Monday, February 19, 2007

Book Review: Sister Aimee

"You may believe Aimee Semple McPherson to be a messenger direct from God Almighty to save His erring world. Or you may believe her to be the most unblushing fraud in the public eye today. Some do one, some the other; and there is every shade of opinion between. But the one fact that stands out is that her influence is incredible, that it carries as that of few evangelists has ever carried, that she is to-day one of the most amazing phenomena of power in this feverish, power-insane United States."

Sarah Comstock, Harper's 1926


It’s remarkable to me that I had never heard of Aimee Semple McPherson. Accoring to Epstein, she was once the most famous woman in America, attracting audiences greater than Houdini, Teddy Roosevelt or P.T. Barnum could draw, preaching often to crowds of 30,000. She healed blindness, deafness, physical infirmities. And yet it’s interesting that the names of the movie stars of her era are more familiar to me than the details of Aimee’s extraordinary life and career.

Her success has many contributing factors. It was clear after her mother was expelled from her role as the Business Manager for Aimee’s multi-million dollar operation, that the material success of her career was due largely to Minnie’s shrewd, if un-democratic, business sense. Then there’s Aimee’s enigmatic charm and charisma, the source of which is difficult to know. But it may have helped her from a young age to have had the destiny narrative that her mother must have repeated to her. Minnie had consecrated her to the Lord’s service, in the way that Hannah promised to give Samuel to God.

The combination of a destiny narrative, a strong-willed teenage rebelliousness (against her parents’ religious practices) and the simultaneous conversion experience and falling in love with an Evangelist set her on her path. It seems also that temperamentally, Aimee was passionate, compassionate and incredibly energetic.

She also arrived on the scene at a particular historical moment when the general public was ready fora more active, energetic expression of religion—perhaps as a result of the popularity of a kind of grand scale, live entertainment or spectacle that was popular in the pre-film era. One can’t help seeing the parallels between Aimee’s “illustrated sermons” and vaudeville theatre or circus performance. In fact, vaudeville is characterized by music, comedy, athletic feats, magic, animal acts, opera,acrobatics, gymnastics and lectures by celebrities and intellectuals—not a far cry from Aimee’s Angelicus Temple performances. She certainly knew how to draw on the dramatic and sensational to illustrate her gospel message. In this way, Epstein writes that her ministry tore down “the walls between religion and secular life, between lost souls and the redeemed. She was making way for a new spiritual possibility in the twentieth century.” (320)

Despite the many controversies surrounding Aimee’s healing techniques, her intimate relationships, her mysterious “kidnapping”, and all the other scandals the press was eager to bring to light, I can’t help finding Aimee Semple McPherson mesmerizing for her sheer confidence alone. As Epstein writes, one might think that “this passionate woman was either horribly right, or stark raving mad.” (163) Either way, to me her audacity and profound confidence (for better or worse) is inspiring.

This is a great read for the religious and non-religious alike. Though Epstein includes many wonderful descriptions, I wish he had included more photos and illustrations in this book. But there's a lot available online. See here for an audio recording of one of Aimee's sermons.

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