Before there was Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker, there was Sister Aimee. A glamorous superstar evangelist with a flamboyant preaching style and an even more colorful private life, she went through scandal after scandal - and marriage after marriage - without so much as dropping an "Amen".
Aimee's Early Life
The first scandal came 4 years before Aimee's birth. James Morgan Kennedy's wife, Elizabeth, was dying. She desperately needed a live-in nurse, but it was hard to find medical care in the small town of Salford, Ontario. Desperate for help, Kennedy placed an ad in the newspaper. He took the first person to respond, who happened to be a 14-year-old orphan named Minnie Pearce. Elizabeth died a few months later. Logically enough, the 50-year-old Kennedy picked the nearest available woman. The ensuing brouhaha was so intense that Kennedy had to transport Minnie across the border to Michigan, where they were quietly married.
After they returned to Salford, Minnie gave birth to a baby girl, Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy, on October 9, 1890. Minnie, who was raised by the Salvation Army, was deeply religious. She consecrated Aimee to the service of God when the girl was just six weeks old. All through her childhood, Aimee was told Bible stories instead of fairy tales and fell asleep to hymns, not lullabyes. Despite Aimee's strict religious upbringing, her father managed to impart to Aimee his love of music, nature, and horseback riding. She also enjoyed dancing and watching movies at the local theater. She dreamed of becoming an actress, but her mother forbade it.
Instead, Aimee turned to her studies. After learning about the theory of evolution in her geography book, she questioned her parents about the origin of life on Earth. Unsatisfied with their Bible-derived responses, she began to study the works of Darwin, Ingersoll, Paine, and Voltaire. At the age of fifteen, she was the town's youngest defender of evolutionary theories. Through a series of articles in the local newspaper, she became the most vocal, as well. Much to the dismay of Aimee's mother, no clergyman in the area could win an argument with the talented young public speaker.
Aimee soon returned to religion, but in a way that dismayed her mother. In 1907 she attended a local Pentecostal meeting. Aimee, a staunch atheist, had decided to go see the "Holy Rollers" on a lark, thinking it might be amusing. She hadn't counted, however, on the charms of the speaker, a tall, blue-eyed Irishman named Robert Semple. Aimee fell promptly in love with the handsome evangelist. She burned her novels, dancing pumps, and ragtime sheet music, and announced her intentions to marry Semple. Her mother protested, but it was no use.
The two were married six months later, on August 12, 1908. They made plans to move to China as missionaries. To raise the money to get there, they spent two years on the revival circuit. Although Aimee was never ordained, her innate talent for public speaking drove her naturally into preaching. Her work continued through an interpreter when the couple moved to China in 1910. Two months after their arrival, however, Robert and Aimee - who was then pregnant - became very ill. The two were hospitalized with malaria and dysentery. Five days after their second wedding anniversary, Robert Semple died in his hospital bed. Exactly a month after Robert's death, Aimee gave birth to their daughter, who she named Roberta Star Semple.
By this time, Minnie had left Aimee's father and moved to Manhattan to assist the Salvation Army. Aimee met her mother there and set up her new life. She was bored and listless, unhappy doing simple Salvation Army work. She looked for missionary work in Chicago, but baby Roberta's ill health forced her to stay at home. While she was living in New York, Aimee met Harold McPherson, a restaurant cashier. Although she rejected his advances at first, she finally consented to marry him in 1912.
Aimee gave birth to her second child, a son named Rolf, in 1913. She was afflicted with severe postpartum depression and her health began to deteriorate. She was hospitalized for various ailments, some of them thought to be psychosomatic. Soon, she became very ill. Harold wired to Minnie that Aimee's life was in danger, and she rushed to Aimee's bedside. Later, Aimee would tell her followers that she heard God's voice asking, "NOW WILL YOU GO?" She took that to mean that she was being offered a choice between surrendering into eternity or becoming an evangelist. Aimee chose the latter. Two weeks later, she "miraculously" recovered.
