John Updike: The life of Aimee Semple McPherson

The name of Aimee Semple McPherson resonates faintly now— rather comical run of syllables compounded of a first name bestowe by a rapt young mother, Minnie Kennedy, in an Ontario farmhouse i 1890, and the last names of Aimee’s first two husbands, Robert Sempl and Harold McPherson. Yet in the nineteen-twenties and thirties she wa one of the most famous women in America—for a time, the most famous according to one biographer. After running away from her secon husband, in 1915, she became a full-time revival preacher, in a whit dress and a military cape. She not only preached, she healed, havin herself experienced a broken ankle and torn ligaments abruptly repaire by prayer. She wrote:

"I suddenly felt as if a shock of electricity had struck my foot. It flowed through my whole body, causing me to shake and tremble under the power of God. Instantaneously my foot was perfectly healed."

Between 1916 and 1923, Sister Aimee, as she called herself, travelled the glory trail coast to coast six times and preached in more than a hundred cities. She and her mother arrived in Los Angeles in 1918, and within a few years she decided to build an inexpensive wooden tabernacle there, for local meetings; on New Year’s Day of 1923, she dedicated the Angelus Temple, near Echo Park, at the corner of Sunset and Glendale Boulevards. It seated more than five thousand, was topped by a rotating lighted cross visible from fifty miles away, and became, thanks to McPherson’s eloquence, fervor, and theatrical flair, a leading Los Angeles institution and tourist attraction. She extended her ministry with an evangelical newspaper, The Bridal Call, and, beginning in 1924, with foresighted employment of a novel medium, radio, broadcasting sermons and services over her own station, KFSG (Kall Four Square Gospel).

National celebrity followed upon a series of newsworthy personal scandals, of which the most headlined, in 1926, involved her disappearance from Venice Beach and her reappearance, five weeks later, in a Mexican border town. She claimed to have been kidnapped by a trio of malefactors named Steve, Jake, and Mexicali Rose; she escaped, she said, from an isolated shack by sawing through her bonds with the jagged edge of a syrup can and walking for seventeen hours across the desert. For all its suspect details (she emerged from her desert ordeal neither sunburned nor dehydrated, wearing unscuffed shoes and a watch that she had not taken with her to the beach), she stuck to her story through a number of hearings and trials. An alternative story, which the newspapers were quick to air, held that she had spent the missing five weeks trysting in Carmel or elsewhere with Kenneth Gladstone Ormiston, the handsome, dapper, and married radio engineer who had been in charge of KFSG’s operations. He and Aimee had daily technical exchanges, which some eavesdroppers considered suspiciously friendly, if not raucous, in tone. The Los Angeles district attorney investigated the alleged abduction and then had her arrested, along with her mother and Ormiston, on charges of “corruption of public morals, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy to manufacture evidence.” The public and the press couldn’t get enough of the trial—grandstands were erected in municipal court—though in the end all the charges were dismissed. McPherson’s Foursquare Gospel continued to be rousingly proclaimed at the Angelus Temple, and her thousands of devotees remained loyal during the furor, but her reputation had taken on a taint, a fascinating hint of sexual errancy, that lasted until her death. She was only fifty-three when she died, of a probably accidental overdose of barbiturates, in 1944....

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