Nothing Sacred 

Author, civil rights activist and Baptist minister Will Campbell is friend to Klansmen, whores and the hopeless —but he rejects the “soul molesters” of the Southern Baptist Convention

Writer and renegade preacher Will D. Campbell is probably the only ordained Baptist minister dead or alive ever to call one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s highest ranking officials a “hypocrite and a jackass.” To his face, no less.
photos by Eric England

Writer and renegade preacher Will D. Campbell is probably the only ordained Baptist minister dead or alive ever to call one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s highest ranking officials a “hypocrite and a jackass.” To his face, no less.

There’s been a heap of bad blood between Campbell and the honchos of that Nashville-based religious convention juggernaut that characterizes itself as “America’s largest non-Catholic denomination with more then 16.3 million members in 43,024 churches nationwide.” That’s because, in books, speeches and interviews, Campbell keeps poking the brethren in the butt with his theological pitchfork. And he’s about to get it out again with a new book in the works and reissues of two of his most anti-institutional novels.

“Soul molesters, that’s what I call these television evangelists,” Campbell says during an interview at his log cabin writing retreat just across the Davidson County line in Wilson County. “Soul molesters. That bunch that call themselves Christian. They are not Christian, but a very powerful political group…. Groups like those with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, those people that run the [Southern Baptist Convention] Lifeway show. They don’t show me much about the Christian faith. They hate, hate everybody except themselves and their power. Falwell stood down there at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting in Nashville recently and said, ‘We won this election.’ And he spoke the truth. They did elect George W. Bush.”

As Campbell sees it, the well-heeled, Bible-thumping folks at the SBC have abandoned Christ in favor of Caesar, turned their dark suits and ties toward the Golden Calf of politics and away from the strict separation of church and state tradition of the Baptist church. He characterizes as unchristian the SBC’s support for the death penalty, the war in Iraq, the bashing of gays and lesbians, and sexist prohibitions against women in the ministry.

But for all the antagonism between Campbell and the SBC, Campbell devotees are legion—an array of country music giants, civil rights leaders, writers, poets, cartoonists, prison reformers, pastors, priests, rabbis, assorted Ku Klux Klansmen, jailbirds, bums, whores, distraught parents, the hungry, the homeless, the hopeless and the down and out. And hardly a day goes by that Campbell isn’t in touch with one member or another of that motley crowd, inspiring them, advising them, consoling them, cheering them.

“I’ve told a number of people that Will is the richest man I know,” singer-songwriter Jessi Coulter says during a telephone interview from her new home in Arizona, where not long ago—with Campbell at her side—she buried her husband, country great Waylon Jennings. “Will is so rich in things that matter in life, rich in humor, rich in philosophy. He’s rich in kindness. He’s rich in music. He’s rich in ways to treat people. And he’s a true life’s lesson to watch and learn, although the last thing he wants is attention. And sometimes he’s very rich in being radical.”

Coulter recalls all the times she and Jennings spent in Campbell’s retreat. It’s a log cabin where he has written 17 books—most of them typed on an old, battered Royal typewriter. Where he has soothed troubled souls and performed numerous weddings, often while sitting in a barber chair. (Disclosure: he married me and my wife.) Sometimes after a wedding, Campbell will pick his guitar and sing an appropriate country song. To get to the cabin from the Campbell family home, a 200-year-old, once log and now aluminum-sided structure, you follow a path and cross over a creek on a narrow wooden bridge called “Dragonfly Crossover.”

“He and Waylon performed several wedding ceremonies together,” Coulter recalls. “Waylon would be the best man and Will would be the preacher.”

Tributes to Campbell come from some of the biggest names in the music industry, like Campbell’s close friend Kris Kristofferson, and from struggling guitar pickers along lower Broadway.

“I would go with Will on his outings,” retired country artist and longtime Campbell friend Tom T. Hall says during an interview at his 60-acre ranch in the rolling hills of Williamson County. “These were people that Will was ministering to in his own peculiar way. He’d take ’em a watermelon or some corn.

