Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson

Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson

by Daniel Mark Epstein
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Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson by Daniel Mark Epstein

Aimee Semple McPherson's mother, a Salvation Army soldier, consecrated her daughter to God while Aimee was still in the womb. But she was a hellion in school, a young widow in China and a troubled housewife before she took on her far-reaching ministry.

Once engaged, she was an unshakeable religious force -- preaching across the U.S., praying to heal legions of sick, building a sprawling Pentecostal temple in Los Angeles. She became such a celebrity in the 1920s and '30s that the press publicly thanked her for putting so many journalists to work. But this powerhouse biography also reveals the price of fame: exhaustion, insomnia, neurosis, sexual scandals, lawsuits and lonliness.

"...told with insight, empathy and lyrical power." (Los Angeles Times)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780151826889
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 03/28/1993
Edition description: 1st ed
Pages: 475
Product dimensions: 6.41(w) x 9.49(h) x 1.54(d)

About the Author

Daniel Mark Epstein is a poet and playwright. Among the awards he has received are the Prix de Rome, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Robert Frost Prize, and the Stephen Vincent Benet Prize. He lives in Baltimore.

Read an Excerpt



Mount Forest, Ontario, 1915

Somebody must have seen her marching up Main Street from the direction of the bank and the barbershop, a very young woman in a white dress, carrying a chair.

Her auburn hair was swept up from her temples into a loose chignon, revealing the cameo perfection of her profile. She had set the chair down firmly against the curb on the street corner and jumped up on it as though she were about to sing or give a speech to no one in particular; at that hour of the evening in Mount Forest, Ontario there were few people around — some after-dinner strollers, an occasional carriage or automobile, a kid on his bicycle.

Standing on the chair, she raised her long hands toward heaven as if calling for help in whatever it was she had undertaken to do. And then she did nothing. Given her unconcealable nervous energy, this was probably harder for the young woman than anything. She closed her large, wide-set eyes and just stood there with her arms straight up, like a statue of marble invisibly vibrating.

That had been quite a while ago. A man stopped to admire her, and another. A little boy was tempted to toss a pebble at her to make sure she was alive, but his mother caught his wrist. Once people saw her, they could not pull their eyes away, partly because she was so beautiful in the intensity of her concentration, partly because they had to see if she would move.

Now the crowd that gathered around the shapely young woman began arguing over how long she had been standing there, on the chair, at the corner on Main Street in Mount Forest, Ontario, with her hands up. Some said it was no more than twenty minutes. But one old farmer claimed he began watching her when the sun was above the pines. That had to be an hour past, because now it was well on toward dusk. And still he could scarcely detect the rise and fall of her breast as she breathed in and out.

It was not hard to draw a crowd in Mount Forest in 1915. A new motorcar or a dogfight would do it. But this was probably the only time a person ever drew a crowd there, and held it, just by standing still in silence.

They fell to speculating and arguing over what could be the matter with the little woman on the chair — whether she was crazy, possessed by the devil, or catatonic. She certainly was not a native of Mount Forest. Someone in the crowd said he had seen this young woman around the Victory Mission just up the street. Someone else offered the information that the rigid madonna on the chair above them was Sister Aimee Semple McPherson.

While we have Sister Aimee Semple McPherson squarely in our sights and she is standing still (like the hummingbird), let us seize this opportunity in the summer of 1915 to take a long hard look at her. She has not stood still this long since she began to walk, and she will not stand still this long again while she is breathing. Aimee is twenty-four years old. She is in the bloom of health, quite beautiful by any standards, with pointed features that are curiously both angelic and foxlike. She is particularly beautiful now in repose, her full lips concealing rows of long, even teeth. Later, when she smiles her dazzling smile, or laughs, the upper lip will draw back over the slightly protruding teeth with an effect that might be described as ... horsey. This is the single defect, a minor one. There is an almost terrifying symmetry in the face, as if it were a half-face folded over. Now with her eyes and mouth closed we may admire the brow, high and broad, the straight hairline, the Hellenic nose. Most of us have a light and dark hemisphere to our faces — Aimee's is one oval of light.

After hundreds of thousands of photographs the face will merely seem (particularly in profile) a period piece. It will conjure up the style of the teens and twenties, long, angular, Greek revival influenced by art deco. Hers was one of the faces that expressed for millions the character of an era: passionate, ironic, tragic.

