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Henrietta Mears: The Forgotten Mother of Modern Evangelicalism

by Arlin C. Migliazzo, Ph.D.

Henrietta Mears (1890 to 1963), longtime Director of Christian Education at Hollywood’s First Presbyterian Church died more than sixty years ago. But the Mother of Modern Evangelicalism still has much to teach like-minded twenty-first century Christians if they would only remember and listen.

Yes, I did say mother. Long before Billy GrahamBill BrightJim RayburnRay Stedman or any other male luminaries of what became known as the postwar neo-evangelical movement with the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, Mears had already initiated the transformation of provincial, inward looking theological fundamentalism into a more winsome and inclusive manifestation of Christian belief and practice.

She honed her distinctive take on faith during her formative years in the upper Midwestern States, but it was following her 1928 arrival in Hollywood California that Mears’s religion of the heart and mind produced a seismic shift in Christian sensibilities felt across the USA and around the globe.

Over her thirty-five year ministry at Hollywood’s First Presbyterian Church Mears built the biggest Christian education program in the denomination and one of the ten largest in the United States.

She established Forest Home, an interdenominational retreat center in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hosted upwards of 60,000 patrons annually at multiple sites.

She co-founded Hollywood Christian Group, a thriving ministry to media celebrities at a time when countless believers thought nothing good could come from connecting with the Hollywood glitterati.

She started Gospel Light, which became one of the largest independent religious publishing companies in the country, ultimately producing and shipping hundreds of thousands of religious educational materials nationally and internationally.

She created Gospel Light International, a non-profit foundation committed to training indigenous Christian leaders worldwide decades before the value of post-colonial native-born agency surfaced.

Mears authored What the Bible is all About, one of the most popular Bible handbooks of the twentieth century with in excess of four million copies in print six decades after her death.

She initiated a student service internship program that ultimately sent young adults to inner city Los Angeles and Central Valley migrant camps as well as to postwar Europe and Asia.

She mentored hundreds of students who entered formal Christian ministry as pastors, Christian Education directors or missionaries and thousands of others who became dedicated lay leaders in their communities.

One could find her protégés up and down the coast from San Diego to Seattle, Berkeley to La Jolla, Walnut Creek to Spokane—and those were only the ones who stayed on the West Coast of the USA.

Yet for all these lasting achievements, Mears has been largely forgotten by today’s evangelicals, a significant percentage of whom have strayed far from her founding vision of a tempered and culturally relevant Christian orthodoxy. Perhaps a reminder of her priorities is in order.

While she always believed that nurturing the inner life of faith (what might be called evangelism and discipleship) should be the starting point, once that commitment has been made, it is imperative that the believer serve the blessed but broken world. It was not her role to instruct converts where or how to ameliorate some of that brokenness—that would be up to God. But to give them some idea of the possibilities she involved her students in a variety of evangelistic programs as well as social service projects ranging from tutoring English language learners in Los Angeles to toiling overseas after the Second World War in reconstruction work camps.

Instead of turning away from socio-cultural developments that diverged from accepted Christian norms, Mears advocated thoughtful engagement with the world outside the church. For the believer who understood why she believed what she believed, there would be no reason to fear the wider culture—or to vilify it.

This was especially true concerning matters of the intellect. Mears deeply valued the life of the mind and encouraged her students to do the same. She often challenged her College Department members to pursue the best educational opportunities available and not to shy away from the perplexing questions of life.

In an era that generated its fair share of phobias about the present and anxiety regarding the future, Mears sought common ground with those often shunned by others. From faith healers like Oral Roberts to leaders of other religious groups like Aimee Semple McPherson, her grasp of the Christian faith compelled her to cast a wide net of acceptance. She met Pope Pius XI and maintained cordial relationships with Roman Catholic clergy and laypersons, refusing to participate in the conspiratorial anti-Catholic rhetoric of her day.

The theological perspectives to which Mears gave strong voice and practical meaning ignited a renewal of Christian belief in the past century.

If today’s evangelicals hope to kindle the flames of similar outpouring of the Spirit, they would do well to remember their mother’s example.

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This article is a summary of the life and Christian influence of Henrietta Mears from the book Mother of Modern Evangelicalism: The Life and Legacy of Henrietta Mears by Arlin C. Migliazzo.

Arlin C. Migliazzo is Emeritus Professor of History at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington where he taught a wide variety of courses from 1983 to 2017. He has held various administrative positions, written articles and books on a number of topics in American history, and co-founded the university’s annual summer faculty workshop relating issues of Christian faith to academic learning. His most recent book, Mother of Modern Evangelicalism: The Life and Legacy of Henrietta Mears received honorable mention in the 2020 Southwestern Journal of Theology Book of the Year awards in the church history and biography category and the 2022 Book Award of Merit from Christianity Today in the history and biography category. Arlin may be reached at [email protected]

Here are three articles by Henrietta Mears excerpted from her eBook God’s Plan by Henrietta Mears…

  1. Understanding God’s Plan for Your Life
  2. The Bible: God’s Blueprint for Your Life
  3. Follow God’s Plan for Your Life

Henrietta Mears (1890 to 1963) was one of the great Bible teachers of the 20th century. Such notable Christian leaders as Richard C. HalversonLuis Evans, Jr. and Bill Bright were among her students. Billy Graham said of Miss Mears, “Her enthusiasm for the Lord Jesus Christ was contagious.” 


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