“We came back from one of those outings one day and I said, ‘You know something, Will, I’m not sure I envy your lifestyle or not. Everybody you know is in trouble.’ We’d go to somebody’s house, and they’d have just gotten out of jail. We’d go to somebody else’s house and they were just on their way to the hospital. He has a very unique type of ministry, almost a Mother Teresa type of thing.”

It’s his notorious tendency toward embracing the have-nots that has characterized his work. In fact, Campbell’s latest work in progress is a book of commentaries on a series of stark, black-and-white photographs taken decades ago, photos that chronicle the life and work of a poor, elderly African American pastor of a tiny rural church in Marshall County, Miss. During an interview, Campbell thumbs through the 4-by-5-inch photographs and contrasts the elderly black preacher with the fundamentalist television faith healer Benny Hinn.

“Have you ever seen Benny Hinn?” Campbell asks. “These frauds, God Almighty. Just liars. Benny Hinn has his own jet airplane, a 10-bedroom house overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This old black preacher lived in a shack. He had an old pickup truck, but most of the time when he went to his church he borrowed a wagon and a team of mules. This guy is authentic. These rich televangelists are frauds mostly. They are liars.”

Southern Baptist bigwigs, for their part, seem to be afraid of Campbell. Richard Land, who often comes across like a George W. Bush groupie rather than the president of the Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, recently issued a press release gushing about the president keeping his campaign word on Supreme Court nominees. The press release invited requests for a Land interview. But don’t try that if the subject is Will Campbell. Through a spokesman, Land replied that he had “nothing to say about Campbell.”

Jerry Sutton, pastor of Nashville’s politically active Two Rivers Baptist Church, never responded to an offer to comment on Campbell or about the involvement of the Baptist Church in politics. Bobby Patray, who lobbies for the ultra-conservative Eagle Forum and has been prominent in the political activities of Two Rivers, also declined requests for comment.

So who is this 81-year-old bootleg preacher who makes the Baptist elites clam up? This man who has no faculty seat at any divinity school, no church building—and certainly no television pulpit—yet challenges one of the most powerful religious bodies in the country and has written books and essays that make renowned theologians sit up and take notice? Who is this redneck farmer with no organization who became a major figure in the civil rights struggle? This integrationist who reaches out to Klansmen? This Christian cleric who marries, baptizes and buries Catholics, Jews, heathens and the unchurched alike? This hillbilly guitar strummer with no press agent who becomes friends with some of the most famous—and infamous—country music stars of all time?

Will D. Campbell is a diamond of many facets. So, first, a thumbnail sketch:

• He was born and raised in rural Amite County in the southwest corner of Mississippi and attended Louisiana College, a Baptist school. Ultimately, he graduated from Wake Forest, did graduate study at Tulane, and went on to get a degree from Yale Divinity School.

• In 1946, he married Brenda Fisher, his sweetheart from Louisiana College and the woman who would share his lifelong work, bear the couple three children, and charm everyone who ever came in contact with the Campbell family—although she once declined to be the church piano player, saying “you hired my husband, you didn’t hire me.”

• He became pastor of the Taylor Baptist Church in the northern Louisiana sawmill town of Taylor, where he soon learned that the church wasn’t run by the pastor, but by Miss Rosalie, who called Campbell “our little preacher” who has two favorite subjects, “McCarthy and the Negro question.”

• He became director of religious life at Ole Miss, from which he was eventually run off because of his progressive racial views.

• He became director of the Department Of Racial and Cultural Relations of the National Council of Churches, touring the South to work quietly for better race relations—another job from which he was eventually run off because “they wanted me to be a social engineer, and I wasn’t one.”

• He moved to Nashville in the mid-1950s, partly because racists had a death threat hanging over his head in Mississippi, and partly to be near the roots of country music.

