The pioneering Christian evangelist received a second life in a pair of television series, once again mixing entertainment and religion—with a little faith healing thrown in.
Bleached-blond hair carefully wreathes her face. A pure-white cape, pinned with a corsage, drapes her shoulders. A cross adorns the front of her white dress. She is flanked by her congregants: women uniformly attired in white dresses with dark capes, men wearing suits and stiff white shirts. Though looking a bit wan, she manages to smile as movie cameras record the scene. The woman assures her followers: “Angelus Temple will carry on and we shall win many thousands of souls if we all pull together.” Then, with some of her faithful playing stringed and brass instruments, she leads everyone in a children’s song: “If we all pull together how happy we’ll be!” The crowd joins her in pulling on imaginary ropes and clapping hands to punctuate each syllable of “how happy we’ll be.” This was evangelist Sister Aimee Semple McPherson after being cleared of charges in a 1926 case that had threatened to destroy her and her ministry.
Recently, characters inspired by McPherson appeared on two TV series: Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (Showtime) and Perry Mason (HBO). Perhaps this coincidence—each including a female evangelist—is evidence of the current zeitgeist. In both programs, the McPherson-like character is variously depicted as a ditzy, conflicted bleached blonde and an alluring radio preacher and healer not above tricking her followers with headline-grabbing stunts. In Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, Kerry Bishé portrays Sister Molly Finnister, who finds respite from the responsibilities of her ministry in an affair with the Los Angeles Police Department’s first Chicano detective (Daniel Zovatto). Meanwhile, the city struggles with corrupt police, the Zoot Suit Riots, illegitimate land grabs, and Nazi plots. In Perry Mason, an origin story for the legal drama that aired from 1957 to 1966, Tatiana Maslany plays Sister Alice McKeegan, who fakes the faith healing of a worshipper in a wheelchair and attempts to resurrect a murdered baby. Lili Taylor plays her controlling mother and manager. Like their real-life counterpart, the evangelists in these series are enigmatic figures whose messages resonate during the troubled 1930s setting of the shows—and who are in sync with the charged climate of today.
THE GIFT OF TONGUES
A Canadian farm girl born in 1890 to devout parents Mildred and James Kennedy in Salford, Ontario, Sister Aimee—as she was often later addressed—was brought up with one foot in the Methodist church of her father and one foot in the Salvation Army, where her mother was a Sunday school superintendent. As a teenager, Aimee felt called to God after witnessing people speaking in tongues at a service led by a handsome Irish Pentecostal missionary named Robert Semple. “It was the voice of God thundering into my soul awful words of conviction and condemnation…though the message was spoken in 39 tongues,” she recalled in her first autobiographical work, 1919’s This Is That: The Experiences, Sermons and Writings of Aimee Semple McPherson. “From the moment I heard that young man speak with tongues to this day I have never doubted for the shadow of a second that there was a God.” Semple, she wrote, became her Bible school. Soon thereafter, Aimee was born again, spoke in tongues, and claimed to have been baptized in the Holy Spirit.
In 1908, the 17-year-old married Semple. They left Canada as self-appointed missionaries bound for China, with a stopover in England and Ireland to visit Semple’s family. In London, Aimee delivered a sermon at the Royal Albert Hall, a great success in which, she said, she felt as though she were speaking in tongues, although it came out as English.
They arrived in Hong Kong in 1910, knowing little of the language and culture. The two quickly contracted malaria in Macao and were taken back to Hong Kong for treatment. Semple also got dysentery and succumbed; Aimee survived and gave birth to a daughter. Three months later, the young widow returned home.
She got married again in 1912, this time to Harold McPherson, an accountant, and set up home in Providence, Rhode Island. A year later, she gave birth to a son. Though she had never heard of women preaching, McPherson felt called to deliver the gospel. During a visit to her hometown in Canada, she found that she could attract worshippers by standing on a chair placed curbside on a main street and remaining still and silent in prayer for perhaps 20 minutes, until enough curious passersby had gathered. Then she would call out, “Follow me,” and run them into a mission space she had rented. After one follower reminded her to pass the hat, she used the donated $65 to purchase her first tent.
By 1915, McPherson was conducting revival meetings in tent shows, parks, cotton fields, and borrowed auditoriums. In 1916, she began what became a seven-year campaign in which she crisscrossed the continent six times—and twice drove from New England to Key West and back—in a Packard convertible “Gospel Car.” This was a feat, given the largely unpaved roads of the era. Her grassroots preaching style, laced with humor based in down-home farm girl and motherhood stories, and, especially, her seemingly miraculous faith healings were a huge draw. Explaining their attraction, she wrote, “Right there at the first there was borne upon me the realization that the popular methods of that day were too archaic, too lifeless to capture the interest of the throngs.” At her stops, she routinely turned an initial crowd of a handful into one of hundreds or even thousands over a few days or weeks.
McPherson maintained that miracles, including divine healings, had not ceased after the death of Jesus and that they were dependent only on recipients’ belief in him. She said she was merely the conduit.
