A chronicler’s daughter shares memories
Printer’s ink flowed through the veins of Lavella Hicks McMillan…
With unbridled enthusiasm, Olan Hicks launched into the first front-page news story in The Christian Chronicle, a brand-new publication for Churches of Christ dated June 2, 1943.
“The most intensive campaign ever staged by members of the church is planned for the summer in Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah, bailiwick of the Mormon church,” Hicks wrote.
The preacher-turned-newspaper- founder highlighted the upcoming debate between Otis Gatewood, a renowned missionary in the fellowship, and Kenneth E. Farnsworth, a member of a Quorum of the Seventy in the Mormon church.
Paul Southern and Harvey Childress, ministers for Churches of Christ, would do two weeks of campaigning before the debate.
The topic was appropriate, perhaps, since the Latter-Day Saints played a small role in the Chronicle’s genesis three-quarters of a century ago. Hicks, a native of Sulphur, Okla., attended Abilene Christian College in Texas, where “the missionary spirit was alive and well,” said Lavella Hicks McMillan, one of his four children. “He had grown up with a really spiritually minded mother, and it all combined to make him mission-oriented.”
He earned a bachelor’s in journalism and a master’s in English from the University of Texas in Austin and preached for Churches of Christ across the state. One day, on a walk, he spotted a copy of the Deseret News, a Mormon newspaper. It reminded him of his longtime desire for a similar publication for Churches of Christ.
“He wanted a newspaper like the Christian Science Monitor,” said his son, Mark, “not a doctrinal paper … but a paper for and about the news of the church, especially in support of mission efforts.”
Hicks shared the idea with Hulen Jackson, a friend and fellow Texas minister who immediately asked Hicks to sign him up — and became the Chronicle’s first subscriber.
A handful of other subscribers followed, committing the $2 per year fee. Hicks assembled a team of reporters spread across the U.S. At age 35, he launched the Chronicle as a weekly publication. Its first issue included ads of congratulations from the Preston Road Church of Christ in Dallas, G-P Rubbing Alcohol, Braden’s Cake Shop and The Meggs Co., which sold Diamond Tires and Exide Batteries.
“The mailing room was our front porch,” Mark Hicks said. “I was 5 years old, and all I can remember clearly is that there were bowls of wheat paste and brushes, papers, addressing labels and a half-dozen people scattered around there once a week.”
McMillan was only 2 when the paper made its debut. She remembers watching her father proofread the galleys from which printers produced the newspaper’s pages.
“Daddy had a knack for reading it upside down and backwards from the lines of metal type,” she said. “He could read the backwards type produced by the linotype faster than I could read the correct way from a book. “After the paper was printed, the folder did its job. Then the person operating the Addressograph, usually mom, would take the paper and print the name and address of the recipient. … I remember sitting up on the bags of papers to make the ride to the post office each Wednesday evening. We’d be so tired and would then eat a quick supper and go to church that night.”
The Chronicle wasn’t the first news publication for Churches of Christ and was not intended to be “in competition with any other paper in the church today,” Hicks wrote in the first issue.
The newspaper did not follow the model of many of its 19th century predecessors associated with the Stone-Campbell Movement, also called the Restoration Movement, which advocated simple, Bible-based Christianity. Publications such as Millennial Harbinger, The Christian-Evangelist, Firm Foundation and Gospel Advocate included teaching pieces by theologians including Alexander Campbell, James Harvey Garrison, Austin McGary and David Lipscomb.
In 1909, evangelist W.T. Moore coined the phrase “editor/bishop,” which “referred to the informal power that editors of journals could and did wield in the absence of a more formal, denomination-wide authority structure,” said Doug Foster, professor of church history and director of the Center for Restoration Studies at Hicks’ alma mater, now Abilene Christian University.
Although Churches of Christ have no formal hierarchy and individual congregations are autonomous, the writings of scholars such as Lipscomb and B.C. Goodpasture have served an informal function of teaching, guiding, disciplining and nurturing the fellowship’s congregations, Foster said.
