Growing up Aimee Semple McPherson’s daughter

Roberta Semple Salter shares memories of her childhood as the daughter of one of the world’s most famous evangelists.

McPherson family home in Los Angeles

We referred to our first family home in Los Angeles as the “House That God Built” because it was constructed entirely by volunteer labor. People who heard my mother, Aimee Semple McPherson, preach, knew how much she had been praying for a home to raise her children, and they wanted to provide such a place for us.

My brother, Rolf, hoped to have rose bushes and a canary, and I wanted a fireplace. Our home came fully equipped with everything we could have hoped. Mother Kennedy, my grandmother, helped Mother take care of us, as she had an ever-increasing number of opportunities to preach.

Tourists who visited Los Angeles often were enchanted with Mother’s preaching. Even more were fascinated by what they considered unusual theatrics that drew more crowds than any of the theaters in Hollywood.

Mother’s reputation spread throughout the nation, and invitations to conduct meetings came in from every part of the U.S. and across Europe. As her travels increased, she realized Rolf and I needed a more stable life back home. Mother answered that need by hiring our first housekeeper, Grace Porter, an interesting character with an admirable work ethic and a horrible singing voice. She wandered around the house dusting and cleaning while she shrieked terribly off-key, “This world, this world, is not my home …” It may have sounded awful, but no one before or since sang that song with more passion and conviction.

Mother Kennedy went shopping and brought home 100 pounds of potatoes, 50 pounds of sugar and even more flour. She filled the henhouse with chickens and bought a rooster so we would have enough eggs. With that, she thought Rolf and I would have plenty to eat while she and Mother traveled about from coast to coast with the gospel.

Grace’s boyfriend was a gravedigger at a local cemetery at night and often dropped by during the day to woo her with a quart of ice cream. We liked him just fine because Grace always shared her ice cream with us kids.

She was a wonderful woman who tried her best to take care of us. It wasn’t always easy, especially when we took the family goat out front so the neighbor kids could take turns riding it around the neighborhood. Rolf had a parrot that mimicked human voices, and I know Grace was startled on more than one occasion when the parrot spoke just like a human, especially when she thought she was alone in the house.

When Grace unexpectedly quit, Mother hired another young woman, Bertie Stewart, to watch out for us kids and take care of the house. Bertie had displeased her parents when she cut her hair, a no-no for women in some churches back then. She needed a place to live, and Rolf and I came to enjoy her company very much. Bertie took us hiking in the Baldwin Hills that were covered with nothing but wild mustard flowers back then.

Tourists who visited Los Angeles often were enchanted with Mother’s preaching. Even more were fascinated by what they considered unusual theatrics that drew more crowds than any of the theaters in Hollywood.

Mother was preaching in Denver, about 1920-1921, and her supporters there asked to meet me. Well, Bertie could not make the trip, so Mother bought train fare for Rolf and me. Bertie put us on the train at Central Station in Los Angeles, and we made the trip, alone. Rolf was 9, and I was 11.

I learned a distressing truth about human prejudice on that trip to Denver. One afternoon I sat in the observation car, writing a letter, when I realized I did not have a stamp. I asked a porter, who was black, if he could please bring me one. He returned with a silver tray and a block of six stamps.

“I only need one,” I told him.

“Oh, ma’am, you wouldn’t want to lick the back of a stamp that my hands touched! I brought you these, so you could take a stamp from the middle.”

I was speechless. To think any human being would think of himself in those terms distressed me terribly. Unsure what to say to make things right, I simply paid the man for the stamps. But I have never forgotten that awful moment or the sadness that such prejudice must bring to the heart of the Lord.

Mother met Rolf and me at the train when we arrived in Denver, and we were happy to see one another. She told us the people hosting the revival meetings were planning a surprise to welcome us, but she didn’t know what it was. We went shopping that afternoon, and Mother bought Rolf a new suit and me a pretty dress.

Mother was leaving for a speaking tour in the South Pacific, and she planned to take Rolf and me with her. We both got our passports and packed our bags for the transpacific ocean crossing.

When we walked on the platform with her that night, the people cheered and clapped. It was altogether startling. That’s when we learned the surprise. The people who attended services that week brought rose petals with them from their gardens. Thousands of petals were put in an overhead canvas sling. At the appointed moment in the service, a whistling sound overhead caught our attention as the sling was released, and the rose petals softly dropped from the ceiling.

Mother was leaving for a speaking tour in the South Pacific, and she planned to take Rolf and me with her. We both got our passports and packed our bags for the transpacific ocean crossing. We stopped first in Honolulu and then on to Tahiti.

While Mother traveled throughout Australia, Rolf and I stayed in Sydney and went to school with local children. Kids laughed at me for my crazy accent. Elevator operators at our hotel in Sydney pretended they couldn’t understand me and wouldn’t let me off at the right floor because I didn’t know how to say it correctly. We had a wonderful time laughing with the Aussie people.

When Mother left to speak in Melbourne, Rolf went with her, and I got to stay in Tasmania with a wonderful family who operated a sheep station far out in the country. The family had three children of their own and a governess who taught the children because there was no school nearby.

I recall getting up before the grown-ups so we could get our lessons finished early. Then, the governess took us kids for a walk and to visit the sheep. After dinner, as was the custom with this family, the kids would join their parents for dessert. My memories of Tasmania are pleasant ones.

We arrived back in Los Angeles just in time for the opening of Angelus Temple on January 1, 1923. Along with the Temple opening, we also moved into the adjacent parsonage that was nicely decorated, and Rolf and I each had our own rooms. It was with mixed emotions that we moved, because it meant leaving behind the “House That God Built” and all the precious memories associated with that time of our lives.

After Mother Kennedy died, I was going through her papers and discovered a list of Angelus Temple members from those early years. Today, they count in the tens of thousands, but it was quite a moment for me to reflect on the very first members who helped Mother open the doors of Angelus Temple so many years before.

(1910-2007) was the daughter of Foursquare’s founder, Aimee Semple McPherson.
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