The Kidnapping of Aimee Semple McPherson
In a time when tele-evangelists seem to inundate the airwaves with their own cable channels and are just another stop in an evening's channel surfing, it's easy to forget an earlier time, when revival meetings were as exciting as the circus coming to town, and evangelists were treated like rock stars. For Los Angeles, the premiere evangelist of those days was Aimee Semple McPherson.
She was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in 1890 in Ontario, Canada. As a child, she traveled with her mother Minnie, who worked for the Salvation Army. Aimee's first husband, Robert Semple, was a Pentecostal missionary who died in China in 1910. After his death Aimee and their baby daughter returned to the United States. She married her second husband, Harold McPherson, in 1912, and a son was born in 1913. After undergoing a near death experience in 1913, Aimee began traveling and preaching at church meetings throughout Canada and the United States. She separated from McPherson in 1918, and Aimee spent the next few years as an itinerant Petecostal minister, attracting a large following. In 1922 she founded the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal mission, in Los Angeles, and from that time was L.A.-based. She quickly attracted a huge following and generated a great deal of publicity with her lively meetings, which often included speaking in tongues and faith healing. She had a magnetic personality and adopted an angelic appearance: she usually dressed in a white flowing gown, and carried a small bouquet of flowers. From the early 1920s, "Sister", as she was widely known, broadcast her sermons on the radio, which only increased her renown.
In 1923 she dedicated an immense, circular church, the Angelus Temple, its $1.5 million cost funded by donations, in the Echo Park area. The main sanctuary could seat 5000 people, and services were usually almost at capacity. In addition to the church's own radio station, an organization was set up which administered to a nationwide network of member churches.
The citizens of Los Angeles, and particularly her large congregation, were stunned to learn on May 18, 1926, that Aimee had disappeared while swimming near Venice Beach. Members of her congregation went into the waters where she disappeared, with one person drowning and another dying of exposure. Not a trace of her body could be found. Police investigated hundreds of leads, including a ransom note, signed by "The Avengers" and demanding $500,000 for Sister Aimee's safe return.
After 32 days, Aimee stumbled out of the desert near Douglas, Arizona. She claimed that she had been kidnapped, tortured, drugged, and held for ransom in a shack in Mexico. It was only after the kidnappers became careless that she managed to escape and walked for some 13 hours back to civilization.
It was soon noted that her shoes showed no sign of a 13 hour hike. And the shack where she claimed that she was held could not be found. There was also no satisfactory explanation for the fact that she disappeared in broad daylight in a swimming suit, but showed up fully clothed, right down to her corset. In support of her story, there had been threats against Aimee's life in the previous year, and a plot to kidnap her had been foiled in September 1925.
Rumors abounded about what had really happened to her. Some claimed that she had disappeared to have an abortion, or that she had run off with a lover. Others claimed that she had been in seclusion to recover from plastic surgery. Ultimately so many questions were raised, and so few answers provided by Sister Aimee, that the district attorney charged her with perjury. In the trial that followed the prosecution introduced a string of witnesses who said that she had been in various hotels with an Angelus Temple radio operator named Kenneth Ormiston. But Sister Aimee stuck to her kidnapping story, and in the end she was cleared of the charges. Through it all, the Angelus Temple continued to draw huge, faithful crowds. To this day, what really happened to Sister Aimee remains a mystery.
In the years that followed, Sister Aimee continued her preaching and international tours, but her love affair with the press had ended, and rumors persistently followed her. She married a third time in 1931, then divorced in 1934. She died in 1944 from an overdose of barbituates. She is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. The Angelus Temple still is a church for the Foursquare Gospel, which today claims over two million members worldwide.
References:Blumhofer, Edith W. Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eermans, 1993.
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Epstein, Daniel Mark. Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.
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Lately, Thomas. Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoil of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson. New York: Morrow, 1970.
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- Aimee Semple McPherson as a child; no date. Los Angeles Examiner collection, Regional History Collection.
- The Angelus Temple in the 1930s. The Dick Whittington Collection, Regional History Collection.
- Sister Aimee preaching, 1938. Los Angeles Examiner collection, Regional History Collection.