“My impression of The Christian Chronicle is that it was intended to be more of a networking and news-reporting paper rather than a paper to exercise such oversight,” Foster said. “The language of Olan Hicks concerning standing for right and truth seems to me to have been intended to assure readers that the paper was going to be sound — and thereby garner support and avoid opposition for the effort rather than intentionally steering the churches in certain ways.”
While Hicks didn’t set out to influence Churches of Christ beyond encouraging evangelism, the publication did play an agenda-setting function similar to the role played by daily newspapers, said Richard Hughes, an author and longtime researcher of religion and culture.
“By faithfully reporting the news, The Christian Chronicle has done several things,” said Hughes, a scholar-in-residence at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. “First, it has determined what counts as news and what doesn’t and in that sense fits into the editor/bishop category. “At the same time, by proclaiming the news about Churches of Christ, the Chronicle has by all means played a role in unifying our fellowship.
“I think, for example, of George Whitefield in the early days of the Great Awakening. He functioned, as it were, as the ‘newspaper’ for the colonies since, as he preached up and down the eastern seaboard, he brought news from other places where he had preached. And by making folks aware of what was happening in other areas, he served as a unifier for the colonies.”
For his part, Hicks never aspired to such a role, Lavella McMillan said.
“Daddy was the most unassuming person you would ever hope to meet — none of that editor/bishop stuff for him,” she said. “As for his vision for the Chronicle, he just wanted to let people everywhere know what was going on in any place where Christ had been preached. He believed that the Chronicle would awaken people to the need all over the earth for Christ’s message of salvation.”
As World War II ended and the paper’s circulation grew, friends suggested that Hicks move the operation to Abilene. The family set up the Hicks Printing Company in a building near the intersection of Plum and North 13th streets. In the years that followed, Hicks continued to publish reports of evangelism and mission efforts in the postwar era.
Bailey McBride, a former editor of the Chronicle who has served the publication for more than 30 years, said that reading the newspaper’s earliest issues “reveals that Hicks played a powerful role in setting the agenda for churches to grow, reach out of the United States and utilize media (radio and then television) to teach about salvation and to publicize Churches of Christ.”
Despite the Chronicle’s popularity, Hicks struggled to keep it funded. A small group of businessmen offered to help and bought 51 percent of the publication, McMillan said. Soon, the financiers took over most of the newspaper’s operations and forced Hicks out. His final issue as editor was March 4, 1954.
“Daddy nearly had a nervous breakdown when the paper was taken from him,” his daughter said, “but he had needed financial support. … He was in such anguish but didn’t want to let us kids know what was going on.”
His friends and family encouraged him. His sister, in a letter, joked “that he would enjoy working with people rather than just printing presses,” McMillan said. The family moved to San Antonio and then to Henderson, Tenn., where Hicks joined the faculty of Freed-Hardeman College, now University. He taught Bible, Greek, church history and Christian evidences. Eventually, his daughter became one of his students in a Bible course.
“I just barely passed,” she recalled “He didn’t want anyone thinking that he was partial to any of his own kids.”
Hicks continued to advocate for missions in the U.S. and abroad, launching an Evangelistic Forum at Freed-Hardeman. If a biography were ever to be written about him, his son Mark suggested the title “The Missionary Who Stayed Home.”
Hicks died Sept. 8, 1963, at age 55.
“We seriously doubt that the brotherhood in general is aware of the serious loss sustained in the death of Olan Hicks,” wrote the editors of Firm Foundation, who hailed him as the father of both the religious newspaper and “the tremendous upsurge of worldwide missionary interest.”
“It is an odd but common thing that men who found movements are more often than not shuffled out of them, and few live to see them bloom,” the editors wrote. “Such was the case with Olan. He spent the last of his too-few years as an outstanding teacher of Bible and of church history in one of our colleges.
“It is our personal feeling that in history he will go down alongside Campbell, McGary and Lipscomb in the field of journalism, and in world evangelism someone will still have to come along that can be put down beside him.”
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