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Showing 1-10 of 13 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 21 reviews
on February 2, 2016
Matthew Sutton’s book is an excellent example of how biographical histories should be written. While the focus of the book is on the life of the controversial evangelist, media personality, and power celebrity Aimee Semple McPherson, the book speaks to larger issues of race, religion, politics and gender in early twentieth century America. Sutton’s thesis is that during the period of 1920 – 1940 McPherson redefined and reshaped the decaying “old-time” Protestantism into a modern Pentecostal movement that in effect “resurrected” Christian America and transformed the political, social, and religious landscape of America in the twentieth century. While the degree to which McPherson and the Pentecostal movement influenced 20th century American culture is debatable, the research and scholarship within Sutton’s book leaves no doubt as to McPherson’s huge influence upon Los Angeles, CA in the first half of the twentieth century.
Like many of McPherson’s theatrical sermons, Sutton organizes the book in typical chronological fashion with McPherson’s disappearance as the climax of the book. The first three chapters examine McPherson’s early life, marriages, and her calling to preach. Sutton argues that after leaving her second husband when he refused to support her calling to preach, McPherson “never again adhered to traditional gender norms or returned to domesticity.” (13) McPherson’s tension with conformity to traditional gender norms continued throughout her life, and Sutton argues that her contradictory positions stemmed from her belief that women “had no absolute or fundamental roles but could, when empowered by the Holy Spirit, step over traditional social boundaries.” (85) Thus McPherson could break with traditional roles when it came to church leadership and preaching, but could appeal to paternalistic notions of helpless womanhood when it suited her situation (for example, during her 1926 trial, 132). Sutton shows how McPherson both influenced, and was influenced by changing notions of female sexuality during the 1920s and 1930s. Sutton contends that “whether she intended to or not, McPherson embodied the changing norms regarding women’s sexuality, fashions, and bodies in that era.” (166)
Sutton places the disappearance of Aimee at the very climax of the book. The disappearance, presumed drowning, reappearance a month later, and overall controversy surrounding Aimee’s kidnapping account and rumors of an affair with a local businessman take up the better part of three chapters in the middle of the book and steal away from the more substantial parts of the book that deal with Aimee’s real and lasting influence. However Sutton does use the incident to illustrate how McPherson’s celebrity ambition eventually led to her downfall both in her public and personal life.
The last three chapters deal with McPherson’s return to her egalitarian roots, including fundamental Pentecostalism, and her influence during the depression and WWII. These last three chapters contain some of the most important insights of the book, as Sutton uses McPherson’s life to examine a larger story of how Pentecostalism intersected with issues of race, class and politics in the era. While the origins of the modern Pentecostal movement were rooted in the racially mixed Asuza Street Revivals, Sutton correctly notes that most Pentecostal churches remained just as racially segregated as any other Protestant denomination. Sutton shows that while McPherson actively sought to bring the races together in her church and fought against racism in radical ways, she also at times exhibited racist attitudes towards others and even courted the affections of the local Klu Klux Klan. Her attitudes were even stranger when it came to class issues, for while she actively fought for better working conditions for women and workers, she did not entirely trust them. Sutton states that “she believed that in the midst of a battle with communists for America’s loyalty, the working classes might be duped.” (219)
It is within the field of American politics where Sutton sees McPherson’s longest lasting influence. While two thirds of the book built up McPherson’s influence on and connection with local politics in Southern California, the last third of the book use that foundation to argue for McPherson’s wider influence on American culture in general. Sutton asserts that McPherson successfully combined notions of American nationalism, social activism, and conservative Christian theology that were used to spark “a tremendous evangelical resurgence that continues to flourish.” (277) Certainly, Sutton sees a direct connection between McPherson and contemporary evangelicals like Billy Graham and their political counterparts like George W. Bush. These comparisons may be overplayed, and a reading of this book in 2007 when it was published would be very different than a reading of this book in 2011, after the rise of the conservative Tea Party and the advent of conservative Christian political characters like Sarah Palin.
Sutton uses a wide variety of sources to support his conclusions. McPherson’s personal writings, sermons, and her autobiography are used alongside a multitude of newspaper articles, church records, magazines, trial transcripts, and city council minutes. Sutton also analyzes films, songs and literature pertaining to McPherson’s life. He relies on a broad based of secondary sources dealing with American culture and religion as well.
This book is superbly written in a manner that would make it easily digestible for both the casual reader as well as the academic. The sources back up much of Sutton’s arguments. The one noticeable fault of this book is the way in which Sutton portrays the history of American Pentecostalism. Someone with little knowledge of the history of Pentecostalism in America might easily assume that it was McPherson who singularly sustained the movement, which is far from the case. There never was one overarching Pentecostal denomination, yet Sutton’s book focuses solely on McPherson’s International Church of the Foursquare Gospel at the neglect of other important groups such as the Assemblies of God and the Churches of God. This is likely because of the biographical focus of the book, but nonetheless it is a telling weakness. Despite this shortcoming, this book overall does a great job of telling the story of Aimee McPherson and the historical interplay between religion, culture and politics in twentieth century America.
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on April 28, 2014
In the Prologue to his fine biography of "Sister Aimee," Matthew Avery Sutton writes, "On one level this is the story of the rise, fall, and redemption of one of the most fascinating characters in American history, Aimee Semple McPherson. But it is much more than that. It is also the story of how Americans came to embrace a thoroughly modern form of evangelicalism that had its roots in McPherson's innovations and concerns, one that has flourished to this day. Indeed, the tensions and controversies that characterized McPherson's world have come to define faith and politics in the twenty-first-century United States" (5-6).

