A biography of such an unusual person was never going to be a straightforward task and Daniel Mark Epstein successfully portrays her life.
We begin with Aimee Kennedy and rehearse the stories that she herself told about her childhood. We observe the transformation first to Aimee Semple, the wife of a Pentecostal missionary; then to Aimee Semple McPherson, the housewife who will not be tied down and leaves her husband to embark on her own evangelistic tours. Between the large-scale events at Angelus Temple, we examine her mysterious disappearance, the breakdown of the relationship with her mother, her daughter’s divorce, Aimee’s short-lived third marriage, the law suit with her daughter until the rather sudden ending - she took too many sleeping pills and never woke up.
Such an overview does not indicate the enormous impact she had. In the early days, she set small town America on fire, with the practice of glossolalia and prophecy. This culminated in 3 exhausting years of faith healing, when Aimee made the deaf hear, the lame walk and the blind see. Once she became the star attraction of Los Angeles, such excesses were curtailed in favour of theatrical experiences, with Aimee herself the leading lady. She wrote the scripts, composed the music, danced and stirred hundreds of hearts 20 times a week. From this bountiful platform of financial strength and radio communication, she was in a position to organise earthquake relief and soup kitchens after the crash of 1929.
A book review is usually an assessment of how well the author achieved his goal. In this case, we cannot review the book without reflecting on the life of Aimee Semple McPherson. She was a dominant personality, who dramatised her own life into something fantastical. Her persona and self-promotion informs and affects what we know about her life. So a biographer trying to forge a coherent narrative of events is as controlled by Aimee Semple McPherson as any member of her congregation who ever heard her speak.
The Reformed Protestant believes that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were given to the Apostles for the early Church but ended when the last of the Apostles died. Therefore, we do not raise the dead and heal diseases as they did. Neither do we speak in tongues - which the Reformed Protestant holds to have been the instanteous skill of foreign languages, not the wild babbling espoused by Pentecostalism. Furthermore, the role of pastor is only to be held by men, and only such men as qualify according to the Holy Scriptures. The Reformed Protestant does not believe that God speaks to us audibly. The Word of God is our guide and revelation. The Holy Spirit of God blesses our understanding of the Word of God. There is no other revelation.
So here we have problem. Aimee Semple McPherson claimed to have spiritual gifts, to be a preacher and to hear God telling her what to do. On this basis alone, we might brush her to one side as heretical and say no more. Ministers did oppose “Sister Aimee” in all of these spheres. But their criticisms made no difference and eventually they ceased. Their own congregations were diminished while hers were bursting. She had thousands of converts on a regular basis. Could she be so wrong if she was doing such “good”? Were they, the ordained ministers of the Gospel, not letting their own prejudices get in the way of God's work?
David F. Wells once said:
“Evangelicals have been willing to bestow legitimacy only on ideas that work.”
Over-reliant on dry statistics to make his case, I wish that Mr. Wells had instead scrutinised a life such as Aimee Semple McPherson. Here was a woman who was contrary to everything that Protestants believe and yet - because of apparent success she was tolerated. The ends were seen to justify the means. In a West that had submitted to Darwin, a West that had abandoned the Word of God for so-called reason, Aimee Semple McPherson's visible signs of supernaturalism were attractive and seductive.
Sister Aimee was never baptised. She was dedicated to the Salvation Army instead. This did not produce a life of virtue. She was a naughty and precocious child. She was violent towards her fellow-pupils and had to change schools. She rebelled against the Salvation Army in her teenage years and was a terror to the local minister. Her parents could not control her. A change came when she witnessed the power displayed by Robert Semple. She used more wiles than Epstein gives her credit for to become his wife. On their way to China, she was so “filled with the Holy Spirit” that she spoke automatically in London in front of thousands. We are to assume from this a transformation of character. After all, if she has become a chosen vessel to act (in her own eyes) like an Apostle, surely we might expect other fruits of the Spirit? But we do not. She has hysterics in China, long before her husband’s death. She has hysterics and tantrums again when she has married Harold McPherson. She was unstable as water and volatile in her personal relations.
Her "ministry" began in answer to one of the voices in her head. The voice tells her to leave Harold McPherson, take the children and start to preach. She does so in order to achieve some inner peace, as though the voice is drumming until she concedes. Epstein assumes that this voice must be God. (He has evidently not read Doreen Irvine’s account of demon possession.) But we have a woman who is only capable of behaving herself when she is obeying the voice in her head. This is therefore a controlling situation and contrary to the Old Testament records of when God has spoken to his children. Besides, the voice in Aimee Semple McPherson's head was telling her to do things contrary to the Holy Scriptures, a sure sign that the voice she heard was not God.
