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Actress Turned Preacher


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Born to William Riley and Melissa Elmira Mitchell, Nell stated that she “came from a family of preachers” and was from “the Ozarks — in the near Springfield area.” Both Nell’s parents were preachers. William had preached near Springfield, Missouri, for sixty years, and at the age of eighty, Melissa was still preaching in Carthage. Nell started her freshman year at Dadeville High School before moving to Greenfield High School, where she was not only a student but also a librarian. Nell spent her last two years of high school in Huntington Beach, California, where she had moved in the hope of becoming an actress and often admitted: “her ambition to go on the stage.”

While in high school, she played a part in local productions as well as performing in musical events. Nell had a God-given musical talent picking “up most of her knowledge of music unassisted.” She could sing and play a dozen instruments, including the carpenter’s saw. After high school, Nell relinquished her dream of being an actress and entered Pasadena College, where she studied theology and began preaching. Nell was often referred to as the “converted actress” and returned to Missouri in 1927.

A few years ago, the little curly-headed girl that started school for the first time…was not considered an exception. Still, as she advanced in years and learning, she attracted the attention of her teachers and others by her skill in handling the banjo and singing, and her fondness for the music of all kinds...Since then, she has been a student for two terms at the Bible University in Pasadena and expects to return there to complete the course. She works through school and expects to finish college by singing for gospel meetings…Those who have seen her and know her back here at home can understand why preachers and people are anxious to secure her for song service. 

The people who knew Nell recognized her as a remarkable young woman, and the local newspaper captured her essence. 
Nellie is one of those few people who is favored with talents galore. In her simplicity, there is the charm of feminine sweetness with the strength and power of Godly purpose. Her every action bespeaks a heart that is pure and noble and true to the high trust God has implanted within it. To know her is to love her, and she is well known. A great amount of courage is necessary to attempt those tasks which others have undone. Women are few in the evangelistic world, but with absolute faith in God and sincere hope for mankind, Nellie’s courage pierces the many hardships and makes her work a joy instead of a task. 
 
Nell, the darling of Dade County, was often called “the girl evangelist” as her popularity moved beyond her Missouri hometown.

Nell Mitchell, the girl evangelist that has thrilled so many here at her home, is now conducting a revival in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is having her usual success. She has been there for two weeks and has been working with a family of evangelists, a father and mother with eleven of their children, all singers, players, and workers. These evangelists had been trying to get Miss Nell to work with them for more than a year, and they are more than pleased with her work, and the people in the great City of Minneapolis seem to appreciate her also…All the people here that have known Nell Mitchell as a schoolgirl, a musician, and an evangelist will rejoice because of her success in a large city, just as they did when she was successful in her hometown. 

The local newspaper was not exaggerating when it spoke of Nell’s success. She soon owned her revival tent that could hold 1,000 people. Between 1930-1932, Nell worked evangelism meetings in Kansas and Oklahoma, including a nine-week meeting in Miami, Oklahoma, before returning to Missouri. 

Miss Nell Mitchell…took up evangelistic work six years ago, holding her first meeting here, since she has won national access in the evangelistic field and has held a meeting in many large cities…Miss Nell is a forceful preacher, splendid entertainer, and charming personality. 
 
After several years leading evangelism meetings, Nell took a much-needed vacation in the late summer of 1932 to the Holy Land and Europe. She wrote a letter to her niece Faye Smith which included these highlights: 

Down in Egypt, I almost passed out. I was so hot, but just the same, I saw where Moses was lifted out of the water…The Holy City was indeed very interesting to me. It seemed like every stone was telling me something divine. One night I saw the moon come up over the City, which was wonderful. I breathed a prayer as it slowly came up. I thought of what our Lord said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” Nothing will ever affect me as that beautiful night did… Certainly has been a wonderful trip. I have visited nine countries altogether. Oh yes, I shook hands with the Pope in Rome. 

Following her vacation, Nell returned to school. “Miss Nell Mitchell, evangelist…left Sunday for Willmore, Kentucky where [she] will enter Asbury college to attend the Spring term.” After several more years of academic and evangelistic work, Nell took another vacation to Alaska. 

