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Wholly spirited

Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America Matthew Avery Sutton Harvard University Press: 352 pp., $26.95

May 06, 2007|Michael Joseph Gross | Michael Joseph Gross is the author of "Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame."

WHENEVER Aimee Semple McPherson returned home to Los Angeles, Will Rogers marveled, "this town goes practically ga-ga." Thousands, including Charlie Chaplin and Jean Harlow, admired her showmanship and glamour at Angelus Temple, the Echo Park megachurch she founded in 1923. Her public regard rivaled Eleanor Roosevelt's, and when she died in 1944, likely due to an accidental overdose of barbiturates, she was America's most famous preacher.

She published a popular magazine, founded one of the first Christian radio stations, created a film production company and built a Bible college. Her elaborately staged "illustrated sermons" featured Broadway-caliber production values. One week she preached in goggles and flight gear, while miniature planes on wires sailed through the sanctuary. Another week, after she had been pulled over for speeding, she transformed her transgression into a gospel lesson, donning a policewoman's uniform and appearing in the pulpit with a motorcycle, siren blaring.

In 1926, when she disappeared for more than a month, the New York Times published almost 100 stories about the saga -- about the same number devoted the previous year to the Scopes trial. Her career probably could not have happened anywhere but in Los Angeles: Johnny Mercer's lyrics for "Hooray for Hollywood" boasted that "anyone at all from Shirley Temple / to Aimee Semple is equally understood." Yet she had powerful critics: Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair and Frank Capra made scathing fictional treatments of McPherson.

Today, McPherson is mostly forgotten. Her biography is so implausibly larger-than-life and her character so fraught with contradictions that she jams the motherboard of the contemporary mind. Many of us presume, often correctly, that famous evangelists are hypocrites or crooks; and while McPherson was a bit of both, the labels do not quite cover her. She was sometimes blatantly racist, but sometimes in the vanguard of activism on behalf of minorities. She lived lavishly, but organized programs to care for the migrant poor whom the government ignored. Matthew Avery Sutton's "Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America" does a fair job of evoking this complexity.

The book devotes less energy to conjuring McPherson's character than to hammering out a couple of historical arguments. One is not overwhelmingly original: McPherson brought Pentecostalism from the margins of American culture into the mainstream. The other is not especially persuasive: She laid the foundation for the religious right when, especially in her last years, her preaching was inflamed with patriotism.

Sutton gives cursory treatment to the preacher's early life, more fully described by two previous biographies, "Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister" by Edith L. Blumhofer and "Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson" by Daniel Mark Epstein. Born in 1890 to a Canadian farmer father and Salvation Army worker mother, Aimee Kennedy married Robert Semple, who converted her to Pentecostalism, in 1908. Within two years, they became missionaries in China; months later, he died from malaria, just before she gave birth to their daughter. Upon returning to New York, Aimee married a Rhode Island businessman named Harold McPherson with whom she had a son.

Their domesticity was disrupted by what Aimee described as God's persistent calling, and she left her husband to drive around the country in the "Gospel Car," her mother, Minnie, riding shotgun. McPherson preached a message of love, unlike the fire and brimstone of her contemporary Billy Sunday.

Her goal, Sutton explains, was to "restore American churches to what she believed was their original and 'pure' form," the defining mission of Pentecostalism. (The movement, named for the day of Pentecost described in the book of Acts, when early Christians "were filled with the Holy Spirit," took off in 1906 in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Los Angeles.)

McPherson arrived in Los Angeles in 1918 with her children and her mother, who helped run the temple for many years. (They eventually parted ways when, in an argument about church business, Aimee punched Minnie and broke her nose.) The preacher's healthy ego (at age 20, she wrote a 686-page autobiography) grew with her fame. Predictably, so did her loneliness. Her own church doctrine, the Foursquare Gospel, prohibited remarriage during the lifetime of a former spouse; but McPherson, a voluptuous woman (who, as Sutton describes, put some carnality into the biblical metaphor of the Church as the Bride of Christ) had a number of dalliances before her eventual, and failed, third marriage.

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