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Mary McLeod Bethune

By Beverly Johnson-Miller


MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE (1875-1955): Her life epitomized her philosophy of Christian Education. With a sense of divine destiny, clear vision, and daily awareness of God's presence and purpose, Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, the daughter of freed slaves, became the most influential black woman of her times in the United States. Along with the establishment of the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, later Bethune-Cookman College, Mary Bethune served as president of many national organizations and held leadership appointments under Presidents Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, and Truman. Her life of profound faith and service left a contagious legacy of perpetual spiritual and social transformation.


Early Years

The fifteenth of seventeen children, Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875, in the small farming community of Mayesville, Sumter County, South Carolina. Her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, were freed slaves who depended on the employment of their former owners for survival. The social, educational, and economic disadvantages however, gave shape to a family context centered on God.

The desolate conditions of more than four million black Americans who survived slavery reflected a corrupt riot-filled social-political climate in South Carolina at the time of Mary Bethune's birth and childhood. With economic repression and pervasive illiteracy, most African Americans continued to work as servants or held degrading jobs. Since almost all land of Sumter County was owned by whites, the black majority was forced to subject themselves to ongoing servitude. Although some African Americans chose to leave the county, the McLeod family remained in the small rural farming community about six miles southwest of Maysville (Newsome, 1982, pp. 16-24).

When slavery ended, the McLeod's sought to reunite their family (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, Johnson Interview , p.37). As an autonomous unit, the family worked together to build a home with love, security, and order. In freedom Patsy's labors for her former master earned enough wages to purchase five acres of quality land (Holt, 1964, pp. 1-3).

Mary Jane was raised in a God-conscious environment with intentional nurture in the Christian faith (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, Spiritual Autobiography 1946, pp. 52-53). Being freed from slavery affirmed the reality and activity of God in their lives. Worship, daily prayer, and faithful church attendance were essential practices for the McLeod family. Circuit riders were welcome in their home, and those who were literate, read the Bible aloud to the McLeod family. Mary Jane's parents fully embraced their freedom to worship, and were considered prominent leaders in the all-black St. Mark Methodist Church of Mayesville. Samuel and Patsy held high moral standards and Mary took pride in the fact that they were officially married due to permission of their owners (Newsome, 1982, p. 32).

As the family members aged and pooled their resources, they were able in time to purchase another thirty acres. Patsy was a creative and disciplined homemaker maintaining high standards of cleanliness, order, industry, and respect. Many people found the McCleod home a refuge filled with spiritual faith, integrity, compassion and human care. The McLeods reached out to young girls who were mothers, and served as advocates within the local justice system (Newsome, 1982, pp. 34, 37-39).

Mary McLeod's perceptive personality and spiritually focused childhood birthed inner yearnings and vision that evolved throughout her lifetime. Similar to her parents, Mary demonstrated leadership abilities, even as a child, for resolving conflicts, organizing projects, and looking out for the needs of others (Newsome, 1982, pp. 44-45). Mary also had an unforgettable, encounter with a white girl at the home of her mother's former master (Holt, 1964, pp. 18-19). While her mother was tending to some work, Mary found herself in the midst of a playhouse filled with books and other school supplies. When she picked up a book, the white girl made it clear to Mary that she could not read and led her to the picture books. This experience left Mary with life-altering self-awareness, a determination to read, and a drive to engage and unleash the power of God (Newsome, 1982, 47-49). Through this event, prayer became central to Mary's life as she prayed continuously for the opportunity to learn to read and write.


Mary McLeod believed her prayers were miraculously answered when, at the age of ten, the Board of Mission for Freedmen, of the Trinity Presbyterian Church, opened a school for Negroes in Mayesville. When Miss Emma Wilson, the teacher at the new mission school approached her parents, there was no doubt that Mary was the one to attend. Mary interpreted this event as miraculous evidence of a God-ordained destiny for her life, and saw this as an opportunity for her and her family to move beyond servitude and poverty. She began to believe that surely as the only educated person in her family, God had a purpose for her life (Holt, 1964, p. 20).

Mary McLeod walked five miles each way to this rudimentary mission school sometimes facing harassment and assault by white children along the way. The school leadership sought to nurture Christian values and related way of life. Mary's lifetime passion for equal opportunity and education of blacks, particularly black girls ignited when Mary came to the conclusion of equality in the eyes of God through one of her first Bible lessons in the mission school on John 3:16. Along with the Bible lessons, and a recreation period for the sake of educating the whole person, the curriculum included instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic (Holt, 1964, pp. 21-24).

