The Angelus Temple in Los Angeles just off the Echo Park Lane, looks like an Opera House or a Theatre, except that a cross sits atop its dome. It is the International Church of Four Square Gospel, and is believed to have 2 million members. The church welcomes sinners and saints, tattooed, pierced or dishevelled, embracing everybody with unconditional love.
The Temple was designed and built under the direction of Aimee Semple McPherson, a woman who caused a veritable tsunami in the placid waters of Christian conservatism of the early 20th century.
Aimee was born on 9th October 1890 in Ontario, to a missionary couple Robert James Semple and Beth Kennedy. When they moved to China on missionary work, her father succumbed to Typhoid. So Aimee and her mother returned to New York, where the latter found employment with the Salvation Army.
In 1912, Aimee married a salesman called Harold Steward McPherson. This beautiful, intelligent but headstrong woman became an evangelist in 1916, and moved to Los Angeles. Her methods of evangelism were totally different from the conventional preachers of her time, who pronounced ‘hell fire and damnation’ on all unbelievers.
Aimee turned religion into a fun thing that promised acceptance of all who were ‘weary and heavy laden.’ Though many did not agree with her theology, they surely admired her grit. She travelled cross country for revival meetings and even went abroad to Canada and Australia. Her automobile had the words “Full Gospel Car’’ on its sides and was fitted with a radio. However, her husband Harold was not impressed. He opposed her ministry and her frequent travels away from home. He divorced her in 1921, unable to deal with the stress of an absentee wife.
At the Angelus Temple which was considered the most beautiful sanctuary in the West, Aimee livened her services with a full orchestra and band. Apart from her preaching, Christian musicals, operas and drama were staged here. When the Temple was dedicated on January 1st, 1923, it had a seating capacity of 5000. Later, she opened a Bible School nearby and called it Light House of International Foursquare Evangelism.
As her popularity increased, so did criticism about her unconventional ways. She wore expensive stylish costumes, used tasteful makeup and was too beautiful for a preacher. People came to gaze at her beauty more than to listen to her sermons. Even her choristers and usherettes were dressed elegantly. Christian women were aghast at her shameless display of worldly adornment.
“You don’t have to look spiritual to be spiritual,” she countered, “Women, you don’t have to look ugly and plain to prove how spiritual you are.”
Her faith healing activities, speaking in tongues, singing and radio broadcasts brought crowds to her church. But inherent flaws in her character surfaced from time to time. She was used to having her own way in everything. People found her difficult to work with.
In 1926, Aimee went for a swim in the ocean and disappeared. Everybody thought she was dead. But a few weeks later, she surfaced in Mexico, claiming that she had been kidnapped for half a million dollars. During this period of her absence, a radio operator called Kenneth Ormiston who worked at the Temple, also disappeared. It didn’t take people long to realise that they must have shacked up together is some romantic hideaway. However, the Grand Jury investigation and charges of perjury against her were suddenly dropped. This incident brought about a permanent rift with her mother.
Aimee married again in 1931 to David Hutton, ten years her junior. The marriage was short lived. They divorced in 1933.
The Temple was caught up in legal disputes and financial problems for a few years. Aimee continued to preach and teach. By 1940, the difficult period was over.
Aimee died on September 27th, 1944, due to an overdose of sleeping tablets. Some thought it was suicide.
One wonders if this flamboyant evangelist was a hypocrite or a victim of the Media, which was not kindly disposed towards women in power. If she was a fake, how does one account for the popularity of the Temple even today, and its claim of two million members?