Aimee Semple McPherson: Actress or Anointed?

On this date, September 27th, 1944, one of the most famous female faith healers in history died of an overdose from sleeping pills that sent shockwaves through the world. While she is known for her ecumenical work and for being the founder of the Foursquare denomination, it is her life and theology as a pastor that few every stop to ponder. For better or for worse, this is a side of Aimee Semple McPherson’s story like you may have never read before.

Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944)

As famous in her day as Babe Ruth, Aimee Semple McPherson loved the spotlight. She was flamboyant, theatrical, ecumenical, and had the slippery talents of today’s best politicians. Though she fought for many good things like putting Bibles in every grade school, and helping the poor in Los Angeles, her erroneous teaching set the stage for a whole new wave of confusing doctrines. She taught dangerously about salvation in regards to healing and tongues. According to her theology, speaking tongues was evidence that a person was a part of the “true church.”[1] Furthermore, she built herself up as a holy conduit of God Himself. When on a trip from Ireland to China she claimed that God had chosen her to change the course of church at the time by bringing His people back to Scripture. God is quoted as saying directly to her,

But behold, even as thou sawest the messenger’ of light come forth, even so have I chosen and ordained thee, that thou shouldst go forth, and clear away the debris and contamination, with which they have covered and obscured the light of My Word. I have chosen thee and called thee by name that thou should speak unto My people. Look not upon the pages that contain the theories of men, but upon the burning, flaming words of My Word as revealed and illuminated by the Holy Spirit which I have given unto you.[2]

Aside from the fact that God’s choice of words seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to the published version of the King James Bible, there is one important thing to be noted. If God did speak these words to her (which this writer does not believe), she directly disobeyed Him based on the fruit of her life and teachings. Instead of pointing people to God’s Word and “clearing away the debris and contamination,” her life and ministry became the debris and contamination.

After being widowed by Robert Semple at the young age of 19, she would later remarry an accountant named Harold McPherson and settle down in Providence, Rhode Island. Upon hearing a “voice” telling her to go preach, she abandoned her husband, and took her children with her to hit the road for ministry. Harold filed for divorce in 1921 after citing abandonment. She later married actor, and womanizer, David Hutton in 1931. However, due to his scandalous lifestyle the two divorced in 1934. While even faithful pastors sometimes experience marital collapse, the pastors like McPherson who claim direct communication from God are unable to explain how it is that such divinely infallible messages do not include some insight as to how they might make their marriages last! Would a true believer not experience progressive sanctification at a rate that would provide some level of improvement by the third opportunity at matrimonial success? Such a question is asked with the utmost sincerity.

In her final 20 years of life Aimee made her largest modern day contribution by founding her own denomination. She established the Foursquare Church to preach a version of the Gospel more akin with her own personal theology. “Foursquare” represents her belief that Jesus had four ministries that made up the “full Gospel.” Anything less was not the true ministry of Christ in her eyes. The four squares are: 1) Jesus is Savior 2) Jesus is baptizer (implies that He baptizes people with the Holy Spirit, evidenced with tongues) 3) Jesus is healer (implies that because of the cross, all can receive healing now) 4) Jesus as coming King.[3] Two of these things are exaggerated theologies that teach healing and tongues as some sort of guaranteed evidence or result of salvation. For McPherson to claim God gave her special revelation, then go and build a denomination based on her own personal theology is eerily similar to the way many divergent religions begin. This is certainly not typically how a biblically sound denomination establishes itself. Such practice could perhaps be argued to be a segmented Gospel message at best, and at worst, another Gospel altogether (Galatians 1:6-12).

Like today’s faith healers, she was always surrounded by controversy. Aside from her divorces, lavish lifestyle, and public family disputes, she made headlines for other things as well. There was her mysterious disappearance in 1926 that was alleged to be linked to an affair, though she claimed she was kidnapped. There were also numerous financial controversies because she lived so lavishly as a type of earthly reward for her supernatural work. She had a chartered plane to ensure she always made it to healing services in style, a lavish villa in Lake Elsinore, California, [4] and was not popular with the press for her use of church funds to support her lust for such a lavish life. With her air-carriage, castle, and cash flow, Aimee had built her own royal empire to be a model for future prophetesses looking to profit on charismatic hopefuls.

