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Fun and Fresh Biography of a Intriguing Figure!
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.