As her spiritual life developed, so did Mary's passion for education. Her schooling gave her new opportunities in her family and in the life of her community. Not only was she able to read the Bible daily to her parents, through her new math skills she protected her family and others from market and labor exploitation (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, Johnson Interview , pp. 39-41). Although her family belonged to the African Methodist church, Mary became active in the Trinity Presbyterian Church Sunday School during her three years at the mission school, and she represented Trinity at some of the Sunday School conventions. Through occasional speaking contests at the conventions Mary's natural talent for debate emerged, a skill that served her well in years to come. Through Miss Wilson's missionary devotion, Mary began to recognize God's purpose for her own life, a life of missionary service (Newsome, 1982, pp. 60-65).

Upon graduation from the mission school, Mary McLeod made a public profession of faith and became a member of the Presbyterian Church. The new realization about life gained from these first years of schooling left Mary dissatisfied with the activities and circumstances of her home life. The school instilled desires for a better lifestyle and opportunity to learn. Schooling also deepened the meaning of her Christian faith to include service as well as trust. Mary prayed fervently that she would find God's purpose for her life, and move beyond the social conditions of servitude. (Newsome, 1982, pp. 66-68). The illumination came as Mary heard a visiting preacher from Georgia speak in the Sumter black Methodist church about the need for missionaries in Africa. Mary determined that she would serve God spiritually in the land of her ancestors (Holt, 1964, pp. 30-31).

Although the possibility of further education did not look hopeful, Mary's sense of divine destiny was once again affirmed when a Quaker schoolteacher from Colorado offered to finance her education at Scotia Seminary, an institute in North Carolina that aimed to elevate the status of Negro women by preparing them in mind, body, and spirit (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, Johnson Interview , pp. 42-43). Transitioning to the Scotia Seminary context enlarged her world-view as she was determined to learn as much as possible and prove herself worthy of this life-expanding opportunity.

With the love and respect of the students and teachers, Mary McLeod developed her natural leadership abilities, such as advising students and negotiating with school authorities for changes in the Seminary. She served as president of the student literary society, led a debate team, developed her singing voice, and took great delight in making public speeches. Through the values, instruction, and human care at Scotia, Mary Jane's self-image and sense of worth and dignity grew strong (McCluskey & Smith, Johnson Interview , pp. 43-44). At Scotia, Mary came to understand the intrinsic worth and equality of all human beings, and embraced the holistic nature of all life. Although books such as Uncle Tom's Cabin broadened her perspective on the plight of black Americans, Mary still focused on her childhood missionary vision of leading her ancestors in Africa to Christ (Newsome, 1982, pp. 89-91).

After completing seven years at Scotia Seminary, Mary McLeod headed to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago for two years of missionary training, yet another opportunity in the unfolding revelation and affirmation of God's purpose for her life. At Moody, Mary's Christian faith and commitment to a life of missionary service grew stronger. As the only American Negro among the seven to eight hundred students, Mary took her role as the representative of her race very seriously. Mary experienced Moody as a place of racial harmony as the community life at Moody demonstrated that blacks and whites could live and work together with equality. At Moody, Mary came to understand ignorance as the reason, and Christian education as the possible remedy for racial problems (Newsome, 1982, pp 94-100).

Mary McLeod's spiritual life and religious devotion deepened during her time at Moody Bible Institute. Along with her fascination with his passionate preaching, Mary had some significant personal encounters with D.L. Moody. On several occasions, Rev. Moody called Mary to his office to inquire about the state of her people in the South. One very life altering spiritual experience occurred when D.L Moody prayed for Mary to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Mary remembered this spiritual event as a great experience of divine encounter that empowered her for effective service throughout the rest of her life (Newsome, 1982, pp. 102-103).

Active field service was a major part of the curriculum at Moody. Students were instructed in evangelism and then taken throughout the city of Chicago to share the gospel through preaching, singing, literature distribution, and feeding the homeless. With determination, zealous faith, and a maturing sense of divine destiny, Mary McLeod developed a reputation as one of the most effective evangelists amongst the students. Mary also, as part of a select group of students, traveled in the gospel car crusade throughout the Midwest in an effort to establish Sunday Schools in rural areas (Newsome, 1982, pp. 106-107).

Missionary Call

Upon graduation from Moody, Mary McLeod suffered enormous disappointment when the Presbyterian mission board denied her request for a position in Africa because she black (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, Johnson Interview , p.42). Although Mary never got over the disappointment, she held firm to her belief in God's role in her personal history. Mary's missionary focus shifted from Africa to Africans in America when she was appointed by the Presbyterian Board of Education to serve as an eighth grade teacher under the inspiring leadership of former slave, Lucy Croft Laney at Haines Normal Institute in Augusta, Georgia. Mary invested herself fully in the mission of the school, and started an afternoon Sunday School involving hymn singing and Bible stories (Newsome, 1982, pp. 110-114).

