Long before megachurches and names like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen became commingled with American Christianity, Aimee Semple McPherson was America's key religious figure, representing fundamentalism and old-time religion in America between the two World Wars. She was America's most famous and certainly flamboyant minister, during the 1920s, 1930s, and even into the early 1940s. Given the scope of her influence, and thorough remaking of the country's religious landscape, it is unfortunate that so few within, and without the confines of American Christendom know about "Sister Aimee" today.
While there have been books detailing McPherson's life before (both Edith Blumhofer and Daniel Epstein produced solid works about McPherson) Matthew Avery Sutton's Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America is the first book that places her firmly within the cultural, political, and religious milieu of her era.
The book, which came out in 2007, avoids some the traps of previous treatments of McPherson's life--the stereotypes and caricature so often attendant with this early 20th century religious icon.
Avery does an excellent job of highlighting the context of the period when McPherson's star began to rise. From simple beginnings on a farm in Ontario, McPherson would utilize the new media of her day, particularly radio, to draw upon the burgeoning appeal of popular entertainment, and the development of modern day Hollywood.
While there is no doubt that McPherson would have attained a measure of fame and notoriety regardless of where she put down roots, the city of Los Angeles during the 1920s was the perfect place for someone with McPherson's gifts, charisma, and sexual aura to be living. It is Avery's ability to place McPherson within this context, and his understanding of its importance that makes his book the standout that it is.
Avery clearly makes the case that it was McPherson who deserves credit for the megachurch movement, and the political strength exhibited by the religious right, and figures such as James Dobson.
Eighty years ago, fundamentalism floundering. It was on the ropes, after taking an uppercut to the jaw from the Scopes Trial, and repeated attacks from liberal theologians like Fosdick, making claims that modern science invalidated the fundamentalist theology. McPherson and her allies reshaped the "old-time religion" and found new ways to promote it and connect it to changes happening in mainstream American culture.
Avery's book is well-researched, without being overly pedantic, or unnecessarily scholarly. This isn't to say that it doesn't hold up well as a strong source of historical documentation.
He takes a very even-handed approach to an important 20th century figure, one that is sadly underrepresented in the 21st century, and should be, given the importance of who she was, and what she represented, particularly her role model for women, as a religious and cultural pioneer.
The book should appeal to anyone wanting to broaden their understanding of America and early 20th century history. It also is a very strong work on the phenomenon of urban growth in the last century, particularly Los Angeles, and its ascendancy to becoming one of the nation's great cities.