Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, by Matthew Avery Sutton. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
One cannot help but wish to have been there, centrally seated in the first row of Angelus Temple’s lower balcony, to view the spectacle up close. Imagine the intensity of the moment, the palpable pangs of spiritual bliss, anguish, and surrender all around as Sister Aimee draws your seatmates into her fanciful world of biblical prophets and priests, heroes and villains. And what must it have been like to stand with thirty thousand others gathered at Los Angeles’ train station on that June day in 1926, cheering rapturously at the first sight of Sister Aimee after her return from a mysterious disappearance; or to sit nervously in the court room later that same year as she attempted to answer the mystery and defend herself against charges of conspiracy?
That such sentiments stir frequently when reading Matthew Sutton’s biography of Aimee Semple McPherson is tribute to his rare story-telling abilities. By pricking the emotions as much as intellectual curiosity, Sutton provides us with an opportunity to appreciate McPherson sympathetically as someone trying her best to negotiate the cultural opportunities, pitfalls, and blessings of her day. At the same time, he offers room to feel what it would have been like to be part of McPherson’s multitude of followers or cadre of critics. McPherson was, to say the least, a polarizing figure. All who encountered her during her lifetime thus seemed compelled to declare publicly their feelings of loyalty or loathing for the female evangelist.
Sutton asks us to suspend such judgment and instead carefully measure the intensity of these responses against the realities of the day–against the constantly expanding range of possibilities that seemed only to encourage Sister Aimee’s exploits, well meaning and successful, poorly conceived, or otherwise. Continue reading