Preaching The Foursquare Gospel
One night in June 1913, when Harold was away, Aimee packed her bags and took her children to the family farm in Ontario. She began by holding Pentecostal camp-style meetings around southern Ontario, but soon her popularity spread. The collections from her services paid for a tent that she called her "canvas cathedral" and a 1912 Packard that she called her "Gospel car". The car was painted with slogans like "JESUS IS COMING - GET READY" and "WHERE WILL YOU SPEND ETERNITY?" Aimee and her family drove the car as far as Florida, leading revivals all over the country. Harold tried to travel with his wife in an attempt to reconcile, but the wandering life proved to be too much for him. He delivered an ultimatum, and when Aimee wouldn't settle down, he left her. They divorced in 1918.
Aimee loved the pace of her religious missions, but she was awful with finances. In 1917, she had been spreading the word for 4 years, and had just began to issue Bridal Call, a magazine that cemented her scattered followers into a network of supporters. She was broke and worn out, however. Adding to her troubles, Roberta had fallen sick with the influenza virus that was sweeping across the country. So Aimee did what she had always done before in times of trouble - she called her mom. Minnie decided that the ragtag team needed a break from the East Coast evangelical circuit. The extended family drove across the country to Los Angeles, preaching and converting souls the entire way there. It is claimed that Aimee and her mother were the first women to have crossed the country alone by automobile.
Within a week of arriving in Los Angeles, Aimee was drawing huge crowds in rented halls. Soon, she had made enough money to buy her family their first real home. But she still was not happy. Aimee wanted to build her own church. With Minnie's help, she found the perfect corner lot, next to Echo Park. The land was bought in 1919 and almost immediately Aimee went off to preach around the country. She sent home every dime she earned, and soon mother and daughter had raised enough money to erect the church of their dreams. The debt-free $1,500,000 Angelus Temple was finished in 1923. The huge, domed Temple was outfitted with a rotating, illuminated cross that could be seen for 50 miles; crystal chandeliers and an elaborately painted cupola; a huge pipe organ; and seating for 5,300. A miniature replica of the building, created with roses and carnations, won the Grand Marshal Award in the 1923 Tournament Of Roses parade.
The palatial new church was the perfect place to preach her doctrine, which would later come to be called the Foursquare Gospel. Aimee's philosophy was nothing new. She called for a return to simple biblical Christianity. Calling herself a strict, old-fashioned Christian, she believed in "a literal Devil presiding over a literal hell, inhabited by card-players, dance-hall frequenters, drunkards, dope-peddlers, [and] wicked women," as one contemporary wrote. Although she had become famous on the road for her powers of healing and speaking in tongues, she began to set aside the most distinctly Pentecostal aspects of her work when she settled in Los Angeles. Her work began to be based strictly on the Bible. She knew the Good Book inside and out, but she did not present any new or original ideas. Her sermons, in fact, were often rated as no better than mediocre.
Her strength lay in the actual preaching; Aimee was always the consummate show-woman and advertiser. She often used extravagant gimmicks to keep her audience interested. A typical Sunday service included musical numbers and elaborate stage plays to illustrate lessons from the Bible. On one infamous occasion, Aimee dressed up as a policeman and drove a motorcycle up the center aisle on her way to preaching about the consequences of breaking God's law. Another time, she borrowed a camel from the zoo to demonstrate its inability to pass through the eye of a needle. In one of her most tittilating "illustrated sermons," a dozen scantily-clad maidens clinging to the Rock of Ages in the midst of a storm were pulled to safety by the sailors of the Lord.
Her doctrine got its name in 1922, when she had a vision based on the prophet Ezekiel's vision of Man, Lion, Ox and Eagle. Preaching in Oakland, California, Aimee saw four symbols - a crown, a cross, a dove, and a cup. She believed that these represented, respectively, the Regeneration of the Church, the Second Coming, Baptism in the Spirit, and Divine Healing. She began to preach the new "Foursquare Gospel" in the temple in Los Angeles and on the road during her frequent barnstorming trips.
