Heroes of the Christian Faith: Henrietta Mears

by Matt Brown

(Editor’s note: This is the 11th post in a series on Heroes of the Christian Faith.)

heroes of the Christian faith, Henrietta Mears, Matt BrownIn his early ministry years, Billy Graham had a friend who challenged his faith in scripture. His friend had slowly lost his faith in the Bible, as he studied secular theologians, and he told Billy, “Your faith is too simple. People no longer accept the Bible as being inspired the way you do.”

His friend had an influential ministry, but over the coming years he would eventually drop out of ministry and become an atheist. It all started with his waning faith in scripture.

Billy was deeply troubled by his friend’s comments, and wrestled with what he had heard from him. This all took place at a Christian retreat center in southern California, where they were both speaking.

Billy was able to discuss these comments with the founder of the retreat center, Dr. Henrietta Mears. Henrietta had grown up in North Dakota and studied and eventually taught in schools near Minneapolis before taking a position as director of Christian education at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. God greatly blessed her efforts as the Sunday School program grew from a few hundred students to more than 6,000.

My friend Steve Fuller writes about Billy’s moments of wrestling with the Bible’s inspiration:

He went to his room to study God’s Word alone. He saw how Jesus taught that the Old Testament was completely true. He studied how Jesus said the stories of Noah and Jonah actually happened as described in the Old Testament. He read all the verses he could find about the Bible’s truth and authority. He saw again that the Bible claimed itself to be the perfectly true Word of God.

My friend Will Graham reflects about what his grandfather did next:

One night, he walked out into the woods and set his Bible on a stump—more an altar than a pulpit—and he cried out: ‘O God! There are many things in this book I do not understand. There are many problems with it for which I have no solution. There are many seeming contradictions. There are some areas in it that do not seem to correlate with modern science. I can’t answer some of the philosophical and psychological questions Chuck and others are raising.’

And then, my grandfather fell to his knees and the Holy Spirit moved in him as he said, ‘Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word—by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word!’ My granddaddy wrote in his autobiography that as he stood up his eyes stung with tears, but he felt the power and presence of God in a way he hadn’t in months. ‘A major bridge had been crossed,’ he said.

The resulting change did not go unnoticed. The next day my granddaddy spoke at Forest Home, and 400 people made a commitment to Christ. Henrietta Mears remarked that he ‘preached with authority’ that she hadn’t seen before from him.

This was August 1949, and mere weeks later Billy Graham would go on to hold the historic 1949 Los Angeles Crusade in the tent erected on the corner of Washington and Hill Streets. That outreach was scheduled to last three weeks, and ended up going for eight weeks as people packed the “Canvas Cathedral” and media outlets nationwide began talking about the upstart evangelist.

This integral moment in church history took place at Forest Home Camp under the spiritual leadership of a woman that many of us have never heard of. Henrietta Mears not only set the atmosphere of faith for Billy’s moment with God, but she answered many of his questions about the word of God. Her comments are part of what the Holy Spirit used to guide him in his commitment of faith to God’s word. This single moment and decision affected millions of people across the earth in the consecutive years. The relationship with Henrietta was an important part of the story.

Henrietta not only deeply impacted Billy Graham to the degree that he said, “She is one of the greatest Christians I have ever known,” but she also played an important role in the spiritual formation of Bill Bright (founder of Campus Crusade for Christ), Jim Rayburn (founder of YoungLife), Dawson Troutman (founder of the Navigators), Richard Halvorson (US Senate Chaplain), and countless others.

Here are a few lessons we can all learn from Henrietta today:

  1. God’s word is the most important tool in spiritual formation. As in the story of Billy Graham above, and as is exhibited brilliantly by her life, Henrietta spent her life pointing young people and leaders to the word of God. She said, “If you want to live a pure life, saturate yourself with the word of God.”She also knew the importance of not only teaching the word of God, but living it out: “You teach a little by what you say. You teach most by what you are.” She believed that Sunday School teachers were one of the most important roles in the Church, and she spent her life equipping people to do this important work. Henrietta once said,

    Christian education cannot be run by the inexperienced. We are too willing to let the Sunday School be managed by a few willing but untrained enthusiasts. It is a hard task because it is endless. We can never rest from this gigantic evangelistic and educational program. It means a marathon of physical endurance, of mental acumen, of moral courage and spiritual strength. It is a task for strong men, not babes.

  1. Expect great things of those you lead. Henrietta felt that the next generation needed to be challenged to give their all for God. She said, “Challenge your students. A young person generally lives up to what is expected of him.” She also said, “It is my business as a Sunday School teacher to instill a divine discontent for the ordinary. Only the best possible is good enough for God. Can you say, ‘God, I have done all that I can?’”She not only taught, but she raised up others to teach from within her church in order that the work could multiply: “Every church should produce its own leadership—something is wrong if we are not. There are plenty in the church. They need to be enlisted and trained.”
  1. Let the grandeur of the gospel fill your plans. Henrietta felt that God wanted great things from us. She said, “There is no magic in small plans. 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.”She also said, “Don’t ever say, ‘I am just a Sunday School teacher.’ If you were a professor at Harvard or Oxford, you would be proud of it—proud of the great responsibility. Teacher, you are a professor in Christ’s college.”

Do you realize that you, like Henrietta, can make a great difference right where you are, if you will take God at His word, and dig into His word and pass on what you learn? In the church today, Sunday School is not as prevalent, but there are other opportunities where you can teach the very word of God and impact a generation with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Matt-BrownMatt Brown (@evangelistmatt) is an evangelist, author of Awakening, and founder of Think Eternity. He and his wife, Michelle, are impacting thousands of people with the gospel each year through live events and online. They also minister to a quarter million followers on social media daily.