After one year at Haines, Mary McLeod was reassigned to Kindell Institute, another church-supported school for blacks located in Sumter, South Carolina. At Kindell she continued her Sunday afternoon community ministry efforts working hard to ignite a passion for education, religion, and social advancement amongst the black population. Mary's continued sense of divine destiny could be seen in her missionary zeal and total submersion in her work.

It was during her assignment at Kindell, in May of 1898, that Mary Jane met and married Albertus Bethune, the son of Sarah and Reverend Albertus Bethune, a Methodist minister. For the sake of Albertus' employment, the Bethunes moved to Savannah, Georgia, and Mary Jane set aside her plans to teach when she learned she was expecting a child. The dreams and yearnings for missionary work continued, and when her son, Albertus McLeod Bethune was nine months old, the Bethunes moved to Palatka, Florida to work with Reverend Mr. Uggams in a church and missionary school (Holt, 1964, pp. 50-53).

Mary Bethune's service in Palatka involved expanding the school to teach children and youth along with active ministry in the local jails. Mary Bethune was acutely aware of the social injustice that enveloped her people, and she yearned to establish her own school (Holt, 1964, p. 54). After five years, with a strong sense of divine guidance, she left Palatka with the determination to start a school in a destitute area of Daytona Beach, Florida. While faced with opposition and insults, Mary Bethune saw the African American community of Daytona as a needy mission field with potential and opportunity (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, Johnson Interview , p.47).

With faith in God and one dollar and fifty cents, Mary Bethune opened her school, the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls, in a cottage home on October 4, 1904. Although the early days of the school were filled with difficulties, Mary Bethune trusted God to provide as she diligently canvassed neighborhoods, speaking to social groups in churches and clubs, and distributing leaflets on the street corners. Mary's persuasive appeals led to the development of an advisory board of prominent white women, and a trustee board composed of influential men, both black and white, including James M. Gamble of Proctor and Gamble Company. During the first two years, the school enrollment grew to 250 female students (Hanson, 2003, pp. 60-61). With the support of her advisory boards, the school acquired property in 1907 and constructed a building that Mary named Faith Hall.

Akin to Booker T. Washington, Mary Bethune saw the need for industrial training in homemaking and skilled trades. Washington emphasized hard work and preparation for the commercial world, winning rather than demanding a place in society. Yet, like W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary Bethune's Daytona Institute also included instruction in many liberal disciplines such as history, math, economics, and English. Mary Bethune believed that progress of the race could be ensured through liberally educated black women (Hanson, 2003, pp. 18-19).

Albertus, Mary Bethune's husband, continued his stay in Palatka for two years before joining Mary and their son in Daytona in 1906. Albertus worked as a horse-drawn taxi driver, and did not fully share Mary's missionary enthusiasm and vision (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, Johnson Interview , p. 51). According to Clarence Newsome, due to illness and related need for care that Mary could not provide due to her investment in her school, Albertus returned to his family home in Wedgefield, South Carolina in 1918, and he died one year later in 1919 (Newsome, 1982, pp. 132-133). According to Audrey McCluskey, Albertus left his family in 1907 and died in 1918 (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, p. 5).

In an effort to secure long-term financial stability for her school, Mary Bethune conceded to denominational sponsorship that she chose over state funding in order to preserve the original religious and social principles of the school. In July of 1923, Mary yielded control of her school to the Methodist Church that included the merger of her school with Cookman Institute, a co-educational Methodist school for Negroes in Jacksonville, Florida. Accepting the merger required compromise that involved a shift from Mary Bethune's commitment to an all-girl's school. Mary Bethune was asked to serve as president of the newly formed Bethune-Cookman Collegiate Institute (Newsome, 1982, pp. 157-158).

The school expanded and changed over time under the leadership of the Methodist Church. A high school was added and then replaced by junior college curriculum in 1939. By 1943, the Institute had be become a Liberal Arts College granting Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees in Elementary Education. Without success, Mary Bethune attempted to return Bethune-Cookman to an all-girls school. Mary's lifetime passion was to serve the particular educational needs of Negro girls. She resigned as president in 1942. Under the leadership of Dr. James A. Colston, the school became a fully accredited senior college by 1946, the year he resigned as president. Mary Bethune then resumed her leadership of the school in 1946 until Richard V. Moore was appointed one year later.

Public Service and National Leadership

Mary Bethune's influence extended far beyond the establishment of her school. In 1905, she organized a boy's club, in 1911 she established a hospital, in 1938 she acquired federal funds for a public housing project. Mary Bethune rallied for temperance, and made her college library available to the black community. She promoted spiritual and social transformation with her Sunday afternoon community meetings and was very active in Negro women's club work that was usually connected with churches and focused on assisting the sick, elderly, needy, and contributing to the church (Newsome, 1982, pp. 177-178).

