Aimee Sample McPherson and the Resurrection Christian America is neither a sociology book nor a sociological study. Rather, it is a biography of one of the most influential Christian leaders of the 20th century. Why, then, might it be an important and gratifying book for sociologists to read? First, the book is a compelling read because McPherson's life is like a wild roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, thrilling successes, and agonizing defeats. Her Christian message and her behaviors are consistently controversial, attracting strong supporters and vehement detractors in the media, in Hollywood, and among Christian leaders. Second, McPherson’s influence helped to redefine and redirect Pentecostal movement in America and eventually around the world. Third, the story of McPherson's life captures the nuances of a popular religious leader’s life, allowing the reader to strip away the veneer of popularity and derision and the complicated personality. Finally, the author describes a rich cultural context from which to view this unique life. The interplay between McPherson's ministry and mission and the dramatically changing times in which she lived illuminate the complexity of religious and cultural change.
Sociologists, and perhaps all of us, like to find explanations to complex problems that help us categorize and understand social issues and problems. Too often, in studying religion and religious change, sociologists oversimplify religious agendas, religious leaders, and religious groups. As I read Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America I discovered numerous challenges to such simplification.
McPherson’s early personal life and call are set against a backdrop of her strongly Christian family (her mother belonged to the Salvation Army) in rural Canada and her early marriage to Robert McPherson, an evangelist who inspired her missionary zeal. Robert McPherson died while the couple were serving as missionaries in China with their young family. Aimee remarried but that marriage ended in divorce. The social context for Aimee's life is set between World War I and World War II, a time when social change was occurring broadly and rapidly.
McPherson’s evangelistic drive led her to Los Angeles where she established a large following and built the 5300 seat Angeles Temple (now a historical landmark), with funds raised from followers. Early on, she established the Foursquare Gospel, a version of premillennialism that embraced Pentecostalism, but over time her theology changed as she responded to changing times. McPherson used drama and media to bring attention to the gospel. While evangelicals in the past had gathered large crowds for revivals, Aimee was unique in tapping into communication techniques being used in the broader society. Borrowing from Hollywood, she used drama, scenery, and costumes in her wildly popular church services. When radio opened up a new possibility, she was eager to spread her gospel message on the airwaves.
As a woman, McPherson was vilified for abandoning traditional roles and challenged for her sex appeal. She developed a love for beautiful clothes, wore them well, and men often found her enticing. She was denounced from within Christianity, especially by Methodist evangelist Robert Schuler, and despised or befriended in turns by the secular media. Aimee was always a controversial figure. Throughout her life she denounced evolutionary theory, taking strong positions on the Scopes trial and its aftermath. She involved herself and her followers in political controversies, supporting or denouncing candidates depending on their platforms’ consistency with her beliefs. Yet, her efforts to help the poor, unwed mothers, and others on society's fringe were applauded nearly universally.
The pressure of her remarkable undertakings both politically and socially, and the constant barrage of personal attacks took its toll on her physical and mental health. She had numerous nervous breakdowns and even disappeared for 36 days claiming upon her return to have been kidnapped. Her untimely and unexpected death at age 53 was believed to be the results of an unintentional drug overdose.
The legacy of this controversial life, understandably, receives mixed reviews. The author describes the liberal Christian Century position as “McPherson was a fraud who duped the masses into believing her superficial version of the gospel (272)," a position with which some agree to this day. The recent popular film Elmer Gantry is an example of this position. Based on the Sinclair Lewis novel that is a fictionalized story of Aimee’s life, it is a story of a woman evangelist who uses her sexual appeal to dupe her followers. Yet, she was able to identify with her followers and explain the gospel to them in terms they understood. She transformed Pentecostalism which is now one of the fastest growing religious movements in the world. Even her nemesis Robert Schuler recognize that God had used Aimee to start an important Christian movement.
For sociologists, the message of Aimee's life is a testimony to the need to recognize and incorporate the complexities of religious movements and of their leaders: they are sometimes Godly and sometimes worldly and their works may be good while their positions rankle.