Her body, as the white cotton dress displays it, comes as something of a surprise. The long, graceful neck leads to broad shoulders and muscular arms now upraised, the arms of a laundress. Her breasts and buttocks are ample and roundly proportioned — it is a buxom peasant body upon sturdy legs. From the neck down she looks like the farmer's daughter of a thousand bawdy stories, the girl you hitch to the plow when the horse gets tired. Standing on a chair above the crowd, her raised arms pulling the dress hem up over her calves, Aimee Semple McPherson has the head of a Renaissance angel and the solid ankles of an Ingersoll milkmaid.

Now we are going to consider how she got herself into this position and what, in her animated stillness, she is doing. As the first question is easier to answer than the second, we will begin with the story of Aimee's past before trying to explain what precisely she was doing to cause a scene in Mount Forest, Ontario in the summer of 1915.

Aimee's Parents

She was born in a farmhouse near Salford, Ontario. Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy was the only child of the improbable and scandalous marriage of James Morgan Kennedy to his young housekeeper, Mildred "Minnie" Pearce.

The groom was three decades older than his bride. He was born of second-generation Irish-American stock, with a dash of Dutch blood on his mother's side, in 1836. Minnie Pearce, a descendant of English and Irish immigrants in flight from one famine or other, was born around 1870.

So Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy's parents were just barely contemporaries. It was more common then for men to marry much younger women, but the age gap between this couple had an almost Biblical aura, like the patriarch and his handmaiden. Photographs of James Kennedy reinforce the impression: the dignified farmer and road engineer, a tall, well-proportioned old man with white hair and beard trimmed carefully above his bow tie, who looks remarkably at ease in a dress suit, for a farmer. He has a strong, mystical Irish face, and his eyes twinkle with humor. He will need it, to live with his child bride, and later, to manage the outbursts of his youngest daughter. He can follow a plow for ten hours, or plan a river bridge. At the age of eighty James will be able to get down on all fours, at his grandson's bidding, and make a fine play horse for the boy to ride.

His marriage to Minnie Pearce was his second. James was married for the first time in the early 1860s, to Elizabeth Hoag. It is little known that there were three children of that marriage, Aimee's half siblings Mary, William, and Charles. The death of Elizabeth Hoag closed the door forever on any discussion of James Kennedy's former life; neither Minnie nor Aimee would ever mention it. Mary had begun her own family, in Salford, giving birth to the first of her six children in 1882. The fate of Aimee's half brothers is vague. One is believed to have died young, of consumption; the other, rumored to have been born with a mental defect, was sent away and never heard of again.

In 1886 Elizabeth fell ill. James Kennedy placed an ad in the newspaper requesting the services of a live-in nurse. In reply to the ad, the fourteen-year-old orphan Minnie Pearce traveled to Salford to the Kennedy Farm. Minnie was judged satisfactory, evidently; she was engaged as nurse to the fatally ill Elizabeth. A few months later the wife was dead. The little nurse helped the widower with the burial and stood by him in his grieving. He found her indispensable, and she stayed on.

The neighbors began to talk. The energetic nurse-cum-housekeeper was nubile, marriageable, and extremely attractive, with her wide-set eyes and sharp, square features. Men were envious. Women were shrewdly critical of the "arrangement" the old man had made. He let them talk. On October 3, 1886, he took Minnie Pearce across the border to Michigan, where the two were unknown. He was fifty, she fifteen. Giving their ages as forty-two and twenty-two, they became Mr. and Mrs. James Morgan Kennedy.

While he may not have been the man of her dreams, the handsome old gentleman farmer was surely a comfort to the little orphan Minnie.

Her father had died when she was an adolescent. With the whimsy of an abandoned child, she entertained the fantasy of being captured. Returning home from school one day, Minnie read in the paper of an "Army" that was to come to town and "take prisoners for the King." This sounded grand. Pleading with her mother to risk the danger, Minnie persuaded Mrs. Pearce to take her to the heart of downtown London, Ontario, where the two waited in the down-pouring rain for this army of occupation.

At last on the street corner the crowd whispered that the army had arrived. Three women uniformed and cloaked in blue marched into the square and knelt, silently praying. Army women! They began to sing. Their song explained that they were bound for the land of the pure and the holy, the home of the happy, and their chorus ended with the warm invitation: "Oh! say — will you go to the Eden above?"

