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Young Mom Turned Evangelist

Aimee Semple McPherson encourages us to be creative, compassionate, and courageous.

On a street corner in Ontario in 1915, a young woman jumped onto a chair, raised her arms to heaven, closed her eyes, and stood motionless for a time. The crowd around her grew, along with taunts, questions, and jeers. After a while, a man reached up to touch her arm, seeing if he could cause the “statue” to move. The young woman opened her brown eyes, glanced around her, and lept off the chair as she shouted, “People! Come follow me! Quick!”

Running down the street with the befuddled crowd in tow, she led them through the door of the Victory Mission. That night she preached to a small crowd of 50. The next night the crowd had multiplied, with people standing outside the mission to hear her preach. They came dressed in overalls and in their Sunday best. They arrived by foot, horseback, wagon, and bicycle. Soon the meetings were pushed out onto the lawn to accommodate everyone. By the end of the week, the crowd had grown to 500. Many were convicted, weeping and giving their hearts to the Lord.

The 25-year-old preacher was Aimee Semple McPherson, a young mother and widow who had remarried. While unorthodox, McPherson overcame various trials to become a pioneer evangelist and pastor, an activist for social justice and compassion, and the founder of the Foursquare Church. Later known as Sister, McPherson is regarded as a spiritual mother of the modern Pentecostal movement.

At a young age, McPherson faced several serious struggles. In 1910, newlyweds Robert and Aimee Semple sailed for Hong Kong to serve as missionaries. Within months, they both contracted malaria, to which Robert succumbed. Aimee survived, giving birth to a baby girl six weeks after burying her husband on foreign soil. In 1912 she married Harold McPherson and gave birth to a son in 1913. A year later, Aimee began to hemorrhage internally, leading to an emergency hysterectomy that didn’t go well. Dying in the hospital, she continued to proclaim the Good News. “The nurses wept. The doctor cleared his throat...muttering he had never witnessed such a scene: the dying woman was preaching, calling souls.” As her life was ebbing out of her, she heard a voice say, “Now, will you go?” With what she thought would be her last breath, she said yes.

Creative Pioneer

That answer would lead her to become not only a pioneer female preacher, but also America’s best-known evangelist of the Roaring Twenties. She persevered amidst criticism and controversy saying, “Orthodox ministers, many of whom disapproved even of men evangelists such as Moody, [and] Spurgeon . . . disapproved all the more of a woman minister.” First as a traveling evangelist and later in her culturally diverse church, the Angelus Temple in California, Aimee emphasized the gospel of reconciliation and love rather than fear, hellfire, and damnation. She was the first to launch and operate a Christian radio station, and perhaps the first to hold “satellite” services when using her radio station to organize simultaneous meetings all over southern California, with two-way radio hookups from eight cities. Weaving stories into her theatrical sermons, she invited people to give their lives to Christ and further challenged believers to be active in service for him.

As a Pentecostal, she emphasized the doctrine of healing and prayed for the sick, many of whom were healed instantly, both in her meetings and through her radio ministry. Louise Weick, reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, described one of Aimee Semple McPherson’s meetings in this way: “The blind saw again; the deaf heard. Cripples left their crutches and hung them on the rafters.”

Compassionate Minister

Her spiritual fervor focused on helping the hurting and marginalized in various ways. Compassion and social justice were hallmarks of her ministry. Young, unwed mothers came from across the country seeking shelter and care under McPherson’s roof. Sister Aimee would take in pregnant runaways, caring for them. She would call the families, if possible, to assure them of the girls’ safety, attempting to reconcile the estranged family members. Often, infants were delivered to her doorstep in baskets or handbags, because it was known that a baby left at that address would be well cared for.

Immediately after the Santa Barbara earthquake hit in 1925, a church member who had moved there called Sister Aimee to let her know about the situation. She immediately commanded help via her radio station. "Listen, everybody, this is Sister McPherson speaking. There’s been a terrible earthquake in Santa Barbara. . . . Thousands will be sleeping on the beaches and in the parks tonight. Ladies, stop what you are doing, now. Open up your closet doors and see what you can spare. People will need sweaters and blankets before the sun goes down. . . . Men, if you have any kind of truck, fill it with gas. Check the tires and batteries, make sure there is water in the radiator. . . . Be prepared to drive emergency supplies to Santa Barbara. Ladies . . . send only food that doesn’t need to be cooked. . . . Come over and help sort clothing and pack boxes.” Her convoy of trucks loaded with supplies was on its way before The Times newspaper extra was out on the streets. By the time the Red Cross met to discuss its strategy to help the victims in Santa Barbara, Sister Aimee’s second convoy was distributing blankets and food.

Courageous Preacher

In her fight for social justice, she was fearless and clear in denouncing racism, police corruption, addictions, and other vices of society. The Ku Klux Klan asked her for a word of blessing on one occasion, and she replied with a message on Barabbas, the man who thought he would never be found out. On a later occasion, when a thousand Klan members entered Angelus Temple at the start of a service, she changed her planned sermon to an impromptu one on the brotherhood of man. She rebuked the Klansmen with both story and the words of Christ the Master, pausing at times to look “into the slits of the hoods with a furious intensity.” The Klansmen left, though men were seen slipping into the service thereafter. The next day, hundreds of white robes and hooded masks were found deserted among bushes across the street and in the neighborhood.

Despite the revival of souls and the positive impact she left on society, Sister Aimee couldn’t shake the never-ending criticisms and controversy. Besides facing marital and financial struggles, McPherson made national news when she disappeared for five weeks and reported being kidnapped.

Her imperfections and struggles, however, shouldn’t keep us from being inspired by her life and faith. Indeed she was unorthodox, but undoubtedly her goal was to be a vessel of God’s reconciliation and love to the multitudes. May she inspire us to be boldly creative, to overcome our trials and difficulties, to be moved with compassion for the marginalized, and to bravely stand against the evils in our society.

Ilona Hadinger, together with her husband and youngest child, live in Mexico, where they have served as missionaries among ethnic and indigenous people groups for nearly 20 years. A member of the Redbud Writers Guild and an award-winning photographer, she blogs and posts photos at www.ikhadinger.com.


Gary B. McGee, People of the Spirit

Daniel Mark Epstein, Sister Aimee: the Life of Aimee Semple McPherson

Roberts Liardon, God’s General—Aimee Semple McPherson

January21, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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