Henry S. Ficklin’s Passing Marks the End of an Era (I)

By Ron Halbrook

The death of Henry S. Ficklin marks the end of an era in that period of church history called “the Restoration Movement in America.” Many mourn his passing who may not have stopped to look at it this way: They are more conscious of the loss of a dear friend and brother, as I myself am. More about Ficklin and church history in Part II, but some readers are unacquainted with him and others will want to know the details of his passing.

About an hour’s drive by Interstate 64 from Lexington. Ky., in the eastern part of the state, lies the small town Owingsville. Had we visited there a few years after the War Between the States, we might have walked into the FicklinSaddle Shop and met Uncle Jim. Uncle Jim Ficklin was in business with his nephew Thomas. Tom was the son of Jim’s brother John, a former colonel in the Confederate army who drank and stayed in debt a lot. The industrious Tom Ficklin ran a tannery out in the country.

Not far away at North Middletown, Mary Margaret Young was attending the Patterson Institute and also listening intently to Moses E. Lard’s preaching. She soon obeyed the gospel. “And after she committed her trust to her God and His Son she left it there. There was never any faltering or hesitation in her faith” (Charles L. Ficklin, “Mrs. Thomas Ficklin,” The DeKalk County Herald, Mar. 13, 1924).

Young Thomas Ficklin listened intently to the preaching, of men like Moses E. Lard, J. W. McGarvey, and Winthrop Hopson; he, too, obeyed the gospel and became a man of “spiritual strength.” These preachers so challenged him that he remembered their lessons forty years later; in comparison, other preachers “seemed to him like school boys” (taped interview with Henry S. Ficklin, Aug. 29, 1972). The attitude toward truth and error instilled in him by those early preachers is reflected in his reaction to the suggestion of some women in the Owingsville church. Speaking of two prominent men, they said for the church to succeed, “We need them.” Tom said of such worldly-minded women, “They just need killing, with the gospel sword” (Ibid.).

Tom and Mary married Jan. 28, 1873, in Owingsville, living on the farm and tannery nearby. Ten years later, on Mar. 16, Henry was born. Little did they realize that of the six children they would have, little Henry would share their spiritual interests more than any. Nov. 1 they moved from their farm near Bethel to her uncle Charles Young’s farm just north of Plattsburg (Clinton county), in northwest Missouri. In the spring of 1885 they located on the Nelson farm near King City and remained nearly forty years in Gentry and DeKalb counties. Tom died Dec. 6, 1923, Mary just three months and two days later.

The Ficklins (Mary for certain) were charter members of the Christian Church in King City, Mo. (Charles L. Ficklin, op. cit.). In 1899 Brother Good was preaching at King City when Henry, nearly sixteen years old, obeyed the gospel. Brother Craig baptized him. When he got home that night, he looked out his bedroom window, saw the stars brightly shining, and thought, “Everything is bright in my soul; I have a Savior.” He knelt down and prayed. “I had an Advocate” (taped interview).

Henry S. Ficklin, at 19, with his thirst for knowledge already aroused by reading Ridpath’s History of the World, took the A.B. course at Transylvania in Lexington, Ky. That was in 1902, but he spent the next year at home. Then in Sept. of 1904 he entered the College of the Bible (also in Lexington), preaching his first sermon Jan. 1, 1905, and continuing his studies for four years. Though Transylvania was an “able school” with “a good faculty,” young Ficklin found J. W. McGarvey “a thousand miles above them all” as he diligently pursued the four year program in Sacred History (i.e., Bible) taught by McGarvey. His diligent study is reflected in two notebooks copiously filled, one in the present possession of Gardner Hall, Sr. and the other of A. J. Rollings (both of Athens, Ala.).

Henry especially enjoyed languages, taking Latin under Robert Milligan’s son, Greek under Thomas Benton McCartney (“a brilliant professor”), then later Greek under A. T. Robertson at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as Greek and Hebrew from the University of Wisconsin. Few people knew or would have guessed that he was within reach of a doctorate; all who knew him do know he had no concern for such degrees in themselves-he “counted them dung.” He also taught English literature, at least one term at Morehead State College about 20 miles east of Owingsville.

