Serving Arkansas Baptists since 1901
Arkansas can claim the distinction of having had more separate Baptist newspapers by the same name than possibly any other state convention.
The earliest Arkansas Baptist, established in 1858, was suspended with the outbreak of the Civil War. The second newspaper by this name was started in 1868 and continued for only 10 weeks.
In 1879, another Arkansas Baptist was started. But it changed its name soon afterward to Arkansas Baptist Banner. The date of its demise is not known.
Another Arkansas Baptist came into being in 1887, with the change of the name to The Evangel.
The present Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine (Arkansas Baptist News) began in 1901, after the Arkansas Baptist State Convention renounced the Arkansas Baptist of 1887 as its organ. It was first named The Baptist Advance, the name being changed to Arkansas Baptist in 1933. The addition of Newsmagazine to the title came in January 1960, to give description to the nature of the publication and to distinguish its mail from that of Arkansas Baptist Hospital, which is often addressed as “Arkansas Baptist.”
- Adapted from the book, “Across the Editor’s Desk: The story of the state Baptist papers,” by Erwin L. McDonald, editor of the Arkansas Baptist News from 1957 to 1972.
ABN celebrates 110th birthday
LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Baptist News (ABN) reaches a very special birthday as 2011 comes to an end – that of being the state newspaper for Arkansas Baptists for 110 years.
There were newspapers published for Arkansas Baptists prior to the ABN – which was established as The Baptist Advance by messengers to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC) meeting at First Baptist Church, Paragould, Nov. 15-19, 1901 – but none stood the test of time.
Lacking a statewide publication, Arkansas Baptists in the early 1800s depended on the periodical of a neighboring state, Tennessee, for news about Baptist life. The Baptist (first called the Tennessee Baptist) provided an Arkansas page or department in their publication as late as 1890.
Over the years, numerous state publications came and went throughout Arkansas Baptist convention life.
In 1859, there was the Arkansas Baptist, edited by P.S.G. Watson, which ceased publication during the Civil War. Other short-lived publications included another Arkansas Baptist founded in Little Rock by N.P. Moore, which lasted 10 weeks; Western Baptist, started in 1873 in Searcy, a two-year venture by T.B. Espy and T.P. Boone; Baptist Index, started in Texarkana in 1880; and Arkansas Baptist Banner (originally Arkansas Baptist) started in 1879 in Beebe and later moved to Judsonia.
It was in 1880 that Arkansas Baptists concluded they could not manage without a publication of their own. J.B. Searcy, convention executive secretary, commented on a report to the convention, noting, “We feel the necessity of a state paper to foster our educational, missionary and other vital interests of the state. We can never agree among ourselves what paper published beyond the state we shall adopt as a medium of communication. Yet, we must have such a medium.”
Searcy resigned as Arkansas department editor of the Tennessee Baptist newspaper to become co-editor of a new publication, the Baptist Evangel. The newspaper became the Arkansas Baptist in 1887 and was supported by the churches until 1900, when the convention, meeting at Hope, reprimanded its editor at the time, W. A. Clark, for not supporting the convention program. Following a year of increasing acrimony, messengers at the 1901 convention renounced the newspaper and started the Advance.
The action taken by messengers in 1901 read in part, “We believe that the State Mission Board should arrange to publish a Missionary bulletin to give information and quicken interest in the work.”
The messengers’ action set in motion the founding of the Advance, describing the mission for the publication and the motivation behind its establishment in its motto, “For Christ, the Churches, and Cooperation.” Selling stock subscriptions in the Advance Publishing Company supported the Advance.
W.L. Compere, editor of the Advance from 1919 to 1929, rejoiced at the fact that Arkansas Baptists again had a newspaper which would let “all the facts, principles and issues involved in our convention work be clearly set before our readers.”
In 1902, every issue of the Advance carried ads for Kimball pianos and organs, with advertising copy stating they were “the most renowned instruments in the world.”
When the church family plan was adopted in 1904, the price of an annual subscription was about $2. Today, the cost of the ABN’s comparable plan, the Every Resident Family Plan, is $7.75 per year for the print edition or $4 for the digital edition.
Though endorsed by convention leaders, the Advance struggled financially for many years. E. Glenn Hinson’s 1979 history of Arkansas Baptists attributes the difficulty to the fact that Arkansas had too few literate people to assure a large circulation.
ABN editors over the years represented the convention during times of legislative activism. For example, in 1911, the convention formed a statewide organization of Baptist temperance forces to advocate statewide prohibition of alcohol. The next year they voted to send E.J.A. McKinney, editor of the Advance, to lobby in Washington “in interest of the Sheppard-Kenyon Bill, which proposes to prohibit the shipment of liquor into dry territory.” Cash and pledges of $74.80 were collected for McKinney’s trip. Arkansas became a dry state in 1913.
