The Woman that Influenced Billy Graham & Bill Bright

Henrietta Cornelia Mears

By Richard J. Leyda

Henrietta MearsDr. Henrietta C. Mears (1890-1963), a Presbyterian Christian education director, had a profound influence on the way contemporary educational ministry is conducted. Her influence covered the breadth of the field, including church program development, teacher and leadership training, curriculum publishing, camps and conferences, and missions education. Her legacy endures through contemporary approaches to Bible study and Sunday school material, the ministries she founded, and the lives of outstanding Christian leaders who have impacted the world for Christ.


Early Life Influences, Education and Teaching

Henrietta Cornelia Mears was born in Fargo, North Dakota on October 23, 1890, the youngest of seven children by some eleven years. She came from a rich spiritual heritage that can be traced back at least five generations on her mother’s side; particularly influential were her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather, Dr. W. W. Everts, had been the prominent pastor of a number of churches, including the First Baptist Church of Chicago. Upon reading the biography of her grandmother, she said, “I’m amazed to see how many of my own policies and beliefs trace back to my grandmother. The same thinking, the same ideas and approach. She taught them to my mother, and I was almost unconsciously reared on these same precepts” (Powers, 1957, p. 83). Her father, E. Ashley Mears, had substantial wealth, owning more than twenty banks located in the Dakotas. He was known for his optimism, humor, clear sense of vision, and an extraordinary capacity to train people, traits that Henrietta acquired. Her mother, Margaret Everts Mears, though a slight woman physically, had a powerful intellect and great spiritual depth. She exuded enthusiasm and concern for others; if not involved in caring for her family, much of her endeavor concerned the poor and deeds of charity. Her disciplined devotional walk and effective presentation of the Gospel to salesmen and others visiting the Mears home gave young Henrietta a pattern of spiritual life she would later follow faithfully. Through the loss of two children in death and the severe illnesses of two others, including Henrietta, Margaret’s spiritual strength had been forged in the fire of personal trial.

After a brief relocation to Duluth, Minnesota, the Mears family moved to Minneapolis when Henrietta was in the second grade. Her home life provided a rich spiritual atmosphere, each day beginning with Bible reading, family prayer, and hymn singing. Since her other siblings were much older, she became the special focus of her mother’s attention, providing the young girl a strong foundation in the Christian faith. On Easter Sunday morning as a seven year old, she declared her desire to become a Christian and to join the church. Though young, it was clear that she was informed and serious about her faith and was baptized soon after. Her family belonged to the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, and they would often entertain such renowned Christian leaders as W. Graham Scroggie, G. Campbell Morgan, and R. A. Torrey, who greatly influenced the young girl. Her pastor, W.B. Riley, was a leader in the Fundamentalist Movement, and his Dispensational understanding of theology and belief in the inerrancy of Scripture are consistent with Henrietta’s later teaching and writing. At age eleven, she taught her first class, a group of beginning Christians at a mission for the needy in Minneapolis, foreshadowing her ministry to come.

At twelve Henrietta was stricken with muscular rheumatism, which crippled her and left her in constant pain. Two years later, through the prayers of a family friend, she was miraculously healed and never again suffered from pain or debilitation due to this illness. From the time she began elementary school, she was plagued with poor eyesight that doctors predicted would lead to total blindness. Though she was not supernaturally healed from this condition, remarkably she was able to read and study throughout her whole life. She even claimed, “You know, I believe my greatest spiritual asset throughout my entire life has been my failing sight. It has kept me completely dependent upon God” (Powers, 1957, p. 101).

