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"Never did I hear such language from a human being. Without one moment's intermission, she would talk from an hour to an hour and a half, holding her audience spellbound."
— a reporter's description

In 1913 a 23-year-old Salvation Army daughter was rushed to the hospital with appendicitis, her life hanging in the balance. But for months the young woman had felt her spiritual life was also in peril. She'd had a deep, gnawing sense that God expected more of her.

As she later recounted, 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."

Timeline

1860

U.S. Civil War Begins

1878

William & Catherine Booth found Salvation Army

1879

Frances Willard becomes president of WCTU

1890

Aimee Semple Mcpherson born

1944

Aimee Semple Mcpherson dies

1949

Los Angeles Crusade catapults Billy Graham

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 appeared on the front page of America's leading newspapers three times a week. Today, as her International Church of the Foursquare Gospel carries on her legacy, historians consider her (along with Billy Sunday) the most significant revivalist in the early twentieth century.

Living in a 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, whom she eventually married. When he died two years later, she married young businessman Harold McPherson. For a few years, they shared a hand-to-mouth existence. They lived in a "gospel" car plastered with Bible verses and slogans (like "Where will you spend eternity?") and loaded with religious tracts. Slowly she began attracting crowds and the attention of the press.

Though Aimee and Harold quietly divorced, Aimee's ministry continued to expand. Using Hebrews 13:8 ("Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever") as her theme, she preached that the "full menu" of Bible Christianity was available for listeners' firsthand experience. Around the country, she spoke 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!"

From Los Angeles in 1919, McPherson launched a series of meetings that catapulted her to national fame. Within a year, America's largest auditoriums could not hold the crowds. She acquiesced to popular demand that she pray for the sick, and "stretcher days" became hallmarks of her campaigns.

Reporters marveled at her oratorical skills: "Never did I hear such language from a human being. Without one moment's intermission, she would talk from an hour to an hour and a half, holding her audience spellbound." Pastors from many denominations threw their support behind her city-wide campaigns. In 1922 her ministry took her to Australia, the first of a number of trips abroad.

On January 1, 1923, McPherson dedicated Angelus Temple, which held up to 5,300 worshipers. The ceremonies included hundreds of colorfully clad gypsies (who had named her their queen), a roster of prominent Protestant preachers, and thousands of adoring fans. A church-owned radio station was launched in 1924.

While she continued to preach "the four-square Gospel" (Jesus as the Only Savior, the Great Physician, the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit, and the Coming Bridegroom), she become a citizen of note in a burgeoning city. Angelus Temple floats won prizes in Rose Bowl parades, and the Temple itself became a tourist attraction. The comings and goings of "Sister" (as she was affectionately known) from the city's Union Station drew more people than visits of presidents and other dignitaries.

Well-advertised illustrated sermons offered the faithful who shunned nearby Hollywood entertainments a taste of theater. Parades, uniforms, award-winning bands, and catchy music attracted people of all ages. Ambitious programs to feed the hungry and respond to natural disasters gained goodwill.

People responded as well to her motherly qualities. During midnight forays into Denver's red light districts, she promised Denver's outcasts a bright future if they would be true to themselves. She embraced Winnipeg prostitutes with the assurance that she loved them and that there was hope for them in Christ. In San Francisco's Barbary Coast, she walked into a "dive," sat down at the piano, and got the crowd's attention by playing "Jesus, Lover of My Soul."

Kidnapped?

Her rising popularity was checked in May 1926. As McPherson later told it, she was kidnapped on Tuesday afternoon, May 26, and spirited away to a cabin where she was held prisoner. That evening, it was announced at Angelus Temple that Sister had gone for a swim, failed to return, and was presumed drowned. For the next few days, Los Angeles talked of little else. Thousands walked aimlessly on the Ocean Park Beach where Sister had last been seen, and an elaborate memorial service was held for McPherson on June 20.

Three days later, McPherson reappeared in Douglas, Arizona, with a tale of having escaped from kidnappers. The crowds that had mourned her loss prepared a lavish welcome home. On Saturday, June 26, 150,000 lined the route from the train station to Angelus Temple, cheering and wishing Sister well.

Some law enforcement officials challenged her kidnapping story, but the Los Angeles district attorney acknowledged that he had no case against McPherson. When the focus finally shifted away from the "scandal" in January, Sister immediately set out on a national evangelistic tour. Her support base remained strong, but press coverage changed. The months of innuendo left a legacy of unanswered questions that took a toll on her popularity.

Yet her ministry continued. During the depression, the Angelus Temple's Commissary provided food, clothing, and other necessities to needy families—no questions asked. In the 1940s, McPherson began barnstorming again, and in September 1944, she addressed 10,000 people in the Oakland Auditorium. She died the next day of kidney failure and the effects of the mixture of prescription drugs she had been taking. McPherson's funeral took place on her fifty-fourth birthday, October 9, 1944.

Though her popularity had shrunk significantly since the 1920s, 50,000 people filed past her coffin. Her lasting legacy is the denomination she founded, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, with some 2 million members in nearly 30,000 churches worldwide.