The mysterious disappearance of a celebrity preacher
- 25 November 2014
- From the section Magazine
Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the most glamorous women in the US in the 1920s. The evangelical preacher put on theatrical church services and used ground-breaking radio broadcasts to teach the gospel - but one mysterious episode in her life has never been fully explained.
On 18 May 1926, Aimee Semple McPherson went to Venice Beach, Los Angeles, to take a swim and write a sermon.
The female assistant who'd gone with her had to leave to make a short phone call from a nearby hotel. When she returned she couldn't see the evangelist anywhere.
As evening fell, McPherson was still missing and her followers rushed to the beach to join the search. One young man drowned as he swam out towards two dead seals which he'd mistaken for her body.
"A local newspaper even speculated that there had been a sea monster sighted off Venice Beach," says McPherson's biographer, Matthew Sutton. "They thought maybe this sea monster had swallowed McPherson whole."
Others thought that the evangelist would be miraculously resurrected. For five weeks, national newspapers carried rival theories about what had happened to McPherson.
Had she drowned? Had she staged the ultimate theatrical stunt? Had the weight of her own fame just become too much? Then one day in June she re-emerged in the small town of Agua Prieta on the Mexico-Arizona border.
McPherson claimed she'd been kidnapped - but had she?
Her story to that date had already been extraordinary. She was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on a farm in Ontario, Canada, in 1890. As a teenager, she'd gone to hear an Irish Pentecostal preacher, Robert Semple, speak in her local town.
Before long she'd married him and joined his life on the road. But a trip they took to Hong Kong as missionaries ended in disaster. Both she and her husband fell ill with malaria. He died but she survived, pregnant with her first child.
When McPherson returned to America she felt the call to travel and preach. "She was a spellbinding speaker," says Sutton.
"She knew how to use dramatic tricks to draw audiences, and so she turned out to be enormously popular. What made her most popular was her seeming ability to lay hands on the sick and to heal them."
Soon McPherson, known as Sister Aimee to her followers, had become a preaching sensation touring across the US during the early 1920s.
It was an unusual choice of career for a single mother - and before long she was also a divorcee. Her second marriage to Harold McPherson, with whom she had another child, ended partly because he found it so difficult to walk in her shadow as her fame grew.
In 1923, she built a permanent base for her religious movement - a white-domed church called Angelus Temple in the Echo Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles. She put on elaborate services for the public and bought a radio station to broadcast to listeners at home.
These were no ordinary sermons - they were more like music hall performances. "She had the best actors, the best set designers, the best costumes, the best make-up artists and professional lighting," says Sutton. "She would create these stories, these dramas in which biblical stories would come to life."
The crowds were so large, people had to queue around the block to get a seat. At Angelus Temple today you can still see the theatre-like layout - complete with a stage at the centre.
"It was quite simply the best show in town" says the temple's archivist Steve Zeleny. "She would call the construction crew and say 'I need you to build me a 20ft Trojan horse that's hollow on the inside' or 'I need you to build me a huge ship, the bow needs to stick out 20ft. It needs to have guns on it with smoke coming out.'"
Often her crew would only have a week to finish these lavish sets. Charlie Chaplin used to advise McPherson on which of her productions worked best. In fact, over the years the Hollywood actor struck up an unlikely friendship with this conservative Pentecostal preacher.
The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel
- Founded by Aimee Semple McPherson who opened its first church, Angelus Temple, on 1 January 1923
- Today there are 1,719 Foursquare churches in the US
- More than 66,000 meeting places around the world in 140 countries and territories including the Philippines, Kenya and the Dominican Republic
- The term Foursquare Gospel comes from the book of Ezekiel, who saw God revealed with four different faces: a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle - McPherson equated these with four aspects of Jesus
Source: The Foursquare Church
As a retreat from her superstar lifestyle, McPherson built a house, perched on a rock above Lake Elsinore, a 90-minute car ride from Los Angeles. It is a castle influenced by her travels in the Middle East - it looks a bit out of place in the Californian landscape with a white exterior, crenellated roof and mosaic-encrusted dome.
"She was constantly being followed," explains my guide Erin Funk, a preacher in the Pentecostal church founded by McPherson.
"To give people an understanding about how popular she was and how much people followed her, it would be the equivalent of Princess Diana," she says as she shows me around the exquisite Art Deco rooms with beautiful murals and tiled walls. There's even a subterranean passage from the garage into the house so that McPherson could avoid reporters.
But McPherson's mysterious disappearance in 1926 and her reappearance in Agua Prieta gave reporters exactly what they wanted.
When she turned up in the dusty border town "she came to a family's home and she knocked on the door," says 1920s enthusiast Kim Cooper.
"She tells them that she's been walking for hours and hours having escaped from a weird little hut where she was held captive by three people."
McPherson claimed she'd been persuaded by the three strangers to leave the beach on that fateful afternoon back in May to pray for a sick child lying in the back of a car. "As she bent into this car, she was shoved inside and chloroformed and the next thing she knew she was imprisoned," says Cooper.
Not everyone, though, subscribes to this theory. Biographer Matthew Sutton believes she had run away with her sound engineer - a married man called Kenneth Ormiston, who also disappeared at the same time. "I'm 99% confident that she had an affair," he says.
"I suspect she ran away with Ormiston then ultimately after a month reading the newspapers and seeing what was happening she decided to make this dramatic return. The kidnapping story was the best means she came up with for doing it."
To this day, there is a great deal of debate about what exactly happened. When McPherson returned to Los Angeles she faced a grand jury investigation into her kidnapping story - but it ended up more preoccupied with her private life.
That's why McPherson's story attracts such attention and why she's been parodied in various plays and books. Cole Porter, for example, turned her into the "sensuous sermonizer" Reno Sweeney in the musical Anything Goes.
Today, her followers say the scandalous accounts of her life overlook all the good work she did on the streets of Los Angeles, especially during the Depression. When government agencies failed to clothe and feed the poor, Angelus Temple stepped in helping 1.5 million people get back on their feet.
But according to Jane Shaw, professor of religious studies at Stanford University, McPherson's biggest legacy is the way she combined "a conservative form of religion with the media of modernity". In many ways her radio station laid the way for America's modern televangelists.
On 27 September 1944 Aimee Semple McPherson was found dead in a hotel room in Oakland, California. A lifelong insomniac, the 53-year-old had taken too many sedatives - but her followers insist it wasn't suicide.
Her body was flown back to Los Angeles where she lay in state for three days and three nights at the temple she had built for her ground-breaking movement.
Her Foursquare Church still exists to this day and claims a membership of 8 million worldwide. You can still visit Angelus Temple on a Sunday for a service but it's a very different congregation to the one that listened to McPherson. Nowadays the worshippers are mainly Hispanic - a sign of the changing demographics of both Los Angeles and modern-day Pentecostalism in America.
Additional reporting by Nick White.
Sister Aimee is broadcast on BBC World Service on Tuesday 25 November at 20:30 GMT. It's also available on iPlayer Radio.
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