As a seventeen year old high school senior, responding to the challenge of Dr. Riley, Henrietta made a commitment to vocational Christian service, at first believing her call to be as a missionary to China. After some frustration and lack of confirmation on such a call, she entered the University of Minnesota where she studied chemistry. In spite of her poor eyesight, she did well because of her disciplined study habits. She served as the superintendent of a Sunday school junior department while a freshman, and during her junior and senior years, taught a popular women’s Bible class at the university. In 1910, when she was twenty, her mother died; this was particularly difficult for her since they had been so close. She pondered the words of Dr. Riley following the memorial service concerning the “spiritual mantle” of her mother passing to her, and she became increasingly focused on surrendering her life to Christ. At this time she experienced the power of the indwelling presence of God’s spirit in a new way; this formed the basis for all her future ministry. Her wholehearted commitment to Christ was exemplified when she cut off a serious romantic relationship because the young man was not of a like faith, in spite of her desire to be married and have a family. In 1913 with her bachelor’s degree, she accepted a position in North Branch, Minnesota, as a chemistry teacher and principal of the high school while also helping in the Sunday school and youth program of the local Methodist church. The following year she moved to Beardsley, Minnesota, where she again taught chemistry and took on high school principal duties. She began a Bible study for the young people; her enthusiastic spirituality was infectious-she had an overwhelmingly positive impact on that small community.

One year later, sensing that she needed to be in Minneapolis with her sister Margaret, she moved there hoping to teach chemistry. Accepting a position at Central High School, Henrietta continued in that capacity for ten years. Her Fidelis Class, comprised of young women at the First Baptist Church, grew to an enrollment of three thousand attendees at the end of ten years. Such growth was based on a system of small groups comprised of five girls including a leader; when groups reached ten girls, one girl left to start a new group of her own. She also started the highly successful Dorcas Group, designed for young married women. While she had earlier seen her call as a foreign missionary, she now came to the realization that her ministry role was to nurture spiritual growth and leadership and to train others to take the Gospel throughout the world.

In March of 1926, she met Dr. Stewart P. MacLennan, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, California, who had come to preach in her church. He was so impressed with her in their brief time together that he tried to persuade her to come work in his church. During a sabbatical leave from teaching duties in 1927, Margaret and she traveled to Europe, the first of eleven such tours she would take. At the end of that trip she came to California to visit the Hollywood church. She found an exciting ministry there with great potential; she finally sensed God’s call and accepted the position of Director of Christian Education in the fall of 1928. She held this position for thirty-five years, and it served as the platform from which a multitude of people believed in Christ, learned the Scripture, were trained in leadership, and founded a plethora of ministries.

Under her direction, the Sunday School grew from 450 to more than 6000 in 1933, and later to 6500-the largest Presbyterian Sunday school of its time in the world. “Teacher,” as her students called her, built the church education program on a strong foundation of prayer, hard work, a high degree of organization, and a commitment to Christ-honoring excellence. Among the goals that she achieved for the program were to have a department for every age grouping and a separate class for every age, to maintain a complete curriculum at all levels, and to develop teachers of the quality found in public schools of the time. The teacher-training program was a key ingredient to the success of the church school. She viewed thorough preparation and planning as a key ingredient to teaching or any other enterprise. Prayer and hard work was the means to such excellence. While the clear message of the Gospel was to remain the same, teaching methods might vary widely, and she used the newest technology or educational psychology at her disposal. The Sunday school quickly outgrew the facilities and more classrooms were built; three educational buildings were erected over the course of her ministry.

Consistent with her call to strategic service, Mears chose to teach the College Department with the avowed aim of winning young men and women to Christ and developing leadership for the church worldwide. Practicing a one-on-one evangelistic approach as her mother had done, she personally led thousands of individuals, many of them young people, to saving faith in Christ. She modeled the disciplined effort that she called for from her college students. It is said that in the beginning of this teaching ministry, she spent twenty hours per week in lesson preparation for thirty minutes of teaching. The college group grew to well over six hundred; its success was attributed to solid biblical teaching, faithful prayer, and the relevance of the message to their life needs and problems, all in an enthusiastic and caring environment. Over the course of her ministry, from this college group emerged over four hundred church and ministry leaders.

