Ambitious for God
When she died, 2000 people crowded into the sanctuary of Hollywood's First Presbyterian Church for her funeral. Billy Graham said he doubted if any other woman besides his wife and his mother had so influenced him. Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, was not only converted under her ministry but later, along with his wife Vonette, ran CCC from her home for 11 years. Noted movie stars attended Bible studies in her living room. Thousands of young people passed through her Sunday school departments. Her Christian education curriculum, originally painstakingly mimeographed and sold from a garage, is now shipped to nearly 90 countries. Though the New Evangelical movement had a largely male leadership, a number of those leaders were inspired by half-blind Midwestern dynamo Henrietta Mears, director of Christian education at Hollywood Pres.
Something to think about
Henrietta Cornelia Mears was born on October 23, 1890, in Fargo, North Dakota, the seventh child of banker Ashley Mears and Baptist laywoman Margaret Burtis Everts, whose father had been an influential Chicago pastor. Already 42 when Henrietta arrived, Margaret died when her youngest daughter was only
20. (An obituary tribute said, “as a Bible teacher she had few equals in the city of Minneapolis”).
Originally wealthy, the Mears family lost most of their money in the Panic of 1893 and re-settled in Minneapolis. Here Henrietta inaugurated her early schooling by announcing that she was bored with kindergarten because it was “to amuse little children, and I'm amused enough. I want to be educated.” At seven years old she declared she was ready to become a Christian and joined the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis.
Henrietta was troubled by poor health, contracting muscular rheumatism at age 12. Though the prayers of a family friend brought healing, she suffered from bad eyesight all her life, and her doctors advised her that if she continued her studies (she planned to enroll in the University of Minnesota) she would be blind by age 30. Her response was, “Then blind I shall be—but I want something in my head to think about.” She graduated from UM in 1913, still able to see, and began a career as a public school chemistry teacher, establishing a home with her older sister, Margaret.
Public education might have remained Henrietta's life work if not for an encounter with Stuart MacLennan, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, who spoke at the Mears sisters' church in Minneapolis in the 1920s. In 1927 Henrietta took a sabbatical year to consider whether she should enter Christian work full time. She and Margaret traveled to California, where the sisters visited Dr. MacLennan's church and Henrietta spoke. Before Henrietta left, MacLennan offered her the Director of Christian Education post, and in 1928 she and Margaret moved to Hollywood.
Rewriting Sunday School
Henrietta remained the head of Christian education at the Hollywood church until her death in 1963, overseeing the department's growth from 500 students to over 6500. Her emphases were twofold. She wanted the educational facilities and content of the Sunday school to be as high-quality as what students experienced in the public schools, and she wanted closely graded classes so that each age group would be able to study material appropriate for its developmental stage.
Both of these goals required training teachers, not merely asking willing people to “take a class,” and Henrietta recruited her Sunday school leadership from among the congregation, focusing on highly motivated individuals with an established Christian walk. She had a particular fondness for young adults and taught the college department herself for many years, eventually assisted by a cabinet of 60-100 students who did much of the organizational work and kept tabs on the 600-800 weekly attendees.
Her first major “founding” grew directly out of her work at Hollywood Presbyterian. Dr. MacLennan gave her free rein in choosing curriculum for the Sunday school, “as long as it teaches the Bible,” but the older biblically-based curriculum she found was uninteresting and not age-graded, whereas newer books coming on the market denied the miraculous in Scripture. She began writing her own curriculum in collaboration with her personal assistant Ethel May Baldwin, mimeographing the books at the church and pasting in colored pictures from old Christian calendars.
The curriculum soon drew attention from neighboring churches, but Henrietta, fellow author Esther Ellinghusen, and Ethel May (the one-woman production department) could hardly keep up with the demand for their own church. In the early 1930s they finally found an inexpensive printer, and one of the Sunday school teachers, Stanley Engle, offered to handle distribution and accounting. The first 1000 copies were stored in his garage. In 1933 the endeavor was formally incorporated as Gospel Light Press, which became one of the largest U.S. independent publishers of Sunday school material, eventually developing an overseas arm, GLINT (Gospel Literature International).
