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Faithful of 'Sister Aimee' Say Mock Court Has Redeemed Her

October 09, 1990|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Sister Aimee" would have been 100 today.

But for some among the throngs of followers worldwide of Aimee Semple McPherson--radio evangelist, faith healer, honorary fire chief and charismatic lightning rod of the Los Angeles religious community of the 1920s, '30s and '40s--this is a time for more than just idle celebration. Yes, there's some earnest historical reconstruction afoot.

Some believe the matter is best forgotten. Others among McPherson's followers, however, buoyed by a recent historical court's favorable review of the Pentecostal preacher's 1926 disappearance, see her 100th birthday as their best chance to erase the most distasteful blemish on her memory.

"The kidnaping hoax," the faithful call it, bristling.

"It was no hoax," insists Jack Gunby, an elder at the church McPherson founded in 1923, the ornately columned Angelus Temple near Echo Park. "Honestly."

At issue are McPherson's whereabouts during a notorious 36-day stretch in the spring of 1926 after her disappearance from Venice Beach.

The Canadian-born McPherson, then 36, turned up in Douglas, Ariz., saying she had been pushed into a car by people claiming to seek prayers for a sick baby, then escaped from "Jake," "Rose" and "Steve," who she said had been holding her for $500,000 ransom.

Thousands of congregants turned out to celebrate her return. Authorities, however, suspected that she actually had a tryst with an engineer on the Christian radio station she started here, KFSG. Sister Aimee and her alleged lover were charged with conspiracy.

McPherson was ordered to stand trial, but authorities dropped the charges when problems developed with their case, including an apparent change in the story of an eyewitness who reported seeing Sister Aimee in Carmel during her absence. Nonetheless, many newspaper accounts and some historical references to this day cast doubt on the evangelist's version of events.

Her public standing fallen, the religious leader appeared never to forget the scandal--the "drifting sand dunes of innuendo and calumny," as she called it in her autobiography, nearly half of which focused on the incident. "To my dying day I must proclaim my story of the kidnaping and escape is true. . . . It really did happen just as I told it," she wrote.

So who cares now? The Court of Historical Review and Appeal in San Francisco does. Made up of members of the bench in San Francisco, the historical court retries still-raging controversies, such as whether Bruno Hauptmann should have been executed in the kidnaping and murder of the Lindbergh baby. But it also takes a tongue-in-cheek look at less weighty issues, such as who invented the martini.

George T. Choppelas, who ruled on the McPherson hearing in late April and is presiding judge of the San Francisco Municipal Court, said he found the issues both serious and fascinating. He concluded: "There was never any substantial evidence to show that her story was untrue. She may not have been a saint, but she certainly was no sinner, either."

Using Choppelas' finding, Pastor Harold Helms of the Angelus Temple prepared a report on the hearing for congregants--in an attempt, he said, "to finally give the real story." A second report recently prepared and distributed to several hundred members of McPherson's Foursquare Gospel churches goes so far as to offer affidavits from 1926 in support of McPherson's version. Its title: "It's Time That the Truth Be Told."

McPherson's two children, Rolf and Roberta, say they would rather see the focus of Sister Aimee's 100th birthday on her accomplishments, rather than the scandal.

"She was a pioneer. She blazed a trail for all women ministers. . . . That's what people should remember," said daughter Roberta Salter.

McPherson, who died in 1944 of an accidental barbiturate overdose, established 411 Foursquare Gospel churches in 12 countries.

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