by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been noted here before, the spectacular rise of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson to popularity and prominence in the increasingly diverse religious realm of the Angel City was truly a phenomenon to behold during much of the Roaring Twenties. Born west of Toronto, Canada in 1890 to middle-aged rancher James M. Kennedy and mid-teen aged Matilda Pearce, who became a devotee of the evangelical powerhouse, the Salvation Army, in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada, Aimee was born again by Robert Semple, who became her husband and then died in China in 1910 while she was pregnant with their daughter, Roberta.
A second marriage to Harold McPherson ended in divorce after several years and produced a son, Rolf, but, she began over own evangelical enterprise and, with her mother, who left her husband behind in Canada where he died in 1929, and two children, came to Los Angeles, where he found a large and enthusiastic audience for her powerful preaching style and messages. She launched the Church of the Foursquare Gospel and it grew so rapidly that, by 1923, a prominent site on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park was acquired and the Angelus Temple, the distinctive circular church structure with a capacity of over 5,000 persons was built.
As her empire grew, including a bible college and radio station, Aimee’s mother, who was commonly known as “Ma” Kennedy, assumed the vital role as business manager. So, it wasn’t just that a woman attained such achievements in building a church to such a size and stature, but that a woman also oversaw its development and financial apparatus. As is so often the case, however, fame and fortune came at a terrible price.
My colleague, Gennie Truelock, covered this a few months ago in a recent Female Justice presentation, but, in 1926, Sister Aimee, as she was known to her devotees and detractors alike, vanished while enjoying an outing at the beach near Santa Monica and then, after an intensive search, appeared in northern Mexico with a remarkable story of kidnapping and escape.
Amid tremendous skepticism about her tale, it was believed by many that she’d gone off on a tryst with Kenneth Ormiston, who’d worked as an engineer with her radio station KFSG, and a lengthy and expensive criminal probe was launched leading to charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury against her, though the matter was eventually dropped in early 1927.
Whatever happened with the infamous disappearance, a schism quickly surfaced within the church and pitted McPherson, who went on a preaching tour in the Eastern states after the end of the kidnapping affair, against a substantial minority including her mother. Accusations were made that the church was riddled with corruption and improper behavior and “Ma Kennedy” was reported to have been allied with the insurgents.
In July 1927, after returning from another excursion, McPherson was met at Riverside by her mother, but the usual photographs taken by the press showing the two kissing were replaced by the two standing smiling at the entrance to a train car as rumors swirled that Sister Aimee had letters dictated ordering her mother’s removal as manager.
In early August, with more photos showing the two together, but absent of the normal affection, it was revealed that a “peace settlement” was arranged, in which “Ma Kennedy” resigned her position and Sister Aimee assumed total control of the church, while the pair divided the financial proceeds of an estimated $100,000. Kennedy went to the Pacific Northwest for a period to continue her own evangelical work, but then returned to Los Angeles in May 1929, two weeks after District Attorney Buron Fitts announced that there would be no reopening of the case involving Sister Aimee’s disappearance.
On the 16th, it was reported, the pair met for tea at La Venta Inn in the exclusive Palos Verdes Estates community and Sister Aimee was quoted as declaring, “our troubles, both private and legal, now are at an end and we are both happy. We want to be alone now and allowed to go ahead and enjoy each other.” As to whether, there was any reconciliation as far as Ma Kennedy’s involvement with the church, it was stated that neither would confirm or deny that rumor.
A couple of days later, the Los Angeles Times titled an article “Temple Enigma Persists” and claimed “an air of mystery continued to envelop the secret arrival here of Mrs. Minnie (Ma) Kennedy, erstwhile business manager of Angelus Temple, a week ago, and despite persistent rumors that she again will assume control of temple business affairs all efforts to confirm the report failed.”
