Will D. Campbell

June 04, 2013

Last night, Will D. Campbell died. An influential civil rights leader, author, and rabble-rouser, Campbell had a great impact as a "bootleg preacher." After short stints as a Southern Baptist pastor and the campus minister at the University of Mississippi, Campbell worked for the National Council of Churches in the late 1950s and early 1960s to help lead their efforts on racial issues. The only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Campbell played an important role in many civil rights moments (including participating in some of King's marches, joining the Freedom Rides, and helping escort black students to high school in Little Rock, Arkansas). Campbell later befriended Ku Klux Klan leaders as another way of ministering since he believed everyone needed God's grace. As Campbell liked to put it, "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway." Campbell also prophetically lifted his voice against the Vietnam War (and other wars and violence), against the death penalty, and against abortion. He spent the latter decades of his life writing and living on his farm in Tennessee. His writings have inspired, challenged, and even upset me. Among his many books are Race and the Renewal of the Church, Brother to a Dragonfly, Forty Acres and a Goat, The Convention: A Parable, and Soul among Lions. Disenchanted with established religion, Campbell became a "bootleg preacher" as he ministered to seekers and passerbys who journeyed to his farm. Campbell later became the inspiration for the character "Will B. Dunn" in Doug Marlette's comic strip Kudzu. Campbell's ideas and counter-cultural ways will continue to live on for many years, haunting and challenging Christians as he did throughout his colorful ministry.