Mary Bethune's participation in federal programs began in 1914 when she was recruited to assist the Red Cross. She managed the Florida chapter during the mid-1920's successfully organizing relief efforts following a destructive hurricane in 1928 (Newsome, 1982, pp. 189-190). Mary Bethune promoted the development of a national coalition of organizations to work with federal agencies for the advancement of all blacks, particularly the cause of Negro womanhood by harnessing the power of women. Although she faced some criticism, at the first meeting in December of 1935, Mary Bethune persuaded these women leaders to vote in favor of a permanent organization, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), with Mary Bethune as the first president of the coalition (Hanson, 2003, pp. 164-172).

The structural core of the NCNW consisted of several standing committees such as Public Affairs, Employment, Religion, and Family Life. "Christian brotherhood" was the ultimate goal. The NCNW coalition worked with both Christian and non-Christian groups to address problems such as military admission discrimination and black unemployment during World War II. Mary Bethune determined to provide, through the coalition, the Christian leadership needed to address issues neglected by the church.

During her fourteen years as President of the NCNW she fought for equal opportunities and living improvements for African Americans, and particularly black women, in all aspects of American society. Among her most notable achievements with the NCNW was the White House Conference of the National Council of Negro Women in 1938. This was the first White House conference ever held to address the involvement of Negro women in the federal planning and implementation of social programs.

From 1928 to 1952, Mary Bethune served as a delegate of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which involved service on numerous committees. By actively participating in these committees, Mary Bethune had a powerful influence on the leadership and direction of the church (Newsome, 1992, p.13).

As the only Negro invited to participate in White House conferences on Child Welfare during both the Coolidge and Hoover administrations, Mary Bethune embraced the conviction of divine appointment as a leader of her race. In the 1930's, millions of black youth were out of school and living on relief. In 1933, Mary Bethune was invited to participate on a Planning Commission funded by the Federal Office of Education to conduct a National Conference on the Education of Negroes in the spring of 1934.

Mary Bethune also held the highest ranking position ever held by a Negro woman when she accepted the leadership of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration (NYA) implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mary Bethune faced many difficulties in her efforts to improve the employment and educational opportunities for black youth. Yet the criticism was offset by her successes, particularly in the state of Illinois, with the largest number of black youth participants in the NYA programs, and the successful recreation camps for Negro girls (Newsome, 1982, pp. 198, 203).

Mary Bethune's friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt enabled several private meetings a year with the President, giving Mary Bethune more access to the President than any other leader in the United States history (Newsome, 1982, p.199). In 1943, Congress cut the funding for the NYA, a great loss to black youth, and the political leadership and strength of Mary Bethune. Following the demise of the NYA, and the death of President Roosevelt, however, a conference was ordered by President Truman to draft a charter for the United Nations Organization. Along with Walter White and W. E. B. DuBois, Mary Bethune participated in the conference as a second alternate. Mary Bethune, with a conviction of providential appointment, saw this charter conference as a "culminating assignment crowning her career." (Holt, 1964, p. 255)

In this charter conference, held in San Francisco in 1945, Mary Bethune spoke in opposition to colonialism and martial law. She viewed the accomplishments of the charter conference as a bridge-building process allowing full integration of colonial peoples into their rights of freedom (Holt, 1964, pp. 255-259). In line with her lifetime belief of creating one world under God, Mary Bethune, in 1954, joined the Moral Re-Armament movement, actively promoting MRA ideology of building a healthy nation through absolute moral standards such as honesty and love. The patriot and religious themes of the MRA resonated with Bethune's lifetime passion toward God, inter-racialism, and democracy (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, pp. 33, 260).

In 1953, Mary's life-long dream was realized when she traveled to Africa as a representative of the United States government. She attended the second inaugural ceremony of William V. L. Tubman, President of Liberia. She said of this visit: "Ever since my student days at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, in the 'Nineties,' when I so much wanted to find happiness as a missionary to Africa, I had seen myself doing just this - counseling and praying with the native people in the far-away land of my ancestors -and here I was. It was wonderful"(McCluskey & Smith, 1999, Holistic Living: Yes, I went to Liberia , p. 276).

In the final year of her life, Mary Bethune invested herself in the establishment of a foundation that would be located in her home. The foundation provided educational scholarships, an annual women's conference, a chapel for interracial devotional retreats, and the collection of all documents related to her life. Mary hoped the foundation would inspire ongoing advancement of her life goals. She managed to the raise the needed funds for the foundation, and five days before her death, the filing cabinets arrived. At the end of her life, Mary McLeod Bethune acknowledged that the work of her life was filled with divine guidance and a daily awareness of the presence of God. Mary McLeod Bethune died on May 18, 1955, of heart failure in her Daytona home.

