Matthew Sutton: Book by Oakland University historian and a PBS show examine a 20th-Century evangelist's visual appeal and vast power

Historians in the News

"Hell shivered! The angels sang!" So read a feverishly scribbled news flash wired from a jam-packed Masonic Temple in 1929. Sister Aimee Semple McPherson's staff telegraphed that message from Detroit to the evangelist's followers at her Los Angeles home base, the Angelus Temple.

Even Detroit newspapers agreed that the cross between Hollywood and holy roller had hit the city like a spiritual cyclone. Front-page stories leered at her beauty and made fun of the idea that a woman could preach. But many reporters were in awe of her soul-saving show.

At the Masonic, the revival opened with dancing girls in rose-colored uniforms, followed by a choir waving handkerchiefs in choreographed movements and a huge, glowing white cross that rose on stage. Finally, Sister Aimee (as she was known nationwide) appeared in white robes and golden curls, preaching in a style that ranged from dance to dramatic monologue.
One Detroit reporter said he couldn't decide "if the proceedings were opera with religious leanings or religion with operatic leanings."

Forgotten by most Americans since her death in 1944, Sister Aimee is scheduled for resurrection at 9 p.m. Tuesday [4/3/07] on PBS. "American Experience: Sister Aimee" is an hourlong documentary based on the work of Oakland University historian Matthew Sutton.

His book, debuting in stores this week, is "Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America" (Harvard; $26.95). Sutton's relatives were among Sister Aimee's followers in her heyday, so he brought a personal curiosity to his research.
"She had flaws," Sutton said last week. "But she was an amazing innovator in American religion. She stood at the dawn of a lot of technological innovations and was able to harness them to preach a very traditional gospel."...

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