Even in her own day, Henrietta Mears cut an improbable figure. So short she often stood on risers to be seen over the speaker’s podium, she was built, as one of her devotees put it, “like a fireplug.” Rather stocky with thick glasses and a husky voice, she did not often leave her home without a fur draped over her shoulders and a hat perched jauntily atop her neatly coiffed hair.

Nothing about her physical presence would lead a casual observer to view her as anything more than a rather well-to-do middle-aged Southern California matron out for a drive down Sunset Boulevard on a sunny Sunday morning. But once she turned left onto Gower Street, parked the car, and made her way to the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood’s original sanctuary, that impression melted away. Mears, the church’s director of Christian education, taught Sunday school with a clipped, rapid-fire delivery that utilized every inflected nuance of a powerful voice that commanded attention. She exposited the biblical text with confidence, pacing the front of the room, punctuating her main points with dramatic pauses, and rarely, if ever, consulting her notes.

Interjecting seemingly tangential stream-of-consciousness asides that somehow wound their way back to the central narrative every single time at just the right moment, she seemed to grow in physical stature as the significance of her words turned more trenchant and the force of her arguments more persuasive. By the end of the hour, every person in the room knew that this formidable presence was no ordinary Bible teacher. The broader Protestant world also learned that about Henrietta Mears. Since the second decade of the 20th century, she had been in the advance guard of ...

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