswing. In 1918 she accepted an invitation to preach on the other side of the country. The automobile trip to Los Angeles was an adventure only a handful of intrepid women had undertaken before her. All along the way, she preached, distributed tracts, and visited small congregations.

She devoted her energies to the recovery of "Bible Christianity." Using Hebrews 13:8 ("Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever") as her theme, she explained that the "full menu" of Bible Christianity was available for listeners' firsthand experience. She spoke often about the lavish feast Christ offered the faithful and summoned people with the words of a familiar gospel song: "Come and dine, the Master calleth, come and dine!"

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