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Jan. 27, 2023

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Clark County History: Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson

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Famous evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson rode through Vancouver streets on the city’s reddest firetruck along with the mayor and a reporter. Mayor J.P. Kiggins dubbed her honorary fire chief to one-up Los Angeles making McPherson an honorary fireman. McPherson had traveled from the Angelus Temple she founded in 1918 to dedicate the Four-Square Gospel Church in Vancouver in July 1931.

The Canadian-born McPherson showed a rebellious side early in life, defying her parents’ Methodist teachings by reading novels, watching movies and dancing. Later, she’d call those activities the devil’s work.

Hearing Darwin’s theory of evolution in high school, she wrote a letter to a Canadian newspaper arguing that taxpayers mustn’t fund those teachings, launching a lifelong campaign. She began her evangelizing career in 1913. Within three years, she was touring the United States and gathering record crowds.

Between 1915 and 1922, she broke attendance records and angered her competitor, the flamboyant Billy Sunday, who saw her as a mere sensationalist. In the 1920s, Los Angeles attracted scads of tourists. McPherson wisely preached to both Los Angelenos and tourists, who returned home spreading her name and gospel. Once she had a cocktail named after her, but as a prohibitionist, she objected. She became so popular that newspapers soon used only her first name in headlines. Everyone knew quirky Aimee.

She brazenly manipulated publicity, constantly calling attention to herself by exhibiting outlandish behavior in flowing robes and costumes. Still, she tied that popularity to charity work. Her church worked to help people caught in disasters. She offered food, bedding and clothing at her temple. During the Depression, she set up soup kitchens and free clinics.

McPherson condemned the media. But that didn’t curtail her use of radio, stage acts and movies to gain publicity and converts. Publicly, she defended her faith by going on the circuit debating with an atheist. In 1933, Vancouver’s Mission Theater showed a film of her debating prohibition at Temple Angelus.

Throughout her life, McPherson wrestled with emotional and psychological distress. She married and divorced three times. Often, ill health hospitalized her. When she disappeared off Santa Monica beach in 1926, everyone assumed she drowned. People claimed to spot her across the country. Then her temple received ransom demands. Later she resurfaced in an Arizona hospital, claiming a couple chloroformed and kidnapped her.

Nearly 50,000 people greeted her return to the City of Angels temple. A grand jury found that McPherson simply ran off with an employee to have an affair. She was indicted and tried for criminal conspiracy, but the charges were dropped when the employee named another woman in his dalliance.

McPherson blew the fire-engine siren while riding with Mayor Kiggins, but that wasn’t her first. Years before, after getting a speeding ticket, she donned a police uniform and gave a sermon mounted on a motorcycle, the siren screaming away. When the firetruck arrived at the overcrowded church, those outside jostled for window positions.

Thirteen years later, McPherson commanded front-page news again. The cause of her death was questioned. An inquest ruled she died of organ failure due to barbiturates.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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