This is our third installment in our California tour. We started in 1769 on the California Missions Trail, last week we were in 1906 on Azusa Street, and we’re only going to jump ahead a few years to 1918. This was the year that Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, known as “Sister Aimee” or sometimes just “Sister,” came to California. Sister Aimee has got to be one of the most colorful figures in American church history in the 1920s and 1930s, if not one of the most colorful figures of all of American church history.
Dr. Bob Godfrey, church historian, likes to tell the story of when Charles Lindbergh and Woodrow Wilson and Aimee Semple McPherson all got off a plane in Los Angeles, California. Guess who had the largest crowd to greet them? Sister Aimee.
Who is she and what do we need to know about her? She was born on October 9, 1890. She was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in Ontario, Canada. She married three times. First, she married Robert Semple who died after two years of marriage. Then she married Harold McPherson, and they were married for nine years and then divorced. Her third husband, named David Hutton, was married to her for three years, and they divorced. Let’s take a look at her work.
Sister Aimee showed her future calling as an evangelist and as a preacher in high school when she would rail against the teaching of evolution in school. She felt conviction under herself, and she just could not find any resolution to it. In 1907, she met Robert Semple. He was an evangelist from Ireland. He was very much Pentecostal, and his preaching captivated young Aimee McPherson. She had what she called her conversion. He also was captivated by her, and they were married the next year. They went to China and there they both got malaria, and he died in Hong Kong.
She recovered, and the next episode in her life was the “Gospel Car.” It was a 1912 Packard, and she would drive all around the country in that Gospel Car and preach to any crowd she could find. McPherson was her husband at the time, and he wasn’t quite going for this lifestyle and wanted a more steady lifestyle. So, he went back to Providence, Rhode Island and filed for divorce, and Sister Aimee went to California.
In the 1920s, California and L.A. were exploding in growth. Residents flooded in, tourists came in droves, and Sister Aimee’s church and crowds grew right along with all of that. She said she came to California with a car, a tambourine, and ten dollars in her pocket. By the time of her death she had built an empire—a denomination called the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Her church, Angelus Temple, was really a mega-church and also did significant charity work. The Angelus Temple was known for having massive choirs. They were constantly changing artwork and elaborate stage set up. It was all quite a production.
There was one other significant incident in Sister Aimee’s life: the kidnapping. She disappeared in 1926 from Santa Monica, California. Many thought she had drowned. For five weeks, no one knew where she was and no one could find her, and then she just reappeared right on a border town coming out of the deserts of Mexico. A grand jury was impaneled and there was a court case. Charges were dropped. Well, who knows what really happened? That was the life of the most colorful person in American church history: Sister Aimee Semple McPherson.