Clarence Jordan: Celebrating a Conscientious Christian Dissenter (G.W. Carlson)

Today I’m happy to welcome our newest guest blogger, G.W. Carlson. Not long ago I blogged about GW and one of his passions: reading. In today’s post, he talks about another of his passions: Christian commitment to peace and justice. Specifically, he encourages readers to consider attending next month’s Clarence Jordan Symposium, at which he’ll join Charles Marsh, Shane Claiborne, and former president Jimmy Carter in presenting talks on the continuing influence of the founder of Koinonia Farm.

Clarence Jordan
Clarence Jordan (1912-1969) – Koinonia Partners

On September 28-29 a symposium celebrating the life of Clarence Jordan will take place in Americus, Georgia — the home of the Koinonia Farm Community and Habitat for Humanity. Featured speakers will include President Jimmy Carter, Shane Claiborne, Vincent Harding, Charles Marsh, Dolphus Weary, Joyce Hollyday, and a presentation of The Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key. I will be giving a paper entitled “Clarence Jordan as Baptist: Celebrating the Radical Baptist Heritage.”

For those of you who do not know who Clarence Jordan was, let me isolate a few major themes of his radical Baptist heritage. He earned a B.A. in Agriculture from the University of Georgia in 1933 and a PhD in New Testament Greek from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1939. In 1942, after working in an interracial ministry in Louisville, he and his wife Florence joined another Baptist couple, Martin and Mabel Englund, in establishing a Christian farm community in Americus, Georgia, calling it Koinonia. The community emphasized scientific farming, supported interracial relationships, articulated a gospel of Jesus Christ centered on the Sermon on the Mount, and maintained a commitment to “radical” Baptist distinctives.

In 1963, as a junior at Bethel College, I attended a lecture in which Jordan challenged students and faculty to cultivate a “radical” Baptist commitment that included modeling a “koinonia” understanding of the church, valuing an interracial Christian church, and seeking to be peacemakers and reconcilers in today’s world. [Ed. – Here’s the January 1963 issue of the Bethel student newspaper, previewing Jordan’s convocation address on its front page.] He was a great storyteller. After reading from the Greek New Testament he would share stories from his Christian journey or retell the biblical stories as if Christ were ministering in Georgia in the 1950s and 1960s.

By the time of Jordan’s visit to Bethel, the Koinonia experiment had been attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, boycotted by the merchants of the city of Americus, and told by major business and political leaders to leave. The Jordan family and their supporters were excommunicated from the local Baptist church and their children were ostracized at the local schools.

Jordan, The Cotton Patch GospelJordan’s response was to develop a larger support community across the United States, to spread his ideas through the writing of the Cotton Patch Versions of the New Testaments, and to partner with Millard Fuller in the development of a low-income housing ministry. In 1968 Jordan announced the development of the Partnership Farming, expansion of the mail order business, and the creation of Partnership Housing. The latter was to build modest homes with the community and would eventually become Habitat for Humanity.

Jordan died of a heart attack in 1969. His “Cotton Patch” community is still alive and well and continuing to articulate the vision of a Christian community that was significantly influenced by a “radical” Baptist heritage. (For more, see Henlee H. Barnette, Clarence Jordan: Turning Dreams into Deeds.)

Christians in the United States should be truly grateful that the three mainstream movements for civil rights — challenging segregation laws in the courts, using nonviolent protests to demand changes in voting rights, and the desegregation of public facilities — were often led by people of faith who valued a Christian tradition, sought to achieve their results in a nonviolent manner, and honored the idea of the “beloved community.”

Although Clarence Jordan had many friends in the civil rights movement, such as Vincent Harding and Martin Luther King, he argued that one of the most effective ways that the church could respond to the brutalities of segregation was to model a diverse, Christian community that honored the teachings of Christ, especially those found in the Sermon on the Mount.

