While attending a revival meeting in December 1907, Aimee met Robert James Semple, a Pentecostal missionary from Ireland. There, her faith crisis ended as she decided to dedicate her life to God and made the conversion to Pentecostalism as she witnessed the Holy Spirit moving powerfully.
At that same revival meeting, Aimee became enraptured not only by the message that Robert Semple gave, but also with Robert himself. She decided to dedicate her life to both God and Robert, and after a short courtship, they were married on August 12, 1908, in a Salvation Army ceremony, pledging never to allow their marriage to lessen their devotion to God, affection for comrades, or faithfulness in the Army. The pair's notion of "Army" was very broad, encompassing much more than just the Salvation Army. Robert supported them as a foundry worker and preached at the local Pentecostal mission. Together, they studied the Bible and became very knowledgeable.
After embarking on an evangelistic tour to China, both contracted malaria. Robert also contracted dysentery, of which he died in Hong Kong. Aimee recovered and gave birth to their daughter, Roberta Star Semple, as a 19-year-old widow. On board a ship returning to the United States, Aimee Semple started a Sunday school class, then held other services, as well, oftentimes mentioning her late husband in her sermons; almost all passengers attended.
Shortly after her recuperation in the United States, Semple joined her mother Minnie working with the Salvation Army. While in New York City, she met Harold Stewart McPherson, an accountant. They were married on May 5, 1912, moved to Providence, Rhode Island and had a son, Rolf Potter Kennedy McPherson, in March 1913.
During this time, McPherson felt as though she denied her "calling" to go preach. After struggling with emotional distress and obsessive–compulsive disorder, she would fall to weep and pray. She felt the call to preach tug at her even more strongly after the birth of Rolf. Then in, 1914, she fell seriously ill, and McPherson states she again heard the persistent voice, asking her to go preach while in the holding room after a failed operation. McPherson accepted the voice's challenge, and she suddenly opened her eyes and was able to turn over in bed without pain. One spring morning in 1915, her husband returned home from the night shift to discover McPherson had left him and taken the children. A few weeks later, a note was received inviting him to join her in evangelistic work.
Her husband later followed McPherson to take her back home. When he saw her, though, preaching to a crowd, he witnessed her transformation into a radiant, lovely woman. Before long, he became her fellow worker in Christ. Their house in Providence was sold and he joined her in setting up tents for revival meetings and even did some preaching himself. Throughout their journey, food and accommodations were uncertain, as they lived out of the "Gospel Car". Her husband, in spite of initial enthusiasm, wanted a life that was more stable and predicable. Eventually, he returned to Rhode Island and around 1918 filed for separation. He petitioned for divorce, citing abandonment; the divorce was granted in 1921.
She married again on September 13, 1931 to actor and musician David Hutton, followed by much drama, after which she fainted and fractured her skull. While McPherson was away in Europe to recover, she was angered to learn Hutton was billing himself as "Aimee's man" in his cabaret singing act and was frequently photographed with scantily clad women. Hutton's much-publicized personal scandals were damaging the Foursquare Gospel Church and their leader's credibility with other churches. McPherson and Hutton separated in 1933 and divorced on March 1, 1934. McPherson later publicly repented of the marriage, as wrong from the beginning, for both theological and personal reasons and therefore rejected nationally known gospel singer Homer Rodeheaver, a more appropriate suitor, when he eventually asked for her hand in 1935.
While married to Robert Semple, the two moved to Chicago and became part of William Durham's Full Gospel Assembly. There, Aimee was discovered to have a unique ability in the interpretation of speaking in tongues, translating with stylistic eloquence the otherwise indecipherable utterances of glossolalia. Unable to find fulfillment as a housewife, in 1913, McPherson began evangelizing and holding tent revivals across the Sawdust Trail in the United States and Canada.
After her first successful visits, she had little difficulty with acceptance or attendance. Eager converts filled the pews of local churches which turned many recalcitrant ministers into her enthusiastic supporters. Frequently, she would start a revival meeting in a hall or church and then have to move to a larger building to accommodate the growing crowds. When no buildings were suitable, she set up a tent, which was often filled past capacity.
She wanted to create the enthusiasm a Pentecostal meeting could provide, with its "Amen Corner" and "Halleluiah Chorus", but also to avoid its unbridled chaos as participants started shouting, trembling on the floor, and speaking in tongues, all at once. McPherson organized her meetings with the general public in mind and yet did not wish to quench any who suddenly came into "the Spirit". To this, she set up a "tarry tent or room" away from the general area for any who suddenly started speaking in tongues or display any other Holy Ghost behavior by which the larger audience might be put off.
