Will D. Campbell Background

Background on Will D. Campbell, from Gimmie That Old-Time Religion: John Crowe Ransom and Will D. Campbell as Critics of American Religion, by Thomas D. Kennedy, Austin Peay State University, published in Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 7 (1989).

Will D. Campbell, now of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, was recently described as having "spent his 60 years elevating iconoclasm to a vocation" (Gibble 570). He is, in the words of a Newsweek article in 1972, a "bourbon-guzzling, tobacco-spitting, guitar-strumming man who rarely preaches a Sunday sermon and believes that the institutional church is perhaps the greatest barrier to the proclamation of the Gospel" (5/8/72: 84). And he is a Baptist to boot.

Campbell was born in Amite County, Mississippi, in 1924 to a poor but devout Baptist family. Early in his childhood he decided to become a preacher, and at the age of seventeen he was ordained by h is church to the gospel ministry. He attended Louisiana College in Pineville briefly before his less than stellar performance was interrupted by the war. Following his military service he returned to the South where he enrolled first at Wake Forest from which he received an A.B. degree, and then Tulane University from which he received an M.A. in English. After Tulane he enrolled at Yale Divinity School, graduating from there in 1952.

Campbell's first charge was in a small Louisiana parish. He left that pastorate to serve as the chaplain at Ole Miss where he became involved in the civil rights movement. In the mid-fifties at Ole Miss the chaplaincy and civil rights activism did not mix well. For this reason, in 1956 Campbell severed his relationship with the University and became a race-relations specialist for the National Council of Churches. In the early sixties, feeling his freedom stifled by the NCC, Campbell left to become the director of The Committee of Southern Churchmen and publisher of Katallagete. He now spends his time in public speaking and writing. His books include: Brother to a Dragonfly, The Glad River, Cecilia's Secret, and Forty Acres and a Goat. He is currently at work on a children's book and a book on the Baptists and the Bible. He is pastor to a "pulpitless, roofless, unpropertied and uncodified church," the Church of the Forty Acres and a Goat, in Mt. Juliet.

Campbell's understanding of the Christian faith has remained more or less the same since the early sixties. The cornerstone of his understanding of the Christian gospel is II Cor. 5:19, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." God, in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, has redeemed and reconciled all people to himself. And there is no reconciliation with God independent of reconciliation with other persons. Furthermore, there can be no genuine reconciliation of one person to another independent of reconciliation to God. Thus the failure of all "non-religious" attempts at solving social problems. The task of the church is to act as the community of the reconciled. And Campbell faults American religion for its failure to take God's reconciliation seriously and to live as those reconciled to God and to one another.

Like [John Crowe] Ransom, Campbell recognizes the forces of evil in the world, forces which oppress and enslave the human spirit. And, if anything, Campbell has been more explicit about the identity of these forces of evil. While never denying the presence of evil within the heart of the individual, Campbell has emphasized the expression of evil in institutional form. The state, the military-industrial complex, the corporate economic structure, the academy -- the public school system as well as the public and private universities, agribusiness, the church -- all have been agents of oppression. All have victimized the poor and the oppressed -- black and white alike. And Campbell has made these victimized blacks and whites the special focus of his ministry. Campbell speaks prophetically against these institutions of oppression, warning people not to misplace allegiances, calling Christians, liberal and conservative alike, from unholy alliances with sinful institutions and back to a life as a reconciled people.

Campbell has also been an outspoken critic of the electronic church, but his criticism of American religion has extended far beyond the television evangelists to the "do-gooders" of the liberal church. His iconoclasm, his radical critique of American religion, his concern for the outcast are exemplified well in the following excerpt from a recent interview. After bemoaning the opulent lifestyle of Jim and Tammy Bakker before a Wisconsin audience eager to hear about the decadent South, Campbell recalls, he went on as follows:

"All that was built off the backs of the poor. If you chase wealth back far enough, you get into the mines and the fields. It's not the boss man who's digging the coal out of the ground and raising the crops. What's wrong with all this affluence in the name of gentle Jesus is that it's built off the exploitation of the poor." And of course, everybody listening was in general agreement. So I paused and said, "All right, what's the difference between that and the pope's jewels, or all those Lutheran and Presbyterian and Methodist steeples out there casting shadows on whores and pimps and addicts and bums with . . . seldom a gesture in their direction from any of us proportionate to what we spend on ourselves? If you push it to its conclusion, the difference is simply one of taste."

So someone got up and said, "Surely you're not saying that the Sistine Chapel is as ugly as some goddamn condominium with mirrors on the walls?" I answered by saying that I guess it's all right for the poor peasants of Italy to put their pennies in the box for the Sistine Chapel, but it's not all right for the widow on Social Security to send the $5 and $10 to the TV preachers. Then what we're talking about is the annihilation of the hillbillies and the rednecks. And I think when you get right down to it, that is what liberals upset over the electronic church and Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority is all about. (Gibble 572)