A Touch of Heaven : SISTER AIMEE: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson, <i> By Daniel Mark Epstein (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $27.95, 469 pp.)</i>
Aimee Semple McPherson was an evangelist, a faith-healer, and a star--a peculiarly American combination. Nevertheless, her life is a hard sell, for scandal touched it, and her Pentecostalist brand of Christianity is as remote from the religious experience of most Americans as it is from the prejudices of scoffers and skeptics. Moreover, in these days of bomb-planting Muslims and Branch Davidians, anyone odd is open to the charge of cult-by-association.
Poet and novelist Daniel Mark Epstein does not say anywhere in “Sister Aimee” what his own religious inclinations might be, though it is a safe bet that he is not a member of her Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Still, he tells her story with insight, empathy and lyrical power, without ever losing a sense of what a strange tale it is.
Aimee Kennedy was born in 1890 to a middle-aged Canadian farmer and a member of the Salvation Army 34 years his junior. Minnie Kennedy resented her husband for taking her away from evangelical work, but she told God that if He would send her a baby girl, she would raise the child to fill her place. This was the first of many answered prayers in Aimee’s life.
When she was 18 years old, Aimee gave herself to Christ in response to the preaching of Robert Semple, an Irish Pentecostalist. The modern Pentecostal movement, which had begun in Topeka, Kans., only seven years earlier, held that the miraculous gifts of the early church--speaking in tongues, prophecy, faith-healing--still could be had by Christians. The gift of sex appeal was certainly available to Semple. Aimee’s conversion, writes Epstein, was one part religion, “nine parts falling in love. By this I do not mean to cast doubt upon the authenticity of her belief, only to describe its nature. . . . Her ministry would forever be infused with the spirit of Eros.”
Her ministry, nevertheless, had a dreadful start. Two years after she and Semple married, he died of dysentery in Hong Kong, where they had gone to be missionaries. Aimee returned to America with a baby girl, and married Harold McPherson, a solid, unglamorous accountant who gave her another child and a breathing spell. In 1916, she hit the road, where she stayed, off and on, for a quarter of a century.
McPherson, her mother, and her secretary were probably the first women to cross America by car unattended by a man. Epstein’s accounts of their travels on rutted, rotten roads reads like an epic journey to Hades and back. They pitched tents in storms, and slept in the car in the rain. McPherson preached and sang and spoke in tongues.
In her early years, she healed. After weighing the testimony of doctors and reporters, Epstein is a careful believer. “The record is staggering but not absurd. The vast majority of healings,” he writes, were of diseases of the immune system, or of ailments attributed to hysteria, and hence vulnerable to eruptions of faith. McPherson’s faith in God’s power was matched only by her audiences’ faith in hers. One 10-year-old victim of infantile paralysis carried his shoes when he was brought to her, so confident was he that she would enable him to walk. In thousands of cases, Epstein concludes, such hopes were not disappointed.
Sister Aimee was a peerless performer, with a range that ran from slapstick to rapture. Epstein describes a revival in Philadelphia: “Aimee moved to the outstretched arms of a young woman. . . . In silence they danced together; Aimee backed the young woman against the pulpit and lovingly spread her arms to either side over her head like a crucifix. With slow circular movements Aimee mimed the driving of spikes, through first one hand and her pain.
“She laid her down, as in the tomb.
“She raised her up, as in the Resurrection, and the voice of thousands cried Hallelujah.”
McPherson had an angelic face joined to a fleshy, maternal body, which she clothed in striking outfits: nurse’s uniforms for the pulpit, leather bomber jackets for travel. When she dedicated the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles as her base, she developed a genre of sermon-cum-stage-show that Epstein compares to musical comedy. In private sermons to Bible classes, but sometimes also in public, she revealed an authentic mystical vein, rediscovering tropes for Christ that had been elaborated by the Metaphysical poets.
Troubles dogged her, many of her own making. Her second marriage petered out in estrangement, and finally divorce. She fell in love a third time, with a fat singer, who was served with an action for breach of promise two days after their wedding. Her finances were in a perennial snarl, and she managed to feud with both her mother and her daughter.
Then there was the kidnaping. In May, 1926, she disappeared while swimming off Ocean Park. A month later, she reappeared in Mexico, just over the Arizona border. She claimed she had been held by three desperadoes in a shack in the desert, but the shack never was found, and she showed no signs of exposure. The story circulated that she had been in a love nest in Carmel; the Los Angeles district attorney eventually charged her with “criminal acts to commit acts injurious to public morals and to prevent and obstruct justice.”
Many were eager to believe that the spirit of Eros had taken mundane form, though others, including H.L. Mencken, defended McPherson on the grounds that she was being hounded by fellow preachers who were envious and Chamber of Commerce types who found her outlandish. The prosecution withdrew its case when the witnesses to the love-nest story proved to be lying or unreliable. Epstein thinks she may well have suffered some sort of an ordeal: “Victims of trauma are not reliable narrators of their horror.” Aimee promptly embarked on a “Vindication Tour.”
She died in 1944, after six years free of uproar, thanks to the tight control of her church’s bookkeeper--which may also, however, have cramped her spirit.
What had it all amounted to? There was a talent, which in the absence of films or recordings is mostly lost. There was a fund of good works; during the Depression, the Angelus Temple Commissary was the most effective welfare agency in Los Angeles. There were, finally, the gifts Aimee Semple McPherson believed to be miraculous. The Bible calls them “signs,” but what were they signs of? Like anything else, miracles require interpretation. Without it, they are strangely imperturbable: opaque and mysterious as the fact of suffering, or the fact of life.
Biography is an almost writer-proof form, a fact that many biographers alas know all too well, hence the shapeless, witless tomes which fill window displays and best-seller lists. “Sister Aimee” is not one of them. Daniel Mark Epstein sees the facts, and feels the mystery, and he has written a remarkable book.