In 1916, McPherson embarked on a tour of the Southern United States in her "Gospel Car", and again later, in 1918, with her mother, Mildred Kennedy. Mildred was an important addition to McPherson's ministry and managed everything, including the money, which gave them an unprecedented degree of financial security. Their vehicle was a 1912 Packard touring car emblazoned with religious slogans. Standing on the back seat of the convertible, McPherson preached sermons over a megaphone. On the road between sermons, she would sit in the back seat typing sermons and other religious materials. She first traveled up and down the eastern United States, then went to other parts of the country.
By 1917, she had started her own magazine, The Bridal Call, for which she wrote many articles about women’s roles in religion; she portrayed the link between Christians and Jesus as a marriage bond. Along with taking seriously the religious role of women, the magazine contributed to transforming Pentecostalism from a movement into an ongoing American religious presence.
While McPherson was traveling for her evangelical work, she arrived in Baltimore, where she was first "discovered" by the newspapers in 1919, after a day of conducting evangelistic services at the Lyric Opera House. Baltimore became one of the pivotal points for her early career. The crowds, in their religious ecstasy, were barely kept under control as they gave way to manifestations of "the Spirit". Moreover, her alleged faith healings now became part of the public record, and attendees began to focus on that part of her ministry over all else. McPherson also considered the Baltimore Revival an important turning point, not only for her ministry, "but in the history of the outpouring of the Pentecostal power!"
In late 1918, McPherson came to Los Angeles, a move many at the time were making for better opportunities. Minnie Kennedy, her mother, rented the largest hall they could find, the 3,500-seat Philharmonic Auditorium (known then as Temple Auditorium). People waited for hours to get in, and McPherson could hardly reach the pulpit without stepping on someone. Afterwards, grateful attendees of her Los Angeles meetings built a home for her family and her, which included everything from the cellar to a canary bird. At this time, Los Angeles had become a popular vacation spot. Rather than touring the United States to preach her sermons, McPherson stayed in Los Angeles, drawing audiences from a population which had soared from 100,000 in 1900 to 575,000 people in 1920, and often included many visitors.
Wearied by constant traveling and having nowhere to raise a family, McPherson had settled in Los Angeles, where she maintained both a home and a church. McPherson believed that by creating a church in Los Angeles, her audience would come to her from all over the country. This, she felt, would allow her to plant seeds of the Gospel and tourists would take it home to their communities, still reaching the masses. For several years, she continued to travel and raise money for the construction of a large, domed church building at 1100 Glendale Blvd. in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. The church would be named Angelus Temple, reflecting the Roman Catholic tradition of the Angelus bell, calling the faithful to prayer, as well its reference to the angels. Not wanting to take on debt, McPherson located a construction firm which would work with her as funds were raised "by faith". She started with $5,000. The firm indicated it would be enough to carve out a hole for the foundation.
McPherson began a campaign in earnest and was able to mobilize diverse groups of people to help fund and build the new church. Various fundraising methods were used, such as selling chairs for Temple seating at US $25 apiece. In exchange, "chairholders" got a miniature chair and encouragement to pray daily for the person who would eventually sit in that chair. Her approach worked to generate enthusiastic giving and to create a sense of ownership and family among the contributors.
Raising more money than she had hoped, McPherson altered the original plans, and built a "megachurch" that would draw many followers throughout the years. The endeavor cost contributors around $250,000 in actual money spent. However, this price was low for a structure of its size. Costs were kept down by donations of building materials and volunteer labor. McPherson sometimes quipped when she first got to California, all she had was a car, ten dollars and a tambourine. Enrollment grew exceeding 10,000, and was advertised to be the largest single Christian congregation in the world. According to church records, Angelus Temple received 40 million visitors within the first seven years.
McPherson intended the Angelus Temple as both a place of worship and an ecumenical center for persons of all Christian faiths to meet and build alliances. A wide range of clergy and laypeople to include Methodists, Baptists, the Salvation Army, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Adventists, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and secular civic leaders came to the Angelus Temple. They were welcomed and many made their way to her podium as guest speakers. Eventually, even Rev. Robert P. Shuler, a once-robust McPherson critic, was featured as a guest preacher.
Because Pentecostalism was not popular in the U.S. during the 1920s, McPherson avoided the label. She did speaking-in-tongues and faith healing, but kept the former to a minimum in sermons to appease mainstream audiences. Discarded medical fittings from persons faith-healed during her services, which included crutches, wheelchairs, and other paraphernalia; were gathered for display in a museum area. As evidence of her early influence by the Salvation Army, McPherson adopted a theme of "lighthouses" for the satellite churches, referring to the parent church as the "Salvation Navy". This was the beginning of McPherson working to plant Foursquare Gospel churches around the country.
