The dynamic, mysterious spirit of Sister Aimee comes through clearly ---- in a literary revival

March 14, 1993|By Diane Winston

SISTER AIMEE: THE LIFE OF

AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON.

Daniel Mark Epstein.

Harcourt Brace & Co.

` 475 pages. $27.95.

The life of Aimee Semple McPherson defies logical explanation, which is why it is easy to dismiss. To many minds, McPherson, founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and evangelist extraordinaire of the early decades of the 20th century, is a minor footnote under the broad heading of religion, sex and scandal.

Daniel Mark Epstein, a Baltimore writer and poet, saves Sister Aimee (1890-1944) from such easy categorization and restores to DTC her the mystery and dynamism that originally attracted millions of followers. He does so in a way that makes even the most skeptical reader think twice about spiritual mysteries.

Aimee Kennedy was born in an Ontario farmhouse. Her mother, who had chosen to marry rather than serve in the Salvation Army, promised God that her child would be consecrated to his service. But Aimee -- the prettiest, the smartest and the bravest girl in her town -- began to have grave doubts about God by her mid-teens. She could argue Scripture and Darwin with the best ministers around.

In the midst of this faith crisis, she met a tall, dark and handsome stranger who also happened to be a Holy Ghost revivalist. It was 1907, just when the Pentecostal movement -- with its belief in speaking in tongues, faith healing and miracles -- began rattling staid and stolid churchgoers. Nice girls like Aimee were warned not to dabble in such low-case exotica.

Actually, Aimee didn't dabble. She hurled herself into the new movement, fasting and praying, praying and fasting until she, too, spoke in tongues. Robert Semple, the handsome young revivalist, was so impressed with her fervor that he asked Aimee to marry him.

So began the career that Mr. Epstein eloquently documents in his wonderful new book.

In the late 1910s, after Semple has died and Aimee marries a second time, she begins holding tent meetings across the United States. At a time when very few people even accepted the notion that women could take care of themselves, no less minister to others, McPherson -- with her family in tow -- drove a Packard, pitched her tent and preached God's word.

Early on, Sister Aimee displayed the gift of healing. Mr. Epstein carefully describes how this came about and how others reacted to it. He has several picturesque passages describing the consternation of secular reporters who came to debunk and stayed to testify. He also shows McPherson's consternation as she finds herself besieged by people more interested in being healed than knowing the Healer.

Mr. Epstein does an exemplary job telling Sister Aimee's story. His writing is most compelling in the earlier years of her life before she builds Angelus Temple, her home base, in Los Angeles. After settling in Los Angeles, McPherson seems to succumb to some of the problems of religious celebrityhood: balancing her private and public lives, managing her finances properly, finding competent subordinates. It is at this late stage -- when McPhersonseems to become estranged from herself -- that Mr. Epstein, too, lacks his earlier insight into McPherson's soul.

This is a biography unlike most others. It straddles the conventions of historical biography, sympathetic reconstruction and the novel. The author's avoidance of comprehensive footnotes and his extended reconstructions of thoughts and words would make most scholars cringe. However, for those ready to extend a measure of poetic license, he rewards with a most intimate and evocative exploration of McPherson's life.

Also striking is Mr. Epstein's voice, which, as the narrator, is ever-present. In this, the story of a woman who places her hands on people and heals them, stares down the Ku Klux Klan and, eventually, alienates most of her family -- that voice of measured reason, caution and clarity is reassuring.

"Sister Aimee" is a delight to read. It takes its subject seriously while telling its story poetically. Even Sister Aimee couldn't ask for more.

A former Sun reporter, Ms. Winston is a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Princeton.

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