Mother of Modern Evangelicalism: The Life and Legacy of Henrietta Mears, Arlin C. Migliazzo, Foreword by Kristen Kobes Du Mez. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.
Summary: The first comprehensive biography on Henrietta Mears that focuses on her early life, her Christian Education ministry at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, and her national impact on a nascent evangelical network of leaders, on Christian publishing and retreat ministry.
She had been dead for almost a decade when I received a copy of What the Bible is All About. I was a young Christian, still in high school, trying to read the Bible. The book started me on a lifelong habit of reading scripture through its clear explanations of the layout of the Bible, the world of the Bible, and the central figure of scripture, the Lord Jesus. In a small way at least, I was one more person in whose life Henrietta Mears had an impact. I had no notion of the breadth of impact the grandmotherly woman on the back cover had during her life on American evangelicalism.
Mears established the largest Sunday School in the country and headed up the National Sunday School Association, raising the standards of Christian education throughout the country. She hosted a ministry to some of the leading men and women in Hollywood during the 1950’s. She was a catalyst in the ministries of Bill Bright, Dawson Trotman, and Billy Graham as well as many others. The need for Christ-centered and biblically sound Sunday School materials led to establish Gospel Light Publishing, which she headed up for many years. She purchased a Christian conference center, Forest Home. Her college class turned out a generation of leaders who became pastors, missionaries, and leaders in a number of professions across the country, creating a network that served for the expansion of a theologically conservative but culturally engaging evangelicalism.
All this in spite of a very obvious fact. Mears was a woman in an era where gender roles were very well defined and men preached and led. She never challenged this gender framework. She simply led with excellence and expected that of those around her. She sought out men especially for her college ministry who would be leaders, mentored them, sometimes in demanding terms. She poured herself into others with a kind of tough and yet utterly supportive love that led to their blossoming.
Working at the intersection of the entertainment industry and a center of education, she both hued to theological orthodoxy and adopted an open and generous stance to the intellectual and entertainment world of her day, establishing a model for a culturally winsome evangelicalism that contrasted with the fortress mentality of some fundamentalists (though not all, as Migliazzo notes).
While the work of Mears between 1928 and her death in 1963 was fairly well known, Arlin Migliazzo draws on various archival materials and interviews to show the depth and breadth of that work. He also introduces us to the young Henrietta Mears, growing up in the upper Midwest. She grew up in a devout Baptist family. Her father traveled extensively for his business and so her mother Margaret played a significant role in her upbringing, imparting her faith, as well as a keen work ethic, and high standards of responsibility.
He also traces her college training in education and early teaching experience, where almost immediately, she was made principal of a small rural Minnesota high school. Returning to Minneapolis, she took up leadership of the Sunday School under leading fundamentalist pastor William Bell Riley. She built a girls ministry called Fidelis that reached over 500 in number. She turned her back on marriage. After almost ten years came the call to Hollywood Presbyterian Church.
She had a husky voice, weak eyes, and was described as “built like a fireplug.” She could be demanding. When she felt betrayed, she could be unforgiving. She liked the finer things, including fur collars. Migliazzo notes her weak record on issues of race. Yet when she began to speak in a class or convention, she commanded attention for the clarity of her teaching and passion for Christ. How else to account for her influence on the likes of Graham, Bright, and others?
Migliazzo’s outstanding biography not only helps us to take the measure of her life in full but also sets her in the larger framework of the emergence of evangelicalism from its fundamentalist roots. She played a vital role in that emergence, and “showed” the capabilities of women given over to Christ in a time when “telling” wasn’t possible.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.