Perhaps closest to Henrietta's heart was Christian camping. From her earliest days at Hollywood Presbyterian, she was committed to giving the youth of the church an enjoyable yet carefully structured summer experience. “If you place people in an atmosphere where they feel close to God and then challenge them with the Word,” she once said, “they will make decisions.”
In the summer of 1937, Henrietta bought the beautiful nearby Forest Home resort. The camps at Forest Home were interdenominational and to some extent interracial. Henrietta developed a roster of plenary speakers, planned seminars, counseled individual students, and even made sure song leaders and pianists were around the Club House for supposedly spontaneous “sings.” Though many camps were inspiring, it was the 1947 and 1949 College Briefing Conferences which had the greatest influence on New Evangelical leaders.
In 1946 and 1947 Henrietta traveled to Europe to see postwar conditions and was horrified. She challenged attendees at a teachers' training conference to rise to the situation. Among those who responded were new Christian Bill Bright, Hollywood Presbyterian assistant pastor Richard Halverson (later to become U.S. Senate chaplain), and pastor's son (and boyfriend of Hollywood star Colleen Townsend) Louis Evans Jr. This group determined to hold a week-long collegiate conference in the fall of 1947, advertising it nationally. Over 600 college students showed up from 87 colleges and universities, and a full-fledged revival broke out, with many—including Bright—dedicating themselves to some form of full-time Christian service.
The 1947 conference not only inaugurated a series of annual collegiate conferences, it also led to the formation of the Hollywood Christian Group through Louis Evans's relationship with Townsend, whom he later married. Christian and seeker movie stars met together, originally in Henrietta's living room, and many of the actors converted there testified publicly. Some (like Townsend) went into Christian filmmaking, including several who assisted Billy Graham in his evangelistic films.
Graham himself was profoundly affected by the 1949 conference. He was then little known, and Henrietta had invited him as a speaker. Exhausted by serious doubts over the authority of the Bible, and dreading his upcoming Los Angeles crusade, he tried to come merely as a conferee, but she kept him on the faculty. During the week, as he prayed together with fellow speaker J. Edwin Orr, he reached a personal crisis. Alone with his Bible in the woods, he surrendered his doubts to God, and, in the words of Henrietta's biographer, “arose from that place of prayer with faith strong in his soul.” For the rest of his life Graham cited that moment at Forest Home as a turning point.
Ostrich plumes and godly dreams
Henrietta was a dynamic, intelligent woman with a love for the finer things in life. The home she shared with Margaret (and after her sister's death with the Brights) was full of art and collector's objects (Venetian goblets, hand-painted china, marble tables), many acquired on her trips around the world with Margaret and Ethel May Baldwin.
Both sisters were famous for dressing flamboyantly in furs and outlandish hats; Henrietta always said, “I wear my hats for my college boys, and they love them.” She loved color, frequently wearing bright pink and red and painting her two-door Ford green and canary yellow. Although highly focused on her administrative responsibilities and on the necessity of constant personal witness, Henrietta also knew how to have fun, according to her friends and biographers. Once, while on one of her cruises, she appeared at a costume party as a 1920s flapper complete with ostrich plumes in her hat.
As she grew older, Henrietta determined that God did not want her to retire, though some endeavors, like the Hollywood Christian Group, passed into other hands. The day before her death, she was discussing Sunday school plans with Ethel May and Forest Home endeavors with her friend Jack Franck. On the night of March 18, 1963, she died in her sleep, leaving on her desk notes for future talks, including the Easter breakfast message for her college department.
Henrietta would never allow herself to be called a “preacher,” though others attributed the title to her. She believed that preaching was a male role and preferred “Teacher,” which became the loving nickname her friends and students called her. But she preached the gospel to thousands, and her intense, whirlwind approach to faith left a profound mark on the changing evangelical scene at mid-century. “What do you want to see in your church?” she asked. “Idealize! Dream dreams! … Be ambitious for God.”
By Jennifer Woodruff Tait
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #92 in 2006]Jennifer Woodruff Tait is an American church historian living in Huntington, Indiana.
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