Will D. Campbell: A Radical Baptist Peacemaker (G.W. Carlson) – part 2

Today G.W. Carlson concludes his two-part tribute to Will D. Campbell, the minister, writer, and activist who died earlier this month. His first post concluded with one major theme in Campbell’s life and work: his understanding of what it meant to be a Baptist, as influenced by the Anabaptist tradition. GW continues with two more themes before concluding…

Redemption and Reconciliation

Second, Campbell believed strongly in the theology of redemption and reconciliation. He was asked by his friend P. D. East, a flamboyant editor of a Mississippi newspaper, to define the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ in ten words or less. Campbell eventually replied, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” Campbell’s friend Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopalian seminarian, was shot at a grocery store. He had gone there with two students after having been released from prison for civil rights activity. The storeowner called the deputy Thomas Coleman, who shot Daniels as he came out of the store.

Campbell was visiting his friend East when he learned of his friend’s death. The editor asked, “Let’s see if your definition of faith can stand the test. Was Jonathan a bastard?” Campbell was still in shock and deeply grieving for his friend. Mainly to get East to shut up, Campbell admitted that Jonathan was a bastard. “Was Thomas a bastard?” East asked. It was easy enough to agree to that.

Then East pulled his chair around, put his bony hand on Campbell’s knee and, staring directly into Campbell’s glistening eyes, whispered, “Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves most?” It was the turning point of Campbell’s life. “Suddenly everything became clear,” he recalls in Brother to a Dragonfly. “I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter.”

He was laughing at himself,

At twenty years of a ministry which had become, without my realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication. An attempted negation of Jesus, [a ministry] of human engineering, of riding the coattails of Caesar … of looking to government to make and verify and authenticate our morality, of worshipping at the shrine of enlightenment and academia, of making an idol of the Supreme Court, a theology of law and order and of denying not only the Faith I professed to hold but my history and my people – the Thomas Colemans. (Lawrence Wright, “The First Church of Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” Rolling Stone, December 13-27, 1990)

Will D. Campbell
University of Southern Mississippi Libraries

Thereafter, Campbell not only found himself ministering to the leaders and activists of the civil rights movement, but he also spent much time with members of the racist communities. It was his belief that “If you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love them all.” He became known for preaching to those who opposed integration as well as supporting those who worked to break down racial barriers. His belief that Christ died for bigots as well as civil rights activities brought him into contact with people like James Earl Ray, who was in prison for the assassination of Campbell’s friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Campbell’s famous book Brother to a Dragonfly was an elegy to his brother, who had died after serious years of alcoholism and drug addiction. It was a memoir that exhibited some of the “brutal” experiences of the civil rights movement alongside a hope.

A story is told about a young priest from New Jersey who wanted to become a disciple of Will Campbell. He phoned Campbell and said he wanted to come down South and join Campbell’s ministry because he felt called to do something important with his life.

“Where are you now?” Campbell asked.“I’m at a pay phone in Newark,” the priest replied. “Is it one of those glass booths?”

“Yes, it is,” said the puzzled priest.

“Are there any people out there, or are the streets deserted?”

“There are lots of people.”

“Well, son,” said Campbell, “that’s your ministry. Go to it.” (Wright, “The First Church of Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer”)

Social and Economic Justice

Campbell, Forty Acres and a GoatThird, Campbell was intentionally committed to social and economic justice, endorsing a strong belief in reconciliation and equality. Campbell began his civil rights activities while chaplain at the University of Mississippi. He left the campus amid threats of death over his challenges to segregation. Campbell was a civil rights activist for the National Council of Churches from 1956 to 1963. He joined the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis and other civil rights luminaries in historic confrontations across the South.

  • He was the only white minister among about sixty pastors invited to attend the meeting in Atlanta where King laid the foundations for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.
  • He was one of the four people who escorted the black students who integrated the Little Rock, Arkansas public schools in 1957.
  • He joined the Freedom Riders who worked to integrate buses in Alabama in 1961.
  • He was with King for the march on Birmingham in 1963.
  • He was with King for the march on Selma, Alabama in 1965.

The brutality of the southern police and mobs was difficult for Will Campbell. He, like many throughout the nation, was stunned by the manner in which the protesters were met with the snarling police dogs and high-pressure water hoses. He observed that if the water hits you right, “the pressure from a fire hose can break your back…I remember seeing adults and children hit and rolling along the sidewalk like pebbles at high tide.”

What most appalled Campbell was the many ways in which many of the churches in the south were unwilling to engage the forces of segregation. He accused the Southern Protestant churches, and in particular the Baptist church communities, of “standing silent in the face of bigotry.”

He also opposed the Vietnam War, spoke out against the death penalty and supported the movements for the restoration of rights for Native Americans. Former president Jimmy Carter suggested that “Brother Will, as he was called by so many of us who knew him, made his own indelible mark as a minister and social activist in service to marginalized people of every race, creed and calling.”


In conclusion it must be said that Will Campbell was above all a person who loved people and worked at the Christian mission of reconciliation. Gordon Stewart, a Minnesota pastor and commentator for Minnesota Public Radio, provided a wonderful summary of Campbell’s life and missions:

He confused his critics – first the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. There was only one team, and that was the family of ALL God’s children everywhere. Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values. Compassion led him to campaign for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, and compassion led him to sip whiskey with the cross-burners in the rocking chairs on their front porches. His was a ministry of reconciliation, a living, idiosyncratic expression, a bold declaration of the biblical Gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own Self.

I am writing this tribute while in Georgia visiting family. I had the opportunity to read Will Campbell’s Soul Among Lions. He begins the book with a story that provides some hope that the “beloved community” is still possible. He writes:

Campbell, Soul Among LionsStill we hear talk of despair over racial divisions and teenage crime. There is much to warrant concern, but are there not also promising signs we sometimes overlook? An incident at our rural community recently gave me hope. Two years ago our nearest neighbors, a couple from what is called the blue collar class, experienced a grim tragedy. Their teenage grandson was murdered by his mother, who also killed herself.

This past Christmas Eve, when the grandmother entered the cemetery for her weekly pilgrimage, she saw a young black male standing near the grandson’s tomb. She did not recognize him. His dress and bearing would have frightened some, suggesting to them felonious intent. He held something in his hand and moved toward the woman as she approached. What he held was not an Uzi, not a Saturday night special, not a knife. It was a long-stemmed rose, shimmering in the winter’s chilly mist. With a smiling greeting, he offered her the rose, and together they leaned down and placed it on the grave.

“I come here often,” he said. “Matt was my best friend at school.”

An elderly white woman of the yeomanry and a young black man of the urban poor, in solemn accord in a country graveyard. Mourning, loving, remembering. Together. Perplexed, but not despairing.

We shall overcome? Only in ways like that. (Campbell, Soul Among Lions, pp. 1-2)

We thank you, Brother Will, for your commitment to an understanding of “radical discipleship.” We thank you for challenging effectively  the forces of racism and for establishing a Biblical understanding of the church as a “counter-cultural community.”

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