She used every trick in the book in order to make the healing service presentations memorable. She hired a set building team to create an awe-inspiring atmosphere, and lined up wheelchairs and crutches along the platform to show off that people had been “healed.” Like a true showman, she built the service in such a way so it always came to a climax, in which people would make emotional responses to be healed, saved, or “filled with the Holy Ghost.” The supposedly healed people would be flaunted across platforms and everyone would be left in awe. Audio records prove that her voice, tone, rhetoric, service order, and strategies are closely linked to Kathryn Kuhlman (who would come next), and Benny Hinn (who would come later). She too wore a white outfit when preaching, and used media to get her message out to the masses. She would even tell the listener to place their hands on the radio set to receive their healing[5] like faith healers do today. Her power was said to be from God but the evidence of her life proves that God’s power may not have been at the root of her ministry. Her storyline resembles modern day celebrity tabloid controversy more than the story of a woman of God.

1010970_578365835533777_492801618_n
Picture of a man “grave soaking” at McPherson’s tomb at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA

Today, due to her supposed healing ministry and supernatural power, she is heralded by many as a legend in the faith. Students of signs and wonders schools still flock to her gravesite in Glendale, California to lie on her tombstone and “soak” in her anointing so they can operate in ministry as she once did.


[1] Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, Harvard University Press, 2007. EBSCOhost (10/14/16)

[2] Pentecostal Testimony Circular “A Prophetic Message Given by Mrs. R.J. Semple in Belfast Ireland while en route to China,” (7/1/1910): 12.

[3] A full explanation of Foursquare Church doctrine can be obtained at http://www.foursquare.org.

[4] “Aimee’s Castle” still exists today http://www.pe.com/articles/church-775645-dufresne-lake.html

[5] For an in depth (though favorable) look at McPherson see American Experience “Sister Aimee” Ep. 228, Directed and written by Linda Garmon, PBS, 2007.

9 thoughts on “Aimee Semple McPherson: Actress or Anointed?

  1. Amazing that in this day an age that the credulity of some people seemingly knows no bounds and they willingly follow one fraud after another …. just like lambs to the slaughter.

  2. Information like this is just one more proof that God’s word is true. God’s word has no defects, but we the people, that’s a different story.

    The believer is challenged, the pseudo half baked professor is revealed, and the atheist has no where to hide.

    Let God be true, and every man a liar, to quote the good book. A man may as well fault God for hot or cold, the blistering light of the sun, or the antiseptic cool of the moon, as to fault God or his word, for ANYTHING.

    There will always be the Simon the sorcerer types, as well as the Priscilla and Aquila’s, and the Apollos’s, (mighty in the scriptures), yet the fools, infidels, and atheists have no discernment to know either, left from right, or right from wrong.

  3. Interesting article. Some clarifications:
    In her 2nd marriage Harold actually came to preach with her. For a time the pair were traveling about as itinerant preachers. Harold, though, simply could not keep up and wanted a predicable life. The “living by faith life” as an itinerant preacher was not for him. Intriguingly, if he had made some type of deal with Aimee (I stay at home and you travel, ) he would have gotten his much desired permanent address since in a few short years the Angeles Temple in Los Angeles California would be built.

    Much the same could be said of Hutton who married a wife who was far more famous than himself. He simply was overwhelmed by all the fame and active church McPherson was part of. He married Aimee but his complaint developed that he ” married” her staff as well. Additionally Hutton was under scrutiny of a curious newspress; something he did not have to contend with before. McPherson repented of the third marriage as wrong from the beginning. Did God forgive her? Certainly many persons have not.

    I gather for some men, marriage to a woman who develops accomplishments that far overshadow her husband can be exceedingly difficult.