Aimee's entertaining brand of Christianity, with its catchy name, was immensely popular. Huge throngs of people were turned away from the temple each day for lack of seating. The audiences attending the services would cause traffic jams each night. Her customers were generally blue-collar, hard-working people in need of a little entertainment along with their religion. She once said, "I bring religious consolation to the great middle class, leaving those below to the Salvation Army and those above to themselves." She did not need the riches of Los Angeles's upper class - her followers were bringing in plenty of cash by themselves. Soon, she was itching to expand.
Hoping to attract more followers, Aimee set up radio station KFSG in early 1924. It was only the third radio station commissioned in Los Angeles, and the first FCC commercial license granted to a woman. The station, the first ever to be devoted full-time to religious programming, broadcast the Sunday sermons live. In 1925, Aimee opened the L.I.F.E. Bible College to train young men and women to enter the ministry. "L.I.F.E." stood for "Lighthouse of International Foursquare Evangelism." She later expanded on the lifehouse gimmick by creating the "Salvation Navy." Calling new branches of the Foursquare Gospel around the country "soul-saving stations", she erected the new churches in buildings that looked like lifehouses.
Aimee's popularity was higher than ever. The press loved her eccentric style and the public couldn't get enough of her wild sermons. The height of the Sister Aimee phenomenon, however, came in 1926 with her dubious kidnapping and return. On May 18, Aimee told her mother that she was going to drive out to Ocean Park with her secretary, Emma Schaffer, and relax for a bit. She was scheduled to return that night in time to show some slides of a recent trip to Jerusalem. She did not return, however.
Making Headlines Until the End
Schaffer told police and the public that her employer had gone wading into the surf and disappeared. A search by the police and by her followers turned up no clues. Although Aimee was a strong swimmer, many people - including her mother - assumed she had simply gone out too far and drowned. "Sister is gone," Minnie Kennedy told the congregation that night. "We know she is with Jesus." Her disciples were distraught. One girl even went so far as to throw herself into the sea. A diver died of exhaustion while searching for Aimee's body.
The press, however, had different ideas about her disappearance. Knowing the bottle-blond beauty's history with men, they tracked down rumors of all kinds. While the police were patrolling the shoreline with boats and searching the waves with divers, the reporters were sniffing out old beaus and recording tales of illicit assignations. The mystery made for good news, and papers sold hundreds of copies with faux ransom notes and psychic consultants.
One rumor, though, just wouldn't go away. There was another missing person, it turned out - Kenneth Ormiston. An unhappily married man in his mid-30s, he had been the engineer at KFSG until Minnie fired him, worried about Aimee's attentions towards him. He hadn't been seen since Aimee disappeared - in fact, his wife had filed a missing-persons report. The papers quickly concluded that the two must be together somewhere, enjoying a tryst. Ormiston ended up surfacing days later, denying any knowledge of Aimee's whereabouts.
Then, 32 days after her disappearance, the shocker came. Aimee collapsed onto the porch of a house in Agua Prieta, Mexico. She was taken to a hospital in Douglas, Arizona, where her mother rushed to her side. Surrounded by reporters and photographers, Aimee told a very strange story.
She claimed that while she was wading in the surf, a young couple had approached her and begged her to come to their car and pray for their dying baby. Aimee agreed, but when she reached the car she was chloroformed and kidnapped. When she awoke, she found herself being held captive by a woman and two men who called themselves "The Avengers". According to Aimee, they wanted ransom money from Minnie; when Aimee refused to help them get it, she says they threatened to burn her with a cigar. Later, the kidnappers transported Aimee to an isolated shack somewhere in the desert of Northern Mexico She said she was never left alone until June 22, when the woman left to go buy a pack of cigarettes. Seizing the opportunity, Aimee removed her restraints using a jagged piece of metal and then staggered into the desert, eventually reaching Agua Prieta.
Skeptics immediately doubted her tale. Rangers and policemen combed the area, but they could find no sign of the shack Aimee was supposedly kept in. Her shoes were unscuffed, despite having supposedly walked 13 hours over the burning desert sands. There was no satisfactory explanation for the fact that she had disappeared wearing only a bathing suit but had been found in Mexico completely dressed, even down to her corset. The press promptly went to work discrediting her story. They soon found a seaside resort in Carmel-By-The-Bay that had been the site of several rendezvous between Aimee and Ormiston. Hotel clerks, chambermaids, the hotel register, and scraps of paper with her handwriting all testified to Aimee's presence in the hotel during her disapperance. Reporters gleefully handed the evidence over to the district attorney.
