The real-life Sister Alice: Glamorous thrice-married Aimee Semple McPherson was a 1920s sensation who founded America’s first megachurch and faked her own kidnapping – now she’s the inspiration for evangelical preachers in Perry Mason and Penny Dreadful
- ‘Sister’ Aimee Semple McPherson was a popular and controversial Pentecostal evangelical preacher in the 1920s; who established America’s first megachurch in Los Angeles that seated 5,300 people in the audience
- Now Sister Aimee is the inspiration behind two fictional characters in the television shows, Perry Mason and Penny Dreadful: City of Angels
- McPherson skyrocketed to fame between 1913 through 1922 as a travelling preacher in revival meetings across the USA; she toured the country in a Packard convertible that said ‘Jesus Is Coming Soon- Get Ready’
- Thousands were drawn to her theatrical sermons where she spoke in tongues and performed healing miracles; famous parishioners were Jean Harlow, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin
- In 1923 she founded the Foursquare Church denomination and built the colossal white-domed Angelus Temple for her followers, it had 40 million visitors within its first seven years
- In 1926, McPherson was accused of faking her own kidnapping for publicity when investigators discovered that she instead had taken a lover and sequestered herself for weeks in a secret love-cabin
- Foursquare Church still exists today with 90,000 congregations and 8.8 million followers
Sister Aimee Semple McPherson was a Pentecostal evangelical preacher and entertainer in the 1920s who founded the Foursquare Church denomination and built America’s first megachurch in Los Angeles
Almost six decades after her death, ‘Sister’ Aimee Sempel McPherson – the legendary Pentecostal phenomenon of the 1920s and founder of America’s first megachurch is making a comeback in Hollywood. This time she is the inspiration behind two characters in the television series, ‘Perry Mason’ on HBO and ‘Penny Dreadful: City of Angel’ on Showtime.
In HBO’s film-noir reboot of Perry Mason, Sister Aimee is rendered in Tatiana Maslany’s role as ‘Sister Alice’- a celebrity preacher who completes miracle healings, speaks in tongues and delivers powerful, theatrical sermons to the fictional ‘Radiant Assembly of God’ assembly.
Likewise, in Showtime’s Great Depression-era detective series, ‘City of Angels’ – Kerry Bishé evokes the evangelical powerhouse with her role as ‘Sister Molly,’ a radical preacher who broadcasts the gospel with her fictional radio program, ‘Joyful Voices.’ In real life, Sister Aimee became the first evangelist to pioneer radio as a means of drawing new sheep to her flock.
Aimee Semple McPherson became an American sensation in the 1920s as a glamorous and charismatic, evangelical firebrand. She skyrocketed to fame after performing a series of public faith ‘healings’ and rollicking sermons at revival meetings across the nation that drew in massive crowds.
Later, she went on to establish the country’s first megachurch in Los Angeles, that seated 5,300 spectators in the audience and drew 40 million visitors within the first seven years of opening.
Tatiana Maslany’s role as ‘Sister Alice’ in the HBO reboot of Perry Mason is based on Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, a celebrity preacher in the 1920s who performed miracle ‘healings’, spoke in tongues and delivered powerful, theatrical sermons across the United States
Kerry Bishé (above) evokes Sister Aimee Semple McPherson in her role as ‘Sister Molly’ on Showtime’s, ‘Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.’ In the series, ‘Sister Molly’ is a radical preacher who broadcasts the gospel on her fictional radio program, ‘Joyful Voices.’ In real life, Sister Aimee became the first evangelist to pioneer radio as a means of drawing new sheep to her flock
Sister Aimee Semple McPherson travelling tabernacle eclipsed every theatrical and political touring event in American history between 1919- 1922. Above, she addressees a crowd of 30,000 followers in San Diego in 1921. The Marines were called-in to control the frenzied audience who flocked to see her preach and conduct faith healing performances. She shouted in her frayed, contralto voice to bring forward, ‘the worst sinner in San Diego!’
McPherson was born into a Methodist family in 1890 as Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on a farm in Ontario, Canada. Her mother, Mildred Kennedy was a devout volunteer with the Salvation Army and as a child, McPherson would play ‘Salvation Army’ with classmates and preach the gospel to her dolls.
