Farm to Fame:
Sister Aimee’s Charisma
and the Rise of Pentecostalism
Taso G. Lagos
Article adopted from the author’s Charisma and Religious War in America
(Cambridge Scholars, 2020)
Aimee Semple McPherson gave new direction to millenarianist Christianity in America. She rose from the depths of despair and tragedy to establish a new Protestant church in the United States and became a hero to tens of thousands of faithful. She was also a woman in a field dominated by men, by “muscular Christianity,” and an authoritarian hierarchical system that had little to do with the precepts of Jesus of Nazareth. Her unusual upbringing, caught in the webs of a loveless marriage, nursed a charismatic personality that found expression in her ultimately successful ministry that since has evolved into a thriving domestic and international Four Square church. She died relatively young and alone.
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Salford, Oxford County in Ontario, Canada at first blush seems an unusual spot to produce one of the 20th century’s great religious pulpiteers. A rugged farming community of tough-minded, hard-scrabble personalities where mere survival in harsh winters stands supreme above all other human goals, it also endowed Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy with a pugilistic spirit that served her well in a life of deep tragedy and spectacular triumph.
Conditions for the flowering of the charismatic personality were in place from the start. At the time she was born on October 9, 1890, her mother was fifteen and her father fifty (each lied on their marriage certificate; he younger and she, older; even the local newspaper, that always published marriages, singularly avoided mention of this one). Her mother, Minnie Kennedy, experienced the death of both her parents as a young teenager, and came into the marriage to escape life with a foster family. James Kennedy, on the other hand, needed help on the 100-acre farm after his wife passed away and found Minnie from an ad. The escape that Minnie sought soon turned into the harsh reality of tending to a thriving farm while facing the barrenness of a cold marriage. Minnie found her almost obsessive escape in the Salvation Army church. This Bible-centered focus rubbed off on Aimee, who took it to heights no one in the family, least of all her mother, could have imagined. Unfortunately, Aimee also served as a crutch if not a diversion for Minnie in a life of living hell.
Aimee developed a hearty appetite for physical work (her physical prowess as an adult was legendary) and didn't seem to mind the rigors of farm life. In spirit and personality/ energy and devotion to farm-life, she was closer to her father than her mother, even though the latter held powerful sway during her adult life. In James the young Aimee found a devoted “grandfather,” who dotted on her with patience and tenderness, while her mother’s militaristic attention to the Army bred in Aimee a chummy regard for the drill sergeant’s life. Both elements were central in Aimee’s later missionary work. Did Aimee have a happy childhood? The question hangs over all charismatic personalities, for whom the common bonds of ego-satisfying love from parents are short-changed, not fully developed, or sabotaged in one form or another and who spend the rest of their lives seeking to substitute this all-important human need through fame and renown. This substitution rarely works, least of all satisfyingly, and usually ends in tragedy. Aimee, later Sister Aimee, followed this fateful trajectory to the letter.
Two personality elements stand out in Aimee: a moth’s magnetic pull towards the warmth of fame and attention and a stubbornness/determination that when a decision had been made was unstoppable. She took to acting and performing as a teenager, displeasing her mother. Then she discovered Pentecostalism by falling in love with an Irish-born minister, Robert Semple, that rocked her family’s religious traditions. She fought her mother’s beliefs over this conversion and won. She had to be both right and victorious. Doubts (the ability to accept paradox as a fact of life) did not settle well with Aimee. When confronted with the unresolvable dichotomy between accepting evolution theory versus creationism, she brought these doubts to a national audience through writing a letter to a prominent Canadian journal, and also prayed about it. In the end, God “revealed” himself to her and she was satisfied that creationism, God’s creationism, was the right path. And then she married and ran off with Robert.
On the surface, the marriage to the handsome Semple replicates her mother’s own marriage to James: an escape away from an unhappy domestic life. And there is some truth to this regard. As an intelligent, bubbly, restless soul, Aimee looked around Salford and realized that life there offered her few choices: housewife and farmer were the predominant occupations. And in tying up her life to Robert’s, she escaped the drudgery of the farmer’s monotony, yet this hitching also brought her into another dimension – the exciting but hermetically-sealed world of Pentecostalism. She needed a new worldview than the one Salford could provide and in Robert’s missionary work, and his loving arms, she found the elements lacking in her own personal sphere: elements that set her soul and psyche abuzz.