Her first experience with faith healing came in 1909, when, with prayer, she claimed to have healed her own broken ankle overnight. Her next healing happened in 1916, at the start of her cross-country campaign, when she was invited to preach in Corona, New York. McPherson called on all those present to help her pray for Louise Messnick, a young woman so crippled by rheumatoid arthritis that even though she used crutches, she required others to help her to the altar. As McPherson and the others prayed, Messnick said she felt a warm surge of energy pass throughout her body, and she left the meeting walking upright, without needing her crutches. Over the years, tens of thousands who suffered from goiters or were deaf, blind, or paralyzed would ask to be healed through McPherson’s invocations. In 1921, the American Medical Association confirmed that many of her healings had indeed taken place. That same year, during a service in San Diego’s Balboa Park, a crowd of 30,000 rushed the stage for healing, and nearby police and U.S. Marines, who had volunteered to help out during the event, succeeded in restoring order. Eventually, McPherson all but ceased this part of her ministry, training others to continue the work instead.
PREACHING AS PERFORMANCE
In the meantime, she had upgraded her old Gospel Car to a new Oldsmobile 8 with “Jesus Is Coming Soon—Get Ready” painted in gold on its side and had driven west. Just before Christmas 1918, McPherson, her children, and her mother arrived in Los Angeles, where McPherson had decided to set down roots. There, she learned much about publicity from the nascent movie industry—Louis B. Mayer’s film studio and United Artists were startups. Her friend and adviser Charlie Chaplin told her, “Half your success is due to your magnetic appeal, and half due to the props and lights. Whether you like it or not, you’re an actress.”
McPherson dressed the part. Her preaching attire had been born of poverty, when all she had were two white nurse uniforms, which she partially covered with a military cape. A beauty, she embellished her image with camera-ready makeup and fine clothes and abandoned her long, dark tresses for a bobbed, marcelled, and bleached-blond look.
She would later serve as the inspiration for Cole Porter’s evangelist Reno Sweeney in his musical Anything Goes, for Rose Carlton’s impersonation of evangelist Sister Annie Alden in the Mae West film Klondike Annie, and for Sinclair Lewis’s Sharon Falconer in his book Elmer Gantry. In a connection to a later generation of entertainment stars, McPherson baptized Marilyn Monroe’s grandmother, who brought up her granddaughter with Pentecostal teachings.
Much the way she recognized the importance of performance in her sermons, McPherson was fast to see the value of promotion. During her early tours, she’d drive the car while her husband used a megaphone to attract worshippers. Photographs show them standing next to hand-painted signs inviting people to attend her meetings and “Get Right with God.” By 1917, she’d begun marketing to larger audiences by editing a Christian newspaper, The Bridal Call, which she soon transformed into a monthly 16-page magazine. The issues carried her sermons, pictures from her campaigns, news, and other articles. “Now I could keep in touch across the miles with many of the people to whom I ministered in different parts of the country,” she wrote. Two years later, she published her autobiography This Is That. To advertise upcoming services, she took out ads in newspapers’ theater sections and, for the Balboa Park revivals, dropped 15,000 leaflets over San Diego during her first airplane ride. In 1924, just four years after Westinghouse received the first radio broadcasting license, McPherson raised funds for a station of her own: KFSG, its last three call letters an abbreviation for the denomination she’d named Foursquare Gospel.
Her mix of old-time conservative Christian identity, faith healing, and American patriotism was dispensed with compassion—and not the hellfire-and-brimstone warnings common to other evangelicals. So welcome was her message during the Great Depression that McPherson “drew more than one million people in the last half of 1933 to see her in person,” says Foursquare Church archivist Steve Zeleny.
SANCTUARY AS STAGE
In 1923, after raising more than $300,000 in donations, McPherson finished construction on her 5,300-seat Angelus Temple in Echo Park. Its interior looked more like a movie palace—an orchestra pit was situated at the foot of a stage—than a church. Outside, an electrified marquee hung above the main entrance, and a revolving neon cross stood on the roof, visible from 50 miles away. A year later, the cross was joined by a radio tower to broadcast KFSG. Angelus was then the nation’s largest church—for comparison’s sake, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City seats 3,000 people.
Overflowing crowds showed up for two services each weekday and for four services on Sundays. McPherson would enter the sanctuary by walking down a long ramp to the pulpit—with the dramatic flair of a Kabuki actor—wearing a silky, shape-revealing white gown and a military cape and carrying a huge bouquet of roses. The packed house would erupt in applause.