Today’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is a press photograph from 29 May showing the smiling mother and daughter sitting close together and the caption is titled “Friends Again!” The text read that
Mystery surrounding the visit of Mrs. Minnie E. Kennedy to Los Angeles deepened when instead of departing for eastern points as announced, the mother of Aimee Semple McPherson again took up her residence in the flat building adjacent to the Temple which she occupied shortly before she severed connections with the Temple work a year ago [it was actually closer to two years]. Mrs. McPherson and Mrs. Kennedy, who but a few months ago were in the throes of a bitter controversy as a result of the differencies [sic] over Temple management, posed together and appeared to be again in accord.
Elsewhere, it was reported that Sister Aimee reached out to her mother because Kennedy was the defendant in a $50,000 “love balm” suit filed in Washington state by the Reverend Henry H. Clark, who, in a turnabout from the usual order of litigants, sued her for breach of promise in marriage.
While the press photo was published in the Times on the 30th under the heading of “Peace Dove Hovers Around Angelus Temple” and a caption titled “Pair Reunited” observed that it was their first picture in thirteen months, the prior day’s edition featured a lengthy piece with the title “Evangelist And Ma Sever Ties.”
It was reported that, rather than return as business manager for her daughter’s church, Kennedy intended to “continue on an independent evangelistic campaign.” Moreover, the Times noted, “in a secret conference that lasted more than an hour in a downtown bank, the mother and daughter brought to a permanent end that partnership that for more than six years was synonymous with the temple.”
Kennedy was observed as being upset that the meeting was found out and made public, but agreed to pose for a photo while a smile on her face, and she told the Times
I am happier than I have been for years and will continue to carry on individual evangelistic work. I am happy to see my daughter progressing so nicely and I feel that Angelus Temple is destined to stand out as one of the greatest religious monuments the world has ever known.
She followed by averring that she never expected to be in the public eye and was immediately departing for the East without saying where she was specifically heading. Kennedy explained that the meeting at the bank was to sign papers that were necessary for the final termination of her professional relationship with Sister Aimee.
It was added that “Ma” looked many years younger than she was when last spotted in the Angel City fewer than two years prior and it was added that, grasping her daughter’s arm, “she tripped lightly from the bank at Second and Spring streets after the conference.” When photographers spotted them, Sister Aimee climbed into a car, while her mother headed toward another vehicle, but, after first refusing comment and a photo, yielded to both.
The Times mentioned that Kennedy handed out a business card indicating that her latest endeavor, which the Los Angeles Record called a “cult,” was the Everlasting Gospel Evangel in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, though there was also a Los Angeles post office box address. “Ma” stated, on 31 May as she left Los Angeles, telling reporters “I have drawn a shade between myself and my past at the temple” and that she had no intentions of evangelizing in the Angel City, though her stay in Canada turned out to be brief.
In October 1929, Clark’s suit ended in Kennedy’s favor, though he appealed to the Washington state supreme court, which upheld the lower court ruling with minimal comment a couple of years later. In early December, with the requisite drama and public attention that marked the church and its compelling leader, the Times, in its edition of the 9th, reported that
While a great audience looked on and pelted her with roses, Aimee Semple McPherson, pastor of Angelus Temple, last night received a huge Christmas box, carried to the Temple platform by six strong men.
“My gift from Santa Claus,” said Mrs. McPherson, as she untied a great ribbon festoon and opened the lid on the six-foot crate.
Standing inside, dressed in white, stood the evangelist’s mother, Mrs. Minnie Kennedy.
“Could anyone ask for a finer Christmas present?” asked the Echo Park evangelist, “my mother and I are united once more in Angelus Temple work—on this the seventh anniversary of the opening of the temple.”
This was not long after the crash of the stock market in New York City ushered in the Great Depression and, while the worst of the financial crisis would not come for a while yet, the situation was not just problematic for the country and world at large, but for the temple. One manifestation of this was a spring 1930 pilgrimage to the Holy Land undertaken by Sister Aimee, “Ma” Kennedy, Roberta and Rolf.