She was unusually gifted in the ability to identify potential in young people, challenge them with the Great Commission, and train them for the work. Sometimes accused of being partial to young men-those leading in the College Department were referred to as “Miss Mears’ Boys”-she frankly admitted that the church needed strong male leadership, and where that was present, young women would follow. While organizationally she was under the Pastor of Christian Education, she operated on the same level as the pastors, practically speaking. She continued to serve during the pastorates of Dr. Louis H. Evans, who came in 1941, and Dr. Raymond I. Linquist, who began in 1953.

Surveying the Sunday school materials currently being used as well as curriculum from other publishers, she found that nothing was adequate to meet the needs of students. Though many materials had a biblical focus, they were not closely graded to match students’ abilities and interests and often were poorly organized. After she and her fellow Christian educators agreed on learning outcomes for each of the levels, she began to write materials by herself at first, and later was assisted by associates. The demand for these lessons grew to such an extent that they were requested by churches throughout the country. Mears and three colleagues founded Gospel Light Press-later Gospel Light Publications-in 1933 in an attempt to meet this demand and sales soared. Shortly after, the firm began producing books and other church school materials. Publications were known for their quality, student appeal, and emphasis on life application. They were biblically focused and Christ-centered, yet also took into account current educational understanding about how students best learned.

Beginning in 1938, from the platform she was acquiring as a nationally known curriculum writer and authority in training of teachers, Mears responded to requests for leadership development by teaching the Christian Education Training Course in the Los Angeles area. She was at the vanguard of a renewal movement, for soon rallies, conferences, and conventions of Sunday schools were springing up around the country, breathing new life into an Evangelical institution that many thought outdated under the challenge of theological liberalism. A co-founder of the National Sunday School Association, she spoke widely about the Sunday school around the United States and Canada and greatly encouraged its proponents across denominational lines

Convinced of the value of Christian camping to transform lives, Mears sought for a conference center that could further the goals of the church education program, which had used a variety of camp facilities previously. Divinely appointed opportunity came for the purchase of a resort in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California at an astoundingly low price, and Forest Home Christian Conference Center was founded in 1938 with Mears as one of its five-member non-profit board. Attendees came from Hollywood Presbyterian Church as well as from other churches and denominations around southern California-Mears saw God’s work as crossing denominational lines. Over the years, hundreds of decisions of commitment to Christ were recorded by her in the Book of Remembrance kept at the conference center. Forest Home and Mears had a major part to play in a ministry to college students in the post-war years. The College Briefing Conferences in the summers of 1947 and 1949 produced revivals earthshaking in their impact on church and parachurch leaders, greatly influencing the course of evangelism and missions in the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

Her vision also included reaching those in the film industry for Christ; she was instrumental in forming the Hollywood Christian Group as a means to this end, reaching a number of well-recognized members of that industry. This effort was a precursor to a number of ministries currently active in Southern California within the film and entertainment industry.

She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree by Bob Jones University in 1949 on the basis of her outstanding contributions to Christian education. Believing international missions and evangelism to be of the utmost importance and urgency, Mears founded GLINT, originally Gospel Literature in National Tongues and later renamed Gospel Literature International, in 1961 to translate Gospel Light literature. This was her last major endeavor though she was still active on ministry boards and in personal service until her passing. Vital to the very night of her death, she peacefully went to join her Lord sometime before dawn, March 20, 1963. In testimony to the many lives she touched, nearly two thousand people attended her triumphant memorial service at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.

The following four works are biographical resources on Mears’ life that were used extensively in the previous section. Much of their content covers similar material, so individual sources were not cited, unless quoted, to facilitate the flow of the narrative.

Biographical Sources

  • Baldwin, E. M. & Benson, D. V. (1966). Henrietta Mears and how she did it. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.
  • Madden, A. V. B. (1997). Henrietta C. Mears: 1890-1963, Her life and influence. Unpublished masters thesis. Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, MA. (Available Theological Research Exchange Network [TREN] microfiche.)
  • Powers, B. H. (1957). The Henrietta Mears story. Westwood, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Company.
  • Roe, E. O. (Ed.). (1990). Dream big: The Henrietta Mears story. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.