This is no doubt a scandalous suggestion to many, who want to buy the myth of the woman. The most obvious contradiction is why would a woman who was demon possessed preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ? What could the Devil gain by so many converts?
The Reformed Protestant walks by faith - which is the substance of things hoped for and not seen. The essence of faith is that we must trust in Jesus Christ according to his Word, although we have no visible, audible, tangible reason for our hope. Our senses do not tell us to approve. We trust Him because of what we know about Jesus Christ in the Word of God.
The converts of Aimee Semple McPherson did not learn this Gospel. They were titivated through their senses.
Out in the countryside of America, people were converted because they saw Aimee possessed. Her eyes rolled. Her arms flailed. She made the strangest noises. She spoke a weird language. People who stepped forward to be saved did so to achieve the same supernatural experience. She never preached the reality of Hell. She did not frame salvation as the need to repent and obey God's commands. Her conversion was the laying on of hands to zap the Holy Spirit into an individual, to make them also roll around on the floor, so they in turn could lay hands on other people.
As she moved into the cities, Aimee Semple McPherson began the healing shows. These are really the crux of the matter. Journalists and critics worked hard to disprove the reality of these physical changes. There is no record of them unmasking her as a fraud. Therefore they were supernatural. They could be from God or from the Devil. The Lord Jesus and his Apostles had this power from God. Aimee Semple McPherson did not. As Doreen Irvine could really levitate and really kill people when she was demon-possessed, so Sister Aimee - for a short time - could really heal people. Such worshippers believed in her, not in God. And she herself spent decades unhealed, crippled with arthritis and all kinds of debilitating complaints.
These two stages were warm-up acts for the main event. The physical weirdness of her early days made her a spectacle. The healing years garnered her massive publicity and made people take her seriously. Then what does she do? She set up Angelus Temple.
This was built and organised like a Church. Her “sermons” were visualisations of the Bible - or rather visualisations of those portions that could be visualised. There was often an air of friviolity to these events, no doubt reinforcing (if not forging) the public idea of the Devil as a daft creature in red tights and Heaven as an idle space for music-making. She acted and danced and sang. Charlie Chaplin recognised that she was simply providing a theatrical event for people whose scruples would not allow them to go to the theatres. She entertained them under the guise of being a minister.
Still some will say, "So what?! As long as she converted people!"
No! Consider the audience. As described in Music Mania, these were people who had become Romanticised in their thinking. They would not believe on the basis of God says ... They wanted proof. But in the absence of proof they would be convinced by feeling. Romantics believe because of Mozart. They believe because of Beethoven. They believe because of Victor Hugo. They believe because of the Brontes. As long as they feel something to be true, as long as art stimulates them to be convinced, then they are convinced. In the absence of the art, in the absence of the good feelings, what do they have? Faith? Faith in what?
It is a religion at odds with Christianity in all ages before. Such people would not be burned at the stake for a point of doctrine like the Reformers, or be hounded across the countryside for an oath like the Covenanters. Such people have been inducted into a branch of Romanticism and nothing more. They believe in music because they believe through music. They believe in God because Sister Aimee made them feel he was there. And when the show is over, they fade - even as Aimee Semple McPherson herself faded. In the end she was only "alive" when she was performing. She was drained of every other characteristic, even as she had destroyed almost every personal relationship.
I am not willing to sacrifice the veracity of the Holy Scriptures for Aimee Semple McPherson. Her “good deeds” do not make her religion true, any more than they do the philanthropic atheistic charity worker. Her "supernatural" powers do not make her religion true, as the age of miracles was confined to the Early Church.
Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. (John 20.29)
The Devil gained by the so-called ministry of Aimee Semple McPherson because the serious ministers of the Church were made to look ineffectual by comparison. Her success before the eyes of the world set the standard by which we live today: we promote the kind of "Christians" that will look good to the ungodly - the ones who feed the poor and heal the sick, but do not uphold the Word of God as the only rule of faith and obedience.
She was, in short, subversive. She gave large-scale promotion to a perversion of Christianity that took root and, grafted into so many Churches, sapped their strength away. She changed positions constantly, and took her worshippers with her. For she was an idol, a mediator to the "truth". She initiated a cult that spoke often of the Lord Jesus Christ, while at the same time refusing to obey his commandments. Art was elevated to a divine sacrament. Worship became a fun fair spectacle. She did not honour her parents, or even seem to notice when her father died. She was deceived and she was a deceiver. Her success came about because so many people wanted to be deceived too.