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July 22, 2013

One radical old Baptist Patriarch

(Continued)

Campbell, who died last month at the age of 88, was a complex activist and writer who made lots of people mad for lots of reasons. Raised in rural Mississippi, he thrived at Yale Divinity School and failed as a small-town pastor. He accompanied the Freedom Riders in 1961 and marched in Birmingham in 1963. He tried to avoid reporters, but was tight with country-music rebels like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. He opposed both abortion and the death penalty and, late in life, backed gay rights.

The self-proclaimed "bootleg Baptist" spent his life preaching forgiveness and reconciliation, yet also called religious conservatives "ecclesiastical highwaymen" who were "espousing a course that is a rollercoaster to a fascist theocracy." Pushed to summarize his theology, he stated: "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."

"Will was fond of saying that if you are going to love one then you have to love everyone. ... This meant rednecks as well as radicals," wrote the Rev. Timothy George, for the conservative "First Things" journal. He is the dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., and a former member of Campbell's Committee of Southern Churchmen.

Campbell "infuriated many," George added, "when he befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan and even visited James Earl Ray in prison. Campbell wrote: 'I have seen and known the resentment of the racist, his hostility, his frustration, his need for someone upon whom to lay blame and to punish. With the same love that we are commanded to shower upon the innocent victim, the church must love the racist.'

"The fact is Will Campbell was simply sui generis. He cannot be comfortably squeezed into anyone's box."

In the end, the only box Campbell accepted was a Baptist box that fit his own iconoclastic specifications -- rejecting all creeds, traditions and hierarchies.

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