McPherson strove to develop a church organization which could not only provide for the spiritual, but also the physical needs of the distressed. Though she fervently believed and preached the imminent return of Jesus Christ, she had no idea of how soon that Second Coming might be. Two thoughts pervaded the mind of most devout Pentecostals of the time, "Jesus is coming, therefore how can I get ready," and "how can I help others to get ready?"
For McPherson, part of the answer was to mobilize her Temple congregation and everyone she could reach through radio, telephone, and word of mouth to get involved in substantial amounts of charity and social work. "True Christianity is not only to be good but to do good," she preached. The Charities and Beneficiary Department collected donations for all types of humanitarian relief to include a Japanese disaster, as well as a German relief fund. Men released from prison were found jobs by a "brotherhood". A "sisterhood" was created, as well, sewing baby clothing for impoverished mothers. Branch churches elsewhere in the country were likewise encouraged to follow the Angelus Temple's example. Even people who considered McPherson's theology almost ridiculous helped out because they saw her church as the best way to assist their community.
In June 1925, after confirming reports of an earthquake in Santa Barbara, McPherson immediately left the parsonage and interrupted a broadcast at a nearby radio station. She took over the microphone from the startled singer and requested food, blankets, clothing, or whatever listeners could give for emergency supplies to assist nearby Santa Barbara. As the Red Cross met to discuss and organize aid, McPherson's second convoy had already arrived at the troubled city. In 1928, after a dam failed and the ensuing flood left up to 600 dead in its wake, McPherson's church led the relief effort. Later, in 1933, an earthquake struck and devastated Long Beach. McPherson quickly arranged for volunteers to be on the scene with blankets, coffee, and doughnuts.
Drawing from her childhood experience with the Salvation Army, in 1927, McPherson opened a commissary at Angelus Temple which was devised to assist the needy on a much larger, formalized scale. The Commissary was virtually the only place in town a person could get food, clothing, and blankets with no questions asked. It was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and became active in creating soup kitchens, free clinics, and other charitable activities as the Great Depression wore on. She fed an estimated 1.5 million people. When the government shut down the free school-lunch program, McPherson took it over. Her policy of giving first and investigating afterward allowed waste and a certain number of deadbeats to leech off the program, but it "alleviated suffering on an epic scale".
McPherson got the fire and police departments to assist in distribution. Doctors, physicians, and dentists were persuaded to staff her free clinic that trained 500 nurses to help treat children and the elderly. She encouraged individuals and companies of all types to donate supplies, food, cash, or labor. To prevent the power from being turned off to homes of overdue accounts during the winter, a $2,000 cash reserve was set up with the utility company. Many people, who otherwise would have nothing to do with the Angelus Temple, would receive a call from McPherson, and then loot their mansion closets or company stores for something to give. The Yellow Cab Company donated a large building and, in the first month, 80,000 people received meals there.
Laboring under a sign "Everybody and anybody is somebody to Jesus", volunteer workers filled commissary baskets with an assortment of food and other items, as well as Foursquare Gospel literature, and handed them out. Even a complete kit designed to care for newborn babies was available. A reporter wrote he had always thought the breadline was a "drab colorless scar on our civilization", but of the Angelus Temple commissary, he observed, was "the warm garment of sympathy and Christian succor." A note, which reflects the sentiment of many of those who received assistance, was left in June, 2010 at McPherson's virtual gravesite:
"My grandpa always talked about when he was a kid, he and his family moved to California from Missouri, during the depression, and his family was starving and they met you and you gave them a bag of vegetables, and some money, he never forgot it." -Anonymous
Establishing an employment bureau, as well, McPherson desired to help "the discouraged husband, the despondent widow, or the little mother who wants extra work to bear the burden of a sick husband". She expected everyone in her temple to be involved, 'let us ever strive to lighten our brother's load and dry the tears of a sister; race, creed or status make no difference. We are all one in the eyes of the Lord." She encouraged members to think of the commissary as widening "the spirituality of the whole church".
In 1932, the commissary was raided by police to allegedly locate a still used to make brandy out of donated apricots. Some sauerkraut and salad oil were purportedly observed leaking from their respective storage areas. As a consequence, the commissary was briefly shut down. The press got involved and the public demanded an investigation. Since no one really wanted to stall the temple's charity efforts, the acceptable solution was to replace the immediate management. The staff was let go and students from her Foursquare Gospel Church's LIFE Bible College filled in. The newspaper media, generally cynical of the Temple and in particular, of McPherson, recognized "the excellent features of that organization's efforts" and "the faults of the Angelus Temple are outweighed by its virtues". McPherson issued a statement declaring, "They have clashed loud their cymbals and blown their trumpets about a still and some sauerkraut,... our work is still before us. If...anybody abused his trust, it must not happen again.
