The freedom of Will

Will Campbell was obsessed with grace, especially as it falls on inappropriate people at inopportune times.

By Bill Leonard

Will Campbell -- preacher, writer, lecturer, farmer, raconteur, soulful iconoclast and equal-opportunity prophet -- died in Nashville on Monday, June 3. He was a month this side of 89 and had spent more than two years in a Nashville rehabilitation center as a result of a stroke.

I wrote segments of this essay when he turned 87 and recount it now with additional reflections. Why? Because there really was no one like him.

Campbell turned the gospel of Jesus on its head, at least where standardized, predictable concepts and actions, leftwing and right, were concerned.

Just when you thought he had confirmed all your sacred cows and reinforced your sociopolitical “enemies lists,” he jumped ahead, taking the ax to the roots of your own ideological forest.

will CampbellfaTwice-born in Mississippi as a “deep water” Baptist, Will studied at Louisiana College, did military service during WWII, finished Wake Forest in 1948, and received a theology degree from Yale Divinity School.

Will once told me that he fully understood the name “Demon Deacons” for the Wake Forest University mascot. “Hell,” he commented, “anybody who’s ever been in a Baptist church knows at least one demon deacon!”

Will could sanctify profanity like no one else.

After Yale, Will returned to the South as Director of Religious Life at Ole Miss just in time for its integrationist turmoil, and became deeply engaged in the Civil Rights struggle.

To the chagrin of many friends, he insisted that since “we’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,” there was grace even for racists.

It is grace found, not in “acquittal by law” but “acquittal by resurrection” that “takes us into a freedom where it would never occur to us to kill somebody.”

Will speaks yet about such terrifying freedom with ornery, prophetic wisdom in remarkable books like Brother to a Dragonfly (1977), Forty Acres and a Goat (1986) and The Stem of Jesse (1995).

In Dragonfly, Will recalled that he preached his first sermon from a pulpit Bible donated to his Mississippi Baptist church by the KKK, and recounted a1960s exchange with a Klansman who asserted that the organization “stands for peace, harmony and freedom.”

Will asked: “What means are you willing to use to accomplish those glorious ends?”

The man replied: “The means we are willing to use are as follows: murder, torture, threats, blackmail, intimidation, burning, guerrilla warfare. Whatever it takes.”

Will noted: “And then he stopped. And I stopped. I knew that I had set a little trap for him and had cleverly let him snap the trigger. But then he started again. ‘Now, Preacher. Let me ask you a question. You tell me what we stand for in Vietnam.’”

“Suddenly I knew a lot of things I had not known before,” Will recalled. “I knew that I had been caught in my own trap. Suddenly I knew that we are a nation of Klansmen. I knew that as a nation we stood for peace, harmony and freedom in that war, that we defined the words, and that the means we were employing to accomplish those ends were identical with the ones he had listed.”

Do Campbell’s observations challenge the rhetoric and “warring madness” of current “military incursions,” and drone strikes?

In The Stem of Jesse, Will detailed the 1963 integration of Mercer University involving admission of Nigerian Sam Oni and the insistence of certain faculty and staff that Baptists could not send missionaries to convert Africans while refusing those converts admission to the very university that educated the missionaries.

Oni entered Mercer but was refused admittance to the Tattnall Square Baptist Church, a now-defunct congregation whose sanctuary remains as the Mercer chapel.

At the conclusion of the book, Will wrote of his meeting with Sam Oni at a special lecture in that same sanctuary 30 years after the African was denied entry to its sacred confines. Calling Oni to the platform, Will offered “unplanned verbalizing of troubled feelings.”

“Haltingly” he blurted out: “Mr. Oni. I am not a Mercerian. But I am white. I am Christian. I am American. A Southerner. So I was here that morning when we turned you away. I am sorry sir, for what we did to you that day. I am sorry for what we did to ourselves. And to our God. Forgive us.”

Campbell concluded: “then a black Nigerian in his middle years, and a white Mississippian who has reached the biblical three-score years and ten, held each other in a prolonged and passionate embrace.”

Whatever else “evangelism” means, it surely encompasses such reconciliation as that. I met Sam Oni on the Mercer campus in 2010, and we talked about Will and the courage both men brought to racial issues in the American South in the turbulent 1960s and beyond.

In spite or because of all the “meanness” Will saw around him, he could not let go of grace, or, he’d probably have said, grace couldn’t to let go of him.

In Forty Acres and a Goat he tells about the Christmas morning when he baptized his 3-year old grandson, Harlan, at the breakfast table.

Fretting over his Baptist immersionist roots and the “age of accountability” Will decided to talk to the boy of sin, grace, guilt and forgiveness, just like he would “any other sinner.”

“What’s guilt, Papa?” his grandson asked. Will replied: “‘Well, you know that big lump you get in your throat when you’re mean to your mother [Bonnie]?’ He nodded that he did. ‘Well, you don’t have to have that. Being mean to your mother was your sin. And the lump is feeling guilty about it. And the water was put on your head because Jesus has already forgiven you for your meanness.’”

Will recalled: “When I was through he was laughing out loud.” And, “I had no further question as to the age of accountability. It was the most appropriate response to a sacrament I had ever heard. A big belly laugh…. He was baptized.”

Will Campbell was obsessed with grace, especially as it falls on inappropriate people at inopportune times. He is gone from this world, as we all will be, sooner or later, as he’d surely remind us.

Taking a phrase from another of his books, I think he’d say he simply entered the “deep waters” of The Glad River, through which all the sinner/saints have trod. Damn right, Will. Damn right.

Also see:

‘Bootleg preacher’ Will Campbell dies

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.