Contributions to Christian Education

As a Church Educational Ministry Professional

Henrietta Mears was a pioneer in the conduct of Christian education within the church from a number of perspectives. She was an innovator in Sunday school curriculum, having designed, written, and produced a curriculum that brought sound teaching-learning theory to the serious study of the Bible. One of her objectives was to put the “school” back in Sunday school. To honor Christ and to remain true to the Scriptures were core values of her philosophy of education from which she never wavered. Her expressed goal for the program was to “teach the Word clearly and correctly to the end that people may come to know Christ as Savior and Lord and to grow spiritually, faithful in every good work” (Hosier, 2000, p. 168). The Bible was the text and message of Christian education; it also gave principles as to the conduct of an educational ministry (Baldwin and Benson, 1966). Methods and procedures could change, she contended, and must be rethought based on the changing condition of the world and human need (Cox, 1961). Possessing both training and experience as a public school teacher, she integrated much of the contemporary educational thought of John Dewey and others regarding student needs and learning process with the timeless content of Scripture. These materials were closely age-graded to attend to the developmental needs and interests of the child. An assessment of this curriculum in the Sunday School Times (“Fundamental Sunday School Lessons,” May 5, 1934) hailed it as a noteworthy response to the secularized content of the public schools-attractive, interesting for pupil and teacher alike, Christ-centered, and true to Scripture. While it was originally written and published to meet the needs of only her own church, the demand for such materials, both nationally and even internationally, necessitated the founding of Gospel Light, which remains one of the major Evangelical houses publishing Bible study curriculum.

Mears also provided a model for the conduct of religious education. She directed one of the most successful church education programs of her time, both in quality and quantity, having built the Sunday school from 500 students to well over 6000 at its height. Extensive programs within the Hollywood church impacted all age levels and included groups having particular needs and interests (Cox, 1961). A major element in the growth of the educational program was a comprehensive program of teacher training. With the far-reaching demand for the Gospel Light curriculum came a need to train teachers in how to use it and how to conduct a successful church education program. Teacher training was therefore extended beyond the Hollywood Church to meet this demand, and she conducted teacher training programs at various sites around the country. This exposure led to her role as one of the catalysts for the renewal of the Sunday school, an institution which appeared to be waning because of the liberal theology of her day. She was in great demand as a speaker, traveling nationally and internationally to hold up the banner of the Sunday school movement, encouraging and giving a new sense of dignity to participants and challenging its detractors. As a co-founder of the National Sunday School Association in 1945, Mears was among those who championed a return to the biblical foundations of the movement and pushed for a more focused evangelistic outreach as a primary purpose of religious education (McAllister, 1990).

As a Trainer of Leadership and Developer of Organizations

If one were to single out her greatest legacy, it was the leadership whom Dr. Mears challenged, motivated, and trained for the cause of Christ worldwide. Through this avenue, she put an indelible stamp on much of the church-based Christian education ministry of the mid-twentieth century as well as upon many of the missions and para-church ministries that were developing during this time. As stated previously, she was directly responsible for influencing over four hundred young people toward vocational Christian service. The United Presbyterian denomination was greatly impacted through her “boys”, many of whom attended Princeton Seminary and went on to important pastoral or other leadership roles (Powers, 1957). At a fairly early age she discovered her life’s purpose of “challenging young people into leadership and developing that leadership” (Clinton, 1995, p. 355), and she was consistently true to this vision. This singleness of purpose led her in many directions, ministry-wise, yet all to one end. Collegians were strategic in her view of leadership development, and she structured her college class to develop them. Her travels to post-war Europe convinced her that capturing the college campuses of the world was key to developing leadership for world revival (Madden, 1997).