And a little voice within Minnie said yes.

This was the most brilliant, glorious proposal she had ever heard in her life. Her mother was a "shouting Methodist" of the old school; she had talked of God's mighty power in the days of John Wesley, when men and women were slain upon God's altar. Now, she said, the glory had come again in the blue uniforms of the Salvation Army. Minnie decided then and there to pledge herself to the service of the King.

Soon thereafter Minnie's mother fell ill. In Aimee Semple McPherson's autobiography, called This Is That (1919), she gives this account of her mother's childhood. Upon her deathbed Mrs. Pearce offered her daughter a choice: she could go and live with her uncle Joseph Clark, a rich lumber dealer, or journey to Lindsay, Ontario to live with the Salvation Army captain and his wife, who had become Minnie's spiritual godmother.

Minnie chose the Army. Upon her mother's death, Minniepacked up her few belongings and set off for the Salvation Army quarters in the distant town.

There in Lindsay, for the next year, Minnie's life was taken up with missionary service: visiting "the sick and sinful," selling the Army periodical the War Cry, and praying. She adored the long prayer meetings and the godly life of her leaders, particularly the captain, who would spend whole nights on his face before God "in intercession for precious souls."

But within a year Minnie got "sick." She was stricken with an unspecified illness at the age of thirteen, somehow infected during the month of praying and hawking papers and visiting the sick and sinful. Her illness required her to be sent away from Lindsay and her devoted Salvation Army guardians, and to convalesce on a farm near Ingersoll.

There she would learn of James Kennedy's advertisement for a live-in nurse. Minnie cared for the dying Elizabeth Kennedy, and soon thereafter married the widower — too soon, said some of the neighbors; not quite soon enough, according to others.

Their marriage made lively conversation in Salford as well as in Ingersoll, the larger farm town six miles distant. But it soon was evident that the "child bride" was every inch a woman and the emotional equal of her patriarchal husband. The Ingersoll natives found her strong and determined as she drove the buggy or bicycle or walked the road from Salford to the Salvation Army division in Ingersoll twice a week. Minnie headed the fund drive at Christmas. She got contributions at every door she knocked upon. And when the Army barracks needed a Sunday school superintendent, the young woman volunteered. A great reader of the Bible and other books, Minnie became, without schooling, an eloquent speaker at religious meetings at the mission and in people's homes all around the town.

James Kennedy was a pillar of the Methodist church. He sang the old hymns quite beautifully and directed the choir.

Meanwhile his young wife threw herself into the grass- roots evangelistic campaigns of the 80's. The Salvation Army with its drums and bells and tambourines arrived from England in 1880, under the commission of George Railton and seven women officers. Within a decade it had swept the continent. The Army won thousands of converts among the poor and degenerate by its martial and boisterous methods. Yet the established churches regarded the Army with distaste or ridicule. After all, these Christian soldiers held out their hands to sinners fallen beyond the reach of conventional ministries, most notoriously to "loose women" and alcoholics.

James Kennedy, whose father and grandfather were pious Methodist preachers, must have been troubled to find his wife in the clamorous ranks of the upstart Salvation Army. Yet there is no evidence he ever tried to stop her. From all accounts, he appears to have been a kind and patient husband. So it is curious that Minnie described those years to her daughter as years of misery, of imprisonment amidst the strenuous and strange duties of farm work.

"She was compelled to acknowledge that she was caught in the devil's net," her daughter recalls. A curious phrase. James Kennedy was an altogether unlikely devil. He provided little orphan Minnie with security and affection she had never known from any man. It is certain he did not kidnap the girl to Michigan or force her to marry him. She could have returned to the holy captain and his wife in Lindsay, Ontario to continue her religious pursuits.

But she did not. She chose, rather, to marry the man she would later describe as her jailer, in a personal legend that cast her as a holy martyr.

"Shorn of her usefulness, fettered by circumstances, she truly did grind in the prison house; but, strange as it may seem, during all that time that her body was fettered, her soul was turning heavenward." Thus Aimee paraphrases her mother's recollections. Every hour of every day Minnie's longing became more intense. She wanted to continue the missionary work for which God had ordained her, for which she had left her home and extended family. Finally she could think of nothing else; it "became her one dream in repose — she must make good her belated pledge," the pledge she had made as a girl to serve the King.

