God’s Office Girl: Aimee Semple McPherson
Oakland Magazine – October 26th, 2011
Oakland has birthed its share of celebrities, including MC Hammer, the Pointer Sisters, Mark Hamill (of Luke Skywalker fame) and the perennially quoted Gertrude Stein. But some luminaries have also met their end here. Perhaps one of the most colorful was the early 20th-century Pentecostal evangelist-extraordinaire Aimee Semple McPherson.
Born in 1890, “Sister Aimee” was a one-woman wonder. In an age when women could neither vote nor aspire to real careers outside the family, McPherson toured the country in her “Gospel Car,” preaching with a megaphone (she typed her sermons while her mother drove). Though calling herself a mere “office girl for God,” McPherson — tall, attractive and possessing a serious melodramatic bent — attracted attention wherever she went. Settling in Los Angeles in the 1920s, she established the first “megachurch” and hired local carpenters, painters and stage designers to create Sunday services so entertaining they were listed in the theater sections of newspapers. To “call a halt to sin,” she donned a police uniform and roared onstage atop a motorcycle. To explain how she had escaped death in a defective airplane, McPherson had two model planes built on the church stage. The first, she told followers, was piloted by the devil; the second, steered by the Lord, guaranteed her safe return to the City of Angels.
Though her base was Los Angeles, McPherson had a deep connection to Oakland. She had first visited in 1921, preaching in a tent on San Pablo Avenue. Saying she had more friends in Oakland than anywhere else, McPherson returned the next summer for a week of revival meetings at Idora Park, an amusement park that flourished then on the northern banks of Temescal Creek. Sister Aimee performed baptisms in the park’s swimming tanks for an astounding 10,000 Oaklanders. At the peak of religious fervor one night, McPherson suddenly saw the images of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. These, she cried, were the four aspects of Jesus — savior, healer, burden-bearer and coming king. Her famous “Foursquare Gospel” was born.
Great success followed, with Foursquare Gospel churches springing up across America and in a host of foreign countries. The denomination boasts 1,800 churches worldwide today. McPherson became a household name as common as Charlie Chaplin or Amelia Earhart.
But in 1944, tragedy struck McPherson in Oakland just as she’d been struck by a vision two decades earlier. On Sept. 26, shortly before her 54th birthday, McPherson came to town to consecrate Oakland’s brand-new Foursquare Gospel Church on 25th Street and give her standard four-day session on “The Story of My Life.” Following a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the church, McPherson boarded a horse and buggy and shepherded a huge crowd of devotees over to Kaiser Convention Center for her opening speech, which fans called “a top performance.”
When son Rolf McPherson came to collect her the next morning, however, she lay unconscious from what was later termed an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. He ran for help, but by the time doctors arrived, the legendary Sister Aimee was dead. Hundreds of Oaklanders filled the Kaiser Convention Center that day and sang Foursquare Gospel songs in a spontaneous act of mourning; thousands poured through her Los Angeles temple the following week for her official open-casket service.
On the last night of her earthly existence, McPherson reportedly looked up at the stars from the window of her Leamington Hotel room. “When we die,” she said, “I wonder if we’ll be riding around in airplanes.”