Mears studied the means by which God shaped leaders and sought to put these principles to work (Powers, 1957). Her mentoring method with these young people was highly effective. As Bill Bright recalled, “She trained by her life, which is the most powerful way” (Madden,1997, p. 54). “You teach a little by what you say. You teach most by what you are,” Mears instructed (Roe 1990, p. 18). She was a powerful and authoritative teacher, yet she well knew the limitation of words alone. For example, formal teaching on how to evangelize was not a part of the training. Instead, her pupils learned by watching her share Christ with others and doing as she did (Madden, 1997). In her training design she utilized the full range of learning taxonomies. While her cognitive input was strong, she understood the power of the affective and volitional domains, and stressed the experiential as well (Clinton, 1995). Clearly, her philosophy of leadership development was to challenge her pupils to take over her responsibilities. This allowed them to grow and experience the realities of ministry; at the same time it gave her the opportunity for travel on numerous sabbatical tours that refreshed her as well as renewed and extended her vision for service (Clinton, 1995).

Her connection with her students was characterized by balance. As Powers (1957) states, she was “a hard taskmaster” yet she never lost sight of the individual; she made every student feel like “the most important person in the whole world” (p. 160). As a unique blend of visionary and realist, she challenged them to serve a great God, but helped them to find a niche and use their giftedness (Hosier, 2000). Mears had an uncanny ability to see leadership potential in students as well as to help them develop it. She was confident and quite direct in her communication; yet, in wanting her students to put their trust in the Lord, she encouraged them to seek Him in prayer rather than making decisions for them (Roe, 1990).

A number of qualities made her an excellent mentor of young leaders. Her Bible study, prayer life, and dependent relationship with Christ communicated in compelling ways to draw her students into this same way of life. Powers (1957) contended “her spiritual power, either in speaking, teaching, or in personal counsel, came from her intimate fellowship with her indwelling Lord” (p. 164). Her commitment to excellence including disciplined study and hard work was based on her single-minded focus on pleasing Christ. She was always enthusiastic and took a very positive view of what God could do. Her warmth, love for students, and wonderful sense of humor-including the ability to laugh at herself-made her highly attractive to young people. A constant encourager with seemingly boundless energy, she willingly spent long hours in individual counseling. Her openness about her personal struggles, including her failing eyesight, caused people to identify with and relate to her (A. Kerr, personal communication, June 20, 2002). A defining trait, according to one of her students, was “her ability to go directly to the heart of the problem or to the problem of the heart, whichever proved to be the case” (Powers, 1957, p. 47).

Her imprint on the lives and ministries of many of the outstanding Christian leaders of this century is well documented. The words of some of the more notable among these give clear testimony. Dr. Billy Graham claims that his evangelistic ministry was transformed through Mears and events surrounding the College Briefing Conference of 1949 at Forest Home. Concerning her, he states, “She has had a remarkable influence, both directly and indirectly, on my life. In fact, I doubt if any other woman outside of my wife and mother has had such a marked influence. Her gracious spirit, her devotional life, her steadfastness for the simple gospel, and her knowledge of the Bible have been a continual inspiration and amazement to me. She is certainly one of the greatest Christians I have ever known!” (Powers, 1957, p. 7). Bill Bright, who along with his wife founded Campus Crusade for Christ, says of her, “Dr. Henrietta Mears was truly one of the great women of the twentieth century and one of the greatest influences of my life… She directly discipled hundreds of young men and women whom God led into full-time Christian ministry. Today, no doubt, thousands of additional disciples whom they influenced are, in turn, introducing millions of other people to Christ” (Roe, 1990, p. 5). Another renowned leader of a major parachurch movement, Jim Rayburn, founder of Young Life, said of her, “She was my teacher long before she ever heard of me. When I began my work among young people in 1933, I read everything she wrote and listened to everyone who could tell me about her. I tried my best to do things the way she would want them done” (Roe, 1990, p. 6). Elsewhere, he stated, “… she has had a great deal to do with shaping the progress and ministry of the Young Life Campaign” (Baldwin & Benson, 1966, p. 248). Scores of other individuals in strategic positions have shared similar stories of her influence.

