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 those who worked to recast orthodox Christianity.
Though committed primarily to the educational welfare of those under her authority—initially at First Baptist, Minneapolis, and then at First Presbyterian, Hollywood—her local endeavors became the springboard for imaginative thinking and inspired actions whose effects rippled far beyond Minneapolis and Hollywood. She taught countless youth who went on to become some of evangelicalism’s most influential leaders. She founded publishing companies. To appropriate a phrase in current usage, Mears always acted locally but thought globally about the church. As a direct consequence of her creation of evangelically oriented programs and institutions that arose from her local responsibilities, and her cultivation of a rich network of mutually beneficial relationships across boundaries many chose not to cross, Mears could justifiably be considered a foremost architect of the 20th-century reformation of Protestant America.
With bespectacled eyes riveted on her audience, “Teacher,” as she was known by her 6,000-plus-member Sunday school class, would lean over the podium and, as if telling us for the first time, reiterate that “the Christian life is not ‘trying to be good,’ or ‘trying to be like Jesus.’ It is seeking to have a deeper experience of fellowship with Christ.” For her, the gospel had to stand pure and unadulterated by other causes or concerns, however just and honorable they might be. How often her staff and students heard her proclaim prophetically “If he is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all” over the years is anyone’s guess.
Over the course of more than five dozen interviews conducted with those who knew Mears well, one of the questions I asked repeatedly concerned her teaching on political and social topics. Many could tell me where she stood politically, but not one could remember a time when she taught directly on these potentially divisive subjects.
For example, while more than a few Protestant leaders of the post–World War II church preached entire sermons or offered conference seminars regarding the threat of communism, Mears kept a discreet distance from ideology in her teaching. She often used the intense dedication to Marxism unmistakable in the postwar world as a powerful illustration to provoke Christians to take their faith development more seriously, just as she utilized statistics from social, economic, and other political issues to drive home the importance of total commitment to God. But she persistently refused to politicize the gospel.
According to Betsy Cox, who wrote a thesis on her in 1961, Mears believed “that the field of Christian Education should first introduce men, women, and children to Christ as Savior and Lord and then train them in the Word of God.” While she drew extensively upon stories or aphorisms of a political or social nature to energize her text and enliven her message, she constantly affirmed that “Christ should be the center and circumference of the Christian Education program.”
Mears never forgot that the purpose grounding her decades of service was “to know Christ and to make him known,” as the motto of her College Department at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood made clear. Any other activity paled in comparison to building the kingdom.
This single-minded devotion to evangelism and discipleship, of course, meant that her deafening silence on contemporary issues could be heard from coast to coast. Her refusal to take a public stand with respect to antisemitic or anti-Catholic rhetoric or California’s Rumford Fair Housing Act, to name a few hot-button issues of her day, could certainly be perceived as complicity in perpetuating an unjust status quo.
Yet it would be helpful to remember the tightrope she believed she had to walk as a bridge-building evangelical female at a time when there were precious few of them and the span was still under construction. If she faced censure in some quarters of the interdenominational network she did so much to enrich because of her attachment to a Christian fellowship of Hollywood insiders, how much more might her work be threatened if she gave public voice to her inward convictions on these and other matters?
At the same time, she refused to devalue the importance of active participation in and service to a world both broken and blessed. If the inner life is all the life Christians have, Mears believed that “the outer life is that expression of life that makes Christ known to others.”
Though insistent on a laser-like focus on matters of faith and spiritual growth in the Christian education work of the church, Mears believed just as intensely that personal piety must have tangible public consequences. Her charge to “Live the gospel first! Tell about it afterward!” motivated generations of theological conservatives to pursue redemptive work in the world as the Spirit gave guidance.
For to Mears, making a faith commitment meant entering a life of service to those both within and outside the walls of the church, just as it had for past generations of her family. Her devotion to service only broadened the longer she lived, as her support for the work projects of the World Deputation program, Lillian Dickson’s holistic Mustard Seed ministry, and the social activism of her friends and associates demonstrates.
Like her grandmother and mother before her, Mears reaffirmed that the supreme need for humanity remained spiritual regeneration, but she also recognized that Christ called the church to sustain and enrich the material and emotional lives of all those for whom he died as the Holy Spirit gave direction. If Christians are to serve those beyond the church effectively, Mears believed, they must participate actively in the wider secular world that surrounds them, for to speak into the culture, it must be understood.
She modeled a willingness to wear theological orthodoxy proudly while dancing with prudence and grace in what were often less than hospitable circumstances.
Adapted from Mother of Modern Evangelicalism: The Life and Legacy of Henrietta Mears by Arlin C. Migliazzo ©2020 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
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