Thursday, October 9, 2008

Birthday Girl: Hallelujah, Baby!

Once upon a time a bored Canadian housewife woke up one morning fired with what she decided was a call from God.

She hopped into her 1912 Packard and took to the road, preaching far and wide and never shy about using whatever means necessary - including the Packard - to draw a crowd.

Within a few years, she had parlayed her Packard and preaching tent into the fastest-growing church in the USA and had herself become one of the most famous women in the world.

She was Aimee Semple McPherson (Semple was husband #1, dead in the mission field; McPherson was #2, left behind when Aimee got behind the wheel of that Packard; still to come was #3 and a few other adventures). She would have been 118 today, had her longevity matched her ambition.

She was the first celebrevangelist, and the 1920s were her decade. She took her Foursquare Gospel on the air, becoming the first woman to hold a radio broadcast license, and she kept it on the road, using her Angelus Temple in Los Angeles as the home base for crusades that went 'round the world and took in millions.

She set the pattern for countless hucksters - I mean preachers - to come, not only in her rise, but in her inevitable descent into scandal.

She survived a mysterious kidnapping in 1926, vanishing off the California coast and turning up a month later in Mexico. She said she'd been held hostage, and that the pristine state of her shoes after a putative 13-hour trek through the desert was a sign of God's grace. Others said they'd seen her in a string of motels and roadhouses with one of her deacons, a married gentleman.

While Aimee managed, more or less, to turn even this to her advantage (she preached for another two decades), the scandal and ridicule marked the end of her media honeymoon.

Dorothy Parker, reviewing her memoirs, called her "Our Lady of the Loudspeaker", saying:

"Well, Aimee Semple McPherson has written a book. And were you to call it a little peach, you would not be so much as scratching its surface. It is the story of her life, and it is called In the Service of the King, which title is perhaps a bit dangerously suggestive of a romantic novel. It may be that this autobiography is set down in sincerity, frankness and simple effort. It may be, too, that the Statue of Liberty is situated in Lake Ontario."

You can read an excellent New Yorker piece by John Updike here, or, if you're feeling craftsy, why not print out these 1922 Aimee paper dolls from Vanity Fair?

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