In February 1927, evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson arrived in Syracuse to hold a three-day “evangelical campaign.”
Wearing a fur coat, she arrived with lots of luggage and a staff of five. She stayed in the best hotel in the city – the Hotel Syracuse, and held her meetings at various venues in the city. The highlight was a Sunday evening session, attended by 1200 people, with a choir of 100. According to a local newspaper reporter, “many of those who saw her last night thought what a consummate success Aimee would make on the stage, had she not chosen the role of an evangelist instead.” With her “high-piled titian hair…and figure like a triumphant goddess”, Sister Aimee put on quite a show.
I’ve been fascinated by Aimee Semple McPherson since, as a kid, I first read Carey MacWilliams’ essay from The Aspirin Age about her. There’s been a more recent biography of her, which particularly explored her use of media (her LA church had its own radio station in the 1920s) and her adaptation of theatrical and movie techniques during her church services. I even saw a (very bad) low-budget movie on a cable channel about her- but it was really terrible. There is another movie in the works, but it doesn’t seem close to completion. Who would I cast as Sister Aimee? Hmmm…
She’s a very compelling person. By the time she was twenty, she had been married and widowed – she and her first husband were missionaries who went to China shortly before World War I began. A few weeks before she gave birth to her first child, her young husband died during an epidemic, and she was left to find her way back home (to Toronto) with a newborn baby and no money. Perhaps because of that experience, Aimee never allowed herself to become dependent on anyone else, not even her second husband. She believed, though, that she truly had a gift for preaching, and eventually she, her mother, her two children, and her on-again, off-again husband, made their way to California. It’s there that she established her Angelus Temple in the 1920s.
Aimee had many talents besides preaching, though; she was a natural-born organizer with a vision for what religion could do for people. She was also in the right place at the right time: LA was one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. Thousands of people flocked to see and hear Sister Aimee. Thousands more across the country subscribed to her mailings.
Unfortunately, Aimee’s flair for the dramatic helped lead to her downfall. In May 1926, she disappeared from a California beach. A nationwide hunt ensued while her followers fervently prayed for her safe return. She did return, claiming she had been kidnapped, but her story unraveled when it came out she had been having a torrid affair with the manager of her radio station (who happened to be married to someone else). She never quite recovered from the scandal, although she continued to hold services at her church through the 1930s.
Aimee’s visit to Syracuse was part of her nationwide attempt to regain her popularity after the kidnapping hoax, and both the media attention and the attendance at her sessions demonstrate that Sister Aimee still appealed to something in thousands of Americans.