The ocean trip here is one of the most scenic trips I hope to make…From Seward, we sailed to Valdez, and here we left the boat and went overland to Fairbanks, over mountains and through swamp country, by lovely, placid lakes and streams…Another girl and I went on foot with our packs, guns, and pans. We gave little thought to the hardships we might have to endure before we finished the trip, but the lure of the open road and the novelty of the thing gripped us, so with the spell of adventure on us, we left with our packs and headed north for the golden heart of Alaska…We were five days making the trip [on the] trail… known as the “Richardson Highway,” a very famous trail. The old pioneers drove their dogs and sleds over this trail many years ago in the early days of the territory. I’m sure I will be ready for hard work when I get back to the States. I’ve gained 14 pounds in three weeks and feel like working now. Someday I hope to return to Alaska for a longer stay. 
 
The early 1940s found Nell living in Kansas City and pursuing an education for a different career. When Nell decided she would like to preach again, she advertised for a church. The ad caught the attention of the newspaper, and an article entitled Seeks Church Through Ad was written. 
Until two years ago, Miss Mitchell preached as an evangelist for the Methodist church, a vocation she followed for fifteen years. Then, two years ago, she gave up the pulpit to attend chiropractic school in Kansas City. Recently she decided she would like to preach again and found herself without a church. 

The first record of Nell pastoring in a Methodist church in Missouri was in 1945-46 in the East Lynne Circuit of the Southwest Missouri Conference. Churches in that circuit at the time included Daugherty, Gunn City, and Pitts Chapel. 

In 1947, Nell’s elder’s orders from the Christian Union Church were recognized by the Missouri Conference, and she pastored next at Millville, New Hope, and Mount Olivet. Then, in 1948-49, Nell was appointed to the Chillicothe Circuit (Avalon, Beford, Pleasant Grove, and Wheeling). About this appointment, Nell said, “Being the pastor of four rural churches keeps a person hopping, but it is fun, and there is a lot of satisfaction in the work you do.” While on the Chillicothe circuit, the four churches worked together to remodel a parsonage for Nell in Chillicothe, including “a new hardwood floor, plastered and papered walls, repaired plumbing, painting the outside, and adding a porch.” 

From 1949-51, Nell was appointed to Camden, Orrick, and Todd’s Chapel (the oldest church in Ray County). Nell’s next appointment was to the Galt Circuit in 1951-52, which included Galt, Fairview, Salem, and Grundy Center. Once again, the churches worked together to update the parsonage with “a new modern cabinet sink with stainless steel top electric pump installed in the kitchen, a new window put in the kitchen, a new glass in the big window in the dining room, drain tile lain, and a new well platform made.” 

Succeeding pastors were undoubtedly appreciative of Nell’s diligence in upgrading parsonages. About the Galt parsonage, the article said, “This is the fourth parsonage that the Rev. Miss Nell Mitchell…has had the privilege of seeing remodeled during her six years as a pastor.” 

Nell’s spiritual gift of evangelism was used in her rural appointments, and she led many revivals in the Methodist churches she served, other Methodist churches, and other denominations. As before, these revivals would often last several weeks. 
When Nell finished the 1952 year on the Galt circuit, an article listing area appointments from the Annual Conference stated that Nell asked for one year’s rest leave. Two weeks later, another article stated that Nell was retiring as a pastor to do part-time evangelistic work.

For the next few years, Nell was listed in the Missouri Conference journals first as a full-time supply pastor and then as a part-time supply pastor. Central Methodist University/Smiley Library archivist John Finley discovered that Nell served in the Mansfield Methodist Church for a few months in the fall of 1954 (possibly due to a leave of absence or illness of the appointed pastor). Nell returned to leading evangelism meetings in Missouri and Oklahoma from 1954-1958.

In 1954, Nell returned from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Grundy Center Methodist Church near Trenton, Missouri, to officiate the wedding of Helen Williams and Richard Reeter. Helen and Richard are members at Liberty (Chillicothe) UMC. 

When I asked about Nell, Helen exclaimed, “Oh, Miss Nell! She was the kindest person I ever knew. If you wanted to know what it meant to be a Christian, you just looked at Miss Nell.” She also recalled that Nell often ate Sunday dinners at the Williams’ home and was just like one of the family, and Helen was the one who shared that Nell married after retirement. She married John Henderson Painter in 1959. Both died in 1968.

What did Nell think when the General Conference extended full clergy rights to women in 1956 — just two years after she retired? Did she take pride in fighting the good fight through the time of partial clergy rights? Did she realize she was a role model for women called to ministry? Nell Mitchell made history in the Missouri Methodist Church.