Los Angeles will remember the testimony against her long after it forgets the testimony that cleared her.
—H. L. Mencken
On May 18, 1926, the woman who had essentially invented the megachurch disappeared while swimming near Venice Beach.
Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, the Pentecostal preacher who had founded Hollywood’s Angelus Temple and was known both for her faith-healing and her elaborate prop-oriented sermons (basically a Christian Carrot Top), was approached on the beach by a young couple asking her to pray for their sick child. If her life had been a horror movie, this would have been the moment when the ominous cello music started playing, but unfortunately for Sister Aimee, the sound film wouldn’t be invented for another year. She followed the couple, climbed into their car, and immediately found herself chloroformed.
The U.S. religious landscape of the 1920s was rocked by no shortage of its own conflict, with factions of evangelicals, fundamentalists, mainline Christians, and secularists all vying for power, and McPherson had managed to make enemies of most of them.When she awoke (as she later recounted), she realized the couple was holding her in a shack in the Mexican desert; unfortunately, it was 80 years too soon for her to appreciate the Breaking Bad connections. Her kidnappers intimated elaborate plans to hold all sorts of celebrities for ransom, because this was the 1920s and celebrities had just been invented, and in a pre-TMZ world, it was still unclear how to extract cash from their private lives. One of Sister Aimee’s captors even burned her with a cigar trying to get personal information out of her, but gave up quickly because he felt bad about it, which makes me think he probably should have found a different line of work.
All told, Sister Aimee was tied to a chair for more than a month. You’re probably wondering why nobody bothered looking for her, and the answer is . . . it’s complicated. The problem was that no one, anywhere, had a clue where she had gone. Her mother, to whom management of Angelus Temple had fallen, was convinced she had drowned (on the upside, this gave her an excuse to collect half a million dollars in today’s money as a memorial fund). Public speculation, meanwhile, veered wildly from one idea to the next: she had run off for a tryst, or had disappeared to discreetly seek an abortion or plastic surgery, or maybe she had just developed amnesia and wandered off. (Agatha Christie apparently thought that last idea was a good one and decided to give it a try in December of that year.)
The real problem, though, was that McPherson’s disappearance was revealing one of the biggest downsides to being a celebrity: everyone wants to be a part of your life, no matter what the cost to you or your loved ones. People were claiming they had seen her everywhere from the Yukon to the Yucatán, though in fairness, it was the ’20s, and I’m pretty sure all women were wearing the exact same flapper-girl getup for the entire decade. Meanwhile, McPherson’s mother received half a dozen ransom notes, all making different claims, and nobody (still!) has any idea which, if any, of them actually came from Sister Aimee’s actual kidnappers. (One of the more credible ones, a nearly unintelligible typewritten mess, practically begged McPherson’s family to take her off of their hands because her incessant preaching was driving her captors nuts, which just confirms my suspicion that we’re all living in an O. Henry story.)
In any case, on June 22 or so, McPherson gave up on waiting to be rescued and decided to rescue herself. She cut her bonds with a tin can lid and then trekked approximately 20 miles across the desert before collapsing in Agua Pietra, Mexico. But despite the fact that she had emerged from the desert more emaciated and stuck full of cactus needles than Wile E. Coyote on a bad day, McPherson soon discovered that no one—or at least no one who mattered—believed her story. She immediately found herself tied up in a grand jury hearing for potential conspiracy charges.
Her entire ministry, argued prosecutor Asa Keyes, had been a scam, and Sister Aimee had only settled in L.A. after her revival meetings had been run out of every other town in the United States. (In truth, McPherson was arguably one of the most popular preachers since Charles Spurgeon, as evidenced by the 30,000-strong crowd waiting to greet her when she returned from Agua Pietra, but who’s counting, right?) What followed was the biggest courtroom media circus since the Scopes Monkey trial, which had only occurred a year earlier, so I guess that was a pretty low bar, but still.
Despite his best efforts, though, Keyes never managed to secure an indictment, probably because he couldn’t find any evidence for anything other than the story McPherson had been consistently telling. He did get some mileage out of the “tryst” angle, when he found some witnesses who swore that Kenneth Ormiston, Sister Aimee’s former radio operator, had been cavorting with someone in a cabin in central California, but the case fell apart because the only apparent similarity between Ormiston’s companion and McPherson was femaleness. Meanwhile, no evidence of an actual conspiracy turned up, but it did come to light that plenty of people had been soliciting McPherson for bribes, including the freaking mayor of Agua Pietra.
In other words, the whole thing had basically been a witch hunt. Why all the hate for McPherson? It’s hard to explain to people who live in an era marketed as THE MOST POLARIZED EVAR, but it turns out the culture wars weren’t invented last week. The U.S.’s religious and cultural landscape of the 1920s was rocked by no shortage of its own conflict, with factions of evangelicals, fundamentalists, mainline Christians, and secularists all vying for power, and McPherson had managed to make enemies of most of them. Mainline Christians resented the way her theatrical, multimedia approach to church services “cheapened” the gospel. Her fellow Pentecostals loathed her ecumenical approach and her rejection of pacifism. Secularists despised her for her attempts to ban evolution from biology classrooms, and both political parties could find reasons to hate her (she campaigned for Herbert Hoover, but supported FDR’s New Deal). Odds are, just based on this paragraph, you’ve discovered a reason or two to dislike her as well. Jerk.
That’s the thing about following Jesus, though—it means you’re rarely going to have a cultural army on your side. Jesus himself was born into a world rocked by culture war, and he never really embraced the cause of the conservatives (Sadducees), or the liberals (Pharisees), or the radicals (Zealots), or even the weirdo Benedict-Option-types (Essenes). Instead he called them all to the same thing: “Repent and follow me.”
Sister Aimee, for all her quirks and faults, never sought to do anything different. And while she had been famous in L.A. and the revival circuit prior to the kidnapping incident, the ordeal carried with it the upside of global fame—and with it the platform she had always wanted to tell people about Jesus. So, hey, she may have ended up with bedsores on her butt (I assume), but on the whole, things worked out pretty okay.