Rachel Henderlite, theologian, college professor, and ecumenical leader, was born to Rev. James H. and Nelle (Crow) Henderlite on December 30, 1905, in Henderson, North Carolina. She grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina, where she graduated from high school in 1922. She studied for two years at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, then pursued a B.A. in English at Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Georgia. After taking a break to recover from tuberculosis, she finished college in 1928. That year, she began teaching high school English in Belmont, North Carolina, near her hometown. The following year, while resting and assisting her father in his ministry, she decided to pursue a career in biblical education. In 1931 she moved to New York to study at the Biblical Seminary and New York University, from which she received an M.A. in Christian education in 1936. She took her first academic post as dean and professor of Bible at Mississippi Synodical College, Holly Springs, where she stayed until 1938, when she accepted a professorship in Bible at Montreat College, near Black Mountain, North Carolina. After three years she left the college to care for her ailing father and taught Bible in two Charlotte high schools on the side.
When her father died in 1942, she moved to Yale University Divinity School, where she was directed to study Christian ethics. At Yale she studied under American ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr. In 1944 Henderlite began a sixteen-year professorship in applied Christianity and Christian nurture at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, a graduate program especially for women, who were not then ordained by the Presbyterian Church. At this school in Richmond, Virginia, she initiated courses in Christian ethics and wrote two books, Exploring the Old Testament (1945) and Exploring the New Testament (1946). She received her Ph.D. in Christian ethics from Yale University in 1947. After a one-year visiting professorship in Nagoya, Japan, she continued her teaching and theological writing in Richmond. John Knox Press published her most noted book, A Call to Faith, in 1955, then in 1957, her book Paul, Christian and World Traveler. While in Richmond, she helped found the city's first predominantly black Presbyterian church. From 1957 to 1959, while teaching, she served on the Board of Education, Presbyterian Church, U.S., as director of educational research. During the 1950s she also was appointed as the only North American representative to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches meetings on the theology of marriage. Through five years this group met in Europe and composed a document advising pastors on how to counsel interfaith married couples. When Henderlite became director of curriculum development for the Presbyterian Church, U.S., in 1959, she retained her professorial post only one more year. In her new position she revised Presbyterian school curriculum to emphasize applied Christianity. Also, she wrote Forgiveness and Hope for the John Knox Press in 1961 and The Holy Spirit in Christian Education for the Westminster Press in 1964.
Having become involved in social-change efforts, she benefited directly when the Presbyterian Church of the United States ordained her in 1965 at her Richmond church, making her the first woman of her denomination to receive ordination. The next year Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas, offered her a professorial post in Christian education. She accepted and became the first woman to take a full-time faculty position there. From 1966 till 1981 she also took an active role in the Consultation on Church Union, a conference of representatives of ten North American denominations engaged in ecumenical dialogue. In 1977 she began an unprecedented five-year tenure as the group's president, the first woman to serve in that post. She had retired from full-time teaching at Austin Presbyterian Seminary in 1972 but visited students and lectured there for many years afterward. In 1983 she went to New York to receive the Union Medal from Union Theological Seminary, and in 1990 the Presbyterian School of Christian Education established a scholarship in her name. Until her health declined in 1990, Henderlite traveled and read widely. She died of a heart attack in Austin on November 6, 1991. Her remains were donated to the Texas Medical Center in Houston.