Contributions to Christian Education

Mary Bethune's contributions to Christian Education are deeply rooted in her philosophy of Christian Education and cannot be separated from her leadership role as a "race woman" and a "political activist" (Hanson, 2003). Mary Bethune did not divide her life of service into sacred and secular categories, and considered all her endeavors demonstrations and promotion of her Christian faith.

According to Clarence Newsome, Mary Bethune approached life with a single vision, a firm conviction of an underlying unity in all dimensions of life including spiritual, social, and political (Newsome, 1982, p. 217). Mary Bethune embraced the Scriptures as the standard for life and saw Jesus as an ideal and a force that compelled people to act upon the ideal. Following Jesus meant advancing the cause of unity and "brotherhood" in the world through the complimentary ideologies of Judeo-Christianity and American democracy (Newsome, 1982, pp. 218-219).

Mary Bethune's philosophy of Christian Education emerged through a complex interplay of forces, such as her own inner yearnings that began in childhood, a spiritual and religious family context, a sense of divine destiny, and the social-cultural limitations and opportunities that she faced. From the beginning of her missionary endeavors, Mary Bethune promoted education for the "whole person," and training the heart according to the principles of Christianity was central to the training of minds and hands (Newsome, 1982, pp. 225-226).

On her journey from the cotton fields of South Carolina to National leadership, Mary McLeod Bethune demonstrated her "whole person" philosophy of Christian education through the establishment of her small industrial school for Negro girls that she developed into the four-year, co-educational Bethune-Cookman College (McCluskey, 1994, p. 72). The aim of the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School of Negro Girls was "to uplift Negro girls spiritually, morally, intellectually and industrially. The school stood for a broad, thorough practical training. To develop Christian character, to send forth women who will be rounded home-makers and Christian leaders . . . trained [in] mind, heart and hand being their idea of a complete education" (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, Sixth Annual Catalogue of the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls 1910-11, pp. 77-78).

Two classes in the required two years of religious instruction at Bethune-Cookman College reflected the values that Mary Bethune demonstrated with her life, the "Introduction to Religious Education" and "A Christian Philosophy of Life." The intention of these courses was to immerse students in the Christian faith for the sake of a full and wholesome life (Newsome, 1982, pp. 164-165). This philosophy of Christian education continues to influence spiritual and social transformation through the thousands of students who have attended Mary Bethune's school.

Although Mary Bethune saw herself as a Christian and an educator, not a politician, her renowned accomplishments have been recognized more in terms of racial advancement, womanist leadership, and political activism than in Christian Education. In fact, Mary Bethune is not acknowledged as a Christian educator in the published literature on the history of Christian education; this is a serious omission. Along with founding her Christ-centered school for Negro girls that developed over time into Bethune-Cookman College, Mary Bethune established numerous Sunday Schools and held spiritually focused Sunday community meetings for many years.

Bethune historian Elaine Smith concludes that most of Mary Bethune's work involved "race leadership" (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, pp. 33, 261). Smith points to Mary Bethunes My Last Will and Testament as a literary legacy addressed specifically to African Americans and containing nine principles for advancing spirituality, cultural responsibility, and holistic living of the black race. Through this reflective document, Mary Bethune hoped that future generations of black Americans would glean wisdom, purpose, and ongoing ambition to continue the fight for equality.

Audrey Thomas McCluskey holds that Mary Bethune's multiple roles as educator, organizer, and public policy activist were all in pursuit of "the unalienable rights of citizenship for black Americans (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, p. 3)." McCluskey also notes the difficulty of assessing the contributions of a complex person such as Mary Bethune, stating, "She defies sociological categories and stereotypes" (McCluskey & Smith, 1999, p. 15). According to McCluskey, Bethune's participation in social and political events enabled national change through her steadfast religious ideology and political pragmatism. She "inscribed her values with scriptural authority and symbolic meaning. Spiritual strength, race pride, interracial harmony, and faith in America's possibilities were at the core of Bethune's beliefs and advocacies (McCluskey & Smith, p 32)."

She exercised much of this energy and advocacy on behalf of young people. Holding a key position in the New Deal's National Youth Administration, and serving as the director of the NYA Division of Negro affairs, she successfully influenced national policies causing public attention and substantial funding of employment programs for black youth.

Such concerns inspired Bethune's work with women as well. Through her establishment and presidencies of the National Association of Colored Women and the National Council of Negro Women, she advanced the African American race in general, developed the black women's club movement, and enabled black female leadership in national and international affairs.