Early in January of 1890, eighteen-year-old Minnie Kennedy walked up the stairs of the farmhouse and shut herself in herroom. It was a cold and cloudy afternoon, and the room was dim. She had been reading the Bible story of Hannah, over and over. Hannah, as described in the first book of Samuel, was tormented in marriage because she was childless, though her kind husband consoled her with the famous line "Am I not more to you than ten sons?" He loved Hannah barren or not. But his other wife teased and made fun of her. So at last Hannah prayed to the Lord to give her a son, and she would in turn dedicate him to the Lord, and see that no razor ever touched his head.

Minnie Kennedy got down on her knees beside the bed and prayed in imitation of Hannah, but with a difference. She confessed to God that she had failed to go and preach the Gospel and save souls as she had been called, and that she was truly sorry for it.

"But if You will only hear my prayer, as You heard Hannah's prayer of old, and give me a little baby girl, I will give her unreservedly into your service, that she may preach the word I should have preached, fill the place I should have filled, and live the life I should have lived in Thy service. O Lord, hear and answer me; give me the witness that Thou has heard me ...

She got up. She swept the curtains away from the window that overlooked the orchard, the valley, and the hills against the dark clouds. While she was watching, the clouds opened as if a hand of sunlight were parting the cloud curtains. A ray of sunshine spotlit the hill before moving down through the orchard toward the house itself. Then the light shone full upon her face, momentarily blinding her as it illuminated the bedroom where she had been praying.

And so it came to pass that a baby was born in that upstairs room of the farmhouse with scrollwork under the eaves, Minnie Kennedy's requested daughter. The child was born under Libra (a water sign) on October 9, 1890, and they named her Aimee Elizabeth.

Later Minnie claimed she never doubted for a moment that the child she was carrying was a girl. With great care she had designed, sewn, and embroidered the gowns and pink receiving blankets for the unborn daughter. And before anyone had time to describe the squalling newborn, the mother, semiconscious, had cried out with confidence: "Where is she? Bring her here."

The delegation who came from the mission to visit the baby also brought news of the death of Catherine Booth, the sainted wife of their general. They were not above the pagan notion that this baby might be the vessel for Catherine Booth's spirit.


Excerpted from "Sister Aimee"
by .
Copyright © 1993 Daniel Mark Epstein.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Mount Forest, Ontario, 1915
Aimee's Parents
Childhood Memories
School Days
First Love
The Old-time Power
Mount Forest, 1915
Corona, New York, 1916
A Miraculous Healing
The Gypsy Life
Philadelphia, 1918
Baltimore, 1919
Washington, D.C., 1920
The Rising Tide
California, 1921
The Great Campaigns
The First Abduction
New Year's, 1923
At Home in Los Angeles, 1924
Aimee vs. Minnie, 1927
The Crash
Attar of Roses
The Commissary
Show Business
Sharing the Stage, L.A., 1935
Notes 441(18)
Bibliography 459(12)
Index of Biblical Passages and References 471(2)
Chronology of Aimee Semple McPherson 473

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Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I saw this book, I wanted to walk on by it. I had no interest in Aimee Semple McPherson. But something grabbed me, and I gave it a try. I couldn't put it down! The combination of Epstein's story-telling, and the facts of her life mesmerized me. Her life unfolded like the bud of a flower. Her life was a marvelous combination of spirituality, the blessing of God when she yielded to Him, and reaping what she sowed when she went out of bounds. But instead of looking down on her, it was a feeling of looking under a microscope and probing the life of a huge personality........finding marvelous highs and very sad lows. Epstein's telling of it landed the ball at my feet: I wondered how my life would read, if it were a book. It challenged me to think long and hard about myself. How am I living what I believe? ~ All in all, I came to the end of the book, with such satisfaction, that I couldn't read another book for at least two months. It stayed with me that long! It was the same feeling that you get when you've had the most marvelous steak dinner, and you just don't want to eat another bite of anything else, because what you've just eaten was magnificent. Because, in reading about her life, you read about someone who at least dared to try.....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When the rites rituals color music etc was forbidden by the reforormation and puritans would become more show business than religion in this era. The downfall of this lady put back and in question revivals for years many have followed and the same thing happened to question where the donations really went to cover production and union salaries