As a teenager, McPherson rebelled against her ‘tambourine-thumping Salvation Army’ mother and questioned the Theory of Evolution taught in school. Her first exposure to fame happened when she wrote a letter to a Canadian newspaper, that garnered tremendous attention- questioning why tax-payers money was funding the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Born in Canada in 1890, Aimee Semple McPherson rejected the ideals of her Methodist father and ‘tambourine-thumping Salvation Army mother’ as a teenager. In school, she questioned evolution and later converted to Pentecostalism after meeting and marrying an Irish missionary when she was 17
When she was 17, McPherson married an Irish Pentecostal missionary named Robert James Semple that she met while attending a local revival meeting in 1907. Enchanted by Semple’s word, McPherson converted to Pentecostalism and dedicated her life to studying the bible. The newlyweds moved to Chicago where they joined William Durham (who was an early Pentecostal theologian) and his Full Gospel Assembly.
It was Durham who taught McPherson how to interpret glossolalia (speaking in tongues), a practice where people utter unintelligible words or sounds during an intense religious experience. Pentecostals believe people are are channeling divine proclamations during the supernatural phenomenon.
McPherson’s marriage to Semple lasted less than two years; he died in Hong Kong after contracting malaria and dysentery while on an evangelistic tour to China. McPherson, who also contracted the illness survived and gave birth to their daughter, Roberta Star Semple on board a ship returning back to the United States.
In 1912, Aimee met her second husband, an accountant named Harold Stewart McPherson and gave birth to a son, Rolf McPherson. She struggled settling into life as a housewife in Providence, Rhode Island and suffered from depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Aimee said that she ‘heard a voice’ urging her to preach after she miraculously recovered from a failed operation to address her appendicitis. Harold returned home one evening in 1915 and discovered his wife gone, she took the children and hit the road to preach the gospel in a Packard convertible that had ‘Jesus is Coming Soon- Get Ready’ painted on the side. (Harold officially divorced Aimee in 1921, citing abandonment).
Sister Aimee Semple McPherson is shown ministering to parishioners as they became overcome with a religious fervor during a Four Square Gosepel sermon at the Angelus Temple Los Angeles. McPhersosn urged the delegates to ‘worship with the heartfelt abandon of old time revivals.’ They did
Aimee Semple McPherson adapted the techniques of vaudeville and the theater to evangelism, using costumes, lighting, scenery, props, massive orchestras, brass bands, huge choirs, and biblical dramatizations to achieve an unforgettable emotional impact during her sermons
Thousands of followers clamored to catch a glimpse of Aimee Semple Mcpherson as she arrived at the train station in Los Angeles after a three-month long revival tour of Europe and the Holy Land in 1926
In 1925, McPherson chartered an airplane to give her Sunday sermon in Los Angeles. She used the opportunity for publicity and arranged for congregants and reporters to meet her at the airport. After the plane failed to takeoff, she turned it into a sermon called ‘the Heavenly Airplane’ in which the devil was the pilot, sin was the engine and temptation was the propeller
Faithful members of Angelus Temple are shown donating watches, jewels, and money to aid Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in her series of legal complications that later dogged her life after she was accused of fabricating her own kidnapping in 1926
Graced with a silver tongue, McPherson quickly amassed a large following as she preached at tent revivals and churches across the country. She enthralled audiences by speaking in histrionic tongues and performing miracle healing demonstrations where cripples could walk and the blind were made to see again.
Eventually, in order to broaden her reach, McPherson set up a separate tent at revivals for followers who felt divinely compelled to speak in tongues – she did not want the ardent religious display to scare off potential Pentecostal converts.
McPherson’s preaching events became so popular that they had to be moved into larger venues to accommodate the growing audience. Soon, she outpaced her predecessor, Billy Sunday, the professional baseball player turned influential evangelist. Her travelling tabernacle eclipsed every theatrical and political touring event in American history between 1919- 1922.
In 1921, the Marines were called in to control a frenzied crowd of 30,000 attendees who had flocked to see her speak in San Diego. She shouted at the crowd in her frayed, contralto voice to bring forward, ‘the worst sinner in San Diego!’