Mary Bethune believed that segregation was the greatest obstacle to world unity and "brotherhood." Her leadership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other organizations were crucial avenues through which she furthered her mission of racial integration. She organized the Federal Council on Negro Affairs as well. By protesting in a face-to-face meeting with the President, Mary Bethune, along with Walter White and Channing Tobias, prevented segregated rehabilitation centers in the U.S. military. She also protested the organization of the Central Jurisdiction, based on race, in the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Mary Bethune held all of her endeavors and accomplishments as inseparable aspects of one divinely ordained unified vision, a vision rooted in her whole person philosophy of Christian education. In My Last Will and Testament she wrote, "If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving. As I face tomorrow, I am content, for I think I have spent my life well. I pray now that my philosophy may be helpful to those who share my vision of a world of Peace, Progress, Brotherhood, and Love" (McCluskey & Smith, My Last Will and Testament - 1955 , 1999, p. 61). Toward the end of her life, Bethune's active support of the Moral Rearmament movement was yet another expression of her life's purpose to promote Christian morality and unity in the world.

Mary Bethune's college education was limited to two years of ministry training at Moody Bible Institute, yet her educational philosophy incorporated the central tenets and related practices of progressive and postmodern education, sometimes long before their promotion in scholarly literature and popular practice. Mary Bethune's philosophy has many similarities to the educational philosophy of her contemporary George Albert Coe. Both embraced Christian education for the sake of "brotherhood" (Coe, 1917, p. 56), both blended the concept of democracy with Christian ideals, and both claimed a significant relationship between redemption and social reconstruction. Mary Bethune's leadership exemplified many of the ideals reflected in Coe's scholarly publications.

More than twenty years before John Dewey's book Experience and Education (1938), Mary Bethune modeled experiential learning, and she certainly understood the political nature and liberative potential of education, something that was articulated years later by Paulo Freire (Freire, 1970). Mary Bethune did not know Thomas Groome's five movements of shared praxis, but she powerfully demonstrated active-reflective educational engagement at many levels (Groome, 1991). Mary Bethune modeled what shared praxis intends, a perpetual educational process for the sake of human freedom, spiritual, psychological, and social-political.

Mary Bethune's service to humanity reflected a philosophy of education that was truly Christian in the broadest and most inclusive sense of the word as her life transforming accomplishments aligned with the radical person and passion of Jesus Christ. She enabled African Americans to move beyond the oppression, and degrading, sin-born conditions of servitude toward spiritual, economic, and political liberty. Mary Bethune gave her whole self and her whole life for Christian brotherhood, racial unity, and interracial cooperation.

The life of Mary McLeod Bethune brings extraordinary depth and breadth of meaning to the expression, "Christian education for the whole person." Her philosophy of education, which promoted the centrality of spiritual life along with full engagement of head, heart, and hand, was much more than abstract theory with suggested steps for curriculum design or life application. Mary Bethune lived, and breathed with her whole being a philosophy of Christian education that emulated the redemptive character of Christ and was truly educative. For Mary Bethune, Christian education meant intentional, concrete, and life-transforming action in every dimension of life - something that she powerfully demonstrated in her school, community outreach, and national leadership. Her life epitomized her philosophy.

Works Cited

  • Coe, G. A. (1917). A Social theory of religious education. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier Books.
  • Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: Seabury Press.
  • Groome, T. (1991). Sharing faith. San Francisco: Harper.
  • Hanson, J. A. (2003). Mary McLeod Bethune & Black women's political activism. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press.
  • Holt, R. (1964). Mary McLeod Bethune: A biography. New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc.
  • McCluskey, A. T. (1994). Multiple consciousness in the leadership of Mary McLeod Bethune. NWSA Journal, 6 (1), 69-81.
  • McCluskey, A. T., & Smith, E. (Eds). (1999). Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a better world, essays and selected documents. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • Newsome, C. G. (1996). Mary McLeod Bethune and the Methodist Episcopal Church North: In but out. The Journal of Religious Thought, 49 (1), 7-20.
  • Newsome, C. G. (1982). Mary McLeod Bethune in religious perspective: A seminal essay. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Duke University.


Chapters in Books

  • Bethune, M. M. (1969). Certain unalienable rights. In R.W. Logan (Ed.), What the Negro wants. New York: Agathan Press, Inc.