In the summer of 1910 a mature student, Henry Ficklin attended the University of Wisconsin “intending to become a school principal and preach in needy places in Wisconsin” (Paul K. Williams, Torch, July, 1967). He also attended the second semester in 1912. Occasionally preaching in Canada, he lived there part of the time; the Canadians thought him “a little plain in my preaching” (taped interview).

Brother Ficklin became acquainted with May Kincaid, whose father lived with the Ficklins some and who was somewhat related to the family. Apparently Henry met May while he was visiting in Owingsville (taped interview). In 1915 they were married there in her home. They lived with his parents in Missouri, helping operate the farm and bluegrass seed business. Then, “I told the Lord I was going to preach,” so they had a sale in 1916-hogs going for 610.00 per hundred pounds (Ibid.).

In a short time, little was left. They moved to Owingsville, Ky., in 1917, and May was stricken with phlebitis; Brother Ficklin was soon borrowing money to pay doctors and hospitals. A woman at the hospital sympathized by telling of the Irishman who said, “It’s no disgrace to be poor, but it’s mighty undisconvenient” (Ibid.). May was an invalid most of the time until her death in 1963. (Brother Ficklin remarried two years later, with great confidence in his new wife; he had known her and her family for many years. But she ended up staying with and helping a sister rather than being a true wife to him. Most who knew him will remember his incessant prayer, “Bless thy servant’s wife.” He never showed an ounce of bitterness toward her.)

After preaching for a time at the Owingsville Christian Church, Brother Ficklin saw they had no intention of giving up their innovations. He went .into the highways and byways, literally. Wherever he could gather a group or reach a soul, he taught. He taught in borrowed buildings, stores, homes, and schools. Contacts were made by distributing copies of individual books of the Bible at schools-in the 1930’s at Preston, Mill Creek, Blevins Valley, Chestnut Grove, Peeled Oak, White Sulphur, Forge Hill, See’s, Fossetti, Kendall Springs, Stoops, Moore’s Ferry, Ferguson, Polksville, Olympia, Mud Lick, Upper and Lower Salt Lick, Upper Spenser, Wyoming, Upper and Lower White Oak, Harpers, etc. (Henry S. Ficklin notebook of “Gospel Distribution”).

Brother Ficklin contributed largely to his own support by working in “the Blue Grass business.” He would spend from “six weeks to two months” obtaining the seed for the purpose of resale. Other, smaller ventures were not so successful, but this one was throughout his life.

For instance, on July 28th, 1929, he preached “to a fair crowd at White Oak” on “Going From Church Justified” and “Choose Ye This Day Whom Ye Shall Serve” (“The hottest night I ever preached, I think.”). The next day, “I start to Missouri regretting the interruption from my revival work that this trip necessitates.” Via St. Louis by bus, he reached “Malta Bend” and on the 31st, “I help sack the seed and suffer from that poisonous dust.” Aug. 1st, “I narrowly missed getting hit by a truck on the bridge way.” The 2nd, he was at Malta Bend “waiting for a car. The telephone lady says she understands that I am a preacher ‘or the next thing to it.’ “

On the 3rd he recorded, “We load up the seed . . . . One advantage of the Blue Grass business is that you can get through with it.” The next day he preached at “the M.E. (Methodist Episcopal, RH) Church” and visited “the M.E. Church South…. Malta Bend has 4 Methodist Churches: 2 white and 2 colored.” He visited kinfolks on the 5th and 6th in Maysville, where his brother edited the newspaper, and Kansas City, where his sister lived. After traveling and preaching the lOth12th, he was back in Owingsville for the “Owingsville revival” the 13th-16th, possibly at the Christian Church. “Messages are weak and lacking in courage. Not the gospel.” (All quotations from Henry S. Ficklin’s “Diary Beginning March 29-1929.”)

Those who heard Brother Ficklin preach could certainly set the “telephone lady” at Malta Bend straight about her expression “or the next thing to it.” Brother Ficklin was a gospel preacher. His preaching was Biblical and therefore Christ-centered. It was utterly simple-the real mark of an educated man-and therefore clear. Both in preaching and praying, he always evidenced conviction, earnestness (“Earnest” was a favorite word with him.), and deep spiritual yearning.

