Posted: July 18, 2007 in Stories

I’ve never met Will Campbell, but I find him fascinating. I first heard of him in Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? in a story I’ve told a hundred times since. Earlier this year, I read his most famous book, Brother to a Dragonfly, which, beautifully weaves a bit of autobiography through the tragic story of his relationship with his brother.

Brother to a Dragonfly left me hanging, though. It left Will sort of disillusioned with life in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. I have always thought of the Civil Rights Movement as almost a spiritual shangri-las, a time where following the way of Jesus seemed much more of a real choice. It probably helps that it was in my own backyard. And almost my own lifetime. Yet Will Campbell sees through that façade, too. He moved on to loving the Klan, too.

I received in the mail yesterday what I think is sort of the next chapter in his story, a memoir he titled, Forty Acres and a Goat. I began reading it last night.

I suspect many of my readers wouldn’t like Will Campbell at all. Others might fall in love with him, too. Let me share a brief article about Campbell with you today (about a PBS documentary on his life called God’s Will, a documentary I’d love to get my hands on someday if I only knew how…). This article may whet your appetite for Campbell. Or make you nauseous. Either way, dinner’s served!!!!!!!

Will Campbell, ordained as a Baptist preacher in backwoods Mississippi, was the only white minister present at the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He escorted nine black students through angry mobs at Central High School in Little Rock. He was present at sit-ins, civil rights demonstrations, and strategy meetings with Martin Luther King.

Will Campbell, a graduate of Yale’s divinity school, is an amateur country musician and hardscrabble farmer who sips whiskey with friends who are members of the Ku Klux Klan. He holds all institutions–including the church–in disdain and refuses to pastor even the smallest congregation. He doesn’t even attend church Sunday mornings.

“In all these years I can’t think of one thing I’ve actually, personally, accomplished,” he once wrote.

Yet he is considered by many people to be one of the nation’s most influential spiritual leaders…

Campbell is “a deeply religious man,” President Jimmy Carter says of his friend who chews tobacco and wears cowboy boots. “One who has a great deal of spirit. Calm. Wise. Witty. Eloquent.”

Campbell’s memoir, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” was nominated for a National Book Award. In his 13 books since he has continued writing about race, religion, and community.

Campbell grew up poor in rural Mississippi, and when he preached his first sermon in his community’s church he read from a pulpit Bible that had been presented by the KKK. But he could never embrace his society’s preoccupation with keeping people segregated and groups apart.

“I don’t know how to say this without sounding terribly presumptuous,” he explains, “but I don’t recognize the concept of different kinds of people.”

“Will Campbell is an articulate and authentic witness to what is the best of humanity,” says minister and civil rights activist James Lawson. “He should be one of the models that America lifts up for what it means to be an American. What it means to be a human being.”

“God’s Will” explores Campbell’s life, his efforts to repudiate racism and division, and his work to reach out to civil rights workers and avowed racists alike.

The program includes interviews with the celebrities and writers who are among his friends, such as Tom T. Hall, Waylon Jennings, John Egerton, and Jules Feiffer.

The documentary also shows Campbell working in what he believes the church to be: not a television evangelist’s satellite empire–he calls these people “electronic soul molesters.” And not big buildings with tall steeples and gymnasiums that are open only to members.

“There is a little tavern we go to quite often,” he says, talking about his rural home near Nashville. “I marry the people. Bury the people. Get them out of jail, or try to, and so on. Every one of them, without exception, would be at my house as quickly as they could get there. And I would be at theirs.

“That is church.”

  1. Phyllis says:

    Your post inspired me to learn more about Mr. Campbell. In my search I ran across an article which I found interesting. You may have already seen it, but in case you haven’t, the artile link follows.

  2. Phyllis says:

    I accidentally hit the “Publish Your Comment” button rather than the “Preview” button. Sorry about the typo’s. The full web address is:

  3. Al Sturgeon says:

    YES!!! I had seen that before, but thanks for bringing it back to my attention! I love that selection from Lipscomb, and I love that Campbell hooked up with it during the Civil Rights Movement. I find it sad that so few seemed to hear his voice at the time…

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