IN HIS EULOGY at Baptist pastor, civil rights activist, and author Will D. Campbell’s memorial service in late June, Campbell’s close friend, journalist John Egerton, recalled their first meeting. Campbell was wearing the broad-brimmed black hat that became his signature, with jeans and cowboy boots. At the time, Egerton noted, Campbell was in the middle of “a costume change” from the tweed jacket, clerical collar, and calabash pipe he had affected as a young, Yale-educated liberal minister.
Campbell was a notoriously theatrical figure, as famous for his hats and walking sticks as for his theological pronouncements. In fact, in the 1980s Campbell became a cartoon character in the guise of Rev. Will B. Dunn in the late Doug Marlette’s “Kudzu.” Campbell also dramatized his own life in Brother to a Dragonfly, his National Book Award-nominated 1977 memoir, and in a 1986 sequel, Forty Acres and a Goat.
Another favorite prop in the Will Campbell show was the acoustic guitar he would strum while singing his own country compositions and old favorites like “Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer.” Campbell, who was based in Nashville from 1957 on, also became a sort of chaplain to the “outlaw” element in that city’s country music industry. He traveled on Waylon Jennings’ tour bus, and Jennings’ widow, country star Jessi Colter, sang at Campbell’s memorial.
But to call Campbell “theatrical” is not to call him frivolous or trivial. Instead, he was following in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who walked around naked or wearing a yoke, and of his beloved “Mr. Jesus,” who famously entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
Campbell seemed to be having fun playing the role of a Mississippi Piney Woods prophet, but his eccentricities and affectations—most of them anyhow—had a profoundly serious purpose. He was trying to act out a way to be both a white Southerner of the yeoman class and a true Christian.
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The Rev. Will D. Campbell, a Baptist minister and early white civil rights activist, as well as best-selling writer and folksy raconteur, died Monday in Nashville, Tenn. He was 88.
With a fiercely independent streak and sometimes prickly personality, Campbell used his powerful way with words to explore American racism, especially the contradiction inherent in Christian support for segregation across the South.
And he had his own contradictions, as well. A Southern Baptist who drank moonshine with the Catholic nuns he counted as his friends, Campbell was an equal-opportunity critic, castigating liberals as well as conservatives in his writing and preaching and storytelling.
[Will Campbell] 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.