• He had an office in a small building on 18th Avenue—where he grew tomatoes in the bathtub and told everyone it was marijuana—and became close friends with Kris Kristofferson (whom Campbell says “was nobody then, just one more drunk on the row.”)

• He was the only white person present beside Dr. King at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which became the flagship of the civil rights movement.

• He joined two other white ministers in escorting black children to school through screaming mobs of white racists in the famous Little Rock desegregation saga, and is credited with saving the life of one of the students.

• He has been bitterly criticized by some liberals for reaching out to individual Ku Klux Klansmen and, as he has with so many in the country music industry, he’s “baptized ’em, married ’em, and buried ’em, and tried to help ’em through their troubles.”

• After moving to Nashville, he formed the Committee of Southern Churchmen, designed to provide Campbell a salary through some grants. Now, Campbell, who has a notorious disdain for organizations, assesses it this way: “It was nothing. It was a name and a tax exemption and whatever I and a few other people were doing on a given day.”

• He began publishing Katallagete, (Greek for “be reconciled”), a journal that had profound influence upon a range of anti-institutional and social activists and theologians.

• He became a close friend of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the most important and influential Roman Catholic spiritual writer of the 20th Century, and would help Merton slip away from Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky so the two could enjoy country music and go to places like Colonel Hawk’s on the backside of Bardstown, Ky., and enjoy lamb fries and illegal whiskey in the back room.

• He founded and eventually spun off on its own the Southern Prison Ministry, now a major force in prison reform and opposition to the death penalty.

• He has written 17 books, including four novels and Brother to a Dragonfly, his highly acclaimed 1977 autobiography about his relationship with his troubled brother and his experiences as a civil rights activist, a book that won Lillian Smith, Christopher and Lyndhurst prizes and was a National Book Award finalist.

• He is the subject of two books, Will Campbell and the Soul of the South, by the late University of South Carolina historian Thomas L. Connelly, and Will Campbell, Radical Prophet of the South, by Carson-Newman historian Merrill Hawkins. On a less academic note, he is also cartoonist Doug Marlette’s inspiration for the Will B. Dunn character in the Kudzu cartoon strip.

• He recently went to Tom T. Hall’s recording studio and cut an album of the country songs that Campbell has been singing for years at small gatherings, then gave away all the albums to his friends. He and Tom T. also have been known to make their own whiskey, then put it in Mason jars and give it to their friends. “I can’t go into much detail,” Hall says. “I think the statute of limitations might be gone. And then I might be lying about it. You know, we lie a little bit too.”

Campbell’s civil rights work and his advocacy on behalf of the downtrodden are nationally recognized. In 1961, when John Seigenthaler was special assistant to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, a group of black and white students, many of them from Nashville, rode buses through the South—the now-famous Freedom Rides—to test desegregation. Kennedy sent Seigenthaler to observe the progress of the Freedom Rides, and at the bus station in Montgomery, Nashville students were attacked by a vicious, screaming mob. When Seigenthaler tried to help two of them, he was beaten unconscious and left in the street for nearly half an hour. Later, he lay in a Montgomery hospital, heavily sedated.

“They had surrounded the hospital with state highway patrolmen,” Seigenthaler recalls. “The [U.S.] marshals were not going to get there until midday. The door flies open, and Will Campbell bursts through followed by [Nashville attorney] George Barrett.” The first words out of Campbell’s mouth, addressing the Catholic Seigenthaler, were something like, ‘I come representing 40 million Protestants, and one of those bastards hit you in the head last night.’ The Irish Catholic Barrett added, ‘On behalf of 150 million Catholics, I bring you greetings.’

Campbell had rented a plane and talked a pilot into flying him and Barrett from Nashville to Montgomery. They got through the police lines by lying, Campbell telling them that he was Seigenthaler’s pastor and Barrett saying he was his lawyer. They brought Seigenthaler a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and the Sunday Tennessean. A Catholic priest had been there earlier and left a holy water bottle, which Seigenthaler jokingly threw at Campbell, who caught it in midair and years later gave it to Seigenthaler’s son, John Michael Seigenthaler, now an anchor on NBC News.

