- Spectacular EvangelistAimee Semple McPherson in the Fox Newsreel
[End Page 71]
No religious personality appears with greater frequency in the Fox News and Fox Movietone News archive than Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. In footage taken between 1927 and 1931, Sister Aimee, as she was called, told jokes, modeled Palestinian fashions, showed off horseback riding skills, conducted the church choir, and threw oranges to crowds welcoming her home from a tour of the Holy Land. The Fox footage depicts a vivacious and confident female preacher who enjoyed the spotlight and knew how to play to the cameras. Thus McPherson was of the first generation of cinema-made celebrities and the first woman to use film as a national pulpit. As Neal Gabler has argued, people become celebrities when they live out “narratives that attract our attention and the attention of the media—narratives that have entertainment value.” These narratives are in fact “movies written in the medium of life.” The Fox archive provides some clues as to how McPherson became such a celebrity.1
Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy, born in 1890 in Salford, Ontario, converted to Pentecostalism at the age of seventeen and soon after married evangelist Robert Semple. Robert died of malaria in 1910 while he and Aimee were serving as missionaries in China. She returned to the United States and married Harold McPherson in 1912. Their marriage ended in 1918 when she embarked on a career as an itinerant evangelist against Harold’s wishes. Sister Aimee elevated her status as a regional and then national celebrity with the opening of Angelus Temple in Los Angeles on January 1, 1923. From that point until her death on September 27, 1944, Sister Aimee stood out, in the words of biographer Matthew Sutton, as “the first religious celebrity of the mass media era.”2
Sister Aimee employed a variety of media, including film and radio (via a station she owned), to make her life movie. The news media, however, offered the widest exposure, and did so while maintaining the appearance of objectivity. Edward Bernays, pioneer in the field of public relations, wrote three years after McPherson’s death that those who wish to influence public opinion “must create news” by engineering an event that “juts out of the pattern of routine.” News of these events must also “utilize existing avenues of approach” such as the newspaper or biweekly newsreel. Bernays’s comments, although not singling out McPherson, nevertheless applied to her example. He cautioned that those who use established news outlets to shape perceptions must take care to avoid “refinements of reason and shadings of emotion” and instead dramatize the information that they hope to convey. In other words, celebrities have a wider impact if they orchestrate the kinds of events that reporters want to cover as opposed to publishing accounts of their own activities in the form of advertisements, editorials, or lectures. This is in fact a fair description of McPherson’s campaign.3
Had she simply published her two autobiographies and sermons, McPherson [End Page 72] would have had a narrative but little attention. As Gabler points out, “a celebrity must be known or [she] is no celebrity.” Had she engineered newsworthy events but had no backstory, her actions would have been mere stunts or curiosity pieces. Thus I argue that McPherson became the first modern celebrity preacher because she innovated a two-pronged strategy of creating events that newsreel companies wanted to film and then using those mediated events to compose her life narrative. McPherson’s appearances are instructive in understanding how and why famous people became famous after the advent of moving image news media. Furthermore, her case study reveals the power of moving images in the formation of a celebrity’s narrative as well as the risks of assuming that such media images are somehow objective.4
As with most celebrities, despite her intentions, McPherson could not fully control her public image as it appeared in the news media in the same way that she could through her autobiographies or her radio station. Moreover, societal norms for the behavior and roles of women outside the home led her to create certain types of...