This is the post that almost did not get written. Henrietta Mears originally caught my attention when I found out she was a Sunday school teacher (or so I thought; turns out she was much more) who published a book with an introduction to each book in the Bible, and this book sold four million copies (Leyda n.d.). Four million copies!? This must be some book. She must have been some Sunday school teacher.
So I brought the book back with me from a visit to the States early last year (cheaper that way). But when I sat down with the book to take a good bite from its content, I came away disappointed. Although this is not central to the book, it is dispensational in its theology, and I don’t find dispensationalism convincing. In addition, it has a clear “This is how it is!” tone, even at points where there is no consensus among evangelicals and therefore room for debate, even a need for debate rather than an illusion of certainty. In other words, I felt it tells people what to think (or believe), but it does not teach them how to think or train them to think for themselves and live with open questions (admittedly, I am asking for much considering the book is over 50 years old).
And so I almost did not write this letter. Because I did not want to recommend the book; there are better ones (at the present time; there weren’t when Henrietta Mears first published it).
Then YWAM came with End Bible Poverty Now. This initiative aims at:
- Getting a translation of the Bible in every language spoken on earth by 2033
- Distributing the Bible to every person
- Helping people to understand the Bible
We could also say: one of its aims is biblical literacy.
After reading about this, Henrietta Mears was back on my screen. Because if she did anything, it was raising biblical literacy in the church she served (Hollywood’s First Presbyterian Church; yes, she was a Hollywood star) and in literally thousands of other churches. There must be something to learn from her life, even if her book has now been surpassed by others. Who was she and how did she do it?
Who Was Henrietta Mears?
Henrietta Cornelia Mears (1890-1963) was born in North Dakota and spent most of her childhood and youth in Minnesota. Remarkably, for those years, she went to college, studied chemistry, and became a high school chemistry teacher. Next to being a student and a teacher, she taught Sunday school and other Bible classes, quite successfully. So successfully that in 1928 she was offered the position of Director of Christian Education in First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, which she accepted and filled until the end of her life.
Under her leadership, the Sunday school programme exploded: from 450 to 6000 participants in five years and eventually to 6,500 (Leyda n.d.). Among the keys to this success, besides Mears’s teaching gift, was her insistence to have a curriculum for each age group and to train her teaching team well. As Richard Leyda (n.d.) puts it:
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).
There was a problem, however. Mears did not find any material that she considered good enough. What was available was either old and uninteresting (and not very good by modern standards of teaching), or it was liberal in the sense that it did not accept the miraculous. So she began to write her own materials.
When other churches found out about this, they started to request copies. This was a non-digital age, before even photocopiers existed. When the requests proved too much for her staff to handle, she founded Gospel Light Publications, a publisher still in existence today, to print and distribute the materials. This alone sufficed to make her the best known and most influential Sunday school teacher of North America and beyond.
But there is more. She had always had a special interest in teaching college students. Each year, hundreds of students went through her Bible classes (this age group she loved to teach herself). Many went on to become influential church members, pastors, leaders, and missionaries, especially those she had trained to be teachers. Among them was Bill Bright, who became the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ (now renamed Cru). For the first 11 years of its existence, Cru had its office in the home of Henrietta Mears. (As an aside: Billy Graham considers her the most influential woman in his life after his mother and his wife.)
At this point it becomes clear that Henrietta Mears was as much about leadership development as about Sunday school teaching, probably even more so:
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 … 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. (Leyda n.d.)
So there is much more to Henrietta Mears than that one book, What the Bible Is All About: A Survey of the Old and New Testaments, although this book (at four million copies and counting) was important as well. It was based on her lecture notes for a one-year long high school age Sunday school class.
So after one year, these high school kids were supposed to know all the books of the Bible and have an idea as to what was in them. Do the adults in your church know the Bible that well?
How Did She Do It?
You teach a little by what you say. You teach most by what you are. (Henrietta Mears, n.d.)
Here are some of the keys that made her ministry so effective:
The whole Bible. She insisted on having a comprehensive programme, one that included teaching the whole Bible book by book. As noted, her best-known tome is a one-year curriculum covering each book of the Bible. She did not ask on Monday: “What subject or story shall I teach on Sunday?”
Age specific. She was adamant that each age group should have its own programme, geared toward their specific needs and learning abilities.
Best educational practice and excellence. She also insisted on following the best educational principles of her day related to teaching and learning. Good Christian teaching requires more than what happens in public schools, but never less.
Teacher training. In order to make this work, she invested much of her time in training the volunteers working with her.
Practical discipleship. What she taught had an application to daily life. She did not train scholars, but disciples.
Prayer. People who knew her testify to the importance of prayer as a foundation for her ministry and life.
People. She valued people, took a real interest in them, championed young promising leaders, and was a tough, but loving mentor to many.
Outrageous hats. Oh yeah, and then there are the unusual hats and other fashion apparel for which she also became famous (check out http://www.henriettamears.com/photo-gallery/ if you do not believe me). Not sure if that fits in here… (You could give it try: next time you teach, put something unusual on your head and see if it makes a difference.)
Obviously, Henrietta Mears was a power woman, and there is no point trying to copy her. No one else can be Henrietta Mears; we can only choose which version of ourselves we want to become. But we may want to embrace her cause and make our own contribution to it: biblical literacy for the whole church.
She Created a Learning Site in Hollywood (of all places); so can we, in our own location. Imagine a church where all members know the whole Bible in a way that makes it a guiding and decisive influence in their daily living.
In Case You Want to Learn More about Henrietta Mears
Richard J. Leyda’s article for the Christian Educators of the 20th Century Project is a good place to start: http://www.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/protestant/henrietta_mears/.
A full-size biography is available at http://ccel.us/mears.toc.html: B. H. Powers (1957), The Henrietta Mears Story (Westwood, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Company).
http://www.henriettamears.com makes photos, articles, and recorded lectures accessible.
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Richard J. Leyda (no date), “Henrietta Cornelia Mears”, http://www.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/protestant/henrietta_mears/ (accessed 27 Oct. 2015)
Henrietta Mears (2011), What the Bible Is All About: A Survey of the Old and New Testaments (Ventura, CA: Regal Books)
Quotation from Henrietta Mears (no date), taken from http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/307908.Henrietta_C_Mears (accessed 27 Oct. 2015)
Unsplash, 2015, https://pixabay.com/de/kinder-lesung-bibel-bett-945422/ CC0
Holy Bible Old Testament and New Translated into the Indian Language (Jim Eliot’s translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holy_Bible_Old_Testament_and_New_Translated_into_the_Indian_Language.jpg Public Domain
Lao schoolgirls reading book, 2009, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lao_schoolgirls_reading_books.jpg,
CC BY 3.0
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