Will D. Campbell: A Radical Baptist Peacemaker (G.W. Carlson) – part 1

Our favorite guest eulogist, G.W. Carlson, is back to pay tribute to another member of his cloud of witnesses: the Baptist minister and civil rights activist Will Campbell, who died earlier this month. In the first of a two-part post, G.W. characterizes Campbell as a “radical Baptist” influenced by Anabaptists.

Will Campbell with Guitar
University of Southern Mississippi Libraries

On June 4 I received an email from my friend Ted Lewis informing me that Will Campbell had died. He had received information from Richard Goode, whose book with Campbell, Crashing the Idols: the Vocation of Will D. Campbell, is one of the last of Campbell’s efforts of “truth-telling.” The core message of Campbell was that the world is “already reconciled” to God through Jesus Christ and we are proclaimers of that gospel of reconciliation.

In the class on Christian Nonviolence that I teach at Bethel University, I try to isolate some conscientious Christian dissenters, two of whom are Southern Baptist writers who challenged the segregation of the South through engaging in ministries of reconciliation: Clarence Jordan and Will D. Campbell. (Click here for GW’s earlier essay on Clarence Jordan.) The preeminent three themes of Campbell came in a reading of his book, Providence, at a Baptist Peacemakers Conference in which he shared the stage with Ken Medema. It is a powerful reading in which he defines aspects of the history of one square mile in Mississippi.

The first reading includes a discussion that this is God’s world and we humans need to take responsibility for how it is used. The second reading explores the forced migration of the Choctaw Indians through the lives of two young men who were friends. The young Indian lost his life in the swampland as he was among the many who died.

Finally, there is a reading about the liberation of the slaves. They had read the Emancipation Proclamation. The freed slaves asked the extremely large owner of the plantation: “What are we going to do?” The owner replied: “I don’t know but we’ll do something.”

It is clear that Campbell had an answer to the question. He wished for the “beloved community,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. later articulated it. What saddened him was that the southern churches often answered it by “establishing a forced, coercive segregation.” Campbell was appalled by the manifestation of this “oppressive” system, which violated every principle of God’s word. For him, the God of the Bible championed the principle that all people are deemed equal because they are part of God’s creation.


Campbell, Brother to a DragonflyWill Campbell was born in 1924 in Amite County, Mississippi. He joined the army in 1942 and was a combat medic in the South Pacific in World War II. When Will returned home he earned a degree in English from Wake Forest College in 1950 and graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1952. After serving two years in a small Baptist Church in Taylor, Louisiana, he took his first controversial assignment as a chaplain at the University of Mississippi. He was forced to leave this post because of his identification with the civil rights movement.  Campbell is also known for his activity with the Committee of Southern Churchmen and the journal Katallegete. The journal’s title refers to the biblical concept of reconciliation, a term that becomes the essence of Campbell’s understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In 1977 his Brother to a Dragonfly was a National Book award finalist; it became one of the major efforts to chronicle the human costs of racism and the contradictions of the Christian life in the segregated South. Campbell went on to pen a number of significant books that included two major works of fiction: The Glad River (1982) and Cecelia’s Sin: A Novella (1983). Several nonfiction works deal with issues of civil rights from a Christian perspective: Race and the Renewal of the Church (1962), Forty Acres and a Goat (1986) The Convention: A Parable (1988), Providence (1992), The Stem of Jessie: The Costs of Community at a 1960s Southern School (1995), And Also With You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma (1997), Soul Among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg Preacher (1999), and A Black Politician’s Journey to the House: Robert G. Clark’s Story (2003).

One of the more interesting aspects of Campbell’s life was his relationship to Doug Marlette’s cartoon character Rev. Will B. Dunn in the comic strip Kudzu. The name Will B. Dunn came from the phrase “thy will be done,” which were the words spoken by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Marlette modeled the character, at least in clothing and facial features, on Will Campbell. Dunn sometimes conformed to the stereotype of a Southern Baptist preacher but also was frequently sarcastic and eccentric in his views about the world around him. Marlette’s son, Andy, honored Campbell with a comic strip featuring Will B. Dunn saying “Amen” and holding the Bible at Campbell’s grave.

