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Sunday, January 12, 2014

HAVING FAITH Part Two SALVATION

"I will tell you a story, now age-old and hoary,
Engraved on the pages of time,
And one that is known not around us alone,
But in many a country and clime."
Even today most observers are transfixed by Aimee Semple McPherson. She was the shinny bauble dancing in the light, that drew all attention. But it was her mother in the shadows, Mrs. Mildred “Sister Minnie” Kennedy, who created Sister Aimee, and it was her powerful psyche that formed the child. Mildred Ona Peace was born in Lindsay, Ontario, of English immigrants in 1871. Orphaned as a child, she was taken in by members of the newly formed Salvation Army, which became her family. When she was 12 Mildred was “farmed out” as a servant to successful dairyman James Kennedy and his wife, who lived just west of the tiny crossroads of Salford, Ontario. James already had adult children, but his wife needed help dealing with a mentally challenged son. And six months after his wife died in May of 1886, the fifty year old James married the fifteen year old Mildred.
“Oh, God! give me strength to condemn at full length
That person whose soul is so iced
That unblushing she’d dare her warped life to compare
To the life of the crucified Christ!”
It was by all evidence a passionless existence, but the marriage provided Mildred with a modicum of financial security, and the pious Methodist James Kennedy did not exercise his rights as a husband until Mildred was 18. Their daughter Aimee was born in October of 1890. Once the child was old enough, and only after the crops were in, Mildred was sent to New York City, to spend the winter working with the Salvation Army. It should have come as no surprise when at 17 , her bright and energetic daughter eloped with Robert Semple, a visiting Irish pentecostal minister. 
“There's been too much hesitation, naming liars of the nation
So I'm going to prove that I have got the gall
Even though it may defame her, to come right out square and name her,
For she's sure the biggest liar of them all.”
Seeing personal religious passion as a path to salvation directly conflicted with the Salvation Army vision shared by Mildred, that salvation could only be achieved through disciplined service to others. Semple's pentecostal faith also practiced faith healing and calling out during services, sometimes even in “tongues”, a religious gibberish which Aimee became adept at interpreting. Two years after leaving Salford, the young couple arrived in Hong Kong, to begin a ministry to China. Shortly after arrival they both contracted malaria, and Robert Semple died. A month later the widowed Aimee gave birth to a daughter she named Roberta. From James and her Salvation Army family, Mildred was able to wire Aimee enough money to get her to back to New York, where the Salvation Army immediately put her to work.  
“While the battle still is raging, which big liars are all staging,
To determine who the biggest liar is,
Aimee tells us, on the level, she's decided that the Devil
Wins the trophy in the biggest liar quiz.”
While Mildred continued to commute each spring back to Ontario, Aimee (above left) remained in New York, where she met Harold Stewart McPherson (above right), a clerk. They were married on 5 May, 1912, and moved to Rhode Island, thus escaping Mildred's judgmental eye. The next year the McPhersons had a son, they named Rolph. Then, daughter Aimee suffered a nervous breakdown, which left her with a condition of obsessive\compulsive disorder, and then uterine cancer that left her sterile.  About this same time Mildred moved to New York City permanently. However, her religion would never sanction a divorce from James Kennedy. Then in 1915, Aimee left her husband, and after dropping the new baby off with her mother, took Roberta and hit the revival circuit.
 
