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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Before there was Jimmy Swaggart, before Jim Bakker, decades before these flamboyant and controversial TV evangelists came on the scene, there was Aimee Semple McPherson on the radio.

Ms. AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON (Founder, Foursquare Church): Ask, ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Ms. MCPHERSON: Knock and it shall be opened unto you. Everyone who wants to seek asylum, glory to God.

MONTAGNE: Sister Aimee made her name in 1920s Los Angeles, where she wed Christian fundamentalism to Hollywood fanfare. Sister Aimee championed the poor. She also spent a fortune building a temple to her ministry, an early mega church that, rivals quipped, put the cost in Pentecost. And she flirted with scandal.

At the height of her fame, she made even bigger headlines when she went for a swim in the ocean and disappeared. Presumed drowned, a month later, Sister Aimee reappeared in the desert of Mexico with a wild story of kidnapping. She never quite shook off suspicion she faked the kidnapping to run off with a married man.

A documentary on the evangelist airs tonight on PBS. Matthew Sutton wrote the book "Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America."

Mr. MATTHEW SUTTON (Author, "Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America"): Things really began for her at a revival when she was a teenager. She was attracted to Pentecostals because they did weird stuff. They tended to speak in tongues. They practiced divine healing. Their services were pretty wild and pretty chaotic. So she went to a revival when it came to her small town in Ontario, up in Canada, and was immediately captivated by the minister and so she ended up falling in love with him and having a conversion experience to Pentecostalism.

It's not clear which was leading her down the aisle that afternoon, but it's certainly the Pentecostalism stuck with her through the rest of her life. So it's both a serious conversion and a love affair with a guy named Robert Semple, who became her first husband.

MONTAGNE: And he was the love of her life but died quite early in the marriage.

Mr. SUTTON: He did. He passed away in China. They had gone there together as missionaries. They hoped to really convert the world to Pentecostalism, and so almost immediately this tragedy befalls her and he leaves her pregnant and alone. And she's just 20 years old, so it's really difficult circumstance for her to be in.

MONTAGNE: She came home penniless, ended up marrying someone who was not of the spiritual stature of her first husband but was a good - appeared to be able to take care of her. Couldn't bear the life of wife and mother in the early part of the 20th century?

Mr. SUTTON: She really couldn't. She has this experience much like Betty Friedan would write about in 1960s of this liturgy and this depression. She really believed God was calling her to go back on the role of minister.

MONTAGNE: And it led to a pretty - I think it would have been a pretty unusual decision back in the 19-teens, which is to say she took her children, she left her husband. Said, you know, if you want to be with me, walk with me.

Mr. SUTTON: And he actually responded to her with a telegram that said come back, do the dishes, do the laundry, you need to be a traditional wife and mother. And she never would again. From that point on, she lived a very unconventional life, really breaking boundaries and defying traditional gender roles.

MONTAGNE: Jumping ahead, what was the Los Angeles that Sister Aimee arrived in in the early 1920s, at that point having established herself as a leading woman evangelist?

Mr. SUTTON: Los Angeles was really becoming the place to be in the 1920s. It had Hollywood. It had all kinds of new amusements. It had a huge tourist industry. And so it really became the ideal location for Aimee to set up this ministry. She wanted to appeal to Southern and Midwestern fundamentalists who were flooding into Southern California. And she was able to do that by combining spectacle with conservative religion with drama and she really attracted thousands and thousands of followers.

Ms. MCPHERSON: And now, Lord, heal the sick, let those who are listening at this moment feel that strange tingling, life-giving, quickening power surging you through them.

MONTAGNE: So there's Sister in this white outfit, preaching but surrounded by all these theatrics.

Mr. SUTTON: She really was, and she would actually preach in that most of the time. But other times, she would use costumes. So some days she would come out as a motorcycle cop, other times as an Indian chief, other times as a Southern plantation mistress. And so she would dress herself up for whatever role she was playing.

MONTAGNE: Give us a typical illustrated sermon.

Mr. SUTTON: Well, she based her sermons on her real life events and used publicity. She was a master at using the newspapers and the radio and the mass media in Los Angeles. So she'd actually chartered a plane for San Francisco. The plane had some problems on take off and ended up crashing on the runway. She escaped without any harm. But this made headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle, the L.A. Times, all the major newspapers.

So she used it to then create a sermon called "The Heavenly Airplane." And when she preached this sermon, she preached it in her flight uniform, leather coat, goggles, cap and she actually had two planes that were flying around the church, miniature planes. And one was piloted by the devil and the other was piloted by Jesus. And she was, of course, admonishing her listeners to get on God's plane for the heavenly city.

MONTAGNE: Always almost from the beginning or at least from the beginning of her fame there were skeptics. In one case saying it was a cult of personality. Others saying it was just a sort of a scam. There was even a Frank Capra movie that you write about…

Mr. SUTTON: Right.

MONTAGNE: …that was based on her.

Mr. SUTTON: "The Miracle Woman." Yeah, at least some interpretations of her. And this one played up the idea that she was a fraud, that she was exploiting her followers for money, that she was faking the healings, that she was living a secret life. And she becomes such a cultural celebrity; some people absolutely loved her and some people hated her, and we can see that in all kinds of characters in the Frank Capra movie as well as in Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry. She becomes the basis for Sister Sharon Faulkner, one of the famous characters in American literature.

MONTAGNE: Why do you think, given how famous she was in her time and for a very long time, why isn't she better known today, do you think?

Mr. SUTTON: I think there's been so much focus on her as a fraud and in the context of the televangelism scandals in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. She really is somebody that a lot of people didn't want to take seriously. There's no getting around all the negative aspects of the legacy, but she also encouraged Pentecostals and evangelicals more broadly to engage with their culture, to use radio, to use film, to use theatrics. And she really thought them that instead of being content on the margins of society, they needed to be active and involved.

And they also needed to be involved in politics, which is another thing that she gets very involved in at the end of her life. So it's only now that we're beginning to look at the rise of the religious right and beginning to think about the relationship between evangelicals and mass culture and media and politics that suddenly her story has a lot of relevance for what's going on today.

MONTAGNE: Matthew Sutton, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SUTTON: Thank you so much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Matthew Avery Sutton is author of the book "Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America." See a white-gowned Sister Aimee battle the gorilla of evolution at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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