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Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh

Cult of Personality

A valuable new biography of Aimee Semple McPherson.

Several years ago, I spent an afternoon on tour with my church as we retraced the life of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson. Normally, I am very skittish about such "historical" tours, simply because they usually turn out to be little more than hagiographic excursions through an imagined past. The trip to Angelus Temple included the typical stops—the miracle room, for instance, where all the wheelchairs, crutches, eyeglasses were on display. In fact, the elderly tour guide spent most of the time regaling us with stories of the miracles that occurred at the Temple; it was clear that her presentation was heartfelt, since she was near tears through many of the stories. I felt then what I have known about Foursquare folk for quite a while—Aimee is special.

The rest of the tour was unremarkable, apart from the graveside prayer at Forest Lawn at the end of the excursion. The tour guide made brief mention of the scandalous escapades in which Aimee was allegedly involved, then dismissed their importance: after all, Aimee saved souls, she was Spirit-filled, and that is what we should hold as critical in assessing her life. Many Foursquare folk prefer an imagined past. In Aimee's parlor room at the Foursquare museum just off Angelus Temple, mundane objects like hairbrushes and makeup keep this average-looking, exceptionally human, profoundly complex woman frozen forever.

That tour reinforced a lesson I've learned in over twenty years of studying and worshipping with Pentecostals: the Pentecostal cult of personality tells us more about who Pentecostals are than it does about the leaders they hold in such high esteem. Why is it that American Pentecostal history is so full of these colorful characters? Pentecostal spirituality can be quite a democratizing experience: ideally, we all can do the miraculous, we all can speak in tongues and interpret them, heal the sick, and cast out demons. Our leaders are our role models, but along the way, they become much more than that. Why? ...

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