Aimee Semple McPherson with her first husband, Robert James Semple, a Pentecostal missionary that she married when she was 17-years-old in 1907 (left). McPherson married her second husband, an accountant named Harold Stewart McPherson in 1912 but struggled to settle into life as a housewife in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1915, she pursued her calling to preach and took her two children on the road. McPherson filed for divorce in 1921, citing abandonment
Aimee Semple McPherson sits with her third husband, actor and musician, David Hutton at the Coconut Grove Night Club in Los Angeles. They were married in 1931 and divorced by 1933 after McPherson learned that Hutton was billing himself as ‘Aimee’s man’ in a cabaret singing act and was frequently photographed with scantily clad women
McPherson officially established her own denomination in 1923 – the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (commonly known as Foursquare Church). The ‘Foursquare’ represented the four main beliefs: Christ’s transformative salvation, baptism, divine healing and the eventual return of Christ.
In 1923, McPherson built a homebase for the followers of her new denomination. She resurrected a colossal white-domed church called Angelus Temple in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The house of worship featured a massive stage and seated 5,300 spectators. According to church records, it drew 40 million visitors within the first seven years- making it the country’s first megachurch and turning Mcpherson into a millionaire.
McPherson’s popularity grew as Hollywood became a tourist destination. She preached 22 sermons a week including her lavish Sunday night service that extra-trolleys and traffic police were needed to route cars through Echo Park.
‘It was quite simply the best show in town’ said the temple’s archivist Steve Zeleny to the BBC. ‘She would call the construction crew and say ‘I need you to build me a 20ft Trojan horse that’s hollow on the inside’ or ‘I need you to build me a huge ship, the bow needs to stick out 20ft. It needs to have guns on it with smoke coming out.’
By May 1926, McPherson had become a household name across America. Thus it was a surprise to the faithful when she failed to show up to give her sermon at the temple on May 18. She was last seen at Ocean Park Beach in Santa Monica before vanishing into thin air.
Word of her shocking disappearance made front page news across the nation. McPherson sightings were reported around the county, often many miles apart. The Angelus Temple fielded calls and letters claiming knowledge of McPherson whereabouts, including several ransom demands.
In 1923, McPherson built a homebase for the followers of her new denomination. She resurrected a colossal white-domed church called Angelus Temple in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The house of worship featured a massive stage and seated 5,300 spectators. Within the first seven years, it drew 40 million visitors – making it the country’s first true megachurch
Sister Aimee is seen from above wearing the traditional robes of the Evangelist. McPherson loved performing stunts during her Sunday sermons and famously incorporated animals (such as camels, lions, oxes and eagles) into her biblical parables that she performed on stage. One attendee recalled to her biographer, a sermon titled ‘Arrested for Speeding’ – in which she used her experience after being pulled over for speeding to dress as a traffic cop and blare the horn of a motorcycle that she drove across the pulpit before slamming on her brakes and raising her hand to the 5,300 person audience to shout: ‘Stop! You’re speeding to Hell!’
Aimee Semple McPherson and son Rolf, mount a ladder to the roof of Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, where she burned papers representing liquidated debts of $66,505 against the church as a publicity stunt
Sister Aimee would bring to life biblical stories with spellbinding sermons and over-the-top stage presentations. She often hired Hollywood set designers, artists, electricians, decorators and carpenters to build stages for her lavish weekly Sunday services and later consulted with Charlie Chaplin on ways to improve her presentations
Presuming she had drowned, rescue teams spared no effort in search of the missing preacher. Two people died in the process: one church member drowned herself in despair and another rescue diver died while trying to search for McPherson’s body in the Santa Monica Bay.
Devout Foursquare followers paid to dynamite the waters in hopes her dead body might surface from the depths of the ocean. As days turned into weeks, tabloids ran rife with rumors speculating that she disappeared to pursue an extramarital affair with Kenneth Ormiston, a married employee of her Christian radio station KFSG who suspiciously vanished at the same time McPherson did.
Just as McPherson’s mother and two children begun preparing a memorial service, McPherson turned up five weeks later in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a small Mexican town just south of the Arizona border. She said that she walked 20 miles across the ‘burning sands’ of the desert in order to flee the kidnappers, before she collapsed in the front yard of a local couple.