Semple was a pathway into her life-long commitment to Jesus. At times the conflation between her worldly husband – Semple – and her otherworldly one – Jesus – came close to dangerous compulsion: a sexualization of the Christ that has tinged Christianity from the start and raised many worried private prayers. In a strange way, a way that those outside the church cannot fully grasp, Semple led Aimee into a life completely and utterly devoted to Jesus. She gave herself over completely to the man from Nazareth. This faith, this complete loyalty remained with her until her last dying breath. There was to be no separation between the mortal and the divine: Robert/Jesus injected new meaning and energy into her life, and when the mortal had to pass, as must happen, it shattered her belief in the other. The rest of her life was spent in one form or another trying to replicate this private Eden of the mortal/divine, and the misery that resulted when it was never satisfied again in her life. The two forces could never again be so seamlessly tied together in a unifying whole. Robert understood that most souls are like Aimee’s – looking for an escape away from the pain, suffering and drudgery of daily life. Jesus allows folks to free themselves of the binding constraints of civilization. And Semple did so in spellbinding ways. Aimee learned well.
After marriage ceremony surrounding by apple trees came the wandering. First, was moving to Chicago to be closer to the Pentecostalist spirit (a leading light of the faith lived and preached there), where she was ordained as a minister. Then one day Robert came home and announced that they would do missionary work in China. The narrow vistas of Salford that once dominated her life were ceding to newer, more expansive and worldlier ones that were both exciting but terrifying. For all her intellectual curiosity, Aimee also was a homebody that needed the ballast of domestic comfort to normalize her bearings. She would not find them in China, where the sights, sounds, smells (and lavatory conditions) frightened her. Both she and Robert fell ill; she recovered but he passed away. Her life was shattered. She was now a widow; a month later, a mother giving birth to a baby daughter.
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In his classic account of the archetypal hero, A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell recounts the journey of the hero – the leader – who undergoes an exile (departure), confronts her inner demons (initiation) and finally, having been tested in the anvil of her fears, is ready to face the world (return). Jesus is the classic case. On the threshold of his ministry, he exiles himself to the desert for thirty days and nights where he faces his inner demons and the guile of the devil. Having succeeded against these powers, he returns to begin his ministry.
Aimee Semple follows this trajectory: her departure from her community, then her initiation when she battles the forces of fate and tragedy. Only much later, when she exercises some power over her demons, can she return to the world and commence her extraordinary mission. With the death of her beloved Robert, Aimee’s initiation had tragically begun. Not only did she have to take care of herself, she had to also feed a baby. She was broke. It is not clear if it was a benefactor from Chicago or her mother, Minnie, that answered the call and wired her some money, but she managed to leave Asia and make her way to San Francisco. From there she took a train to New York, where Minnie had settled after divorcing James Kennedy. It was a new life, but not a salvation. She struggled with depression and a listlessness that left her numb and jealous of the “happy” world around her. As her tragic year of 1911 closed, she wondered if life could get any worse. In a certain sense, it did; she had yet to touch the bottom of her misery.
Mirror what had previously happened at home, and what would devastate them both later, Aimee fell out with her mother. There was always a tension between the two women, and in the most inopportune moments it blew up into fights then flights. Minnie promptly left New York to return to Salford to look after her farm (she had purchased the farm from Kennedy, then leased it back to him). Aimee had not to fend for herself and baby Roberta. She handed our literature and collected donations for the Salvation Army, and it was at one such moment that a shy accountant named Harold McPherson happened to wander by. At one look at the attractive Aimee and he was smitten. Soon enough they had met, and he was walking her home from her Army duties. Then he took her on outing and dates, including to an automat where they sat side-by-side to lively theater people. Unbeknownst to her, this initiation was laying important seeds in her imagination; seeing theatergoers enjoying the shows showed to her how human beings needed the escape, warmth, cheer and good times that entertainment provided. It was a lesson that paid dividends in her later ministry.
The relationship was a mismatch from the start. Clearly Harold was in over his head; he never fully understood the type of person he was soon to marry. It was as if the 19th century married the 21st. He saw in Aimee a wife, homemaker and mother of their children (a second, a son named Rolf). She was nothing of the kind. A mother, yes, but the home was not big enough to contain her personality, which needed the spark and battery power of adulation and fame to sustain. Without this attention, she became a physical and emotional cripple. He packed the family to Providence, Rhode Island, thinking the escape from New York might do them all good, only for Aimee’s mood to worsen. There were illnesses and surgeries, but she could never get well. She complained of too much light and noise in the house; the children remembered having to be quiet around their mother. Then she fell ill and, as she later claimed, came close to death. It was the climactic moment of her initiation.
