Women of the Year
Illustration by George Dawnay for TIME; AP
March 5, 2020 6:33 AM EST

Thousands flocked to her memorial service. Millions listened in shock as it was reported: “Sister” Aimee Semple McPherson, the nation’s most famous evangelist of the era, it seemed, was dead.

A Pentecostal preacher with a knack for publicity, McPherson gained national fame for traveling the U.S. in a car painted with Jesus Is Coming Soon—Get Ready, delivering passionate sermons and faith-healing demonstrations. Thanks to the new medium of radio, she preached in people’s homes too. By 1926, she had founded a Bible college and established what would become one of the first mega-churches, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in Los Angeles, which has branches around the world today. Her sermons regularly drew crowds of as many as 30,000.

Buy the cover art→

A month after her reported death in May 1926, McPherson reappeared, claiming she’d been abducted. News of her “resurrection” created media madness. Whether the alleged kidnapping was a publicity stunt is up for debate. What isn’t is that she blazed a trail for other religious figures. Her groundbreaking mix of cutting-edge media and old-time religion set the stage for televangelism and religious celebrity in the decades to come. —Erin Blakemore

Blakemore is a journalist and the author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf

Aimee Semple McPherson and Kenneth G. Ormiston in the radio operating room of Angelus Temple.
Bettmann—Getty Images

This article is part of 100 Women of the Year, TIME’s list of the most influential women of the past century. Read more about the project, explore the 100 covers and sign up for our Inside TIME newsletter for more.

EDIT POST