On June 3, the Rev. Will D. Campbell succumbed to complications from a stroke he suffered in 2011, and Nashville lost one of its most celebrated and fearless progressive voices.
Though he was an ordained Baptist minister, Campbell was more concerned with civil rights and human dignity than religious doctrine, and his outspoken stance against the hypocrisy and politics of the Southern Baptist Convention earned him a reputation as a renegade preacher. He accompanied the Freedom Riders on some of their journeys and participated in sit-ins, boycotts and marches with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His 1977 memoir Brother to a Dragonfly was a finalist for the National Book Award.
In a 2005 Scene profile of Campbell titled "Nothing Sacred," Joseph Sweat captured his fascinating life, in particular his rift with the SBC. Here is an excerpt:
Writer and renegade preacher Will D. Campbell is probably the only ordained Baptist minister dead or alive ever to call one of the Southern Baptist Convention's highest ranking officials a "hypocrite and a jackass." To his face, no less.
There's been a heap of bad blood between Campbell and the honchos of that Nashville-based religious convention juggernaut that characterizes itself as "America's largest non-Catholic denomination with more then 16.3 million members in 43,024 churches nationwide." That's because, in books, speeches and interviews, Campbell keeps poking the brethren in the butt with his theological pitchfork. And he's about to get it out again with a new book in the works and reissues of two of his most anti-institutional novels.
"Soul molesters, that's what I call these television evangelists," Campbell says during an interview at his log cabin writing retreat just across the Davidson County line in Wilson County. "Soul molesters. That bunch that call themselves Christian. They are not Christian, but a very powerful political group. ... Groups like those with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, those people that run the [Southern Baptist Convention] Lifeway show. They don't show me much about the Christian faith. They hate, hate everybody except themselves and their power. Falwell stood down there at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting in Nashville recently and said, 'We won this election.' And he spoke the truth. They did elect George W. Bush."
As Campbell sees it, the well-heeled, Bible-thumping folks at the SBC have abandoned Christ in favor of Caesar, turned their dark suits and ties toward the Golden Calf of politics and away from the strict separation of church and state tradition of the Baptist church. He characterizes as un-Christian the SBC's support for the death penalty, the war in Iraq, the bashing of gays and lesbians, and sexist prohibitions against women in the ministry.
But for all the antagonism between Campbell and the SBC, Campbell devotees are legion — an array of country music giants, civil rights leaders, writers, poets, cartoonists, prison reformers, pastors, priests, rabbis, assorted Ku Klux Klansmen, jailbirds, bums, whores, distraught parents, the hungry, the homeless, the hopeless and the down and out. And hardly a day goes by that Campbell isn't in touch with one member or another of that motley crowd, inspiring them, advising them, consoling them, cheering them.
"I've told a number of people that Will is the richest man I know," singer-songwriter Jessi Coulter says during a telephone interview from her new home in Arizona, where not long ago — with Campbell at her side — she buried her husband, country great Waylon Jennings. "Will is so rich in things that matter in life, rich in humor, rich in philosophy. He's rich in kindness. He's rich in music. He's rich in ways to treat people. And he's a true life's lesson to watch and learn, although the last thing he wants is attention. And sometimes he's very rich in being radical."