  • Bethune, M. M. (1939). The adaptation of the history of the Negro to the capacity of a child. Journal of Negro History, 24 (1), 9-13.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1949, February 12). Army erases blot on the Escutcheon of ourdemocracy. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1935, October). The association for the study of Negro life and history: Its contribution to our modern life. Journal of Negro History, 20 (4), 406-410.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1938). Clarifying our vision with the facts. Journal of Negro History, 23 (1), 10-15.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1955, May 14). Desegregation is both a human and national problem. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1955, April 9). Fair-skinned, blue eyed, blond haired Walter White, worker for equal justice. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1954, October 16). A great people hears its conscience speak: Realizes segregation not decent. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1955, March 19). Ignorance, root of prejudice, is serious foe of democratic living. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1939). I work with youth. The Brown American, 1, 11.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1950, January 7). Its founder takes objective view of Women's National Council. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1955, January 15). Leader recalls pioneer days when organizing U. S. women. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1963, September). My last will and testament. Ebony, 18, 150-156.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1949). My secret talks with President Roosevelt. Ebony, 4 (6).
  • Bethune, M. M. (1955, April 23). Negro needs the equality of the unrestricted ballot. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1950, January). The Negro in retrospect and prospect. Journal of Negro History, 35 (1), 9-19.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1955, February 19). No barrier should impede progress of American people. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1950, April 22). The privileges of a democracy are not without common sense. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1955, March 5). Says question of what Negroes want is too obvious for answer. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1955, April 2). Sees white south resigning itself to integrated life. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1955, January 22). Supreme Court's desegregation ruling will work, but we must have patience about it. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1951, January). The torch is ours. Journal of Negro History, 36 (1), 9-11.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1955, June 4). U.S. will make the grade in integrating all its schools. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1954, October 2). Warns against violence or hesitation at integration. Chicago Defender.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1949, November 19). What are we fighting for? Jefferson Award address, 1942. Bethune Brown Feuding. Pittsburgh Courier.


  • Bethune, M. M. (n.d.). Unpublished manuscript, New Orleans: Amistad Research Center Microfilms.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1996). Bethune-Cookman College Collection. Unpublished manuscript, Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1996). Bethune Foundation Collection. Part I (E. M. Smith, Ed.). Unpublished manuscript, Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America.
  • Bethune, M. M. (1996). Bethune Foundation Collection. Part II (E. M. Smith, Ed.). Unpublished manuscript, Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America.
  • Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers. Unpublished manuscript, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Papers. Part 18, Series B, Unpublished manuscript, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  • Papers of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, 1895-1992 (1993): Part I (L. S. Williams, Ed.). Unpublished manuscript, Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America.
  • Records of the National Council of Negro Women. Unpublished manuscript, Bethune Museum and Archives, Washington, D.C.
  • National Urban League Papers. Unpublished manuscript, Southern Regional Office. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  • National Youth Administration Papers. Unpublished manuscript, Office of Negro Affairs, Records of the Director, Record Group 199, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Select Secondary Sources

  • Gilkes, C. T. (2001). "If it wasn't for the women . . .": Black women's experience and Womanist culture in church and community. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
  • Hanson, J. A. (2003). Mary McLeod Bethune: Race woman. The Crisis, 110 (2), 34-37.
  • Hanson, J. A. (2003). Mary McLeod Bethune & Black women's political activism. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press.
  • Holt, R. (1964). Mary McLeod Bethune: A biography. New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc.
  • McCluskey, A. T. (1989). Mary McLeod Bethune and the education of Black girls. Sex Roles, 21 (1-2).
  • McCluskey, A. T. (1994). Multiple consciousness in the leadership of Mary McLeod Bethune. NWSA Journal, 6 (1), 69-81.
  • McCluskey, A. T., & Smith, E. (Eds). (1999). Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a better world, essays and selected documents. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • Newsome, C. G. (1996). Mary McLeod Bethune and the Methodist Episcopal Church North: In but out. The Journal of Religious Thought, 49 (1), 7-20.
  • Newsome, C. G. (1982) Mary McLeod Bethune in religious perspective: A seminal essay Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Duke University.
  • Riggs, M., & Holms, B. (Eds.). (1997). Can I get a witness? Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
  • Smith, E. M. (1993). Mary McLeod Bethune. In D. C.Hine, E. B. Brown, & R.Terborg-Penn (Eds.), Black women in America: An historical encyclopedia, 2. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.
  • Smith, E. M.(1990). Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Youth Administration. In D. C. Hine (Ed.). Black women in American history, the twentieth century, 4. New York: Carlson Publishers.
  • Smith, E. M. (1996). Mary McLeod Bethune's "Last will and testament": A legacy for race vindication. Journal of Negro History, 84 (1-4), 105-122.

Excerpts from Publications

Bethune, M. M. (1946). Spiritual Autobiography. Original manuscript in Mary McLeod Bethune Papers, Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation, Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, FL.

"Early in my childhood my mother taught me to hold the little New Testament which the minister brought around, and to sit quietly in communion with it and God, even before I could read. My tongue was ready to recite the 23rd Psalm and other precious passages from the written page, when once my intellect was prepared to meet the yearnings of my heart - to read Scriptures. The Word has been hidden in my heart by that knowing which is not literacy, but which is so basic to literacy."