In 2000 Campbell received the National Endowment for the Humanities medal from President Bill Clinton. The life and ideas of Will D. Campbell were developed in a PBS documentary entitled God’s Will and narrated by Ossie Davis. Among those included in the documentary are Jimmy Carter, John Lewis, Jules Feiffer, and Waylon Jennings.

Campbell as a Radical Baptist Influenced by Anabaptism

When one evaluates the significance of Will Campbell it is important to look at three themes.

First, he viewed himself as a radical Baptist who was greatly influenced by the witness of the Anabaptist heritage. Will Campbell tells a story of his experience attempting to get through security at the airport. A close friend took the planks of an old barn and turned them into a beautiful cane. Campbell thought it was a fine metaphor for the “Gospel — taking something rotten and making something beautiful of it.” One day he was going through airport security with his cane and was told that he needed to go back and put the cane on the roller. He put it on the roller and then asked for the cane back so he could walk again through security. The security guard told him to come through the upright and get the cane. The following was the conversation:

I said, “No, no. If you don’t mind bring it back to me. Now I have done what you asked me to do so will you do what I’m asking you to do?”

He said, “Mister, can you walk without that cane?” By then people were backed up behind me clearing their throats, ’bout to miss their airplane don’cha know.

I said, “We don’t pay you to ask medical questions. That’s a different specialty. They’re called physicians. Just bring the cane back.” He was getting mad and I was somewhat out of sorts myself. When I got home and told my wife about it she accused me of being mildly in the grape but I wasn’t. Just vexed.

Finally he said, “Mister, if you want your cane you’re going to have to come down here and get it.”

Campbell, Soul Among LionsI said, “All right. Whatever you say.”

Then I got down on my belly and crawled the length of the roller. With that people were hissing and booing him. “… Making that poor old man crawl to get his walking cane.” Then, with feigned caducity I pushed myself up and with a palsied hand got the cane, gave it a sassy little twirl and walked on down the corridor, leaving him standing there to face the crowd. 

My wife said, “Do you want to get hijacked?” Where in the Sam Hill would they take us today? L.A.? “Well,” she said, “Why do you do things like that?”

”Because,” I said, “I’m a Baptist!! I come from a long line of hell-raisers. I was taught that I wasn’t a robot, that I was a human being with a mind, capable of reason, entitled to read any book, including the Bible, and interpret it according to the ability of the mind I was given. That’s why I do things like that.”

Campbell then asked: “What happened to those Baptists? Where are those people who were drowned in the Amstel River, tied on ladders and pushed in burning brush heaps because they believed in and practiced freedom of conscience; because they believed in total, total separation of church and state; because they were so opposed to the death penalty that they wouldn’t serve on juries; because they would not go to war, any war, for church or state, would not baptize their babies, not so much for doctrinal reasons but because they saw it as enrollment by the state, a way of the state maintaining control of the faithful. For those offenses they were hunted down like rabbits by armed horsemen.

Where are they now? What happened?

It’s a long way from that to a civil magistrate standing with a wall-sized American flag in the background — a George Bush, a Dan Quayle, an Oliver North — spewing forth the most un-Baptistic nationalistic rubbish and receiving frenzied, rabid, fanatical cheers and applause from thirty thousand alleged Baptists-Great God Almighty!!”  (Will Campbell, “There Is Hope,” Christian Ethics Today, February 3, 2011)

Campbell, The Glad RiverThe Baptist Joint Committee recognized the “Baptistic commitments” of Will Campbell when they published two quotes from a Wittenburg Door interview after the re-release of his novel, The Glad River. Campbell said this:

I think that Baptist heritage and history have been so badly waylaid and hijacked in recent years, and so scandalously politicized, that most who call themselves Baptist — I speak here of my own Southern Baptists — have no idea where they came from.

I know who Isaac Backus and John Leland were. I know that they were Baptists of the Colonies, and the First Amendment to the Constitution was their idea and that without them the notion of separation of Church and State, that notion that is being so dangerously threatened by the revisionists, would not have been. And I know who Roger Williams was. The Baptist hijackers want Church and State to be one, and they are wrong. But, regrettably, they are prevailing.

In the second part of this essay, GW will explore the meaning of redemption, reconciliation, and social justice for Campbell.

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