Remembering Will Campbell (1924-2013)

Will D. Campbell died last night here in Nashville. “Bootleg preacher,” raised in Amite County Mississippi, a sweet and cantankerous and beautiful man, like any preacher worthy of the name ought to be, a writer and singer and drinker of whiskey, a man who was brave enough to say things that ought to be said, and who knew that the Gospel ought never be a pretense for pretense. I was privileged to spend time with him on more than one occasion. I was first introduced to his work when I returned to the Bible belt from graduate school, full of ideas, and full of resentment at Bible belt religion, and Carolyn Wilson sent me a copy of one of his small books, and I read it immediately, and thought, “well now, if I can find a few people like this in the Bible belt, things will be alright,” and I wrote him a letter and he wrote me back, and I went on to read lots of his books. I’ve read Brother to a Dragonfly four times, and I cried every time I read it; it is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. Perhaps you have to be a southerner to appreciate it’s edgy and pained beauty;  but I do think it beautiful.

Brother Will was something like Forrest Gump, in that he knew all sorts of people and was always showing up at crucial moments. He was one of the few white pastors prominently active in the Civil Rights Movement. There is a haunting picture of him standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel after sun down, the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. He told me stories about hanging out with Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemane, drinking a bit of stiff drink and playing guitar outside the grounds. He would occasionally go on tour with some of the country music greats, a friend of Waylon.

He knew that the Gospel upset all our agendas, and was deeply suspicious of all institutions and agendas, including those of “the steeples,” as he referred to institutional religion. He knew we are all broken, and all in need of grace. (“We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway,” he famously summarized the Gospel.) And thus he knew there were no “good guys” over against the “bad guys,” just all us people created in the image of God and all in need of redemption. He was sweet—a designation meant in all honor—he was sweet to us younger people who were trying to sort out what it means to live according to Christian discipleship in a culture saturated with churches and denominational boards and religious talk but still killing its enemies and running down its foes and praising God in one breath and speaking smooth words of condemnation with the next.

I give thanks for the witness of Will D. Campbell: a lover of God and a lover of people, a man who was not afraid to be a fool for the Gospel.

May he rest in peace. And may God see fit to continue to send us more such bootleg preachers of the Gospel of Peace.

Will

Lee C. Camp, Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is the host of www.TokensShow.com and the Dispatches from the Buckle Podcast, and the author of Who Is My Enemy?