Girl  Evangelists
 
Aimee Semple 
McPherson
(1890-1944)

No person had a greater influence on the phenomenon of girl evangelists than did Aimee Semple McPherson (nee Kennedy), the leading woman revivalist of the 1920s. She held six-week summer Bible schools for children in her new 5300-seat church, she invited young people onto her stage to preach, and she appointed young women, some mere girls) to leadership positions in churches in her International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Aimee was born in Ontario, Canada and raised under the Salvation Army influence of her mother. After some rebellion against conservative Christianity, at age seventeen, she fell under the spell of Robert Semple, a Pentecostal itinerant revivalist, marrying him about a half year later. Within two years, they arrived in China as missionaries, but Robert died after only three months from malaria, in August 1910. Less than a month after Robert’s death, Aimee, alone and recently widowed in China, gave birth to a little girl, Roberta. On returning to North America, she remarried and gave birth to a son, but soon she was off preaching revival crusades, with considerable success. This led to separation and divorce.

In 1919 Aimee, along with her mother and the two children, headed for California, where by 1923 she had thousands of followers in Los Angeles. She opened a grand domed church called Angelus Temple, which seated 5300 people. The Temple conducted three services a day, seven days a week. Aimee’s sermons were often illustrated, dramatic productions that would rival nearby Hollywood. Calling her church the “Four-Square Gospel,” she added a Bible school and radio station, and satellite churches under that banner began to pop up throughout the continent. Identifying both with Pentecostalism and Fundamentalism, she was sought after for revival crusades throughout the continent and overseas. Thus she maintained a revivalist schedule as well as pastored her Los Angeles church—a considerable workload.

In 1926, McPherson disappeared for five weeks. It was thought she had drowned, but when she reappeared, she claimed that she had been kidnapped. But rumours circulated that she had really gone off for a romantic rendezvous with the engineer of her radio station. Aimee survived that  scandal and the attempt by the local prosecutor to get a grand jury indictment against her. She survived, as well, a nervous breakdown in 1930 and numerous lawsuits.

During the Great Depression, McPherson’s social activism went into high gear, providing clothing and food for the needy.

Aimee was clearly the most innovative and daring woman revivalist of the period. She helped to reinvigorate revivalism. Real and fictional women and girl evangelists were moulded in her image.

Today, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which Aimee founded, has a membership of about 8 million in 60,000 churches.

for further reading:

Chas. H. Barfoot, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890-1926 (Equinox, 2011).

Edith L. Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

Daniel Mark Epstein, Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson (Harcourt, Brace, 1993). Reprint:  Harvest, 1994.

Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

DVD. “American Experience - Sister Aimee” PBS, 2007.

RELATED PAGES:

Fundamentalism

Hollywood

Pentecostalism

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