Title Reviewed:
Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister

Author Reviewed:
Edith L. Blumhofer

Peter W. Williams


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 90, Issue 4, pp 373-374

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister. By Edith L. Blumhofer. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993. Pp. xiii, 431. Map, illustrations, note on sources, appendix, index. Clothbound, $24.99; paperbound, $14.99.)

This biography of the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson is the newest contribution to Eerdmans's Library of Religious Biography, edited by Mark A. Noll and Nathan O. Hatch, which focuses on figures in the Anglo-American Evangelical tradition. Edith L. Blumhofer, who teaches at Wheaton College in Illinois and directs the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals on that campus, is well known for her scholarly work particularly in the Pentecostal tradition and here turns her attention to one of the most significant women in American Evangelicalism.

Blumhofer's study of McPherson takes the form of a traditional biographical narrative and is very sympathetic toward a figure whose colorful career during the "ballyhoo" years of the 1920s has elicited frequent skepticism and occasional hilarity. Much of the originality here lies in the author's emphasis on McPherson's nurture both in the nineteenth-century Evangelical culture of rural Ontario, an area heretofore unexplored by most American scholars, as well as her and her mother's profound involvement in the Salvation Army, an organization that made much deeper inroads in Canada than in this country. Blumhofer also stresses the protean quality of nascent American Pentecostalism, which tolerated in its early days practices such as McPherson's divorce. As Pentecostalism began to harden into denominational status, a process alien to the spirit in which she had been raised, McPherson retreated increasingly to the margins of the movement and focused on her own interdenominational and less dogmatic "Foursquare Gospel" movement.

Blumhofer is clearly most comfortable with the younger McPherson, whose frenetic life of missionary and evangelical work leaves the reader breathless. She deals frankly with McPherson's courtship by the Ku Klux Klan, which she handled gingerly while repudiating its racism. However, the author begins almost visibly to retreat to a safer distance when she takes on McPherson's mysterious disappearance and putative kidnapping in 1926, claiming, perhaps justifiably, that the evidence is inconclusive. She also is uncomfortable with other aspects of "Sister Aimee's" later career, in which she began to use makeup, dress fashionably, and lend her name to commercial endorsements. After her death in 1944 of an apparently accidental overdose of sedatives, McPherson was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, a symbol of her close relationship with the distinctive culture that had emerged in the southern California of her day.

Blumhofer writes both sympathetically and engagingly, though perhaps not as critically as some might have, in her treatment of this most remarkable woman. In following the series format, she omits footnotes, although the lengthy essay on sources will provide some compensation to more scholarly readers. Although not everyone would be as generous in their appraisal of McPherson's career, all might read this extensively researched and gracefully written life of "Everybody's Sister" with interest and profit.

PETER W. WILLIAMS teaches religion and is director of the Program in American Studies at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience (1988) and the Encyclopedia of American Social History (1993).

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.