Known for: successful founding, leadership of a large Pentecostal denomination; kidnapping scandal
Occupation: evangelist, religious denomination founder
Dates: October 9, 1890 - September 27, 1944
Also known as: Sister Aimee, Aimee Semple McPherson Hutton
About Aimee Semple McPherson
Aimee Semple McPherson was the first famous Pentecostal evangelist, seeking publicity to broaden the audience for her religious message, using modern technology (including the automobile and radio) -- truly a pioneer in religious history. The Foursquare Gospel Church which she founded is now a movement with more than two million members around the world. But most people know her name mainly for an infamous kidnapping scandal.
Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared in May 1926. At first Aimee Semple McPherson was presumed drowned. When she reappeared she claimed to have been kidnapped. Many questioned the kidnapping story; gossip had her "shacked up" in a romantic "love nest," though a court case was dropped for lack of evidence.
Aimee Semple McPherson was born in Canada, near Ingersoll, Ontario. Her birth name was Beth Kennedy, and she soon called herself Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy. Her mother was active in the Salvation Army and was the foster daughter of a Salvation Army captain.
At age 17 Aimee married Robert James Semple. Together they traveled in 1910 to Hong Kong on their way to China to be missionaries, but Semple died of typhoid fever. A month later, Aimee gave birth to a daughter, Roberta Star Semple, and then moved to New York City, where Aimee's mother was working with the Salvation Army.
Aimee Semple McPherson and her mother traveled together, working on revival meetings. In 1912 Aimee married Harold Steward McPherson, a salesman. Their son, Rolf Kennedy McPherson, was born a year later. Aimee Semple McPherson began working again in 1916, traveling by automobile -- a "Full Gospel Car" with slogans painted on its side. In 1917 she started a paper, The Bridal Call. The next year, Aimee McPherson, her mother and the two children traveled across the country and settled in Los Angeles, and from that center, continued cross-country revival tours, even traveling to Canada and Australia. Harold McPherson came to oppose Aimee's traveling and ministry, and they were divorced in 1921, Harold charging her with desertion.
By 1923, Aimee Semple McPherson's organizing was successful enough that she able to build the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, seating more than 5,000. In 1923 she also opened a Bible school, later to become the Lighthouse of International Foursquare Evangelism. In 1924 she started radio broadcasts from the Temple. Aimee Semple McPherson and her mother personally owned these ventures. Aimee's flair for dramatic costumes and techniques and her faith healing activities drew many followers to her message of salvation. Initially she also included a Pentecostal revival standard, "speaking in tongues," but de-emphasized that over time. She was also known as something of a difficult person to work with, to some of those who worked closely with her in the Temple's ministry.
Went for a Swim
In May 1926, Aimee Semple McPherson went for a swim in the ocean, accompanied by her secretary who stayed on the shore -- and Aimee disappeared. Her followers and her mother mourned her death while newspapers featured the continuing search and rumors of sightings -- until June 23, when Aimee reappeared in Mexico with a story of kidnapping and captivity a few days after her mother received a ransom note that threatened that Aimee would be sold into "white slavery" if the half million dollar ransom was not paid.
Kenneth G. Ormiston, who was a radio operator for the Temple, disappeared at the same time, leading to suspicion that she had not been kidnapped but had instead spent the month in a romantic hideaway. There had been gossip about her relationship with him before the disappearance, and his wife had moved back to Australia, claiming her husband was involved with McPherson. There were reports that a woman who looked like Aimee Semple McPherson had been seen in a resort town with Ormiston during McPherson's disappearance. Suspicion led to a grand jury investigation and charges of perjury and manufacturing evidence against McPherson and Ormiston, but the charges were dropped the next year without explanation.
After the Kidnapping Scandal
Her ministry continued. If anything, her celebrity was greater. Within the church, there were some repercussions to the suspicions and scandal: Aimee's mother even split from her.
Aimee Semple McPherson married again in 1931. David Hutton, ten years her junior and a member of Angelus Temple, filed for divorce in 1933 and it was granted in 1934. Legal disputes and financial difficulty marked the next years of the church's history. McPherson continued to lead the church's many activities, including her radio talks and her preaching, and the financial difficulties were largely overcome by the 1940s.
In 1944, Aimee Semple McPherson died of an overdose of sedatives. The overdose was pronounced accidental, complicated by kidney problems, though many suspected suicide.
The movement that Aimee Semple McPherson founded continues today -- at the end of the 20th century, it claimed about two million members in more than 30 countries, including the 5,300 seat Angelus Temple in California. Her son Rolf succeeded her to leadership.