Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson Claims She Was Kidnapped

Popular Christian evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared while swimming off Venice Beach, California, and was believed to have drowned. A month later she showed up at a hospital in Arizona, brought there by Mexican authorities after she told them she had been kidnapped and held captive. Many believe she fabricated the story and had instead run away with a lover. A grand-jury investigation and trial lasted more than seven months and attracted overflowing crowds. Charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Summary of Event

In May of 1926, thirty-five-year-old Aimee Semple McPherson, a popular Christian evangelist and founder of the Foursquare Gospel Church Foursquare Gospel Church and the Angelus Temple Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, California, walked into the Pacific Ocean and then disappeared. She was presumed dead. A month later, she was found in a hospital in Douglas, Arizona, claiming she had been kidnapped. Skeptics, doubting her story, demanded a grand-jury investigation. Although no kidnappers were found, allegations that she had had an affair were never proved either. [kw]McPherson Claims She Was Kidnapped, Evangelist Aimee Semple (May-June, 1926)
McPherson, Aimee Semple
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McPherson, Aimee Semple
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[g]Mexico;May-June, 1926: Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson Claims She Was Kidnapped[00380]
[c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;May-June, 1926: Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson Claims She Was Kidnapped[00380]
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Ormiston, Kenneth G.
Kennedy, Mildred Pearce
Salter, Roberta Semple
McPherson, Rolf

Aimee Semple McPherson.

(Library of Congress)

Ten years before the public scandal, McPherson, following a call from God, left her family to spread the word of salvation. Depending on God to direct her and provide for her, she organized revivals. McPherson, or Sister Aimee, as many later called her, was born in rural Ontario, Canada, to Mildred Kennedy, an orphan raised by the Salvation Army, and James Kennedy, who was in his fifties and also was a religious person. Their daughter, too, became dedicated to the Salvation Army, a group that did not believe in baptism. McPherson grew up confident and outspoken, entertaining herself by preaching to her dolls and organizing her schoolmates into a marching corps, and gaining recognition, as an adolescent, for her speaking and writing skills.

At the age of seventeen, McPherson met and married Irish evangelist Robert Semple. They became missionaries in China, but he soon died there of malaria. McPherson gave birth to their daughter, Roberta, and moved to New York City to be with her mother. Seeking the security of Marriage;Amy Semple McPherson[MacPherson] marriage, she then married Harold McPherson, and they had one child, Rolf. McPherson soon left her family to become an itinerant preacher. Her family joined her, and while her mother managed her schedule, her husband gave up on the marriage.

After traversing the United States twice, McPherson and her family settled in Los Angeles. With her mother they began a campaign to solicit contributions for the building of a temple for their planned church. On January 1, 1923, to overflowing crowds, they opened the Angelus Temple, a megachurch with more than five thousand seats. The temple drew thousands to her famous sermons, and it had services for the impoverished. It also educated evangelicals and established worldwide missions. McPherson enhanced her preaching with dramatic skits she called “illustrated” sermons, and she became one of the first women to star in radio, bringing her voice into the homes of thousands. She was assisted in her radio mission by technician Kenneth G. Ormiston, with whom she developed a close friendship. This relationship provoked gossip, led to his resignation, and led his wife to sue him for a divorce. He was reported missing by his wife in January of 1926. A few months later, on May 18, McPherson disappeared as well.

On the day she disappeared, McPherson had gone to the beach with her secretary, Emma Schaffer, as she often did, to work on the text for her sermon and to relax. She asked Schaffer to check on some visuals for her sermon, swam from shore, and did not return. A search began. Looking for a story, reporters stormed the church parsonage, forcing McPherson’s daughter to hide in the basement while they ransacked closets and drawers. McPherson’s son, who had been boarding with church friends on a ranch near Winters, California, was rushed back to Los Angeles by the local sheriff to evade reporters. Reported sightings of McPherson around the country as well as a reward of twenty-five thousand dollars that was soon withdrawn, suggested that McPherson was alive. However, after a month, her mother held a memorial ceremony. In mid-June, more than one month after her disappearance, McPherson was found at a hospital in Douglas, Arizona. Her mother, daughter, and son went to Douglas and then brought her home, on June 26, to a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters.

