Irrepressible Henrietta Mears Was Fun to the End
WHEN Henrietta Mears accepted leadership of the educational program of Hollywood Presbyterian Church, its Sunday school had an attendance of about four hundred and fifty. Within two years, under her dynamic leadership, it had grown to over four thousand. She was a dynamic and flamboyant leader with a seemingly limitless ability to find time for other people.
Unhappy with available Sunday school material, she had her team write their own. Mears had taught in Minnesota’s public schools and recognized the importance of providing lessons suitable for different age groups. She developed curricula that were graded and demanding. Soon other churches were pleading for copies. After a determined leader from another church refused to leave until Mears either gave him copies or promised to print the curriculum, Mears and her associates decided to publish. And so, Gospel Light Press was born, first operating out of a garage.
This was just one of her projects. She produced Christian movies, encouraged Christian fellowship among movie stars (including Roy Rogers and Dale Evans), and discipled hundreds of future missionaries and Christian leaders. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade was converted under her teaching and lived with his wife in Mears’ large home for several years. Mears founded Forest Home Camp Grounds as a way to give church youth an enjoyable and educational summer outlet. She also reached out to other Christian workers. Young leaders like Billy Graham came there and were transformed (Graham famously resolved a spiritual crisis over the authority of the Bible while on retreat there). On world trips, Mears encouraged missionaries and won souls by speaking fearlessly for Christ.
A reporter sent to interview her expected to be bored. Soon he was on the phone to his publisher demanding, “Send over a photographer. Send over two photographers. I’ve got the number one saleslady for Jesus Christ in all America, in all the world!”
Mears’s journey was not without bumps. Her family lost most of their money in the panic of 1893, resulting in many hardships. Later, she developed muscular rheumatism. Warned she would be blind by thirty if she continued to study, she determined to attend university anyhow, reasoning, “If I’m going to be blind, I want something in my head!” She persisted until she landed her dream job—teaching chemistry. Like her mother (who died when she was only twenty) Mears taught Sunday school.
Mears had an upbeat outlook to match her faith. Shortly after a new lodge was completed at Forest Home, a navy jet crashed nearby, its pilot parachuting to safety. Fire swept across twenty-five acres. “What a horrible thing,” said a worker. “Thank God the lodge was spared!” said another. But Mears said, “Isn’t it wonderful! We’ve been planning to build cabins on that very spot. Now the whole twenty acres is cleared and the plane that crashed has already dug the basement for the first cabin!”
On the evening of this day, 18 March 1963, Henrietta Mears discussed Sunday school plans and other work with her co-workers. When she went to bed, she left notes on her desk for future talks. Sometime in the early morning hours, she died.
For true stories of more women who changed the world, read our book Great Women in Christian History