Within a week, the kidnapping charges were dismissed and a new grand jury was convened to investigate possible charges against Aimee and her mother, including corruption of public morals, manufacturing evidence, and falsifying police reports. On their side, Aimee and Minnie had a woman named Lorraine Wiseman. Wiseman claimed that she was the mysterious woman seen with Ormiston at the hotel during Aimee's disappearance. Soon after she first testified in Aimee's defense, however, Wiseman was arrested on bad-check charges. When Minnie refused to provide her with bail money, Wiseman changed her story. She now claimed that Aimee and Minnie had hired her to tell the story in order to perpetuate a hoax. On November 3, Judge Samuel R. Blake charged the pair with "criminal conspiracy to commit acts injurious to public morals and to prevent and obstruct justice." The court spent months hearing evidence, but inconsistent witnesses and pressure from Aimee's followers led the DA to dismiss all charges in 1927.
Los Angeles newspapers and magazines profitted wildly from the scandal. Curiously enough, though, it did little harm to Aimee's career. Newly cleared, she embarked on a "Vindication Tour" around the United States. Although many mocked the attempt, even more flocked to her sermons. Aimee had a talent for turning publicity, positive or negative, into business. When her tour reached New York, Aimee decided to do a little sightseeing. Reporters followed her into the Three Hundred Club, an infamous speakeasy. Texas Guinan, the proprietor of the club and a woman known as "the queen of nightclubs," approached Aimee and asked her to speak to the audience. Always ready for a crowd, Aimee stood and delivered an impromptu sermon. The next day, of course, her name was all over the papers: Evangelist Preaches at Speakeasy.
Aimee continued her work with the church through the Great Depression, opening a soup kitchen, a free clinic, and a commissary to distribute needed goods to the poor. She also fought bitter - and widely publicized - battles with her mother and daughter over control of the church throughout the 1930s. In one such fight, Aimee allegedly broke her mother's nose. After a lengthy round of lawsuits, she ended up ousting both Minnie and Roberta from the church. By the end of her life, she had ceased speaking to both of them.
Adding to the media fodder, she married a young vaudeville and cabaret performer, David Hutton, in 1931. Her marriage to the 30-year-old Hutton caused a storm of controversy; Aimee had remarried when her previous spouse was still alive, going in against one of the rules of her very own church. The controversy was heightened when the drinking, womanizing Hutton was served with a court summons by an ex-girlfriend just two days after the marriage. Hazel St. Pierre, a chorus girl in one of Hutton's previous shows, sued him for breach of promise. She eventually won $5000.
Aimee didn't seem to mind Hutton's infidelities, though. At the time, she was indulging in her own somewhat discreet affairs in an out of the way apartment. There were rumors that she had had extensive plastic surgery. The papers linked her to everyone from the ghostwriter for her biography to a young comic named Milton Berle. Berle later admitted to the affair, remembering Aimee as an aggressive lover who made love to him in front of an elaborate altar complete with candles, a crucifix, and a homemade Calvary scene.
David Hutton filed for divorce in 1934. Although there was a rumor that Aimee was being blackmailed with nude photos in 1936, most of the scandal in the later part of her life stemmed from the internal battles within the church. As many as 55 different charges and countercharges were filed in a convoluted battle between Aimee, Minnie, Roberta, and several temple officials. Aimee's health began to deteriorate. After preaching a sermon on September 27, 1944, just a few weeks short of her 54th birthday, Aimee was found dead in her hotel room in Oakland, California. The death was ruled an accidental overdose of barbituates. The church she created continues to operate today, with 3,000,000 adherents worshipping at more than 24,000 churches in 107 countries.
Pierce, J. Kingston. "The Abduction of Aimee." American History, Feb 2000 v34 i6 p43.