Essay / Misc.

Anna Dennis: "Expert, Devoted, and Beloved"

Anna Dennis 1931 Somebody recently asked me about The First Female Bible Professor at Biola, suggesting that the title must belong to a fairly recent hire. While I don’t have a comprehensive history of Bible teachers on Biola’s faculty, I do know a candidate for one of the first: Anna Dennis was recruited by R. A. Torrey in 1917 to teach Bible at Biola, and she did so for many years. Here’s what I know about her.

On and off for the twenty years between 1917 and 1937, Mrs. Anna L. Dennis taught Bible at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. When she left Biola in 1937, she was part of the start-up faculty at what would become Westmont College, where she taught until 1945. She died in 1962. Westmont has done a good job of commemorating and celebrating Mrs. Dennis’ eight years of work there –see for instance this article in their alumni magazine– but information about her time at Biola has been harder for me to find. Here are some notes I’ve gathered about the teaching ministry of Anna Dennis at B.I.O.L.A. from 1917 (three years before national women’s suffrage!) to 1937.

According to the Westmont bio (which cites a 1944 story in the student newspaper, Horizon), Anna Dennis was a graduate of UCLA and a teacher in the Los Angles school system. After becoming a Christian through an evangelistic Bible study, Mrs. Dennis took classes at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. She apparently began to serve at the Institute in several capacities. She was enlisted as one of the “Bible Women,” an elite group of well-trained Gospel ministers who specialized in house-to-house visitation and small-group Bible studies. A December 1931 notice in The King’s Business written by Cutler Whitwell (p. 553, shown here) says that she “was closely connected with the work of the Institute as a Bible woman and as a member of the Institute faculty for six years in the palmy days of Dr. Torrey.” R. A. Torrey was at the Institute from 1912-1924, so the figure of six years squares with Westmont’s report that her time at Biola started around 1917. We know that in 1920 she was scheduled for doing the hospital visitation work characteristic of the Bible Women (Miss Emily Alexander reports this in a February 1959 reminiscence in the King’s Business, p. 24). She must have been absent from the faculty for at least a half dozen years before returning “to the teaching staff” in 1931.

The Westmont alum magazine’s biography describes Dennis as a local talent discovered by Biola’s internationally famous dean, R. A. Torrey: “When she began teaching in local Sunday schools, she displayed such skill as a storyteller she was asked to speak at Sunday school conventions. R.A. Torrey, dean of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, heard Dennis at one of these events and recruited her to teach at the institute as the only woman on the faculty. She spent 20 years there.” (some historical cautions: a glance at Biolan yearbooks from around 1917 show that Mrs. Dennis wasn’t the only female faculty member, not even the only woman teaching Bible; and “20 years” apparently includes a hiatus of at least six years before 1931) A 1944 Westmont Horizon story quotes Torrey as writing to Dennis with these words of commendation: “I cannot but feel that I have not fully appreciated the work you are doing. I knew that it was good, but I did not realize that it was so superlatively excellent.”

What was this “superlatively excellent” Bible teaching that Mrs. Anna Dennis brought to her employment at B.I.O.L.A.? I have found testimonials about her teaching from two men who went on to spend their lives in Christian ministry. The first is Jim Halbert, a Biola alum who was a career missionary to Africa. He and his wife Viola recently self-published the story of their life and ministry together, as Ivory In Our Hearts: The Special Work of God in Our Lives (Lulu.com, 2006). Jim started classes at BIOLA in 1940, after Mrs. Dennis had moved on to Westmont. But during his time at BIOLA, he also studied the Bible with Mrs. Dennis on weekends:

In September 1940 I enrolled at BIOLA…. Mrs. Anna Dennis taught the “Mother’s Class” at the Church of the Open Door, and my mother attended this class. In previous years Mrs. Dennis had taught at BIOLA, including one year at BIOLA’s Hunan Bible Institute in China. Her teaching had a profound impact on Mother’s spiritual life. Due to the crippling effects of an automobile accident, Mrs. Dennis could no longer keep up with the housework, so she hired Mother to come on Saturday mornings to clean her house.

I had come to know Mrs. Dennis during my high school years. Upon learning that I had become a student at BIOLA, she invited me to study the Bible with her while Mother cleaned her house. This I did for several years. Her whole life revolved around the study of the Word of God. Her countenance literally radiated the glory of our Lord. I learned more from her about the Bible and walking with God than from all the other teachers I ever had. She found the greatest delight in teaching the Word of God to young men who looked forward to the ministry. I feel greatly privileged to have had the opportunity of studying under such a woman of God. Our second child, Denise, was named after her. (p. 11)

Jim Halbert places Anna Dennis as teaching the Mother’s Class at the Church of the Open Door in 1940. Indeed, according to the church’s historical memoir, 70 Years on Hope Street (p. 25), she taught that class from 1926 to 1960! Reliability, longevity, or stubbornness might have run in her family: Her sister, Jessie Tritt, taught the Auditorium Bible Class from 1917 to 1962.