Where as a 1926 tour was proclaimed a stunning success, this trip, which purportedly was planned to include hundreds of temple parishioners and the booking of a ship solely for the expected part, only included twenty of the flock. McPherson was quoted as saying that the low turnout was “disappointing.”
So, too, were marriages for both her and her mother. McPherson’s third trip to the altar was with David Hutton in 1932, but the actor and musician’s penchant for playing up his relationship to her celebrity led quickly to a separation and divorce. Kennedy, meanwhile, who lived in Hermosa Beach, married Guy Hudson in 1931 (twice, after it turned out that he was not legally divorced as he claimed, so the first ceremony was annulled and his divorce made official before a second nuptial was held) and the media delighted in calling him “What-a-Man” after she gushingly used that term to describe him. It was widely reported that the two signed a vaudeville contract for forty weeks at $1500 per week, but after less than a year the two separated, though a divorce was not finalized for several more years.
Beyond these personal predicaments, the much-hyped reunion between mother and daughter soon fell apart. In July 1930, Kennedy again resigned from the church and she claimed shortly afterward that McPherson punched her in the nose after learning that she and the temple were to be left out of her mother’s will, and Kennedy appeared in press photos showing the injury.
“Ma” also took the opportunity to publicly warn Aimee that there was “corruptness, deceit and double dealing” within the church and advised, “it would be better for sister to give up Angelus Temple and go far into the desert and build anew that to remain under the control of her present associates.” She told the press “I know in my heart that sister still loves me, but she is mismanaged and ill-advised. Eventually she will come back into my arms.”
In 1936, when Aimee’s daughter, Roberta, got into a legal tangle with her mother over the management of the temple, Kennedy sided with her granddaughter, telling the Times, “if my daughter Aimee continues so recklessly to separate herself from her devoted family, I prophesy she will chart her own path of ruin. I am moved by pity for Aimee now as never before!” She also told the paper her recent call to her daughter was the first since 1927, though that was clearly not the case as detailed above.
With McPherson looking to give carte blanche to a new business manager even over the trustees of the Echo Park Evangelistic Association, which ran the temple enterprise and which consisted of Aimee and her children, Kennedy declared, “I warned her [McPherson] that I refuse to tolerate any abuse of Roberta . . . there have been as many managers as years [since she stepped aside]—and as many lawsuits as managers!”
Adding that the church was established by Aimee and her, Kennedy proclaimed that “it is only right that it should remain in the family. Aimee can get her best counsel and management from her own children. McPherson responded by having two dozen church officials and thirty employees issue a statement of support for her by declaring their “Christian loyalty, love and appreciation” toward the new manager, the Reverend Giles Knight, whose hiring was “to lift much of the burden of details from the shoulders of our beloved president and founder.”
The next spring, Roberta Semple filed a $100,000 slander suit against her mother’s attorney and won a judgment for 2% of that, though Kennedy said “I wouldn’t care if the judge had given a 6-cent judgment. All we wanted was vindication for Roberta.” These rifts represented the personal problems of the family, but there were continuing problems for the church, which saw deteriorating membership and finances until McPherson’s sudden and shocking death from an overdose of sleeping pills in September 1944.
Rolf took the reins of the church and guided it for many decades, while Roberta supported his efforts while taking no official role. As for their grandmother, Kennedy was found dead of natural causes in her Hermosa Beach residence in November 1947. A Times obituary noted that
Frequently she and her daughter were at odds, although, in the midst of their troubles, the mother often said that “Aimee is still my baby. I only wish her well and pray for her.”
Theirs was a remarkable and rocky relationship, not at all unusual for mothers and daughters of strong personalities, marked abilities, and moral and religious certainties, but their very public lives, played up in the media in ways that were often clearly calculated to portray them in a negative light, whatever their culpabilities may or may not have been, were fodder for fascination in popular culture for roughly a quarter century.
This photo is a notable document about these striking women and their roles in the highly personalized religious world of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel and the Angelus Temple in Roaring Twenties Los Angeles.