She later explained that she heard God telling her to take up the ministry, a call she had heard before but to which she could now no longer ignore. Late one night, when Harold was at work (the graveyard shift at a local bank), she packed her bags, got the kids ready and called a taxi for the train station to take them back to Canada. When Harold arrived home the following morning, his family had vanished. A telegram from Aimee soon arrived: “I have tried to walk your way and have failed. Won’t you come now and walk my way? I am sure we will be happy.” Stunned by this, he followed the family to Ontario, to witness the blooming of her ministry. At first with smaller crowds, then with larger ones, Aimee Semple McPherson had found her footing. When he watched her at one tent revival meeting, her ease with the crowd and her bubbling charisma in full display, he knew that he had lost his wife, no matter what the marriage certificate might say. Her initiation was over; she had embarked on what would become a magnificent return.
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Being an itinerant preacher brought its own struggles, least of all caring for her children while trying to feed the family. The return stage does not automatically confer boons and success, in fact, often the opposite. The valuable wisdom the hero acquired during the struggling initiation stage must now be converted into knowledge easily understood by audiences. Skeptics, of course, abound and she had to deal with both them and others jaded and cynical by other preachers spreading the same wisdom. How was she to stand out and make a sustainable career as a pulpiteer?
The stubbornness that featured so strongly earlier in her life now provided an important boost. The hardy physical prowess developed on the farm now came to good use as she fought fatigue, cynicism, lack of resources and homelessness. A voice in the wilderness. Drop by drop, and through sheer tenacity, she did not give up, even if the odds were heavily weighed against her and even when it seemed the prudent thing to do. Husband Harold hung around for a while but pitching a tent for a revival meeting and losing it to a strong wind, gave up and walked away.
Once more, Minnie Kennedy came to the rescue. And at a crucial time. She righted a sinking ship but brought the discipline and rigor that Aimee desperately needed. Strangely, Sister, as she was by now called, lacked true intelligence for money and displayed a horrible understanding of finances. Under her mother’s tutelage, Aimee’s missionary work began to grow. Each revival meeting brought new adherents, new followers and one by one, the word spread about her message. And what was that message?
In a field dominated by male preachers, who often espoused a “masculine” Christianity – Jesus as a stern taskmaster – Sister Aimee sold a different, softer message: of love, redemption, forgiveness and hope. She was less interested in the wretched ways of Satan and more the enveloping love for Jesus. She offered a powerful antidote to a deeply ruptured society, one riven by immigration and growing secularism, and the industrialization that came with it. She offered listeners a respite from rapid social change, from traditions upended and lives lost to a growing mass society where the individual American was a cog in an ever more complex mechanical machine of which no one could fully explain its operation. People desperately yearned for answers, and she gave them ones with simplicity, clarity, and compassion. “Sister” did not simply refer to her profession, but a moniker reflecting her impact on her acolytes. She became a kind of “national mother” to the disposed, conflicted and lost flock of the country.
And then came Los Angeles.
Itinerant life may have its own attractions, namely the retail work of being on the ground and meeting new people in everyday life, but it is not a hospitable environment to raise two children. When Roberta caught the influenza during the pandemic that raged in the U.S. beginning in 1918, Sister and Minnie recognized that this lifestyle was no longer sustainable. And it was on this hope that she arrived in paradise by the Pacific, to lemon and orange fields and the easy sunshine. No more battling road floods, windstorms, hurricanes, snow. She was to settle down now, but more significantly, she had also arrived at a style if preaching that was uniquely hers. She had learned well under Robert Semple, but now she surpassed him. Her ministry seemed to some observer less about religion per se and more about pop psychology that audiences could easily understand and glum onto.
Los Angeles provided her a unique stage. Not only a hotbed of religious sentiment (Pentecostalism itself got a boost from the African American-dominated 1906 Azusa Street Mission Revivals there), but also the center of the growing entertainment industry. Both fed into her internal meat grinder and produced astonishing results: church services that included powerfully produced spectacles on par with those being filmed in nearby movie studios. Even her healing services (most spectacularly displayed in nearby San Diego) had touches of theatricality. Charlie Chaplin, who became an admirer, called her a superb actor. Her renown grew along with the building of the Angelus Temple Church in Los Angeles, her spiritual and in time her physical home (she lived next to the sanctuary). She was a national figure and dominated newspaper coverage locally (she is said to have produced more headlines in L.A. papers in the 1920s than any other figure).
Underneath the spreading fame and glorious success lay the charismatic personality: the outward glory but the inner turmoil. After the many church services, the radio station shows, the business of running a megachurch, she trudged lonely and exhausted to her adjacent home, to the bitter noise of silence. She openly confessed to reporters on occasions that she was tired and lonely, as if saying it might expatiate this demon that never seemed to go away. After years of struggling on the rough roads of America as an itinerant preacher, she had settled down into fame and even fortune (according to some critics), yet in the bosom of her own heart, she was a miserable wreck. Is this what her return had done for her?
She craved an escape, and it came from an unusual source.