His conviction is reflected in his conduct as he lived through two major digressions. When he saw the course of the first digression (missionary societies, instrumental music) could not be changed in Owingsville, he launched out on his own in an effort to sow the pure gospel seed. In the 1950’s, he saw the second digression (institutionalism, recreation, centralization) sweep the nation. Though he had baptized half of the people and given large sums to the work in Owingsville, he was pushed aside. Some “played politics” to move him out of the pulpit. They had tried “to stop me from mentioning institutionalism, but I got up . . . and brought it all in. I was determined not to be quieted” (taped interview). In 1959, he and eleven others started a new work at nearby Mt. Sterling, which still thrives today. Brother Paul Earnhart is carrying on the work in a fine way.

Brother Ficklin’s work was mostly limited to his own area due to his wife’s invalid condition. Yet he spoke at the Freed-Hardeman College lectures in Henderson, Tenn., at least once; at the University of Kentucky Foreign Language Conference in Lexington on Apr. 24, 1959 (“The Preservation of the Hebrew Text of the Old Testament,” printed in the Preceptor beginning with Vol. 8, No. 11 (Sept., 1959)); at the Florida College lectures in Temple Terrace, Fla., on Jan. 26, 1967 (“Reminiscing With McGarvey”); and at the Athens Bible School devotions many times in his last decade.

“. . . he was a man whom age had slowed very little,” preaching more times in 1966 than ever before in his life (Paul K. Williams, op. cit.). Frequent trips were made to North Ala. during his last decade; they began about 1961. Between Apr. 2-12, 1968, this 85 year-old saint preached in Limestone County at Pettusville, Sardis Springs, Reunion, Wooley Springs, Eastside, Market St., Jackson Dr., New Hope, Valley View, and Corinth, a total of thirteen times not counting Athens Bible School devotions, radio, and jail services which were generally included in such itineraries! In 1970, my wife and I fulfilled preaching and teaching appointments he helped arrange for all but two days June 21-July 29. He went with me most of the time, except when he was preaching somewhere himself-and he almost killed me with the visiting pace he had planned during the daytime. I was 24, he was 87! He continued preaching at points from Ohio to Tenn., even in these later years.

He moved in 1965 from his Owingsville house of a half century to Mt. Sterling, due to his remarriage and to be closer to the church there. In 1971, living alone, he moved across from the West Main meeting house. He sold this last house about three years later and began living with Paul Earnhart and Raymond Tipton.

After commending John Clark’s sermon on the Holy Spirit at West Main on Feb. 14, 1974, Brother Ficklin fell in his bedroom at Raymond’s. He had still been alternating at West Main St., Oak Hill, and Kendall Springs; after returning from the Lexington hospital, he preached at West Main once or twice, but finally had to be placed in the Extended Care Facility of Mary Chiles Hospital in Mt. Sterling. Lingering problems from his fall, chest congestion, and old age pulled him down; but nurses reported he continued preaching from his bed. Not long before his death, he preached an especially good lesson in Paul Earnhart’s presence. Only death could still those lips which had delighted to preach Christ for sixty-nine years.

Death stilled his lips, on this side of eternity, June 23, 1974 — the Lord’s Day. The service on Wednesday at Herald and Stuart Funeral Home included scripture reading by Raymond Tipton; three short addresses by Gardner Hall, Sr. (Athens, Ala.), L. J. Nicklas (Akron, Ohio), and A. J. Rollings (Athens, Ala.); prayer by Paul Earnhart. Brother Nicklas emphasized how large a circle of brethren had been drawn into friendship with one another through Brother Ficklin. Preachers and other brethren attended from far and wide. His body was buried next to his beloved wife, May, in the Owingsville cemetery, awaiting the resurrection. A ninety-one year pilgrimage was ended.

“What greater, more meaningful, honor could the Shunamite long ago have bestowed upon Elisha the prophet than by saying, to her husband, even as it is written, 7 perceive that this is a holy man of God which passeth by us continually? . . . Brother Henry S. Ficklin’s earthly body is in its grave this morning, and as one of our own poets has said, `oh, the difference’ to us” (A. J. Rollings, Market St. Bulletin, Athens, Ala., June 27, 1974). To hear this “holy man of God” preach was to know the spiritual power of the gospel. To pray with him leading was to share in seasons of spiritual refreshing. Heaven will indeed be bliss beyond words, for we shall be in the presence of such holy men for eternity-sharing the ages with them in the presence of the Lord himself!

Truth Magazine XIX: 8, pp. 118-120
January 2, 1975