Historian Arlin Migliazzo’s Mother of Modern Evangelicalism: The Life and Legacy of Henrietta Mears is the latest entry in Eerdmans’s Library of Religious Biography series, edited by Mark Noll, Kathryn Gin Lum, and Heather Carter. I agree with the endorsers for this volume, who write things like:
George Marsden: “We have long need a first-rate biography of Henrietta Mears.”
John Fea: “[Migliazzo] has convinced me that all future accounts of modern evangelicalism must place a California Sunday school teacher at the center.”
Kristin Kobes Du Mez: “Quite simply, Henrietta Mears belongs at the center of any history of twentieth-century American evangelicalism.”
Here is an excerpt from the introduction summarizing what she did and how she shaped and influenced twentieth-century evangelicalism.
When she arrived in Hollywood from Minneapolis in 1928, the massive sanctuary had just recently been completed, the communicant membership hovered just above 2,100, and, on any given Sunday, attendance at the church’s Sunday school averaged 450.
When the church hosted her memorial service thirty-five years later, the Sunday school under her care was purported to be the largest in the Presbyterian Church and one of the ten largest Protestant Sunday schools in the entire nation.
In the half century between 1913 and 1963, Mears either originated, actively participated in, or significantly inspired a formidable array of organizations that would transform Christianity in the United States. Earlier than any other twentieth-century American Protestant, she shaped the contours of what would become known as the modern evangelical movement.
Mears founded a successful publishing company that grew into one of the country’s largest independent religious publishing houses, whose products serviced a global clientele.
She negotiated the purchase of a Southern California resort, which under her guidance became a major interdenominational conference center that today hosts upward of sixty thousand participants annually at multiple sites.
She authored Sunday-school curricula used by thousands of churches around the world and helped launch the first formal organized ministry to the entertainment industry.
She administered deputation service programs that were created initially for Christian youth to help underserved populations in Southern California but eventually expanded to encompass other areas of need, including war-ravaged Europe and Asia.
She was an early leader of the National Association of Evangelicals—serving as a charter member of the association’s Commission on International Relations—and a seminal force behind the formation of the National Sunday School Association.
She created a nonprofit foundation to strengthen Christian education programs worldwide and train indigenous leaders using their own languages.
A sought-after speaker, Mears regularly addressed audiences around the country and overseas on topics ranging from Christian youth work and leadership to church growth and evangelism. She carved only enough time out of her hectic schedule to author short articles, but her collected lesson materials and related notes have been in print since their release in book form. More than four million copies of her most popular volume, What the Bible Is All About, circulate today in at least four different editions.
. . . . Excluding his mother and wife, evangelist Billy Graham called her the greatest female influence on his life and one of the greatest Christians he ever knew.
Bill Bright, founder of the international ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, patterned his lifework on principles he gleaned from her.
Jim Rayburn, the visionary behind the Young Life Campaign, fashioned his ministry among high school students around what he learned from Mears. . . .
Nearly four hundred students from her renowned Hollywood Presbyterian College Department went into full-time Christian ministry, and hundreds more emerged as important civic and business leaders who served local churches as active laypersons. She motivated young women from her Fidelis Sunday school class in Minneapolis to live out their faith fearlessly in the world. They and hundreds of others trained by her or by her protégés became an integral part of the renewal of a brand of theological conservatism that developed in the wake of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1910s and 1920s, grew to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s, and continues to affect American culture in the twenty-first century. Her predominant role in the revitalization of evangelical Christianity helped transform the lives of thousands and opened a new direction for Christian orthodoxy that remains viable today, six decades after her death. And she did all this with a generosity of spirit worthy of imitation.
. . . Historian Margaret Lamberts Bendroth contended that among fundamentalists and evangelicals of her time, Mears was the most renowned religious educator and perhaps the best known woman of them all.
Until now, Henrietta Mears (1890–1963) was something of a footnote in the histories of modern evangelicalism. This book should change that for good.