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Radio in the 1920s was an expanding medium. Originally created as a wireless telephone, until it was discovered that anyone could listen to a phone call if the frequency was known, it was David Sarnoff in 1916 who recognized its potential as an entertainment medium. Soon the airwaves were filled with musicians, news reporters, preachers and hucksters. Media was coming home, given its own furniture and part of the living room. Sister joined the revolution, adding a radio tower to Angelus Temple with the call letters KFSG (“Kall Four Square Gospel”) that went on the air in February 1924. All her services were broadcast over the air, with the help of an engineer named Kenneth G. Ormiston. Soon listeners were hearing the too-friendly banter between Sister and Ormiston that set tongues wagging. Minnie heard them and warned her daughter about the implications. Too little effect.
On January 1, 1926, Ormiston resigned as radio engineer. Eleven days later Sister took a boat to the Holy Land. On January 22, 1926, Ormiston was reported missing by his wife (who was aware of possible infidelity on his part). On March 15th, with Aimee still overseas, a wire transfer of $1,500 was sent from a “James Wallace” in Venice, California to Ormiston in Seattle, using the name of Aimee’s dead half-brother. This “James Wallace” used to money later that day to purchase a blue Chrysler coupe. A few weeks later, with Aimee back from her Holy Land tour, there followed a series of hotel check-ins – separately – by Sister and Ormiston in the Los Angeles area. Then came May 18, 1926: the day in which Aimee disappeared, initially thought to be dead (a funeral service was even held the following month), and eventually to reappear in Arizona after a high through desert terrain claiming she had been kidnapped.
There were those who believed her side of the story, there were a growing group of others who found the entire episode preposterous (including her supposed hike in the desert in ordinary street shoes with little wear and tear on her clothes). Using the power of her radio station and her church services, she convinced many of her innocent. But not enough to avoid indictment by the L.A. District Attorney. Yet, what followed was almost theatrical in its tone and execution; a replica of one of her service performances but with real life stakes. With the help of a newspaper reporter who knew the power levers in the city, she managed to get her case dismissed. Yet her career suffered; not again would she gain the heights that she managed prior to the affair. She continued to preach, helped feed tens of thousands during the bleak Great Depression, suffered through a brief but tempestuous marriage, and ended her days in a hotel room in Oakland (perhaps) accidentally overdosing on pills, including sleeping pills and barbiturates.
She reached amazing heights yet also great despair. A hugely successful ministry, but at the expense of what she truly wanted – to settle down with a normal family and a functional marriage. While her fame and power spread, so did her gnawing internal emptiness that led her to destructive choices. Had she had the courage to openly accept her relationship with Ormiston, she might have shocked polite society but may have lived a happier, less strained existence. This is the plight of the charismatic: they lived above the clouds, but their feet are buried deep in the mud. The differences are irreconcilable, circumstances they are not willing to face nor alleviate. It is a constant searching to satiate thirst but with salty water.
It is a mistake to suggest charisma studies, as a conceptual framework, are predictive rather than descriptive. A dysfunctional childhood does not automatically set the charismatic personality into motion; unstable childhoods may suggest later charismatic behavior (in the case of Aimee’s “kidnapping” plot, for example), but do not entirely predict it. Many human beings have suffered from the impact of unhappy upbringings but did not develop full-blown charismatic characteristics. Instead, visible patterns in examining charismatic personalities from birth to adulthood provide compelling evidence of links between events in childhood and later behavioral choices in the adult. There are tendencies, and these forces can explain the choices the adult charismatic makes. Since charismatic personalities gravitate to the public limelight, their behaviors can and do impact society, often in profound ways. Thus, their study attempts a comprehension and explication of an important thread in societal behavior, particularly when this behavior is destructive. No longer can we ignore its impact.
Today we may regard Sister Aimee as a prophet, one who heralded a new Christian sect with millions of followers around the world, and growing. Yet, what was her inner world like? The farm girl became a famous personality, hobnobbing with Hollywood elite, living a lavish lifestyle, undergoing plastic surgery, losing weight to make her lithe and suave, yet none of these brought her solace for what seemed an insatiable thirst for human love and embrace. The goal that she most wanted most alluded her; the goal that fame could not quench left her emotionally impoverished and bereft.
This is the charismatic’s paradox: one the one hand achieving great social success, on the other, finding little personal psychic rest. Aimee gained much for this world, but she once she lost her beloved Robert Semple, she was never able to find a worthy substitute. She focused her mental and physical energy on Jesus instead, but as a mortal she yearned for more. Lest we think that hers was a tragic life, it might be useful to keep in mind that her misery did not prevent her from gifting so much to this world, for which millions today rightly pay homage. It’s tempting to see her faults without also recognizing her accomplishments despite and in spite of the inner struggle that so bedevils charismatic personalities. ¤