    Unlike Hinn, (and other faith healers save Charles S. Price) McPherson featured prominently in the newspapers with her largely successful faith healing. Skeptical reporters could not believe what they saw. Many newspapers required the names and address of such who claimed cures in their interviews and if you search the news archives coming online, yes, it is as biographer Daniel Mark Epstein wrote: “The healings present a monstrous obstacle to scientific historiography. If events transpired as newspapers, letters, and testimonials say they did, then Aimée Semple McPherson’s healing ministry was miraculous… The documentation is overwhelming… She would point to heaven, to Christ the Great Healer and take no credit for the results.”

    As far as her 1926 kidnapping goes, which so many claimed was fake, some Douglas, Arizona officials followed up on it and in an interview one of them gave to a newspaper (Madera Tribune,January 18, 1927 “Charge Aimee Facts Withheld” p. 4) describes a cabin no one else could earlier find, located in the Mexican desert with the help of a native American tracker. Inside they found an opened five-gallon oil can with its jagged lid just as McPherson described, “and we could see that the rough edge had been used to cut the bed ticking strips which apparently had bound the woman’s wrists and ankles.” McPherson had earlier demonstrated in a display she had set up for skeptical reporters how she was able to cut away her bonds without cutting her hands on a similar such can.

    I have not been able to locate the source that she kept a plane to from Lake Elsinore, California to her temple in Los Angeles ( a 1 hour trip by car today). That home, in 1939 was sold for $190,000 to relieve Temple debt. The charities operating through the Temple commissary remained, however. The Commissary established by McPherson was virtually the only place in town a person could get food, clothing, and blankets with no questions asked. It was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and became active in creating soup kitchens, free clinics, and other charitable activities feeding and otherwise assisting estimated 1.5 million people.

    One might look closer at the title of Matthew Avery Sutton’s book “Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America,” especially that second part: THE RESURRECTION OF CHRISTIAN AMERICA. The church of protestant America was heading to a very dark place with criticism theology, that is ministers and pastors spending much of their time explain how big the unscriptural motes and beams were in the other’s eye. McPherson’s attitude was in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. This was to bring about an effort at co-operation among churches rather than fault finding as exemplified in Reverend Robert P. Shuler; a local but famous Los Angeles Methodist Church who made a career out of firebrand faultfinding preaching. In Los Angeles, you were nobody until Reverend Shuler venomously dropped your name from his lips. Jews blacks and minorities were his frequent targets as well as McPherson herself who did not rise to his baiting. Instead she invited him to speak at her Temple in which he declined. Intriguingly, in later years, Reverend Shuler, much more subdued; did speak there. He wrote he could not figure out why God chose such a person. The flaws he observed in McPherson, were by his opinion, many, yet she ultimately made a positive impact on Christianity, long lasting and enduring .”

  4. Brother i have been going through your comments all these while in which they are good. Nevertheless, It is unwise to mock those who are of great witnesses to the gospel until proper investigation and revelation has been revealed to you about them. do not let stories you have heard direct your understanding because it corrupts a mans understanding. 2nd timothy 5:19. Let the Spirit of God guide you on things you you hear and listen to especially at these last hour. These woman you are taking about has lang gone before you were born. You were not there when she was a witness. Have you properly investigated and pray that God should reveal who she was to you before judging her? We are too quick to conclude rather than following deep investigation Ecc 7:5, Psalm 118:8-9. Isaiah 8:12. It is very unwise. One of the mistake we all make as Christians is that we are so delighted in the fall or when other mocks a witness to Christ. You think that you are more better than others right, you think that you cannot sin right, you think you are more better in the sight of God. If it is not by grace, are you qualified to be his own? The most dangerous thing ever is to see a witness, believer, man or a woman of God fall and you make mock of them. God does not place their judgement in your hands.Numbers 12:1-12. My i please to inform you, if you were placed with that kind of work will you do it better? Please Brother, Let God direct your steps instead of allowing some events or letters to direct you. God bless you.

