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Obituaries

Roberta Semple Salter, 96; daughter of L.A. evangelist

February 04, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Roberta Semple Salter, the daughter and one-time heir to the pulpit of the flamboyant Los Angeles evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, died of natural causes Jan. 25 in New York City. She was 96.

Salter was one of two children of the charismatic and controversial revivalist and faith healer who founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and built Angelus Temple, the white-domed landmark in Echo Park.

The temple, with its 5,000-seat auditorium, was the site of boisterous revival meetings led by McPherson in the 1920s and '30s. Salter grew up watching her mother preach before mesmerized crowds on elaborate stage sets, some of which in later years were designed by Charlie Chaplin.

Groomed from an early age to succeed her mother, Salter lost a dispute over church management and was removed from the organization's leadership in 1937.

Despite the rupture, "she was ferociously proud of her background and her mother," said her daughter, Victoria. "They loved each other dearly."

In 1944, when McPherson died, the reins of the church were handed to Rolf K. McPherson, Salter's half brother, who served as president until he retired in 1988.

Salter was present for many of the most dramatic episodes in the early history of the church. The most sensational was her mother's disappearance in 1926 after going swimming near Venice Beach. Followers held seaside vigils, but the renowned evangelist was presumed to have drowned.

During her mysterious absence, the spotlight briefly rested on her daughter. Roberta, then only 15, took the pulpit a week after her mother vanished and, before 5,000 congregants, delivered the altar call made famous by her mother. According to a Los Angeles Times account of the service, "men, women and children wept audibly" when she invited them to raise their hands in prayer with the words "Praise the Lord, the Lord has given and the Lord has taken away...."

The Lord had not taken away her mother, however. McPherson surfaced a month later in Agua Prieta, Mexico, saying she had been kidnapped. She did not waver from her story -- even when authorities suggested that she had fabricated the abduction to cover up an affair with a temple employee who had disappeared at the same time -- and made a triumphant return to her flock in Los Angeles.

Salter was born Sept. 17, 1910, in Hong Kong, where her parents were working as missionaries. Her father, Robert Semple, died of malaria shortly before she was born. Her mother named her Roberta in memory of him and gave her the middle name Star because she brightened what appeared to be a grim future.

Aimee remarried a few years later and, to the consternation of her husband, Harold McPherson, took up the life of an itinerant preacher. By the time Roberta was 7, her mother was drawing thousands to tent revivals across the United States.

Roberta possessed many of her mother's gifts, including a "brilliant smile," according to biographer Daniel Mark Epstein in his 1993 book, "Sister Aimee." She led the children's service at many revivals, was host of a radio program and called herself "Aunt Birdie" in a youth column for the church newspaper.

Although she spoke with a slight lisp, "this seemed no hindrance to the young woman's career or to her confidence in front of an audience," wrote Epstein, who interviewed Salter for his book.

She accompanied her mother on crusades around the world, which included a tour of the Holy Land shortly before McPherson disappeared. On one of their trips, the 21-year-old Salter fell in love with the purser on the steamship they were traveling on and married him in Singapore, but the marriage ended after three years.

By the time Salter was 24, she had risen to vice president of the church. Her path to the pulpit blew up in a legal tangle a few years later, however, when she sued her mother's attorney for slander.

The two-week trial capped a period of financial insecurities, internal rivalries and management shake-ups in the church that pitted the pioneering evangelist against her own mother as well as her daughter. McPherson was led sobbing from the courtroom just before the judge ruled in her daughter's favor.

"Of all the catastrophes in Aimee's life, the falling out with Roberta is surely the most pitiful as well as the most difficult to understand," Epstein wrote.

Contrary to most historical accounts, they remained in contact after the legal battle ended, according to Salter's daughter. Salter occasionally attended international conventions of the church and continued to support it financially.

McPherson, who had mental breakdowns and was beset by a number of serious health problems throughout her life, died in an Oakland hotel room Sept. 27, 1944. Authorities said the cause was an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.

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