Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Sister Aimee

As I was watching HBO’s Perry Mason (which is very dieselpunk, BTW) I was shocked to see Sister Alice McKeegan. Her similarities with Sister Molly Finister on Showtime’s City of Angels were too much of a coincidence. I knew there had to be a historical source. I was right. Her name was Aimee Semple McPherson. But everyone called her Sister Aimee.

Maslany, McPherson and Bishe, Photo: HBO; Getty Images; Showtime

Aimee Semple McPherson was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in 1890 on a Canadian farm. Before she turned 18 she married an Irish missionary named Robert Semple. Semple would later die from malaria on a missionary tour in Asia.

After returning to the US, McPherson married an accountant named Harold Steward McPherson. McPherson’s drive to be an evangelist was too much for their marriage and they ultimately divorced.

McPherson established the Foursquare Church. The name was drawn from an idea of McPherson in which Jesus formed the corners as the "Only Savior," the "Great Physician," the "Baptizer with the Holy Spirit," and the "Coming Bridegroom."

In 1918, she set up a home base in Los Angeles. Later, 1923 she opened her first church, which she named the Angeles Temple, and which offered religious services in five different languages.

McPherson was an unusual evangelist in her time. First, she was a woman. Most ministers were men. Second, she was Pentecostal and would speak in tongues and perform feats of faith healing. While Pentecostals were common in many parts of the US in that era they were rare as evangelists. Sister Molly isn’t shown faith healing and talking in tongues but they do show Sister Alice in the same light.

Sister McPherson also differed from both the fictional HBO and Showtime evangelists on the issue of race. While she did integrate her church service and public charity, McPherson demonized Japanese-Americans and endorsed the KKK.

McPherson is widely acknowledged as one of the first televangelists. She knew how to use film and radio to spread her message. She also owned and operated the radio station KFSG, which began broadcasting in 1924. According to the BBC, McPherson started a trend that led to the modern conservative talk and religious broadcasts.

However the preacher is perhaps best remembered for her bizarre disappearance in May 1926 from Los Angeles and reappearance a month later in a town in Mexico. McPherson insisted that she was kidnapped. However, Los Angeles officials believed the kidnapping was a fake. They charged her for making a false claim but they later dropped the charges because the witness was unreliable.

McPherson continued to draw crowds and preach after her alleged kidnapping in spite of the ridicule from the media. In 1944 she was found dead in her hotel room from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.

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