That's a good description of this excellent book. It is meticulously researched and well-written. An historian, Sutton does his best to tell readers what they want to know about the life and times of the subject without going beyond the evidence, which is often murky. Overall this is an interesting read: a good biography and a major contribution to the study of American religious history.

My main criticism of this book is that it seems to attribute basically all of the survival and growth of pro-American conservative Protestantism to Aimee Semple McPherson. This, as I like to say, is a bit too Semple. What about the baseball player turned preacher, Billy Sunday? What about Carl McIntire and his Twentieth Century Reformation Movement? Billy James Hargis and the Christian Crusade of Tulsa? What is now called Bob Jones University? McIntire's American Council of Christian Churches? It is true that Semple was both early and unique. At the same time, in terms of providing leadership and initiative for an enduring fundamentalist movement, she was far from alone.
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on August 26, 2016
Sutton's bio of McPherson is as close to non-stop, Hollywood-esque drama (a la a Dan Brown novel) as religious biography could be - and that's thanks to the fascinating and enigmatic character that is Sister Aimee. Canadian-born but Los Angeles-made (I learned a lot about L.A. in reading the book, as an added bonus), McPherson became the most famous, and controversial, religious figure of the early 20th Century. McPherson is as famous for her apparent successes (the most famous preacher of her day, founder of the Angelus Temple, architect of the now enormous International Church of the Foursquare Gospel) as she was for her apparent failures (multiple divorces, she famously disappeared at sea for more than a month w/ rumors swirling across the nation, and then just as mysteriously died of overdose at the age of 53) - McPherson was truly a religious enigma.

Sutton's main argument is that McPherson, however controversial she was in her own day, has had a large hand in shaping American Evangelicalism as we know it today. Particularly, she championed the newest technology to spread her message (particularly through radio ministry), she blended religion with spectacle (her "sermons" were closer to plays), & she integrated faith with nationalism (McPherson used her pulpit to fight Communism) - all towards an attempt to rebuild a "Christian America." In her own way, she was a forerunner to the Moral Majority, to Celebrity Pastors, & even to O.J. Simpson (the trial over her disappearance was every bit the spectacle that Simpson's trial was to our own time).

