Story and photos by John Pierce
EDITOR’S NOTE: Will Campbell died June 3 at age 88. In tribute, we are reprinting this feature story that appeared in the January 2005 issue of Baptists Today.
MOUNT JULIET, Tenn. — Will Davis Campbell grew up during the Depression years in Amite County, Miss. He has been called a bootleg preacher, an agitator, a liberal and several things not fit to print. He generally describes himself as one who “writes rare books for a living.”
Campbell, who turned 80 last July (2004), does not seem to have lost sleep over what others think or say about him. He has never offered himself as a model for ecclesiastical excellence.
Yet Campbell’s unique ministry has touched the famous and the forgotten. His words — written, spoken or sung — knock the varnish off pretense and cause a reexamination of faith commitments claimed.
Campbell is best known for Brother to a Dragonfly (1977, Continuum Press), a moving account of his deep involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and of his close and painful relationship with his beloved brother Joe. An anniversary edition with a foreword by President Jimmy Carter was released in 2000.
Will’s late father, a longtime Baptist deacon, excused his son’s stark language in the book that some found offensive, saying: “My boy was writing about hornets’ nests.”
Although that book won the Lillian Smith Prize, Campbell considers his 1982 novel, The Glad River (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), to be his best writing. The novella, Cecilia’s Sin (1983, Mercer University Press), was spun off of that book. These two works of fiction reveal Campbell’s interest in Anabaptist history.
Other titles include Forty Acres and a Goat (1986, Peachtree Publishers), The Convention: A Parable (1988, Peachtree Publishers), Providence (1992, Longstreet Press) and The Stem of Jesse: The Costs of Community at a 1960s Southern School (1995, Mercer University Press).
Campbell’s most recent release is Robert G. Clark’s Journey to the House: A Black Politician’s Story (2003, University Press of Mississippi).
Baptists Today editor John Pierce spent a September (2004) morning with Brother Will at his writing cabin on the spread of land near Nashville that he and his wife Brenda have shared for more than four decades.
The conversation was rambling, often off subject and simply delightful. The following exchange is pulled from that interview.
BT: How did you first meet Waylon Jennings?
WC: Right here in this cabin. A fellow named Johnny Darrow, who never had but one big song and I forgot what it was, wanted me to do his wedding. Waylon was his best man.
I got to the part about “Who brings this woman to be married to this man?” and nobody said anything. The girl’s daddy was here, but he was nervous. Read More…