“There was not a major civil rights event in the South, for that matter anywhere in the country, that Will was not at least a witness to and participant in, but you never saw his name in the paper,” Barrett says. “He kept—as he was supposed to—a very low profile, encouraged local leadership, for which he was very successful and really was a major, contributor to change in the South in that period of time.

“He is the only witness I know in the biblical sense, in that he does not discriminate, whether you belong to the ACLU or the Ku Klux Klan—not that I compare the two. Will has been willing to invest in those persons regardless of their political or social leanings. I think that by being that kind of witness, he moves a lot of people to re-examine their positions, and a lot of institutions to look at their obligations in light of Christian values.”

Longtime civil rights activist and NAACP leader Charles Kimbrough of Nashville is among many African American leaders—people like the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Jim Lawson, the late Rev. Kelly Miller Smith—who befriended Campbell and have been inspired by his writing and his preaching. “There is no doubt in my mind that by his presence, Will Campbell in speech or writing has raised racial consciousness and awareness,” Kimbrough says. “He has paid a price that a lot of ministers have not been willing to pay, and that’s the stigmatism that has been put on him as a label because he had stood up for racial justice and human rights.”

In 1995, Campbell was invited to present a paper at the University of Mississippi’s First Elvis Presley Symposium. He delivered a 15-pager that didn’t get much attention at the time, but has since exploded like carpet bombs here and there through cultural and intellectual circles. It was entitled “Elvis Presley as Redneck,” and began: “If we are now to academize Elvis Presley, there is one word and concept that must be dealt with at the outset. That word is ‘redneck.’ It must be dealt with because it is an ugly word, an invective used to defame a proud and tragic people—the poor, white, rural, working class of the South; a word used often to berate Elvis Presley and his people because the word is used as a synonym for bigot. Now, if I had said…nigger, chink, Jap, kike, dago, spick, chick, or broad, all of you would have been morally outraged at just hearing those despicable epithets said aloud. At least I hope you would have been. You should have been. But hearing the equally offensive insult ‘redneck’ draws not a flinch in most circles. Only a chuckle.”

That paper epitomizes his lifelong defense of rednecks. (The total text can be found on the Internet by Googling “Elvis Presley as redneck.”)

One of Campbell’s novels being reissued deals with several rednecks. It’s The Glad River, which Campbell considers his best book. It’s about three Southern boys—Claudy “Droops” Momber, a white Mississippian; Kingston Smylie, illegitimate son of a poor, ethnic minority girl and a well-off young man who refuses to marry her; and Fordache “Model T” Arceneau, a Louisiana Cajun. The three become friends while serving together in World War II, and the novel weaves in their separate stories.

Model T, accused of murdering a girlfriend, is called to the stand as a witness but refuses to testify on religious grounds. This helps to convict him. Droops, who for years has resisted his mother’s pleas that he be baptized, finally visits Model T on death row and has Model T baptize him. Following Model T’s execution, Droops and Smylie steal his body and bury it deep in a Louisiana swamp. In the course of spinning his tale, Campbell tells of a book Droops is writing in the hospital while recovering from a nervous breakdown. Droops’ book deals with a favorite Campbell theme, the story of the Anabaptists who were persecuted and killed by other Protestants and state authorities in Europe in the 1520s. When a nurse asks Droops what he’s writing about, he says, “It’s about how there aren’t any Baptists left in the world.”

Campbell maintains that the Anabaptists were the precursors to the current Baptist church and were fiercely in favor of church and state separation. They allowed women to be ministers and opposed any killing, even killing by the state. Thus, he argues, the current Southern Baptists in power are traitors to their roots by sanctioning the war, the death penalty and the sexist prohibition of female ministers. “They have hijacked the seminaries,” Campbell says, “and become revisionists of Baptist history.”