Sutton's analysis of McPherson is balanced & fair - he's simultaneously sympathetic to her character, while critical of much of her action. Though I don't share much of her theology, I found her fascinating - and really enjoyed the book.
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on December 16, 2012
My comments on this book are not too dissimilar from my earlier review of Epstein's work or Blumhofer's. Get his get this one too, all these books are good and informative in their own way.

I looked over the used item section and purchased HARDCOVER. Good gamble. It was an old library copy, first blank page gone, name of library crossed out but STURDY. Well worth the money.

Yes, scandal is what gets the gonads excited. If it weren't for the Internet hype about Kathie Lee Gifford's Scandalous, the life and trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, I might not have noticed. But at this time there seems to be a revival of sorts going on to re-discover Aimee. My biographical DVD rentals for the evangelist are all on the "wait" list. Webpages are popping up everywhere giving some sort of Aimee opinion or Aimee factoid.

I had to get involved, so wanting something rather more comprehensive than vapid, often axe-grinding or fawning true-believer websites (Wikipedia is not bad, just be sure to click on the talk tab after you are done reading the main article to see why the authors put in what they did) I traded numbers from the left column of my bank statement into the right and ordered this book. It arrived three days later.

For an investigation of Aimee, I think this book a good choice. Author Matthew Avery Sutton puts Aimee into the context of what his title says the literal "Resurrection of Christian America," and much of it was to her doings.

The Atheist Charles Lee Smith, mentioned in this book, head of American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, gives her the best complement probably anyone of her job description could hope to have: "Aimee Semple McPherson is the greatest defender today (then 1934) of the Bible and Christianity." But also he adds... "an extraordinary mind, particularly for a woman." From that alone one can begin to identify the array and type of forces emplaced against her as she stepped off of the farm in Ontario, Canada. Well, Charles happened to lose that particular debate and in part, a loss due to that extraordinary mind (alas the full transcript of that particular exchange is not in the book but the text of it I have read elsewhere, which fills out much of Mathew's premise that though Aimee has been accused of conveying a simplified Amen gospel message, she is also vastly underestimated).

I find of interest is he places her in the historical context of her work and how it affects the Christian America movement and political influence today. Much of her idioms are lifted directly verbatim whether they know it or not by the Christian right. The same issues which affected her then, are in some ways revisited today. The pacifism of Pentecostalism is explored rather extensively, articulating an encompassing 1930's doctrine that accommodated conscientious objectors, those who believed in the fighting and all else in between. However, once committed to war because of Pearl Harbor, these tenants were rewritten to exclude the conscientious objectors as the conflict was framed in the epic context of good versus evil, the anti-Christ versus the forces of God. The three devils of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo needed to be extinguished.

Not that Stalin was let off the hook, he, however, during the war years, from what I gather from Aimiee's sentiments according to Matthew, was simply put on the back burner. She was going to support every aspect of the US government's prosecution in this war and did so uncritically.

Prior to the war, communism was seen together with fascism and Nazism an anti-Christ threat and she preached against them all. Mathew goes over prewar Communism being especially troublesome and it caused her to be rather schizophrenic in her off and on support of labor On one hand she detested the exploitation of labor for personal gain by the factory owners, yet she saw the infestation of communists among their ranks which prevented her wholehearted Christian support. Where there were riots and violence associated with labor strikes, she saw the tentacled grip of of Atheistic communist agitators at work.

Some of the same is explored with her attitudes towards some of the new immigrant classes, those especially from eastern Europe, she tries for an inclusive message but at times it becomes xenophobic as she perceives many communistic ideas seem to be emanating from these groups. The same conversation is taking place today where much terrorist activity is believed coming from a certain cultural group, how to separate those radicals from the group without alienating all?

The kidnapping portion, as with the other biographies I read, needs a companion work. Raymond L. Cox's book, "The Verdict Is In," is very helpful for a more detailed, scholarly approach. Raymond researches extensively from various affidavits, court documents and other articles which more fully explain the witnesses, the methods used by the prosecution Asa Keyes and Joseph Ryan to obtain their evidence; and goes at length into the investigation of the clothing, grocery lists in Aimee's "hand writing," and in other areas Matthew tends to gloss over.