McPherson explained that she had been lured to a car by pleas of help for a sick child. She claimed that when she got to the car she was abducted, drugged by three kidnappers, and eventually taken to a shack in Mexico, where she was bound and tortured (with a cigar burn to her hand). Left alone briefly, she cut her ties loose on the jagged edge of a tin can and then walked hours to Agua Prieta, Mexico, and later was taken to the Arizona hospital near the border. Her story was questioned first by the local sheriff, who stated that her appearance and physical condition did not indicate that she had just walked through a desert. Additionally, Ormiston reportedly had been seen with a mysterious woman. McPherson’s enemies saw an opportunity.

In addition to the journalists looking to develop news stories for their papers, others were eager to malign McPherson. Shuler, Robert P. Robert P. Shuler, who owned a local radio station and was pastor of Trinity Methodist Church in Los Angeles, resented her drawing crowds from other Protestant churches. Shuler would eventually lose his radio license because of his controversial broadcasts. The Los Angeles business community, including the Chamber of Commerce, and crime lords objected to her alleged interference in their business activities. Reporters pressed Los Angeles district attorney Asa Keyes to investigate the alleged kidnapping, but their real motive was to uncover an affair. After a grand-jury investigation failed to indict any kidnappers, a second investigation began, prompted by the testimony of a woman who had named the mystery woman with Ormiston as her sister-in-law; this witness told the grand jury that she had been paid to say this. McPherson and her mother were then charged with obstruction of justice, corruption of public morals, and conspiracy to manufacture evidence. At their trial, grandstands had to be constructed at the courthouse to accommodate the crowds.

Although McPherson presented herself as a defenseless woman, she managed herself well. During the trial, she responded to reporters with humor and irony, and she famously announced that she was sticking to her story. She had become a savvy manager of the media. In addition to continuing her magazine Bridal Call, she created her own weekly newspaper, Foursquare Crusader, and she continued to use radio for her sermons, one of which portrayed her major critic, Shuler, as the devil. Charges against McPherson and her mother were dismissed in January, 1927, for lack of evidence.

McPherson worked to exhaustion and died at the age of fifty-four from an accidental overdose of sleep medication. Her son carried on the work of the Foursquare Church and its hundreds of missions worldwide.


After the trial, McPherson came to see herself as a star, which brought both influence and problems. Her life and the scandal unwittingly increased the popularity of Pentecostal Christianity, as it exacerbated the schism between the conservative, fundamental Protestant Church and the moderate Protestant Church. While she kept loyal followers and had supporters, from the famed Baltimore journalist H. L. Mencken to the Ku Klux Klan, she was portrayed by others as a fraud and hypocrite. She traveled abroad with as much access as an ambassador, holding conversations with Mussolini, Benito Benito Mussolini, Mohandas Gandhi, lepers, and impoverished Japanese fathers. Her actions continued to provoke publicity and lawsuits, causing fractures in relationships with her mother and daughter. Lonely, she married again unsuccessfully.

McPherson’s disappearance also led to the ruin of California Superior Court judge Hardy, Carlos S.
Impeachment;of judges[judges] Carlos S. Hardy, who was later impeached for providing McPherson and her mother with legal advice and for intimidating witnesses. McPherson’s attorney, Russell A. McKinley, died under mysterious circumstances in an auto accident. McPherson, Aimee Semple
Kidnapping;of Aimee Semple McPherson[MacPherson]
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Further Reading

  • Epstein, Daniel Mark. Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993. Explores McPherson’s personal and professional life, her personality, and her motivations.
  • Lord, Lewis. “Chasing Aimee—The Evangelist Was Tried for a Tall Tale.” U.S. News and World Report, August 26, 2002. A breezy look at the absurdity of and popular interest in the McPherson kidnapping scandal.
  • Sutton, Matthew Avery. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. Argues that McPherson’s religious movement helped to initiate a form of nationalism in Christianity.
  • Updike, John. “Famous Aimee.” The New Yorker, April 30, 2007. Novelist Updike analyzes McPherson’s life in the context of Matthew Sutton’s assertion of her influence on Christianity in the United States.

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