  5. Yes, (@wale ) entirely correct, a newspaper ad placed by the Foursquare Church in 1976 challenging all the misinformation concerning the 1926 reported kidnapping, HERE:
    IT’S TIME THE TRUTH BE TOLD The Disappearance of Aimee
    https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2245&dat=19761120&id=4GszAAAAIBAJ&sjid=mjIHAAAAIBAJ&pg=3833,2151220&hl=en

    Worth reading :
    Scandal and Censure: A Reinvestigation of the Socio-Political Forces Surrounding the Disappearance of Aimee Semple McPherson
    http://firescholars.seu.edu/seu_papers/28/

    Sometimes the best way to tell the time as to ask one’s ideological opponents:

    In 1934, Charles Lee Smith, a famous atheist of note, founder of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism; stated before a debate with McPherson:

    ” Now concerning my opponent let me say this. I have met the leading fundamentalists of the nation, –William Bell Riley of Minneapolis, President of the World’s Christian Fundamental Association, G. C. Morgan, noted southern evangelist, Rev. Tingley, and others of a similar character,
    — and I am frank to admit to you that Aimee Semple McPherson is the greatest defender today of the Bible and Christianity.”

    1. The above comment by Charles Lee Smith is found in this book:
      Christian Peoples of the Spirit: A Documentary History of Pentecostal Spirituality from the Early Church to the Present
      Stanley M. Burgess NYU Press, Jul 25, 2011 p267

      The debate “There is a God: Debate between Aimee Semple McPherson, Fundamentalist and Charles Lee Smith, Atheist, 1934 “

  6. Not to get slightly off topic, but Benny Hinn was enamored with 3 women “ministers” : McPherson, Kuhlman and little-known ( but highly influential with todays most successful heretics like Bill Johnson and Rick Joyner ) Gwen Shaw, the now-dead leader of the End Time Handmaidens and Servants CULT. http://www.eth-s.com has my report. I was a member of her cult for about 9 years and worked at the hell-hole of a h.q. for 4.3 years. Suzanne Hinn is a member of this cult and ole’ Benny boy has spoken at some of the cult’s meetings.

  7. Paul in his letters to the Corinthians and to the Galatians warned these churches of false teaching, false idol worship, and misbehavior in the church by reminding the people of who they are in Christ Jesus. He reminded them of their position in Christ apart from their condition. When you read the writings of Paul you will find that he spends more time on who believers are in Christ Jesus and less time arguing against false teachers, stating things like – Do you not know who you are? You will judge the angels. It is sad that some Christians turn to mysticism, visions and dreams today to try and understand their faith when, after the cross, they have the Holy Spirit within themselves, as believers, to lead them personally from within. There was a time and a place for visions, dreams, and prophecy before the cross, before Jesus, before the comforter was sent to us. After the cross, believers through faith in Jesus are cleansed to purity where the Holy Spirit can now dwell inside rather than falling on them as was the case in the OT. Before the cross, man walked with Jesus or followed Him – after the cross believers walk in Jesus – we are made one with Him and through this relationship we are no longer disciples but sons and as sons we become heir to the Kingdom of God through faith in Christ Jesus. Today, after the cross, no prophecy is directing your life. Be very careful of those who tell you that they have a message from God, or a prophecy for you from God. First, all prophecy is testimony for Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ only. Second, all prophecy after the cross is confirmative. An example would be someone telling you they have a message from God about you or your life – this is extra-biblical and does not follow scriptural doctrine. However, John 14:17 The Spirit of the truth (very important), whom the world cannot receive (you the believer are not the world), because it neither sees Him or knows Him, but you (the believer) know Him, for He dwells with you (present tense), and will be in you (future tense). Here Jesus was speaking to His disciples about the Holy Spirit before the cross and gave them a revelation of the Holy Spirit after the cross – a future that is present tense for us and the Holy Spirit dwells in us, transforms us, and witnesses to us because the Holy Spirit was a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus. When we are lead by the Spirit, we rest in the truth of Jesus’ finished works and we place our full dependence on Him through the teaching of the Holy Spirit within us – something the OT saints never had.
    There was a time and a place for some of this, after the cross this kind of sensationalism passed away. However, the sheep are easily amazed and many still believe that their needs cannot be quietly handled by the Holy Spirit and turn back to sensationalism and show. Something to tickle their ears rather than touch their hearts.

    Kind regards,
    J Arnn
    Jewish Studies for Christians

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