Calling Sister Aimee/ What Can I Do About My Dreams?


It's difficult to blockquote something from an NPR audio clip, but this interview with Matthew Avery Sutton, author of a new bio of Aimee Semple McPherson, is worth a listen. Here's the nut graf from a book excerpt:

Although many men and women from a variety of different traditions contributed to the regeneration of evangelicalism, none compared with McPherson. As the most famous minister in America during the interwar years, she became the personification of the old-time religion, by transforming a conservative religious creed into something as exciting as a swashbuckling Hollywood adventure. Yet the rapid expansion of this culturally attuned faith was not without its pitfalls, for McPherson constantly blurred the boundary between the sacred and the profane. Many critics despised the seeming irreverence of combining show business with an ancient creed. Others questioned the creation of all-powerful celebritypreachers who marketed little more than their own personalities to the masses. Still others who decried the mixing of faith and politics warned that the First Amendment was under siege. And there was an even darker side to this evangelical culture, fueled by McPherson and her allies' constant search for signs of the impending rise of the Antichrist. Like the Puritans before them, they tended to interpret daily events within the framework of a continuous cosmic struggle between good and evil. Because they never knew when and where the devil might strike, they remained very suspicious of "outsiders." Regardless of how successful such believers became, they saw themselves as a besieged minority, a faithful remnant, charged with holding back the forces of the apocalypse. This ideological commitment, which kept them constantly on the defensive, fueled a nativist tendency that occasionally surfaced in damaging ways. But the greatest controversy affecting McPherson centered not on her religious innovations or her sporadic xenophobia but on her personal life. When, at the peak of her fame, she became embroiled in what appeared to be a major sex scandal, she nearly landed in jail. She discovered that the same publicity tools that had helped her create a religious empire could just as easily destroy her. Ultimately, however, she rebounded from the controversy and returned to the national spotlight during World War II to solidify the marriage between evangelicalism and patriotic politics.

NEXT: Bums

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  1. There was a great American Experience on PBS about this woman the other night. I had never heard of her until I watched it. She was kind of a tragic figure. In addition to being the country’s first mass media evangelist, she also refused to segregate her services even in the South in the 1910s and 20s spoke out forcibly about the treatment of Blacks at a time when doing so was very unpopular and she also set up a commissary for food for the poor in Los Angeles during the depression and did a lot of charity work for migrant workers. All the while she was a very lonely woman who lost the love of her life when she was young and really had no close friends or confidents and seemed to live an extraordinarily unhappy life.

  2. Hey, that’s some nut graf!

    Back in the day, Will Rogers said of Aime, “she baptizes 5,000 sinners a week. Of course, it’s the same 5,000 every time, but, still, that’s not bad baptizing.”

  3. The church today could do a lot worse than another Rev. Aime.

    If she showed up on today’s scene they’d probably call her soft because she wasn’t humping war constantly.

    By the way, couldn’t you have picked a better paragraph to cite than that one? It says very little, gives no examples whatsoever, and is basically a random stringing together of stereotypical perjoratives.

  4. Saw the American Experience episode. She was a tragic figure in the sense that Oedipus was a tragic figure. She brought herself down. Aside from throwing in with the evolutionists. She was the archetype televangelist (or would have been had she lived, more accurate to say she was the archetype radiovangelist). She even staged her own death.

  5. If you ever read or watched Elmer Gantry, Sister Aimee’s roadshow was a major plot inspiration.


  6. Didn’t she also have a working telephone installed in her coffin, in case she was accidentally buried alive?

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