However, it was tragic that Jordan’s prophetic witness was among the “voices in the wilderness” described by G. McLeod Bryan. It took a long time before the Southern Baptist community would be willing to endorse an interracial church community.  Even recently a Baptist church in Crystal Springs, Mississippi refused to marry an African-American couple in their church facilities and Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Committee, was chastised for his remarks on the Trayvon Martin case. Land eventually retired from his leadership position. On the positive side, Reverend Fred Luter, an African-American pastor of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention this summer.

In my own Baptist community and at Bethel College and Seminary, which comes out of the Swedish Baptist heritage, there was some expression of support for the civil rights movement. In the 1950s and 1960s faculty members like Anton Pearson and David Moberg attempted to challenge the community to engage the civil rights issues.

Bethel president Carl Lundquist invited Martin Luther King to speak on campus in 1960. King was unable to fulfill the assignment because of the demand for his presence in the civil rights activities in the Atlanta area (Diana Magnuson and Kent Gerber discuss this episode in the 2011 issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion), but other civil rights leaders, such as John Perkins, Tom Skinner, Bill Pannell, Gardner Taylor, Leroy Gardner, and Arthur Whitaker, were brought on the Bethel campus to articulate the value of the “beloved community.”  However, civil rights remained a low priority for most members of the Bethel community, and therefore the cries for involvement generally went unanswered until much later in Bethel’s history. [Ed. – G.W. spoke on racial reconciliation in Bethel’s history at this year’s annual Moberg conference; see also his article celebrating the civil rights movement in the inaugural issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion.]

Koinonia in the 1940s
Koinonia in the 1940s – Koinonia Partners

During my forty-four years at Bethel I have developed and frequently taught a class entitled Christian Nonviolence which attempts to explore the theological, historical, and practical implications of peacemaking as a Biblical norm. (See Glen Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, for an introduction to Christian peacemaking.) Clarence Jordan helped to raise many of the core themes for this course, and I have regularly included his sermons on the Good Samaritan, radical discipleship, and Christian peacemaking in the class.

Jordan helped to frame one of the questions which have been the subject of my research and personal Christian journey over the past several decades: What encourages one to be a “faithful Christian disciple” in times of great difficulty and persecution? To answer this question I began also to explore the lives of such people as St. Francis, John Woolman, Amy Carmichael, William and Catherine Booth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Festo Kivengere, Georgi Vins, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Oscar Romero, and Desmond Tutu.

I was able to develop a “paradigm of beliefs” which helps to explain why these individuals often became courageous Christian dissenters and may encourage today’s Christians to do likewise. The paradigm includes the following:

  1. An early identification with people in need or people who are unacceptable to mainstream societal norms.
  2. A serious discontent with the witness of the established Christian church in their community and a desire to recover a more authentic faith.
  3. A desire to follow in the footsteps of Christ and faithfully to live out the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.
  4. A need to develop an alternative faith community to provide a “counter-culture” Christian witness, encourage responsible discipleship, and develop collegial support networks.
  5. A faith journey that integrates Christian spirituality and social and economic justice.
  6. A theological commitment to the “sacredness of life” and the dangers of hedonism and materialism.
  7. A belief in a “servanthood” model of leadership.

(The development of this paradigm was enhanced in the summer of 1985 when I read Philip Hallie’s book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, which tells the story of André and Magda Trocmé’s efforts to hide Jews in Le Chambon, France during World War II. Hallie, a philosopher who studied issues of human depravity, became intrigued with expressions of “human goodness.” He wondered why Protestant children in Le Chambon passed precious pieces of chocolate to a young Jew sitting in a bus ready to be transported to the concentration camps and Amélie, a radical Darbyite, refused to ring the church bell to celebrate the birthday of Marshal Pétain. Richard Unsworth has recently authored a valuable biography of the Trocmés entitled A Portrait of Pacifists: Le Chambon, the Holocaust, and the Lives of André and Magda Trocmé.)

It seems to me that Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia experiment expressed well this “paradigm of beliefs” and the radical Baptist heritage from which it emerged. In my paper at the symposium I plan to explore the value of this “radical Baptist heritage” for Jordan’s life and witness and to understand the implications for today’s church.


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