Will Davis Campbell was born in Amite County, Mississippi, in 1924. After he survived a childhood illness, Campbell’s family marked him as a spiritual leader, and the East Fork Baptist Church ordained him as a preacher at the age of seventeen. His humble beginnings in a poor, farming family in South Mississippi, framed by an expectation of future spiritual leadership, shaped the rest of Campbell’s life and directed him to challenge much of the dictates of southern culture, from white supremacy to the institutional church.
Campbell spent his early life on his family’s farm and was particularly close to his older brother, Joseph, who figured significantly in Campbell’s best-known and honored book, Brother to a Dragonfly. After a year attending Louisiana College, where he met his wife, Brenda, Campbell served as a US Army medic during World War II. He subsequently graduated from Wake Forest College, did a year of graduate work at Tulane University, and received a bachelor of divinity degree from Yale Divinity School. He then served for two years as pastor of a small Southern Baptist Church in Taylor, Louisiana, but concluded that he was meant to be a “pastor without a steeple.”
In 1953 Campbell moved his family to Oxford, to serve as chaplain for the University of Mississippi. He expected to spend the rest of his religious career on the quiet campus, but larger clashes over race shaped his experiences there in ways that diverted his plan. In May 1954 the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision reverberated across the South, creating hope among black civil rights activists and massive resistance to the Court’s decree among most white southern politicians. In this maelstrom, Campbell’s efforts to reach across racial lines in the Oxford community drew ire and eventually death threats.
In the most public incident Campbell invited Alvin Kershaw, a white Episcopal priest who had donated some of his recent winnings on a television game show to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to speak during Religious Emphasis Week. University administrators demanded that Campbell withdraw the invitation, but he refused. When campus officials withdrew the invitation, Campbell crafted a silent protest, hosting sessions for the week in a campus chapel with empty chairs on stage and inviting the campus community to join him for reflection.
For his irreverent challenges to white supremacy, officials encouraged Campbell to resign. He moved to Mount Juliet, Tennessee, and became more engaged in the civil rights movement. Hired as a field officer for the National Council of Churches, Campbell traveled the South to movement hot spots, including nearby Nashville, where he befriended and worked with Rev. Kelly Miller Smith and Rev. James Lawson, who were training local students such as Diane Nash and John Lewis in the strategies of nonviolent resistance.
In 1956 Campbell was the only white pastor present when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. In 1957 Campbell helped escort the Little Rock Nine into Central High School in Arkansas. But while he was always a steadfast supporter of the civil rights movement, he also lamented the easy demonization of poor, rural, southern whites, who he believed were also victims of capitalism’s exploitation of the poor. Such theological understandings of Christianity often put Campbell at odds with activists on the left, especially when he began to minister to members of the Ku Klux Klan. His most searing analysis of race and religion came after the 1965 murder of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal priest visiting Alabama to work for civil rights, by a local sheriff. Campbell had previously been pushed to define Christianity in ten words or less by a journalist friend. His reply, “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,” came to be challenged when Daniels was murdered. Campbell’s immediate desire to condemn the sheriff gave way to a fuller understanding of compassion and grace, and that understanding guided the rest of Campbell’s life and work.
Campbell refused to waver from a prophetic role in matters of race and poverty, and he assembled a network of other such prophets to sound a clarion call for truth, justice, and reconciliation. Under the auspices of the Committee of Southern Churchmen, Campbell coedited Katallagete: Be Reconciled, a theological journal that boasted contributors such as Walker Percy, H. Richard Niebuhr, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Thomas Merton and that described many of the themes evocative of Campbell’s ministry: mistrust of institutions, faithfulness to an old-time radical Gospel, and reconciliation, not simply between humans but also of humans to God’s world.
In time, editing the journal and constant travel gave way to writing books. His well-received Brother to a Dragonfly, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1978 and winner of the Lillian Smith Prize, preceded Forty Acres and a Goat, The Glad River, Cecelia’s Sin, Providence, The Convention, The Stem of Jesse, And Also with You, and others.
In 2000 Pres. Bill Clinton presented Campbell with the National Humanities Medal, but his most treasured award remained his notice of ordination from the East Fork Baptist Church. The plain, typed paper rested inside and on top of his framed Yale Divinity School degree in the front room of his Mount Juliet home.
Will Campbell died in 2013 from complications related to a stroke.
- Thomas L. Connelly, Will Campbell and the Soul of the South (1982)
- Merrill M. Hawkins Jr., Will Campbell: Radical Prophet of the South (1997)
- Lawrence Wright, Saints and Sinners: Walker Railey, Jimmy Swaggart, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Anton LaVey, Will Campbell, Matthew Fox (1993)