Henrietta Cornelia Mears: Christian Author, Educator, and Spiritual Mother
Henrietta Mears was a 20th century Christian author and educator. Known as the "Mother of Sunday School," she influenced several notable Christian leaders including Bill Bright and Billy Graham.
"When I consider my ministry, I think of the world. Anything less than that would not be worthy of Christ nor of His will for my life."
-- Henrietta Mears
Mother of Sunday School
In 2012, Campus Crusade for Christ changed the name it had used for 60 years to a short, three-letter name: "Cru." While it is a new name to outsiders, local campus ministries have used it for more than a decade.
Founded in 1951 by Bill Bright, Campus Crusade for Christ had an ambitious mission: "Win the campus to Christ today, win the world to Christ tomorrow." This mission continues to this day, even under new leadership (Bright died in 2003) and a new name.
What does this have to do with Henrietta Cornelia Mears? Influence, inspiration, impact, and legacy are four words that come to mind. Bright's vision for "Cru" can be traced back to the teaching of Mears, dubbed the "Mother of Sunday School" by her many students. She has influenced and inspired three generations of believers.
Mears' teaching methods were revolutionary for her time, and they had a profound impact on contemporary Christian education. Her influence ran the spectrum from Sunday School classes, program development, and curriculum publishing to leadership training, missions education, and Bible conferences.
Those who knew her describe Henrietta Mears as a Christian author, educator, and spiritual mother. To learn more about this extraordinary woman, read on.
"I think of Jesus as vital, alert, enthusiastic, full of zest and zeal. He inspired men to do their best, to be their highest self."
-- Henrietta Mears
Gifted to Teach
Henrietta Cornelia Mears was born in North Dakota in 1890. She was the youngest of seven children who were born to a Baptist banker and his wife. Mears accepted Christ as her personal Savior when she was seven years old, after her father relocated the family to Minnesota.
Mears was plagued with poor eyesight since childhood, and doctors thought it would lead to total blindness. Fearing a loss of vision, Mears read books, studied hard, and memorized everything that she could. "You know, I believe my greatest spiritual asset throughout my entire life has been my failing sight," she later remarked. "It has kept me completely dependent upon God."
Mears discovered her gift for teaching during her teen years, when she taught her first Sunday school classes. She later pursued a degree in education at the University of Minnesota. After completing her studies and earning a science degree, Mears taught chemistry in several rural Minnesota schools. She also taught drama and served as the principal at one school.
Her disciplined study of the Bible made Mears a gifted Sunday School teacher, and she could always find a church to make use of her gift. Her students say she had a knack for making the Bible come alive. Her innovative teaching methods used non-traditional tools and vivid pictures to illustrate Bible stories and teach God's word. Mears also established age-appropriate "cradle to grave" classes for each level of a child's development.
Her students knew her simply as "Teacher." She is remembered not only for her lively classes, but also for her energy, laughter, and outrageous hats. Reared in a high society family, Mears was accustomed to the finer things in life. She often was decked out in feathered hats, exquisite furs, big rings, and flamboyant dresses. She certainly debunked the myth that "plain equals spiritual."
The Mears Legacy
After a decade of teaching secondary education in Minnesota schools, Mears took a late-1920s sabbatical that included a trip to the West Coast. It was there that she caught the attention of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church leaders.
Their growing Los Angeles church had a large Sunday School class in need of a teacher. After much thought and prayer, Mears accepted a position as Director of Christian Education and moved to California. Within two years, the weekly Sunday School attendance increased from 450 to more than 4,000.
Her success brought Mears several speaking invitations and requests for copies of her Bible study lessons. She founded Gospel Light Publications in 1933 to meet the need for affordable, quality curriculum. Six years later, Mears established the Forest Home Conference Center in southern California.
In the years that followed, Mears became an influential mentor to many of America's young evangelical leaders. Although she never married or had children of her own, she had hundreds of "spiritual children." Many of them left Forest Home and her Sunday School classes to enter into full time ministry.
"When I consider my ministry, I think of the world," Mears once wrote. "Anything less than that would not be worthy of Christ, nor of his will for my life." Her vision for evangelism and discipleship influenced several notable Christian leaders including Bill Bright (Campus Crusade for Christ), Billy Graham (Billy Graham Evangelistic Society), Dawson Trotman (Navigators) and Richard Halverson (United States Senate chaplain).
Henrietta Cornelia Mears died in 1963 after 35 years of ministry. More than 2,000 people crowded into Hollywood Presbyterian Church for her funeral, including Bright and Graham. Graham later wrote, "I doubt if any other woman outside my wife and mother has had such a marked influence [on my life]. She is certainly one of the greatest Christians I have ever known!"
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- Baer, Marlene. (January 1, 2002) "Outrageous Hats and Sunday School." Christian Bible Studies. Retrieved August 23, 2011.
- Forest Home. "Our Founder, Henrietta Mears." Forest Home. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- GLINT. "Dr. Henrietta Mears." Gospel Literature International. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- Leyda, Richard J. (n.d.) "Henrietta Cornelia Mears." Talbot School of Theology. Retrieved August 23, 2011.
- Powers, Barbara Hudson. The Henrietta Mears Story. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1957 / Hosted by The Evangelical Christian Library. Retrieved August 23, 2011.
- Tait, Jennifer Woodruff. (October 1, 2006) "Ambitious for God." Christian History and Biography. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
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