Tribute to Will D. Campbell

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 23, 2013

Amos 5:18-24 ESV

I was saddened to learn earlier this month of the death of Will D. Campbell—Baptist preacher, civil rights activist, and celebrated southern writer.  Campbell died on June 3rd in Nashville at the age of 88 from complications of a stroke he suffered in 2011.  I first met Will Campbell in the early 1990s at a writers’ workshop I attended in Franklin, Tennessee.  For a few years, my path crossed Will Campbell’s path numerous times at various writers’ events.  And on a summer day in 1993, or there about,  it was my distinct pleasure to pay Will a visit in his writer’s cabin out back of his Mt. Juliet home and have lunch with him and pick his brain at a nearby greasy spoon. 

Will was an unconventional preacher.  He has been described as a “Maverick Minister” and “renegade preacher.”  Campbell was somewhat of an anomaly.  There probably has not been another like him anywhere.  Born in Amite County, Mississippi, in 1924, to cotton farmers, he grew up in the Mississippi back country of segregated schools, churches, and old country stores where racial bigotry was the order of the day.  Campbell was ordained as a Baptist preacher by his local congregation at the age of seventeen.  He joined the Army in 1942 and served as a combat medic in the South Pacific during World War II.  After receiving a degree in English from Wake Forest College, he graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1952 and spent two short years as pastor of a small Baptist church in Taylor, LA, from 1952-1954, which only served to convince him that he was not cut out to be a traditional church pastor.  From there he moved to the University of Mississippi where he took a position as director of religious life and college chaplain.  But this stint lasted only two years as well.  He resigned in 1956 in part because of the hostility he received (including death threats) because he was a supporter of racial integration.  One account has it that he was fired as university chaplain for playing ping-pong with a black janitor.  Campbell was destined to become a maverick minister without a church who presided at hundreds of weddings, baptisms and funerals in homes, hospitals, and cemeteries among the likes of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.  On a lighter note, some of you may remember the comic strip “Kudzu.”  It was one of my all-time favorite comics.  Will Campbell was the inspiration and model for “Kudzu’s” character, the Rev. Will B. Dunn.

Campbell’s experiences led him into civil rights activism.  After leaving Ole Miss, he went to work as a race-relations troubleshooter for the National Council of Churches.  Campbell was the only white person invited by Dr. Martin Luther King to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1957.  Campbell was one of four who helped escort nine black students through angry crowds in an attempt to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.  He counseled and accompanied Freedom Riders and participated in the lunch counter sit-ins.  In 1963, Campbell joined Dr. King’s boycotts, sit-ins and marches in Birmingham.  Campbell was with the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But in living out social justice Campbell, went further than most and met criticism for some of the stands he took.  He believed and preached that Christ died for bigots as well as the devout.  His beliefs led him to drink whiskey with members of the Ku Klux Klan and visit James Earl Ray in prison after Ray assassinated Campbell’s friend, Dr. King, in 1968.  A now famous line that Campbell stated over and again is “If you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love ‘em all.”  By “crossing the racial divide” like he did, Campbell was way ahead of his times.  Diane Nash, who helped lead Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins, said of Campbell, “He was a person committed to social justice when there were relatively few southern white people who were courageous enough to admit they believed in racial justice.”  And Andrew Cohen, writing of Campbell in the Atlantic, described him as “a civil rights activist unlike any other.”  He fought injustice tirelessly, actually living that great admonition of the prophet Amos that was a rally cry during the Civil Rights Era rather than just talking about it: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Campbell will long be remembered for the extensive writings that he left behind.  In all, Campbell wrote around 30 books, published numerous articles, and delivered many speeches and sermons.  A few of the books he wrote include Race and the Renewal of the Church; Forty Acres and a Goat; Brother to a Dragonfly, (part autobiography, part elegy for Campbell’s brother who died following years of alcoholism and drug addiction, and part history of the Civil Rights Movement); and The Convention: A Parable, an allegory in which a woman is elected as President of the Southern Baptist Convention, based on the conflict between the moderates and fundamentalists within the Southern Baptist Convention. His most popular book probably is Brother to a Dragonfly, and if you want to look for one of Campbell’s books, that is the one you probably should look for.  When I published my first book in 1999, Will Campbell was one of the two southern writers I mentioned in the Acknowledgments for the inspiration he had provided me in my own aspirations to be a writer.

In a short video produced by the Nashville Tennessean newspaper, John Siegenthaler stated of Campbell, “He was just a do-gooder.  Wherever he saw a problem, he’d go and try to do good.”  And in that same video, fellow Civil Rights activist James Lawson celebrated Campbell as “an articulate and authentic witness to what is the best of humanity.  He should be one of the models that America lifts up.”  As I said earlier, Will Campbell was one who actually lived the principle of justice as admonished by the best of the Hebrew prophets and by Jesus.  Though radical in his approach, Will Campbell was authentically Christian in the way he put his faith into action.  As someone said of him, he “went to great lengths to serve all within reach of his church without a steeple.”  Will D. Campbell was one of those giants among men.

That summer day twenty years ago, when I sat in that Mt. Juliet diner with Will Campbell sharing lunch, I posed the question to him, “What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?”  And Will uttered a three-word answer: “Keep at it!”  That’s all I could get out of him.  I am inclined to think that Will Campbell would give the same advice that he gave about writing to trying to be true to the preaching life, or to working for social justice, or being an authentic follower of Jesus: Keep at it!  The work of the preacher in trying to apply biblical truth to contemporary issues; the work of all of us in seeing that justice is done; and the pathway to discerning what it means to be an authentic follower of Jesus in our day will never be finished.  We must keep at it!  And the life, work, and writings of Will D. Campbell serve as an inspiration for all of us to do so.  To keep at it!  Thank you, Will.  Amen.

Sources Cited:

I have not tried to cite every source for much of the information, quoted and paraphrased, contained in this sermon.  There is no attempt to plagiarize. The following sources were drawn from:

Andrew Cohen. The Atlantic, June 4, 2013.

McFadden, Robert.  NY Times.com, June 4, 2013.

Personal letter from one of Will D. Campbell’s friends.

Tamburin, Adam and Nancy DeVille.  The Tennessean, June 4, 2013.

The Tennessean, video: “Will Campbell: ‘If you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love them all.’”

Wikipedia.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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