A documentary drawing on a book by WSU assistant professor of history Matthew A. Sutton will re-air on the Public Broadcasting System next week. “Sister Aimee” details the life of controversial Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Check local listings for times.
First broadcast nearly two years ago as part of the PBS “American Experience” series, “Sister Aimee” tells the dramatic life story of McPherson, a wildly popular evangelist who was instrumental in bringing conservative Protestantism into mainstream culture and politics in America. She is widely regarded as one of the most significant religious figures of the early 20th century.
“As I began working with PBS, I had no idea what it meant to take my history public,” he said. “As a writer, I cannot adequately describe what it actually sounded like to be in a small church and to hear the people around you speaking in tongues. Words cannot convey how dramatically McPherson’s appearance changed from the beginning of her ministry to her remaking as a Hollywood icon. Turning the study into a documentary allowed all of these things to become important parts of the historical record.”
Crowds rivaled Barnum, Houdini
McPherson took up her evangelistic mission during World War I, performing tent revivals all across the country. In 1921, she founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in Los Angeles, where she built a mega-temple and staged musical productions as elaborate as those on Broadway.
She performed often-controversial healings and attracted crowds said to be larger than those drawn by top performers of the time, including P. T. Barnum and Harry Houdini. Working with a publicist, she became a favorite of Los Angeles newspaper journalists and newsreel crews.
Seen today as a pioneer in introducing evangelism through the electronic media, McPherson established her own radio station – one of the first religious radio stations in the United States – and used it to broadcast daily sermons.
18 months of work
When he initially agreed to provide consulting support to the documentary in the summer of 2005, Sutton said he had little idea that the commitment would result in hundreds of hours of work over a period of 18 months.
“I quickly realized that we had a difficult task in front of us. My job was to explain and describe the many complexities of a larger-than-life character.” Linda Garmon – a four-time Emmy award winner hired by WGBH to produce, direct and write the script – had to reduce and simplify those complexities into a 50-minute documentary.
The WSU faculty member said he admits to having reservations as a historian about the wisdom of attempting to encapsulate a subject as complex as McPherson and her impact on American religion and politics. But as the project proceeded, Sutton said he came to believe that the documentary provided a unique contribution to the public record.
McPherson’s fame may have hit a zenith when she suddenly disappeared in 1926, only to return a month later telling a dramatic tale of kidnapping and harrowing escape. But newspaper reporters and an inquisitive district attorney soon retraced her steps – and those of her former radio engineer – to a romantic bungalow, where she may have been living in disguise.
Eventually, McPherson managed to overcome the ensuing scandal, and during the Depression she built an extensive welfare organization and entered the political arena, calling for the United States to return to its “Christian” roots. She died in 1944 of an accidental barbiturate overdose.
“Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian American” will be available for the first time in paperback next month. Sutton’s upcoming book, tentatively entitled “American Evangelicals and the Politics of Apocalypse” (Harvard University Press) will examine the relationships among American evangelicalism, apocalyptic thought and political activism during times of national crisis and war.