Bethune, M. M. (1946). Spiritual Autobiography. Original manuscript in Mary McLeod Bethune Papers, Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation, Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, FL.

"My love is a universal factor in my experience, transcending pettiness, discrimination, segregation, narrowness and unfair dealings with regard to my opportunities to grow and to serve. Through love and faith and determination I have been persistently facing obstacles, small and large, and I have made them stepping stones upon which to rise."
"My spiritual philosophy provides a full life for me. I give my best at all times and accept without complaint the results. I expect the best. Life is full and joyous and after three score and ten years, I know the secret of peaceful living. I am not waiting for peace and happiness to come to me in another world. I am enjoying it here day by day . . . I am in a state of spiritual readiness at all times. I am ready to read the signs of the times and interpret them for my people, for the world. I am ready to act with faith and love and wisdom for justice and progress and peace. I am ready to keep an open mind - to follow the guides toward upward trends and forward progress which will make our world the ONE GREAT WORLD - A world where all men are brothers.

Bethune, M. M. (1940). Charles S. Johnson, Interview with Bethune. Mary McLeod Bethune Papers, Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation, Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, FL.

"Around Haines Institute there was the very thickly settled community - settled with colored people. On Sunday afternoons the streets were crowded with children, and having had such a fine opportunity for training at the Moody Institute, I felt I had a chance to help children and asked permission of Lucy Laney to start a mission Sunday School. [S]he granted it. I took the girls of the science class and my own class and went out and combed the alleys and streets and brought in hundreds of children until we had a Sunday School of almost a thousand young people and people in the community came in. . . . This mission school lasted for years, and became one of the great assets of Haines Institute.

Bethune, M. M. (1952). Holistic living: Yes, I went to Liberia. In Responsibility [Periodical of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Club], 1952 (pp. 7-9). Mary McLeod Bethune Papers, Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation, Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, FL.

"Ever since my student days at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, in the 'Nineties,' when I so much wanted to find happiness as a missionary to Africa, I had seen myself doing just this - counseling and praying with the native people in the far-away land of my ancestors and here I was. It was wonderful!"

Bethune, M. M. Sixth Annual Catalogue of the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls (1910-11). Mary McLeod Bethune Papers, Florida State Archives, Tallahassee.

"It is our object to give a thorough religious training. The supreme need of our people beyond doubt is Christian leadership. There is a crying need among us for women qualified as moral and Christian leaders. We are endeavoring to teach an every-day practical religion. The Bible is prominent in every department of our work. It is the guide of our lives."

Bethune, M. M. Sixth Annual Catalogue of the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls (1910-11). Mary McLeod Bethune Papers, Florida State Archives, Tallahassee.

"The aim of this institution is to uplift Negro girls spiritually, morally, intellectually and industrially. The school stands for a broad, thorough practical training. To develop Christian character, to send forth women who will be rounded home-makers and Christian leaders is the aim of its founder and supporters, a trained mind, heart and hand being their idea of a complete education."

Bethune, M. M. My Last will and testament (1963), Ebony, 18, 156.

"I LEAVE YOU FINALLY A RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR YOUNG PEOPLE. The world around us really belongs to youth for youth will take over its future management. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring toward greatness, for they are to be the leaders of tomorrow. Nor must they forget that the masses of our people are still underprivileged, ill-housed, impoverished and victimized by discrimination. We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good end."

Bethune, M. M. A philosophy of education for Negro Girls, 1926. Mary McLeod Bethune Papers, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, La., Box 2, Folder 13.

"Very early in my life, I saw the vision of what our women might contribute to the growth and development of the race - if they were given a certain type of intellectual training. I longed to see women, Negro women, hold in their hands diplomas which bespoke achievement; I longed to see them trained to be inspirational wives and mothers; I longed to see their accomplishments recognized side by side with any woman, anywhere. With this vision before me, my life has been spent."

Bethune, M. M. (1969). Certain Unalienable Rights. In R.W. Logan (Ed.), What the Negro wants. New York: Agathan Press, Inc.

Bethune, M. M. (1963, September). My last will and testament. Ebony, 18, 150-156.

Fleming, S. Y. (1995). Bethune-Cookman College, 1904-1994: The answered prayer to a dream. Virginia Beach: The Donring Company.

Author Information

Beverly Johnson-Miller

Beverly C. Johnson-Miller is Associate Professor of Christian Discipleship at Asbury Theological Seminary, where she teaches courses on Christian discipleship and the history and philosophy of Christian education. Her Ph.D. dissertation (2000) explored The Complexity of Religious Transformation, Claremont School of Theology, California.