As McPherson tried to avoid administrative delays in categorizing the "deserving" from the "undeserving", her temple commissary became known as one of the region's most effective and inclusive aid institutions. Few soup kitchens lasted more than several months, but McPherson's remained open. Even as she transformed herself into a fashionable blonde Hollywood socialite, McPherson's vigor and practicality for social activism did not change; she loved organizing big projects. A 1936 survey indicated the Angelus Temple assisted more family units than any other public or private institution in the city. Because her programs aided nonresidents, as well, such as migrants from other states and Mexico, she ran afoul of California state regulations. Though temple guidelines were later officially adjusted to accommodate those policies, helping families in need was a priority, regardless of their place of residence.
Eventually, McPherson's church evolved into its own denomination and became known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The new denomination focused on the nature of Christ's character: that he was Savior, baptizer with the Holy Spirit, healer, and coming King. The four main beliefs were: the first being Christ's ability to transform individuals' lives through the act of salvation; the second focused on a holy baptism which includes receiving power to glorify and exalt Christ in a practical way; the third was divine healing, newness of life for both body and spirit; and the fourth was gospel-oriented heed to the premillennial return of Jesus Christ.
McPherson published the weekly Foursquare Crusader, along with her monthly magazine, Bridal Call. She began broadcasting on radio in the early 1920s. On a Sunday morning in April 1922, the Rockridge Radio Station in Oakland CA; offered her some radio time and she became the first woman to preach a sermon over the "wireless telephone." With the opening of Foursquare Gospel-owned KFSG on February 6, 1924, she became the second woman granted a broadcast license by the Department of Commerce, the federal agency that supervised broadcasting in the early 1920s.
McPherson racially integrated her tent meetings and church services. On one occasion, as a response to McPherson's ministry and Angelus Temple being integrated, Ku Klux Klan members were in attendance, but after the service, hoods and robes were found on the ground in nearby Echo Park. She is also credited with helping many Hispanic ministries in Los Angeles.
McPherson traveling about the country holding widely popular revival meetings and filling local churches with converts was one thing, settling permanently into their city caused concern among some local Los Angeles churches. Though she shared many of their fundamentalist beliefs, such as divine inspiration of the Bible, the classical Trinity, virgin birth of Jesus, historical reality of Christ's miracles, bodily resurrection of Christ, and the atoning purpose of his crucifixion; the presentation of lavish sermons, and an effective faith-healing ministry presented by a female divorcee whom thousands adored and about whom newspapers continuously wrote, was unexpected. Moreover, the Temple, especially the women, had a look and style uniquely theirs. They would emulate McPherson's style and dress, and a distinct Angelus Temple uniform came into existence, a white dress with a navy blue cape thrown over it. Men were more discreet, wearing suits. Her voice, projected over the powerful state-of-the-art KFSG radio station and heard by hundreds of thousands, became the most recognized in the western United States.
McPherson preaching at the newly built Angelus Temple in 1923: Her messages showcased the love of God, redemption, and the joys of service and heaven, contrasting sharply with the fire-and-brimstone style of sermon delivery popular with many of her peers.
Her illustrated sermons attracted criticism from some clergy members because they thought it turned the Gospel message into mundane theater and entertainment. Divine healing, as McPherson called it, was claimed by many pastors to be a unique dispensation granted only for Apostolic times. Reverend Robert P. Shuler published a pamphlet entitled McPhersonism, which purported that her "most spectacular and advertised program was out of harmony with God's word." Debates such as the Bogard-McPherson debate in 1934 drew further attention to the controversy, but none could really argue effectively against McPherson's results.
The new developing Assemblies of God denomination, Pentecostal as McPherson was, for a time worked with her, but they encouraged separation from established Protestant faiths. McPherson resisted trends to isolate as a denomination and continued her task of coalition-building among evangelicals. McPherson worked hard to attain ecumenical vision of the faith, and while she participated in debates, avoided pitched rhetorical battles that divided so many in Christianity. She wanted to work with existing churches on projects and to share with them her visions and beliefs.
Assisting in her passion was the speedy establishment of LIFE Bible College adjacent to the Angeles Temple. Ministers trained there were originally intended to go nationally and worldwide to all denominations and share her newly defined "Foursquare Gospel." A well-known Methodist minister, Frank Thompson, who never had the Pentecostal experience, was persuaded to run the college, and he taught the students the doctrine of John Wesley. McPherson and others, meanwhile, infused them with Pentecostal ideals. For about a year, Antonia Frederick Futterer, suggested by Los Angeles Times as the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's film character, Indiana Jones, was also a facility member. McPherson's efforts eventually led Pentecostals, which were previously unconventional and on the periphery of Christianity, into the mainstream of American evangelicalism.
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