Son of Amite County, child of God
A professor who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Will Campbell reflects on the passing of the maverick preacher and Baptist prophet June 3.
By Merrill Hawkins
I preached my first sermon in 1980 at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Amite County, Miss. Walter Stewart, a kind and gentle man, always with several days of beard growth and always at Sunday-morning church, told me it was better than what the boys from the “seminar” in New Orleans did, referring to the student preachers who served the congregation tucked in a corner of this county in southwest Mississippi. It wasn’t. But it was short and I’m sure it was loud.
I had recently declared myself called to be a Southern Baptist minister, a slightly complicated matter since I was a confirmed United Methodist in my hometown of Starkville, but adolescents do strange things and this was one of my seasons of strangeness.
It was also a way to connect with the church of my grandfather, whom I deeply admired, and to bond more deeply with this community that was (and is) in my blood.
About six months later, I found a copy of Will D. Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly nestled among books belonging to my sister and brother-in-law. Learning in the opening chapters that Will was from the same Amite County where my grandfather lived and where generations of my family were buried, I became a devotee of this man of letters who would a few years later declare himself a Baptist of the South, but not a Southern Baptist.
Campbell’s Amite County certainly had a rich history, including a rich Baptist history. The region was home to 1970s Southern Baptist Convention President Carl Bates, a nephew to my grandparents, who kept a scrapbook of his denominational statesmanship.
Humorist Jerry Clower came out of the same community as Will, East Fork, and was an active member of the East Fork Baptist Church that ordained Campbell.
This same county also was home to Baptist deacon E. W. Steptoe, a grassroots leader in the Civil Rights Movement who organized a county chapter of the NAACP, pushed for voter registration for African-Americans, and housed activists during Freedom Summer in his remote farm, including Bob Moses. The soil was fertile soil for producing conscientious Baptists.
I had no idea that by the early 1990s I would be a Ph.D. student at Baylor University searching for a dissertation topic and listening for hints from professors, as well as from my own interests and passions.
I flirted with exploring the story of a small religious sect in the Waco area that greatly interested my major professor, Bill Pitts, but I did not think I would be able to secure publication on a study of the Branch Davidians, since no one had heard of them.
I had never forgotten Will Campbell’s story, though, and had read more about him and by him in the intervening years. I decided to request an interview with him. I called his listed number while visiting family in Starkville and got an answering machine. “This is Will Campbell speaking on a machine,” the message said.
I left a message and number, not expecting to hear back. About 30 minutes later, the phone rang and Will Campbell invited me to his cabin in Mt. Juliet, Tenn. My wife, Kim, and I drove the four hours to Nashville and taped an interview with him.
I entered that cabin that so many have been privileged to visit. He told me that I could ask anything but that he would not “direct the damn dissertation.” That was not the first “damn” I heard that afternoon.
My favorite time was when I asked a question about a rather well-known fellow white activist from the 1960s. He said, “Cut off that damn recorder and I’ll tell you.” That did not become part of the dissertation, but it did give me fascinating information that I do not suppose I’ll ever get to publish.
I received many wonderful Campbellisms that afternoon. Some of his statements echoed his familiar points. On my questions about ecclesiology, Will, in addition to mocking the word, “ecclesiology,” replied that he fell out of the steeples many years ago in order to be a Christian (not too much unlike another Baptist, Roger Williams).
Our conversation also explored his connections to country music and people like Tom Hall and Waylon Jennings. I asked, “How did Waylon Jennings overcome his addictions without rehab?” Will replied, “Betty Ford didn’t get him on that **** so she sure as hell couldn’t get him off of it.”
I told him about my one and only conversation with Eudora Welty, who said that writers must read before writing. He said, “Hell, I guess that’s good advice, but I never did read much.”
I also asked him if I could have access to his papers for my research. “I don’t have any papers. I never kept anything,” he said. Memory of that part of the conversation put a huge smile on my face seven years later when I read that the University of Southern Mississippi had acquired the Campbell Papers.
We finished our interview and drove to Gass’ Restaurant and Bar for dinner. When I locked my doors, Will commented: “That’s mistake number one. Locking your doors at a redneck bar.”
When I came to Carson-Newman as a new assistant professor of religion in 1995, I worked on revising the dissertation into a publication with Mercer University Press and had a few more conversations with Will. He came to campus several times, each time giving me some new memories.
In the fall of 1997, he delivered the T. B. Maston Lectures at the college, and I served as his host. Friends from Highlander Research and Education Center, Guy and Candy Carawan, came to hear him, prompting Will to reflect on the work of this center that provided training for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., and was accused of being a Communist training base.
“Highlander was doing something much more radical than Communism,” Will told several of us. “It’s called Democracy.”
Several years after this, I was in the audience at a plenary session of the American Academy of Religion when it met in Nashville. Will was the featured speaker to a room of several hundred. Ever the iconoclast, he was in a mood to take on the hubris of higher education, something this Yale-educated minister did often in some of his less-recognized writings.
He did not say that day what he had once written -- that the only difference between a Klansman’s robe and an academic’s robe is that one has a cross, and it’s not the professor’s. What he did say was equally challenging. “My advice to you is: don’t name your parakeet Schleiermacher.”
I had just a few more conversations with him over the next few years, always at his initiative. He came back to Carson-Newman once with John Egerton, who gave a reading at the Appalachian Center on campus.
After the reading, Will graced Kim and me by staying the night in our home. By then, we had a young toddler of a daughter, who received a blessing by Will and dismissal to bed. He followed that with a memorable night of guitar playing mixed with his sips from what he called, “the Ark of the Covenant.”
Years later and frailer in body but still keen in his mind and speech, Campbell came to campus to receive an honorary doctorate from CN. I had the privilege of introducing him at the graduation ceremony and visiting with him afterward on a cold, snowing night in 2009.
After leaving the graduation ceremony, I drove the 10 miles back to my home in Dandridge, slowly navigating the icy roads. I stopped at the neighborhood convenience store to see Will’s drivers and travelling companions buying a 12 pack of the “Ark.”
I walked over to say a word of parting to this man of letters, and a word of thanks. It was the last time that I would see him and speak to him. He touched many people. And I am one of those.
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