Wholly spirited

Michael Joseph Gross is the author of "Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame."

WHENEVER Aimee Semple McPherson returned home to Los Angeles, Will Rogers marveled, “this town goes practically ga-ga.” Thousands, including Charlie Chaplin and Jean Harlow, admired her showmanship and glamour at Angelus Temple, the Echo Park megachurch she founded in 1923. Her public regard rivaled Eleanor Roosevelt’s, and when she died in 1944, likely due to an accidental overdose of barbiturates, she was America’s most famous preacher.

She published a popular magazine, founded one of the first Christian radio stations, created a film production company and built a Bible college. Her elaborately staged “illustrated sermons” featured Broadway-caliber production values. One week she preached in goggles and flight gear, while miniature planes on wires sailed through the sanctuary. Another week, after she had been pulled over for speeding, she transformed her transgression into a gospel lesson, donning a policewoman’s uniform and appearing in the pulpit with a motorcycle, siren blaring.

In 1926, when she disappeared for more than a month, the New York Times published almost 100 stories about the saga -- about the same number devoted the previous year to the Scopes trial. Her career probably could not have happened anywhere but in Los Angeles: Johnny Mercer’s lyrics for “Hooray for Hollywood” boasted that “anyone at all from Shirley Temple / to Aimee Semple is equally understood.” Yet she had powerful critics: Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair and Frank Capra made scathing fictional treatments of McPherson.


Today, McPherson is mostly forgotten. Her biography is so implausibly larger-than-life and her character so fraught with contradictions that she jams the motherboard of the contemporary mind. Many of us presume, often correctly, that famous evangelists are hypocrites or crooks; and while McPherson was a bit of both, the labels do not quite cover her. She was sometimes blatantly racist, but sometimes in the vanguard of activism on behalf of minorities. She lived lavishly, but organized programs to care for the migrant poor whom the government ignored. Matthew Avery Sutton’s “Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America” does a fair job of evoking this complexity.

The book devotes less energy to conjuring McPherson’s character than to hammering out a couple of historical arguments. One is not overwhelmingly original: McPherson brought Pentecostalism from the margins of American culture into the mainstream. The other is not especially persuasive: She laid the foundation for the religious right when, especially in her last years, her preaching was inflamed with patriotism.

Sutton gives cursory treatment to the preacher’s early life, more fully described by two previous biographies, “Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister” by Edith L. Blumhofer and “Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson” by Daniel Mark Epstein. Born in 1890 to a Canadian farmer father and Salvation Army worker mother, Aimee Kennedy married Robert Semple, who converted her to Pentecostalism, in 1908. Within two years, they became missionaries in China; months later, he died from malaria, just before she gave birth to their daughter. Upon returning to New York, Aimee married a Rhode Island businessman named Harold McPherson with whom she had a son.

Their domesticity was disrupted by what Aimee described as God’s persistent calling, and she left her husband to drive around the country in the “Gospel Car,” her mother, Minnie, riding shotgun. McPherson preached a message of love, unlike the fire and brimstone of her contemporary Billy Sunday.

Her goal, Sutton explains, was to “restore American churches to what she believed was their original and ‘pure’ form,” the defining mission of Pentecostalism. (The movement, named for the day of Pentecost described in the book of Acts, when early Christians “were filled with the Holy Spirit,” took off in 1906 in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Los Angeles.)

McPherson arrived in Los Angeles in 1918 with her children and her mother, who helped run the temple for many years. (They eventually parted ways when, in an argument about church business, Aimee punched Minnie and broke her nose.) The preacher’s healthy ego (at age 20, she wrote a 686-page autobiography) grew with her fame. Predictably, so did her loneliness. Her own church doctrine, the Foursquare Gospel, prohibited remarriage during the lifetime of a former spouse; but McPherson, a voluptuous woman (who, as Sutton describes, put some carnality into the biblical metaphor of the Church as the Bride of Christ) had a number of dalliances before her eventual, and failed, third marriage.

Years later, Milton Berle claimed to have been among her lovers. But in her lifetime, the best known was Ken Ormiston, an engineer at her radio station and a central figure in her biggest scandal. On May 18, 1926, McPherson disappeared from the water off Venice Beach. Two men died over the course of the harrowing and widely publicized search for her. Then, on June 23, McPherson showed up in Agua Prieta, Mexico, on the Arizona border. She said she had been kidnapped, but inconsistencies in her story -- and an eyewitness claim that she and Ormiston were seen together in Carmel -- led to her arrest on morals, perjury and obstruction of justice charges that were eventually dropped.

After the incident, Sutton writes, McPherson “seemed to lose her focus on the mission of returning the United States to its Christian foundations. Instead, she pursued stardom and self-fulfillment” with a makeover and lots of meetings with studio executives about starring in a film about her life. In a vaudeville tour, she followed “two acrobats and a midget.” Variety called her “probably ... the poorest freak draw yet found.”

Sutton argues that “spiritual renewal eventually surpassed celebrity ambition in the life of Aimee Semple McPherson,” marking as the turning point her declaration of 1936 as the year of Pentecost. She delivered messages in tongues for the first time since her early days as an itinerant preacher. She also threw herself into charitable work and campaigned against the teaching of evolution in public schools. “She believed that God had established a unique covenant with the United States, but that modern America’s increasing secularization had put that covenant in jeopardy,” Sutton writes.

She settled into a siege mentality as the country slid from Depression into war, often blaming social ills on communists, Jews, foreigners or intellectuals. “McPherson struggled throughout her life with nativism,” is Sutton’s overly generous account of this particularly troubling aspect of her character. “When things were going well for her, she welcomed all people. But as soon as things got rocky, for her personally or for the nation as a whole, she placed the blame on ‘outsiders.’ ”

McPherson’s representations in pop culture have often been negative, which, Sutton writes, “reveals the dangers of mixing mass media with traditional religion. As she achieved superstar status, she risked becoming the object of her followers’ devotion, rather than just a messenger pointing the way toward God.”

She remains a difficult figure to understand, not merely because of celebrity culture’s idolatrous tendencies, but also because she embodies a contradiction that threatens Puritan, fundamentalist and New Age pieties alike: Everyone is unavoidably crooked, and everyone can receive the power to be good, and there is no end to the repetition of getting lost and finding the way back to the truth of this confounding situation.

Sutton’s apparent difficulty accepting this contradiction is the great weakness of his book. McPherson often becomes a vehicle for Sutton’s arguments, which almost overshadow her agonizingly, absurdly fascinating character. Even the pitiless H.L. Mencken, who usually looked at a Christian and saw a “half-wit,” was so moved by McPherson’s story as to set aside his formidable prejudices. “The lady, indeed, was so tragic that she made me uncomfortable, hardened though I was to the grinning mask of Hollywood,” he wrote.

Perhaps writing is a less effective mode for understanding McPherson than performance. But that would take an actress who can suggest the redemptive in the intolerable without overplaying one to explain away the other. Reese Witherspoon, your future awaits.