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May 18 The Kidnapping of a Megachurch founder

Canadian Aimee Semple McPherson was a pioneer of evangelism. Faith-healer, founder of the Foursquare Gospel Church and builder of the Angelus Temple, was believed to have disappeared during a swim on May 18, 1926. Presuming she had drowned, searchers combed the area for a washed up body.


Because of her fame however soon sightings of her were reported often many miles apart. She had constructed one of the first megachurches called the Angelus Temple in LA, and soon the Temple received calls and letters claiming knowledge of McPherson, including ransom demands. McPherson, was charismatic, driven and at times unstable. She had pioneered the use of modern media in religious services, using radio and incorporating stage techniques into her weekly sermons at The Angelus Temple. Her services focused on healing and sometimes speaking in tongues, what is technically called ‘Glosollalia’. Her preaching style, extensive charity work and ecumenical contributions would become a major influence on 20th century Charismatic Christianity. The most publicized Protestant evangelist, her she often attracted tens of thousands of participants. Her Temple was more than a place of worship and became an ecumenical centre for all Christian faiths. A wide range of clergy and laypeople, Methodists, Baptists, the Salvation Army, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Adventists, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and secular civic leaders, featured as guest speakers. She developed "lighthouses," or satellite churches, playing down her pentecostalist roots. She was also very influential in the development of what is known as ‘American Exceptionalism’, the view of the United States as a nation founded and sustained by divine inspiration.

Unable to find fulfilment as a housewife in her first marriage, she had become well known in Pentecostal circles for interpreting glossolalia, the translating the words of people speaking in tongues. She began holding tent revivals across the Sawdust Trail, a series of temporary buildings or tents used by itinerant ministers for revival meetings. Tabernacle floors had been covered with sawdust to dampen the noise of shuffling feet (as well as for its pleasant smell and its ability to hold down the dust of dirt floors), and coming forward during the invitation to dedicate one’s life to Jesus became known as "hitting the sawdust trail”. McPherson quickly amassed a large following, but always an innovator she adapted and wanted to emulate the enthusiasm of Pentecostal meetings but avoid their unbridled chaos, in which participants would shout, tremble on the floor, and speak in tongues. Keen to accommodate them, she set up a separate tent area for such displays of religious fervour, which could be off-putting to larger audiences.

After todays alleged kidnapping, she reappeared in Mexico five weeks later, stating she had escaped from kidnappers there. Stumbling out of the desert in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican town across the border from Douglas, Arizona she had collapsed in front of a Mexican couple who took her into their home and covered her with blankets. Claiming that she had been kidnapped, drugged, tortured, and held for ransom in a shack by two men and a woman. The leader of Agua Prieta, Presidente Ernesto Boubion, was called to see her. He stated that she grasped his wrist, trembled violently, and asked where she was, declining both food and drink. She was transported across the border to the Douglas, Arizona, police station and then the Douglas hospital.

First no one believed she was McPherson, the missing Angelus Temple pastor. A reporter who visited the hospital stated that she was emaciated and barely recognizable, but knew her from covering past revival meetings. Once properly identified, her family and some Los Angeles authorities took a train to see her. Soon allegations that the kidnapping story was a hoax carried out to conceal a tryst with a lover gained traction. This precipitated a media frenzy and a grand jury case which was the largest of its kind in California. Hundreds of reporters and agencies looked for discrediting evidence against McPherson and sold millions of newspapers, generating fat fees for lawyers, and stirred up religious antagonism but ultimately were unable to prove her kidnapping story false. In April 1990 (fifty years after her death) a decision was handed down regarding the matter by Judge George T. Choppelas, the judge concluded that "there was never any substantial evidence to show that her story was untrue. She may not have been a saint, but she certainly was no sinner, either.


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