Sunday evenings were especially popular, attracting Hollywood stars and other luminaries. These services featured spectacular allegories, pageants, and operas—what McPherson called illustrated sermons. One of them, “Arrested for Speeding,” was inspired by a traffic violation. Dressed as a police officer, McPherson rode in on a motorcycle, alighted, and gestured with a white-gloved hand while calling out, “Stop! You’re speeding to hell.” Author Carey McWilliams, a friend of McPherson’s, wrote, “I have seen her drive an ugly Devil around the platform with a pitchfork, enact the drama of Valley Forge in George Washington’s uniform, and take the lead in a dramatized sermon called ‘Sodom and Gomorrah.’ ”
“It was quite simply the best show in town,” as Zeleny proclaimed to the BBC in 2014. And the show was open to all. Then, as now, most churches were segregated, but all races were welcome at Angelus Temple, even if a majority of the attendees were Caucasian. Among those who worshipped were local Roma, who called McPherson their queen, and members of the Ku Klux Klan, who once removed their hoods and stayed to pray after McPherson preached against their ways. Throughout the Depression, Angelus’s commissary was a reliable source of food, bedding, clothing, and other necessities. Mexican American actor Anthony Quinn once recounted in a television interview that “the one human being that never asked what your nationality was, what you believed in and so forth, was Aimee Semple McPherson.” He continued, “All you had to do was pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m hungry,’ and within an hour there’d be a food basket there for you. She literally kept most of that Mexican community alive for many years.”
Yet her fame wasn’t without scandal. An international media furor ignited when, in 1926, she mysteriously disappeared while swimming at a beach in Santa Monica. She was thought to have drowned until a ransom note signed by “the avengers” was found. The kidnappers wrote: “We took her for two reasons: First To wreck that damned Temple and second: to collect a tiny half million.”
She resurfaced more than 600 miles away and five weeks later in the Mexican border town Agua Prieta, claiming to have escaped her captors. Owing to alleged sightings of her while she was missing, McPherson was suspected of creating a ruse to cover up an affair with a married KFSG radio engineer. The grand jury inquiry that followed was shut down for lack of evidence, and no charges were filed. Famed journalist H.L. Mencken, a staunch Darwinist critical of McPherson’s campaigns to place Bibles in every Los Angeles public school classroom and to remove evolution from the curriculum, covered the case. He deemed the attempt to uncover wrongdoing by McPherson a conspiracy by the city’s other religious leaders. “I think it’s a shame the way they are prosecuting her,” he wrote. “It’s a dirty shame.” In the years that followed, the press covered every hint of scandal, from a third marriage that ended in a messy divorce to unfounded claims that McPherson had mismanaged Angelus’s finances—she had little involvement in church business affairs, and at the end of her life, her estate was worth less than $10,000.
END OF DAYS
Just as it did then, McPherson’s larger-than-life story makes for great entertainment now. At the outset, the Perry Mason and Penny Dreadful: City of Angels series accurately portray their evangelist characters as extraordinarily charismatic women, as senior pastors of large L.A. churches, and as having problematic mothers as their business managers. However—spoiler alert—the final segments of both series divert from the historical record when their fictional evangelists desert their ministries. In Perry Mason’s season 1, Sister Alice goes missing and is found by Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) hiding out in Carmel, working as a waitress, her blond hair dyed dark brown. In Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, Sister Molly finds herself trapped, afraid of her murderous mother, and escapes the only way she can—by slitting her own wrists.
The darkness of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, says writer and executive producer John Logan, can be traced to the 2016 presidential election, which led him to revive Penny Dreadful four years after it had finished a three-season run. His one-season reboot is set in 1938 Los Angeles, where the Sister Molly character plays a central role in what was a tumultuous time in the city’s history. “There are so many shocking parallels to me about what was going on then and what’s going on now,” Logan told TV Guide.
Bishé says her role “owes a whole lot to Aimee Semple McPherson,” whom she credits “as one of the pillars in the invention of a city,” adding, “I think there’s this broader trend of people finally being interested in the untold stories of history.”
Meanwhile, Ron Fitzgerald, who developed and wrote Perry Mason with Rolin Jones, offers a disclaimer about the show’s Sister Alice. “We made up 99 percent of this stuff. Here’s this church, and here’s this woman, and she’s a fascinating person. I mean, the combination of Hollywood and religion—she was a showman,” he says. “We used her as a jumping-off point and created our own character.”
Yet there’s always the chance that artistic license will effectively rewrite history. Zeleny cautions, “These characters are fictitious, and the shows do not claim that they are intended to be accurate representations of Aimee Semple McPherson. The audience doesn’t know what Aimee was like, so they don’t know that these portrayals don’t match reality—and so they don’t turn to the person next to them and say, ‘That’s absurd,’ or ‘That’s silly.’ ”
In September 1944, the real McPherson, 53 years old, traveled to Oakland to dedicate a new church. On the day of a scheduled appearance at the Oakland Auditorium, her son, Rolf, found her unconscious in her Leamington Hotel room, and she died shortly afterward. The cause of death was an accidental overdose of a barbiturate, compounded by kidney failure. Rolf McPherson assumed leadership of what then consisted of 410 churches in North America, 200 mission stations, and about 29,000 members. Since then, the mission McPherson founded—now known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel—has grown to more than 8.4 million members and 87,000 churches in 147 nations.
The once-grand Spanish-style Leamington Hotel today stands shrouded in scaffolding and dark netting as it’s transformed into a coworking space. It was built in 1926, and its storied past includes Amelia Earhart setting up an office while preparing for her tragic attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Around the time McPherson stayed there, the Leamington was still considered one of Oakland’s most fashionable spots for dining and dancing. Today, like Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, it is being resurrected.