By 1912, the Advance Publishing Company was $6,000 in debt, and the directors were willing to transfer their stock to the state convention and help get other stockholders to do the same. The convention agreed to assume the debt and placed the newspaper’s future in the hands of the newly-formed Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC) Executive Board.
The inauguration of the Southern Baptist 75-Million Campaign in 1919 helped the financial situation of both the convention and the newspaper – for a time.
Financial hardships continued as Arkansas Baptists dealt with the effects of the Great Depression. By 1932, the financial situation was grim. At a meeting of the Executive Board late that year, the board considered closing all departments with the exception of the executive secretary’s office. At this time, the Advance was without an editor, and at the meeting, J.I. Cossey, pastor of First Baptist Church, Searcy, was nominated. Cossey had pleaded for a chance to keep the newspaper going. During Cossey’s tenure as editor, he accepted chickens and produce in exchange for subscriptions.
In 1933, the Advance was once again renamed the Arkansas Baptist, which historian J.S. Rogers said “appealed to our people.”
Circulation of the newspaper increased dramatically in the 1940s and stood at nearly 60,000 in 1971 when Erwin L. McDonald retired as editor. McDonald was beginning his tenure at the Arkansas Baptist during the Little Rock desegregation crisis in 1957. At the time, McDonald took unpopular positions on the editorial page several times. For example, prior to the integration of Little Rock schools, McDonald argued that a simultaneous revival crusade jointly planned and promoted by white and blacks in the Pulaski County Baptist Association “points in the right direction.”
Under the leadership of J. Everett Sneed in the 1980s, the ABN became an agency of the state convention and began operating under its own board of directors elected by messengers to the annual meeting.
With technology changing rapidly, the ABN purchased its own typesetting equipment in 1983, which allowed the staff to do its own in-house production, offset camera and press work.
Sneed, who holds the longest tenure of any ABN editor at 20 years, found himself in the crossfire of opposing movements of the Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It was during the inflationary times of the 1980s the decision was made to change the ABN mail rate from second to third class and reduce the number of issues published annually from 48 to 26.
Following Sneed’s death in office at the age of 61, editor emeritus Erwin L. McDonald wrote, “Everett and I saw the Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine as having a strategic and unique place, a constant and continuing ministry of service to local churches and to the convention. The state Baptist paper is to help all of us to be the best possible stewards in carrying out the Great Commission, winning people to Christ, and ‘teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you …’ The editor and paper can be successful in achieving this great purpose only to the extent that they have the support of the convention, the churches, and individual Baptists.”
Trennis Henderson, who was serving as associate editor of Missouri’s Word&Way, succeeded Sneed as editor and held the position from 1992 to 1999.
Charlie Warren, then director of public relations at Oklahoma Baptist University, was elected editor in September 1999, following Henderson’s resignation to become editor of the Kentucky Western Recorder.
Warren said upon being named editor, “With God’s help, the assistance of a great staff, and the support of Arkansas Baptists, we will attempt to produce the best Baptist news publication to be found anywhere.”
Warren continued the ABN’s march into the future in September 2010 with the establishment of a digital edition named the ABN Now.
Following Warren’s retirement in December 2010, the ABN undertook a number of initiatives in 2011 under the leadership of its new editor, Tim Yarbrough, who had previously served as director of church relations at the North American Mission Board.
Changes included a revision of the newspaper’s design; the redesign of the ABN logo; adoption of a new slogan, “Telling the story of Arkansas Baptists since 1901”; new special pages and sections; increased Arkansas Baptist-centric news; more color; and shorter and more concise stories.
A brochure, “Communication: A Family Tradition,” published in 1984 by the ABN staff, aptly summed up the journey the newspaper has traveled during the years of its existence. It said, “Communication through the state paper in the present was made possible by the struggles and day-to-day labor of some far-sighted Baptists in Arkansas. The past was not always easy and the future is not guaranteed. Challenges lie ahead and economic ones are among them. Yet, Arkansas Baptists have shown they can meet such challenges.”
Jon Stubblefield, the first president of the ABN board, acknowledged the challenge of continuing the medium of communication for Arkansas Baptists but came to this conclusion: “We must maintain a responsible, free channel of communication with grassroots Baptists.”
The ABN exists today due to the faithful support of Arkansas Baptists throughout the generations. While not all churches or members subscribe to the newspaper, all ABSC-member churches support the ABN with gifts given through the Cooperative Program, which makes up 47 percent of the ABN’s operating budget.
In 2012 and for many years to come, the ABN and staff look forward to telling the story of God among His people known as Arkansas Baptists.
Sources for this article included various ABSC annuals; “A History of Baptists in Arkansas 1818-1978” by E. Glenn Hinson; “Across the Editor’s Desk: The Story of State Baptist Papers” by Erwin L. McDonald; “A System & Plan: Arkansas Baptist State Convention 1848-1998” by C. Fred Williams, S. Ray Granade and Kenneth M. Startup; and the “Communication: A Family Tradition” brochure, published in 1984 by the Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine.