Aimee Semple McPherson: Canadian fire-starter
by Rev Dr Ed & Janice Hird
What if we told you that Aimee Semple McPherson was the most famous North American woman in the 1920s? How is it that a Canadian farm girl impacted the lives of millions around the world?
Pastor Barry Buzza, former National Leader of the Canadian Foursquare Churches comments, “Aimee Semple McPherson was likely the most influential Evangelist/Pastor of the 1920’s. She built Angeles Temple, the largest church in America at that time, debt free, and packed it out four times every Sunday. I am inspired by the way God used a very human, divorced Canadian woman, to fulfill a divine assignment.”
Growing up in Salford, Ontario, Aimee was raised in the Salvation Army by her mother. At age 17, Aimee said, ”Lord, I’ll never eat or sleep again until you fill me with the Spirit of power.” Having been touched by the Spirit, she married the visiting evangelist Robert Semple. They went together to China as missionaries. Aimee wrote, “I should be willing to cross the continent upon my knees to say to one poor sinner, ‘Jesus loves you.’” After they both contracted malaria, her husband died. Aimee came back to North America in 1912 as a single mother. She wrote, “I had come home from China like a wounded little bird, and my bleeding heart was constantly pierced with curious questions from well-meaning people.”
Remarrying on the rebound to the practical Harold McPherson, she tried unsuccessfully to be the traditional stay-at-home housewife that her new husband wanted. It almost killed her. After ending up in hospital, God told her to go back preaching. Leaving that night with her two children, she began preaching in Canada. At her first meetings, only two men and a boy turned up for the first four days. After miraculous healings broke out, the curious crowds appeared. “My healings?” said Aimee, “I do nothing. If the eyes of the people are on me, nothing will happen. I pray and believe with others, who pray and believe, and the power of Christ works the miracle.” The sheer numbers of people healed during her services in the 1920s were astounding, including wheelchair-bound people being able to walk, and blind people being able to see. It is no wonder that Pastor Audrey Mabley of Eternally Yours TV calls Aimee a woman of inspiration.
The next step was travel to the West Coast. Aimee and her mom Minnie Kennedy became the first women to drive alone across North America on uncharted roads. After relocating to Los Angeles, Aimee became as well-known as Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini, and even President Teddy Roosevelt. Charlie Chaplin, who secretly visited the megachurch Angeles Temple, gave Aimee advice on a better stage arrangement for her illustrated sermons and drama. The BBC reported that “she had the best actors, the best set designers, the best costumes, the best make-up artists and professional lighting.” One month after opening Angeles Temple in Los Angeles in 1923, Aimee started L.I.F.E Bible College (the parent of our local PLBC College), which soon attracted 1,000 students.
The LA Times wrote about Aimee as having “…a spectacular career punctuated by romance, legal battles, adventure and tragedy…” After starting the first Christian radio station, she angered the LA crime mob and political bosses by having ex-drug dealers and sex workers give testimonies on the radio. Not even the mob could intimidate her. The TV journalist Laura-Lynn Thompson comments that Aimee was “a true warrior of God. She stood for her convictions and excelled by speaking truth and refusing to bow. She changed the world by her courage.” After ignoring kidnapping and death threats, Aimee was kidnapped at the beach by the mob on May 18th 1926, and taken across the border to Mexico, a common hideout for LA kidnappers. Presumed drowned, Aimee missed her own massive memorial service. Upon hearing about Aimee’s escape on June 23, 1926, there were spontaneous street parades with dancing and singing. At least 50,000 people welcomed her back from her kidnapping at the LA train station. Sadly, Aimee had to then endure an exhausting ninety-day court case. The paparazzi falsely accused her of covering up an abortion. Her medical records showed that she had had a hysterectomy many years previously.
After her vindication, Aimee said, “You can imagine my agony at seeing my name blazened forth in the daily press in so sordid a manner.” The relentless media mudslinging was very harmful to her most intimate family relationships. Jack Hayford, 4th President of the Foursquare Church, said that “there are very few people who have suffered more unfairness and criticism for magnifying the name of Jesus.”
Pastor Giulio Gabeli of Westwood Church comments, “As one of the earliest women in ministry, Aimee was a visionary trailblazer, trendsetter, and incredible mighty woman of God ahead of her times who moved in signs and wonders, breaking the mold and impacting the world.” She was in many ways the Billy Graham of the 1920s.
After her premature death from sleeping pills at age 54, she left an enduring legacy as founder of the Foursquare church with over 75,000 churches and 8.7 million members and adherents in 136 countries. Aimee was the unforgettable worldwide fire-starter.
Rev. Dr. Ed and Janice Hird, authors of For Better, For Worse: discovering the keys to a lasting relationship