But for a testimonial about Anna Dennis’ teaching that reaches all the way back to the early years at BIOLA, we turn to the student days of Charles Fuller, who would go on to be founder of the Old Fashioned Revival Hour, chairman of BIOLA’s board for a time in the late twenties, and founder of Fuller Seminary. Charles Fuller’s son wrote his father’s biography, Give the Winds a Mighty Voice, and in chapter 3 he tells us that “From the vantage point of later years, Charles Fuller felt that the teachers who influenced him the most at Biola were Reuben Torrey, William Evans, and Mrs. Anna Dennis.” Dennis finds herself in stellar company here –people would travel great distances to study with famous teachers like Torrey and Evans. Fuller provides more detail about what Dennis taught: “Mrs. Anna Dennis showed him how to give concrete illustrations of the truths of God’s Word from the Bible itself. She taught him to understand how incidents in the history of Israel and details regarding the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness were types of Christ and His work of redemption.” And this worked its way out in Fuller’s later ministry:

The earliest sermon of Charles Fuller that still exists is the one he gave as speaker for the graduating class of 1921. His topic was the pillar of cloud which guided the children of Israel in the wilderness. He pointed out how insubstantial a cloud appeared to be, and yet it was through this cloud that Israel enjoyed the presence of God, the power of God, and the protection of God. That such an apparently insubstantial thing as a cloud could give Israel such marvelous blessings was emblematic of Christ, who though he appeared so pitiably weak as to suffer and die on the cross, is nevertheless the One who enables us to enjoy God’s presence, power, and protection. Many were the times that Charles Fuller preached on the wilderness wanderings of Israel during the next half century, using concrete details from the Old Testament to set forth Christ’s person and work, and it was from the teaching of Mrs. Anna Dennis that he learned to do this.

Dennis seemed to specialize in this typological presentation of Old Testament themes, especially things like the tabernacle, the temple, and the feasts. This was a popular topic for evangelicals back then (see how many authors had bestsellers with the stock title “Christ in the Tabernacle“), and it would be interesting to know how Anna Dennis developed the theme.

One sample of her teaching that we have is her work with children. In 1918, The King’s Business began publishing its Sunday School support literature in a new way adapted for all ages, and announced that Anna L. Dennis had agreed to provide the lessons for “beginners and primary” ages. If you’ve taught young children, you can tell the difference between stuff that will work and stuff that won’t. Dennis’ little Bible lessons for the young are good. Sample what she does in Jnauary 1918 with messages like “Behold the Lamb of God,” “Follow me,” “he healed the sick,” and “forgive us our sins.”

Toward the end of her BIOLA career, Mrs. Dennis went to teach in China. The April 1936 issue of the King’s Business (not yet available online) described the beginning of her work there in this way:

After a journey of nearly a month by freighter, and delivered from a terrific storm en route, Mrs. Anna L. Dennis and Alma Bertschin reached, on February 13, the Bible Seminary for Women, 500 Recreation Road, Kiangwan, Shanghai, China. Mrs. Dennis is having a leave of absence from her work on the faculty of Biola in order to give a year’s volunteer service at the seminary, and Miss Bertschin has gone to assist with secretarial work.

“As thou goest, step by step, I will open up the way…” was the translation of Proverbs 4:12 that the Lord made very precious to Mrs. Dennis as she sought guidance concerning the call to China. Arriving at the seminary, she found that her new friends had chosen a Chinese name for her, Teng (pronounced “Dunn”), as being the character sounding most like her name. The written character for this name has two parts, “to ascend step by step,” and, “a city.”

As Mrs. Dennis and Miss Bertschin entered the school compound, they were welcomed by two long lines of young women who were singing “He Leadeth Me.” At the meeting in the chapel, Mary Chen, ’25, who was one of Mrs. Dennis’ students at Biola, gave a loving speech of welcome on behalf of the faculty. Joyful letters from members of the staff speak of the blessing that God has granted already through Mrs. Dennis’ deep interest in the school and in the individuals there. She is teaching a course in Romans to the members of the Junior class, and the subject for the Seniors is “Selected Pauline Epistles.” The classes have been put at hours when all the Chinese teachers can attend one or two sessions in the morning, and all can attend the general class two afternoons each week.

The portrait that emerges of Mrs. Anna L. Dennis and her BIOLA ministry is of an insightful teacher with quite a bit of charisma. She was apparently capable of teaching the very young, holding an audience with storytelling, and teaching at the congregational level, but also relished the opportunity to help in the preparation of pastors. As the testimonials from her BIOLA students show, she was able to capture the imagination of serious Bible students and open up the meaning of the Old Testament for them. She graduated from college back when few women did so, and poured her considerable energies and talent into a teaching ministry. Why is she not more well known? I can think of several reasons: her work was apparently focused on personal interaction in a classroom setting, rather than on writing. She multiplied her ministry by teaching others how to interpret the Bible and tell stories the way she did, but she didn’t extend her reach further by publishing. In later life, especially after returning from China, health concerns (auto accident, etc.) kept her confined to a local ministry. She may have been overshadowed by celebrity teachers like R.A. Torrey during her time at BIOLA. But there is not much evidence that she was held back by being a woman, which is worth noting in this time period, and in the very conservative circles she belonged to. These were, after all, the people who invented the original, good variety of fundamentalism back at the beginning of the twentieth century. And Mrs. Anna L. Dennis was right in there doing the work with them, a regular fundamentalist matriarch.

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