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Aimee Semple McPherson
Los Angeles' First Evangelical Star

Famed preacher Aimee Semple McPherson in 1927. Photo by National Photo Company, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Canadian-bornAimee Semple McPherson was an itinerant preacher who had been widowed while she and her husband worked as missionaries in China. She later remarried, but was divorced by her second husband who objected to her "holy hobo" ways. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1918 at age 28 with her mother, a sick child and a secretary, she went on to build a hugh following, In 1923, she opened the 5,300-seat Angelus Temple in Echo Park. Thus was the beginning of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, now counting 26,139member churches and 3,331,561 adherents.

Much of McPherson's attraction was her use of show business in church services. There she might have been found seated on a red velvet throne or sprinkling rose petals into a baptismal pool or roaring onstage astride a motorcycle in a police uniform to call a stop to sin or appearing in a nurse's uniform to "rebuke" illness. Her services were advertised in newspaper theatre sections, leaflets were airdropped over the city, and she entered floats in the Tournament of Roses Parade. She established religious radio station KFSG in Los Angeles (still broadcasting today). These attractions, along with being a beautiful and charismatic woman, packed the house in 21 services each week.

Things took a turn in 1926, however. On May 18, while purportedly swimming at Ocean Park, McPherson was reported to have vanished in the surf. It became the biggest media story for its time and thousands of devoted followers fell into mourning. Yet, five weeks later, she reappeared in Arizona with a strange kidnapping tale. It was later discovered that she had really been in seclusion with a lover in the Hollywood Hills. Although McPherson was welcomed back to Los Angeles by an adoring throng of 100,000, the District Attorney moved to file fraud charges against her. These were later dropped.

McPherson's loyal followers accepted her explanations, but she had become a changed woman. Her style and relationships changed. She became estranged from her mother and daughter. She married again and divorced again. She involved her church in financially disastrous ventures. Her name was constantly in the newspapers with rumor and gossip. Yet she appeared resistant to scandal. Her popularity remained undiminished.

By 1930, McPherson suffered a nervous breakdown and by 1944, she lay dead in an Oakland hotel from an overdose of Seconal. She is buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale in a tomb befitting a queen.