For example, Mathew indicates no one saw Aimee being kidnapped at the beach. While this may be literally true, there is at least one witness Raymond writes about, an Edward Waite, was at the beach and saw one of the persons called "Steve" with Aimee standing next to the automobile, engine running; the description of the car and man (a kidnapper) the same as Aimee later gave. Edward thought nothing of it at the time of her disappearance, supposing later Aimee went swimming and therefore was drowned.

While he is thin on the kidnapping details, to his credit Mathew examines more closely the overall scope of effect the newspapers had on her trial and why perhaps the forces of LA worked hard to convict her (twice). In part because of her anti-evolutionary work, the "Babbits," that is, the power elite of California, not wanting to be perceived as the land of "fruits and nuts," wished Aimee removed.

For those who are looking for dirt, the Wilderness chapter explores her alleged affairs and drinking. But before one gets too excited and drags Aimee off to the cyberquarry to be digitally stoned, what he presents is muddy gossip. Mathew also points out some of the absurdities of the Milton Berle claim (which is fairly well explained at this time on Wikipedia). I have thought about Milt's claim and considering the kind of person Milt is, his age difference from Aimee, he was probably relating some sort of obtuse cougar joke. The other claims tend to be of the type --"I heard it from a guy who heard it from another guy." Mathew acknowledges the lack of verification, though he states there is some commonality to the innuendos.

Her change of dress and new look from what was previously austere and almost frumpy has gotten a lot of attention. Some of her greatest accomplishments were done prior to her makeover and Mathew searches out the reasons why she did it. She does became more physically attractive, in part to play herself in a movie she wanted to star in, but also as a publicity device to draw more people to her. Mathew gets me to thinking about this, "why the beauty and glitz, Aimee?" If I consider the opposite, however, homeliness, and boredom, well who really wants that!? They go to see her dazzle and she shows them the Christ. The danger is the message becomes overwhelmed by the other. Too boring and nobody is in the pew, too exiting and its "Jesus, whose He???"

Though not a lot of material is devoted to Aimee's visit with Mahatma Gandhi, what Mathew relates is very profound, for me at least: "Unable to comprehend what drove this man whom she so respected, she believed he possibly caught a glimpse of the cleansing, lifting, strengthening power of the Nazarene."

Yes, read this book.
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on February 8, 2016
Well-written and documented and covered the ascendancy, popularity and preaching of Ms McPherson. I read lots of books, but normally do not write a review. I opted to write this one as I downloaded this onto my Kindle and was disappointed that none of the extensive illustrations were present in the Kindle edition. That included the photos of texts of sermons, etc. Hence I only gave the read three stars. Suggest that if you are interested in the bio of Ms McPherson that one order a hard copy.
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on December 25, 2014
I faithfully attended the Foursquare church for the first 23 years of my life. Since then I have become an atheist, but when I saw this book I had to buy it. Quite simply, it is excellent. It is well researched & illustrated. This woman was definitely one of the first and most incredible feminists in U.S. history in a profession (still) dominated by men. Regardless your religious beliefs (or lack thereof) this is a great read. It takes no religious stance - it is a wonderful biography and history. Enjoy!
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on December 25, 2010
I have always been interested in women in ministry from the early years. Aimee Semple McPherson was a complex but Godly woman. This book shares her victories and failures. The author paints a picture of the true woman behind the fame. She loved the Lord with all her heart, made a few mistakes, but ended up in history as a mighty warrior who started a demonination that is still growing. Whether you like her or not, she was fascinating and effective. I really enjoyed this book and was inspired in my own ministry.
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on December 7, 2014
An insightful look into the life of a women who was one of the most influential religious figures in the 20th century. Very enlightening and a good read.
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on March 7, 2016
Good book on Pentecostal history.
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on July 15, 2015
An excellent book that is intellectual!
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