Matthew Avery Sutton is an associate professor of history at Washington State University, and the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. With the revival of Kathie Lee Gifford’s musical Saving Aimee scheduled to premier in just a few days, we invited Sutton to explain why McPherson is such an appealing character to fictionalize. You can read his take below. Also this week, Sutton wrote an op-ed on the specter of the Antichrist for the religious right in politics, which he discussed with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell.
There is perhaps no religious leader in American history who has been resurrected in American popular culture as often as Aimee Semple McPherson. The subject of numerous films, novels, poems, and songs, McPherson has certainly captured the imaginations of Americans. Most recently, she served as the basis for the musical Saving Aimee, which opens this month in Seattle.
Born in Salford, Ontario, Canada in 1890, McPherson converted to American Pentecostalism and then embarked on a career as an itinerant evangelist. Her dramatic instincts, stage presence, and seeming ability to heal the sick catapulted her to national fame. She eventually settled in Los Angeles, where she built the spectacular Angelus Temple, a five-thousand seat megachurch that opened in 1923. The next year, she launched her own powerful radio station, Kall Four Square Gospel (KFSG). But she is most famous for a 1926 scandal. At the peak of her fame she mysteriously vanished. She reappeared over a month later, claiming to have been kidnapped although she was more likely shacked up with a lover.
The mystery of her whereabouts during those five-weeks in 1926 has never been solved. Instead, it continues to be replayed in American culture. The first writer to transform McPherson’s story into fiction was Upton Sinclair. Having watched the kidnapping unfold from his Los Angeles home, he wove McPherson’s story into his novel Oil! (1927) a muckraking critique of Southern California. Sinclair Lewis’ masterpiece Elmer Gantry followed closely on the heels of Oil! Although Lewis had begun work on the project before McPherson disappeared, she served as a model for Sister Sharon Falconer. A few years later, Frank Capra’s film The Miracle Woman (1931) explored faith, sexuality, and scandal. The film was based on the play God Bless You Sister, which in turn was based on McPherson’s life. In this film, the young Barbara Stanwyck plays a McPherson character, Florence Fallon.
A decade and a half after Aimee’s death, Richard Brooks resurrected Elmer Gantry, transforming Sinclair Lewis’ novel into an Academy Award-winning motion picture. The film captures some of the issues that McPherson’s popularity illuminated, including the controversies ravaging Protestantism and the tensions surrounding the redefinition of gender roles in the interwar era. Folk singer Pete Seeger’s “Aimee McPherson” (1961) retells the story of the infamous kidnapping in song, mixing fact with fiction. “Did you ever hear the story of Aimee McPherson,” it begins, who “preached a wicked sermon, so the papers said.” The same themes emerge in this song, performed thirty-five years after the events of 1926, which have characterized so much of the art depicting McPherson. She appears as a sexual vixen, an alluring siren, a religious hypocrite, and the darling of newspapers. But not everyone has viewed this song as a work of criticism. It found its way into the Liberated Women’s Songbook (1971). The most recent literary work seeking to conjure the evangelist’s legacy is Mick Farren’s Jim Morrison’s Adventures in the Afterlife (1999). His work presents McPherson as a complex, sex-crazed woman. His Aimee finds true happiness not in religious devotion but in a hyper-sexual relationship with Jim Morrison of the Doors.
McPherson’s continuous reappearances in pop culture illustrate that the issues raised by her life were not simply about Los Angeles in the 1920s. Rather they illustrate how the mix of religion, sexuality, and mass media that she represented cut to the heart of modern American culture—then and now. In crafting a powerful, culturally engaged, theologically conservative movement in an era saturated with controversy over the roles of women in society and the relationship of fundamentalism to American culture, she garnered a lot of attention.
Although Aimee tried—and failed—to star on Broadway in the 1930s, she may yet get her chance. The new musical, Saving Aimee, will once again revisit her compelling, complicated life. With Aimee as the subject, it is bound to be an excellent show.