McPherson claimed that she was approached by a couple at the beach who wanted her to pray for their sick child; and was subsequently knocked unconscious by a cloth laced in chloroform held over her mouth and shoved into their car. She said her captors moved her to a shack in the Mexican desert, where she had escaped out a window while they were away.
More than 50,000 people showed up at the Los Angeles train station to welcome the celebrity preacher home with a parade and airplane flyovers that dropped roses from the sky. It was more than President Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 visit.
But within days of her celebrated homecoming, law enforcement and the public began to poke holes in her implausible story. Police speculated that she faked her own disappearance to instead, spend five weeks sequestered in a love cottage with Kenneth Ormiston, in Carmel-by-the Sea.
Five different witnesses came forth and said they had seen Ormiston with an unidentified woman in Carmel-by-the-Sea. In a lengthy written statement given to police and newspapers, Ormiston admitted to having an adulterous affair with a ‘Miss X’ in a rented beach cottage but insisted that it wasn’t Aimee McPherson.
Eventually none of five witnesses were able to positively and undeniably identify McPherson in a grand jury investigation. The kidnapping and the controversy over the possible hoax has remained unresolved to this day.
Capitalizing on the attention from her alleged kidnapping, McPherson transformed her image and went on a ‘vindication tour’ in 1927 across the United States. She lost weight, cut and dyed her hair, and ditched the humble navy caped uniform in favor of long, figure-skimming silk dresses. Her fame seeking motives were off-putting to her mother, Mildred Kennedy, and as a result, the two fell out.
Kennedy also disagreed with McPherson’s future direction of the church that continued to blur the line between entertainment and the sacred. She left the Angelus Temple and 300 members who agreed, followed her out the door.
Without Kennedy’s keen administrative skills, the Temple spiraled into a financial tailspin as McPherson became involved in various unsuccessful business schemes. One of these was a new Foursquare Church development on the banks of Lake Tahoe.
The new mountain-resort outpost was to open in the summer of 1928. Advertisements boasted a religious summer camp experience, replete with lodgings and a new temple for parishioners to worship. An idyllic (but fictional neighborhood) named, ‘Tahoe Cedars’ was advertised to exist adjacent to the new Foursquare Church headquarters.
Within months, the McPherson’s ambitious development in Lake Tahoe came crashing down. The Los Angeles District Attorney announced that he was investigating McPherson for fraud after several lawsuits were filed claiming that she partnered with three real-estate agents to coax her congregants into purchasing empty lots in the non-existent ‘Tahoe Cedars’ neighborhood in exchange for a 10% cut on the sales.
Investors were promised a paradisaical summer camp tabernacle, but in reality they bought useless lots in an undeveloped forest. She reached a settlement in September of that year.
Her star power began to fade by 1930. She suffered from a nervous breakdown that left her absent from the pulpit for 10 months. She was dogged by dozens of lawsuits in the years before her death.
McPherson vanished from the Santa Monica Beach on May 18, 1926 and it was presumed that she had drowned. McPherson re-appeared five weeks later and claimed she was kidnapped by a couple at the beach who wanted her to pray for their sick child and taken to a shack in the Mexican desert. She escaped and was discovered laying in the front yard of a local couple who phoned authorities. Above, McPherson is pictured recovering in the hospital surrounded by her mother, daughter, son and two police investigators
Within days, police began to poke holes at McPherson’s implausible story and accused her of manufacturing her own disappearance in order to purse an adulterous affair with a married Angelus Temple colleague. Photograph above depicted the Mexican shack where Sister Aimee McPherson claimed she was held captive for five weeks before she fled her kidnappers by cutting the rope ties around her wrist with a metal can lid and slipping out the back window while they were away
Aimee demonstrates in police photos how her kidnappers allegedly swathed her in blankets and bound her wrists behind her back before she escaped through a back window and walked 20 miles across the Mexican desert
In 1937, a long time follower of McPherson’s named Rheba Crawford (also known as the ‘Angel of Broadway’) filed a slander lawsuit against McPherson for $1,080,000. Crawford alleged that Mcpherson called her a ‘jezebel’ and Judas’ and accused her of of attempting to takeover the Temple. Above, a sign at the Angelus Temple announces she will discuss with her faithful flock the pending lawsuit
Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson ordains more than 200 ministers in her Foursquare Gospel Church on June 28, 1936