Henrietta Mears had a direct or indirect influence on a vast number of Christian organizations. Her most direct impact was on those organizations such as Gospel Light and Forest Home, which she founded. These organizations came into existence to meet the needs of her church and the wider Christian community; their purpose was an integral part of her philosophy of Christian education. Those students who came under her teaching were involved in the starting of approximately fifty other ministries. She was involved to some degree in the leadership of some of these, having served, for example, on the board of directors of Campus Crusade for Christ. It would be hard to measure the indirect effects her life and ministry have had around the world, but these are undoubtedly extensive. Campus Crusade alone has impacted hundreds of thousands of collegians and the world at large through mission outreaches, including the Jesus Film, purportedly seen by over 4.5 billion people as of the year 2000.

As a Woman in Ministry

Henrietta Mears as an influential woman in ministry was something of an anomaly-a woman far ahead of her time. When one searches for contemporary examples of conservative Christians who have changed the way people view women in Christian service, she leaps to the forefront. The scope of her ministry and the variety of leadership positions she assumed was remarkable, given the fact that vocational ministry opportunities for women were fairly limited during her lifetime. It might be fair to say that she has broken ground and raised the consciousness of those of both genders concerning options open to women within and outside the church.

Her theological understanding regarding gender appeared to be that of male headship, and she clearly believed that men should be the leaders in the church. Yet she did not understand this to mean male domination. Though she subordinated herself to the pastors, practically speaking she functioned as an equal. She most likely would not have accepted ordination had it been offered to her and did not preach from the pulpit, believing her ministry to be that of teaching and mentoring under the authority of the pastor (Madden, 1997). Aware that certain opportunities were denied her because of her gender, she never made this an issue because of her clear sense of calling and her confidence in God and what He was leading her to do. This gave her a strong sense of authority, and Vonette Bright noted “she could be impatient with a person who did not give her an opportunity to do what she had been called to do” (Madden, 1997, p. 111).

As a woman surrounded by men, her manner was a model of effective interaction. Highly competent and successful at what she did, she went out of her way to help the men she worked with to succeed as well; they appreciated this and esteemed her highly for it. She could be insistent if a situation called for it, yet she would often refrain from pressing a point at other times with a wonderful sense of tact and diplomacy (W. T. Greig, II, personal communication, June 13, 2002). Her respectful attitude, enthusiastic spirit, winsome personality, and disarming sense of humor seemed to render questions concerning gender inconsequential (Madden, 1997). In this as well as on many other issues, because of her consuming passion for God’s work, she was above the pettiness to which even Christian leaders sometimes fall prey (W. T. Greig, II, personal communication, June 13, 2002).


As a practitioner of Christian education, Henrietta C. Mears had possibly the most far-reaching impact on the conduct of ministry of any woman of the twentieth century. The scope of her work has extended worldwide and her influence continues today, two generations after her passing. One writer in Christianity Today (Zoba, 1996) called her “the grandmother of us all”, since her vision of the Christian life so greatly inspired the young people of her day who in turn passed this vision on to contemporary Evangelicals. Touching virtually the whole range of potential Christian education ministry, Henrietta Mears provided a comprehensive and integrated model of religious education within the local church, the parachurch, and the Church around the world. Traditional areas of religious education such as program administration, curriculum, teaching, teacher training and leadership development, camping, and missions education each underwent innovations and change through her influence. Her life is a compelling study in Christ-like character, dependence on God, and the training of leaders for evangelism and ministry.

Author: Editor

An ordained Baptist minister. Worked for 10 years with a Christian publishing ministry where I was the circulation manager for a growing publication, The Sword of the Lord. I also did most of direct mail fundraising and promotion. I have pastored churches in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama & Arkansas. I served for some four years as Vice President of The Spoken Word of God ministry, Orlando, FL. This ministry was active in church planting in India and broadcasting the Scriptures via Trans World Radio and other radio outlets. My associate in this ministry later invited me to join him and his dad in starting a business working with churches providing multimedia equipment. I have done this work for the last 16 years. This blog, hopefully, will scratch an itch I have for communicating the Word of God to a broader audience via the Internet. I would be honored to hear from you via email.

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