“But I rise to challenge Aimee, to prove she can't gainsay me
When I nominate a liar of reknown
For I claim to know a liar whose a bigger falsefier
Then the Devil Aimee seeks to hand the crown”
A critic would describe the woman in front of the congregation. “Her rather harsh and unmelodious voice has yet a modulation of pitch which redeems it....In her pose, her gesture, her facial expression, her lifted eyebrows, her scintillating smile, her pathetic frown...She sweeps her audience as easily as the harpist close beside her sweeps the wires in soft broken chords while she preaches.” By 1916 Sister Aimee was successful enough to ask her mother for help. Turning her back on the Salvation Army, the 41 year old Mildred spent the next six years traveling with her daughter and two grandchildren, together 24 hours a day, crisscrossing the nation in their “Gospel-mobile”. Mildred handled what little money there was, because, as she would say later, “My daughter is like a fish on the beach when it comes to handling money. I don't believe if you put an add in the newspapers you could find anybody dumber when it comes to business.”
“Knowing quite a bunch of liars, I have picked one who aspires
To out lie all the liars in the game.
Aimee's Devil isn't in it with my entry for a minute
As a liar she's achieved a world wide fame.”
Any critic attempting to describe Aimee Semple McPherson's success had to mention her sexual appeal, and most hastened to assure readers it was not merely physical. “Aimee's mouth is very large indeed, her nose long and bumpy, her eyes small and ever shifting. She is generous breasted, and broad hipped... Her legs belong to the school known as “piano”.” The “Miracle Woman's” appearance was not improved by her fundamentalist faith, which denounced as a sinner any woman who wore make up or cut her hair. And yet there was an undeniable sexuality that touched her listeners, or at least her critics.  
“When my entry starts to lying, Aimee's Devil starts to sighing
And confesses he's no longer in the race.
She's the queen of all the liars, and as a liar never tires,
When she lies the Devil drops to second place.”
The 1920 boom times led Sister Aimee (above, center) and Mildred (above, left, in hat) to Los Angeles, where they began to raise money to build a “Temple” of their own. Mildred bought the land, and a business convert drew up papers incorporating the Angelus Temple. Control over the new building and entity was divided equally between mother and daughter, 50/50. The Echo Park structure opened to much fanfare in 1924. After spending $25,000 to set up her new radio station KFSG - Kall Four Square Gospel - Aimee (below, fore) hired the experienced radio engineer Kenneth Ormiston (below, rear) to set it up. The twin broadcast towers rising from the temple roof were added to the rotating cross visible fifty miles away.   Mildred grew concerned about the growing intense relationship between Sister Aimee and Ormiston, and in January of 1926 she saw Ormiston released from his contract, while mother and daughter took a three month tour of Europe and the holy lands.
“Admiration she engendered, but she's never yet been tendered,
Recognition of her powers as a liar.
So I write this little jingle for the purpose sole and single
Of extolling my prize winning falsifier”
However Mildred's sources in the temple reported that Ormiston's wife had filed a missing person's report on her husband. And with Aimee repeatedly slipping away from the her, Mildred must have at least suspected the engineer had accompanied them, staying just out of her sight. Shortly after their return in March, Mrs. Ormiston contacted Mildred and threatened to name Aimee in the divorce proceedings. Evidently a financial arraignment was made, providing Mrs. Ormiston with passage for herself and her child to her native Australia. It was less than a month later, on 18, May 1926, that Aimee took her now infamous swim. Did Mildred ever believe her daughter had drown? Did she hope that was the true, and not what she suspected? In either case, Mildred must have been near panic. The only thing that could have destroyed the first financial independence Mildred Kennedy had known in her entire life, were the rumors circulating about her daughter's “miraculous” disappearance in the sea and rebirth, in the Arizona desert. 
“There's been too much hesitation, naming liars of the nation
So I'm going to prove that I have got the gall
Even though it may defame her, to come right out square and name her,
For she's sure the biggest liar of them all.”
As the furor around Aimee's alleged adventures in Carmel grew, fueled when the grand jury investigating her kidnapping failed to indict anyone, Reverend Bob Schular began to openly call his cross town competition a liar. After ignoring her rival revivalist for weeks, Aimee finally promised a Sunday sermon she had titled, “The Biggest Liar in the World”. That Sunday evening, the Angelus Temple in Echo Park was packed (above), and hundreds of thousands of the curious tuned in to the lady preacher's radio broadcast. What they heard was vintage Aimee, folksy and positive. The biggest liar in the world, Aimee told her listeners, was the devil. Expecting open warfare, Schular instead found that Aimee and Mildred had no intention of sharing their publicity with him.  So Schular responded the only way he could, in the pages of his own magazine.
I am going to name a lady with a record long and shady
One who in this world has caused a lot of strife
Now I know your laughing hearty - but I do not mean that party,
For the one I have in mind is the Devil's wife!
Charles H. Magee "The Antics of Aimee...The Poetical Tale of a Kidnapped Female"
First Published in “Bob Shuler's Magazine” 1926
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