The other Campbell novel being reissued is The Convention, the story of a woman who discovers that although the SBC forbids women to preach, there’s nothing in the rules to keep a woman from becoming president of the convention. Through some political maneuvering, she does become president and immediately resigns because, as Campbell says, she realizes that, since the SBC is so morally bankrupt, “there is nothing left to run.”

Campbell recalls the time a few years ago when the SBC held its annual meeting in New Orleans and the Convention’s Lifeway Bookstore told a publisher that he could not sell Campbell’s books at its facility. This was also the time when Will was in the press room at the annual meeting and encountered a man well on his way to becoming one of the highest ranked Convention officials. The two began discussing the proposed expansion of the federal death penalty.

“You do believe in the Commandment, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ don’t you?” Campbell asked.

“Well, certainly,” the SBC official said.

“Well, then, surely you are opposed to this death penalty expansion?” Campbell asked.

“Absolutely not,” the official said with resolve. “We sent a letter to the White House in support.”

“Well then, you are a hypocrite and a jackass,” Campbell said.

Once, in a Katallagete open letter to Billy Graham, Campbell characterized evangelists who conduct big crusades as “Astrodome Isaiahs,” then went on to say: “True, some are ‘led to Christ’ in the instituted Church today, but it is done against the stream of five-point grading programs, ‘evangelistic crusades’ planned and executed more like the Pentagon than St. Paul…. Who spread all these lies about Jesus? He judges us by what we do to the children, the prisoners, the whores, the addicts, the scared and bewildered, the poor, the hungry—to ‘the least of them….’ ”

Attorney George Barrett says institutions don’t bother Campbell, “just like they didn’t bother Jesus. He wasn’t worried about what the bishops thought, or the brothers thought, or the board of overseers or whatever it’s called. Will does whatever he believes to be right. And I take his interpretation of what’s right over most anybody else—including the Pope and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Like the parables told by Jesus, the enigma of Will Campbell is interpreted a little differently by each of those he’s influenced.

For the Rev. James K. Mallett, pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church, insight came from reading one of Campbell’s books. “His affiliation with the Klan,” Mallett says, “and other aspects of his preaching became clear after I read Brother to a Dragonfly, that God’s forgiveness is universal and that God is without prejudice and we also must be without prejudice in some universal sense.”

It’s the sheer magnitude and scope of Campbell’s influence that strikes Nashville writer John Egerton. “Take all the characters that you can think of that he has been close to at one time or another,” Egerton says, “from Raymond Cranford (Grand Dragon of the North Carolina Klan), to Tom Merton, to Rabbi (Randall) Falk, to (Rev.) Bill Barnes, to women in gay and lesbian battles, to people in all kinds of circumstances, college professors and big-time preachers, people at Yale, musicians. A lot of  ’em had long since given up [on religion], and here was a guy who seemed to understand where they were coming from.”

And even that part of the Campbell legend that includes his many broadsides at organized religion hasn’t turned away a range of ministers who, deep down, agree with him.

“I think Will holds the church accountable because it has a higher standard,” retired Methodist minister Bill Barnes says, “but I don’t think he has any illusions about its behavior…. I think his message is much more provocative than alienating because of his gentle spirit.”

At one time, before they became lifelong friends, Campbell simply baffled Kris Kristofferson, who read about Campbell in a Life magazine article and realized it was the preacher who had an office directly below his small apartment on Nashville’s 18th Avenue.

“What the hell kind of place is this?” yelled Kristofferson, barging into Campbell’s office. “You’ve got a preacher who marches with Dr. Martin Luther King and also ministers to members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m a Rhodes Scholar, and I don’t understand that.”

“Maybe the reason you don’t understand it is that you are a Rhodes Scholar,” Campbell said.

But nobody can interpret the Will D. Campbell parable better than the man himself. In the midst of ruminating about his life and work, he can suddenly recall that he has, in fact, made a lot of friends in many a Tennessee honky-tonk.

“There is nothing sacred about a beer joint,” Campbell muses, “and there is nothing sacred in my judgment about the First Baptist Church.”

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