Aimee Semple McPherson is known today, if she’s known at all, for the five weeks she disappeared in 1926. Or maybe you’ve heard her name during the fourth hour of The Today Show, since Kathie Lee Gifford has written a new Broadway musical titled Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson.
What people have forgotten over the last 70 or so years is that McPherson was more than a scandal. She was a girl from the middle of nowhere in Canada who charged into the 20th century and changed the face of religion and became the first multimedia superstar. She took on the suits of the establishment, battling everyone from William Randolph Hearst to Upton Sinclair (is it any wonder the Sharon Falconer evangelist character in Sinclair’s Elmer Gantry is a fraud?). She was kidnapped by the Ku Klux Klan. She built a million dollar temple in Los Angeles, Angelus Temple, solely from donations. She was called queen of the gypsies after she faith healed the mother of the king of the gypsies.
Oh yeah, and she was legitimately, legendarily talented as a faith healer.
I know what you’re thinking. “Faith healing? Yeah, right.” But it’s true. Read any contemporary account of her faith healing, and you’ll see the same story repeated over and over again. The liberal elite of the time didn’t put much stock in McPherson. (Dorothy Parker gave her memoir a typically waspish review.) But almost any reporter who attended one of her services was reduced to merely transcribing what they saw, and most of them saw miracles. No doubt much of it was the sudden healing of psychosomatic illnesses, but her ability was nonetheless impressive. Anyone who was there was still awed by the memory when recounting it to biographers, even 60 years later. Even H.L. Mencken was taken by McPherson, eventually.
Maybe the most compelling aspect of McPherson’s life is how often she was on the right side of history. Yes, her church was segregated, with African Americans in the balcony. But when the KKK came into her church in their hoods, she let forth with an extemporaneous sermon condemning them obliquely. And people swear that those hooded men went outside, took off their hoods, and rejoined the service in their everyday clothes.
She opened soup kitchens in L.A. during the Great Depression, and cut through the government’s red tape to feed anyone who was hungry. For her efforts, she was charged with graft.
She survived a disastrous trip to China with her first husband, one that ended with his death and her giving birth in the middle of nowhere. She drove across the country at a time when there were no roads and women simply didn’t drive. She left a husband because the Lord called to her, despite the taint of divorce. She charged onto Broadway, became friends with Charlie Chaplin, went to Tex Guinan’s nightspot (“Hello, suckers!”), created a radio station that sold for $250 million dollars a few years ago, so impressed a young Anthony Quinn that he was still talking about her in interviews in the 1960s. She was twice put on trial for disappearing, though only officially once.
That scandal that has kept her memory dimly flickering in people’s lives isn’t the most interesting thing about her, which is saying something. She claimed to have been held hostage in a shack in the Mexican desert, until she was able to free herself from her bonds with the aid of a jagged tin can. But though her story was ludicrous, hers was the only tale that never varied during the weeks long trial. So taken with her was the jury that a major piece of evidence ended up being flushed down the toilet, where a juror had taken it to get a better look.
So yeah, Aimee Semple McPherson’s life became defined by a massive scandal. But like most of the major historical figures bypassed by the history writers, she’s a subject worth delving into. As Kathie Lee Gifford told me, “It’s the women who get written out of history.”