Review: Mother of Modern Evangelicalism

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.

The edition of What the Bible is All About that helped me begin reading the Bible.

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.

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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.

Review: Opening the Red Door

opening the red door

Opening the Red DoorJohn A. Bernbaum. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An inside account by a founder and President of the Russian-American Christian University, from the surprise invitation received from Russian leadership to its closing.

The period of 1989-1990 was a heady time as the Iron Curtain fell and country after country overturned Communist leadership and talked of embracing democracy. Then the changes came to the Soviet Union itself under Gorbachev and Yeltsin as glasnost and perestroika gave way to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the spinning off of republics as autonomous nations, leaving Russia, a large, but much diminished country, struggling to convert from a command to some version of a capitalist economy, and failing miserably in the effort.

This book originates in that era. A group of Christian college leaders with the Christian College Coalition (now the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) who had ties with evangelical mission efforts to Eastern Europe sought to discern what opportunities this might present to build ties of understanding and opportunities for Christian influence in a country that had been officially atheist since 1917. They determined to explore possibilities for student study and cultural exchanges during a 1990 visit when a more daring proposal came from a Russian governmental official. Please come and set up a faith-based university in Russia!

John Bernbaum, then a vice president with the Christian College Coalition, was part of this delegation and was tasked to follow up this proposal, a task that eventually led to his presidency of the Russian-American Christian University (later the Russian-American Institute). In this work, he offers a first-person account of the history of this initiative from the initial proposal to the decision to close the doors years later.

Bernbaum traces this history from working groups to a joint Russian-American and the first classes in 1994-1995. He recounts the beginnings from agreements and charters, setting up tax exempt status in the US and gaining licenses in Russia. He describes the expansion of the program from initial English Language programs to a full program of undergraduate courses and the first graduation in 2001 (of 19 students). He traces the various moves to different temporary facilities and the nearly ten year process from 2001 to 2010 in securing land, gaining permits, building, and gaining occupancy permits for their own academic facility and the “perfect storm” that led to the closure of the Russian American Institute in 2011 and the sale of its building in 2014. It is a narrative of a both extraordinary and less than perfect Russian-American partnership.

The external events in Russia were critical to this history, as the initially open and supportive relationship with the Yeltsin government gave way to the Putin era, and an increasing chilling of American-Russian relations, coupled with increasing suspicion of any American effort in Russia. At first this manifested in community opposition and bureaucratic delays culminating in a reclassification of their tax status increasing annunal taxes from $2,000 to $500,000 coupled with a refusal of reaccreditation.

The brightest spot in the narratives are the descriptions of the students and their eager welcome and embrace of instruction by a joint American and Russian faculty. We also see how forming deep relationships of integrity with Russian officials overcame many barriers until political pressure became too great. This was matched by the generosity of Bernbaum’s American partners.

The deep regret of course was that international relations finally made it impossible to continue this effort. The narrative offers evidence that the students who came through the program, the many faculty from both countries who taught in the program, and the student exchanges and programs in English and Russian that were formed, built bridges of understanding and equipped a cohort of students with a Christian vision for their work in Russia. One hopes this is a kind of “mustard seed conspiracy” that will one day bear great fruit in Russia, and in American relations with that great country. One also hopes and prays that the spiritual hunger that originated this initiative will be sustained and grow.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.