Will Campbell died this week. He was a living legend, gifted writer, fearless prophet. I met him twice in radically different contexts. In the 1980s, he was the keynote speaker at a gathering of Mennonite young adults in the Northeast. In the mid-90s, he visited Sewanee for several days, renewing friendships and acquaintances with many activists he’d known for over thirty years. His message in both contexts was unsettling and challenging. It was especially fun to watch him in action in Sewanee where the traditions of the Confederacy were still powerful. Here’s the NYTimes obituary. Here’s the one from The Tennesseean.
Among the most moving tributes I’ve read was written by Bill Leonard, the dean of historians of Southern religion:
Will Campbell was obsessed with grace, especially as it falls on inappropriate people at inopportune times. He is gone from this world, as we all will be, sooner or later, as he’d surely remind us.
Taking a phrase from another of his books, I think he’d say he simply entered the “deep waters” of The Glad River, through which all the sinner/saints have trod. Damn right, Will. Damn right.
From Sojo.net: Campbell’s own story of his theological conversion which occurred as he and his friends mourned the death of Jonathan Daniels:
I was laughing at myself, at twenty years of a ministry which had become, without my realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication. Of riding the coattails of Caesar, of playing on his ballpark, by his rules and with his ball, of looking to government to make and verify and authenticate our morality, or worshiping at the shrine of enlightenment and academia, of making an idol of the Supreme Court, a theology of law and order, and of denying not only the faith I professed to hold but my history and my people the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled. Yet sitting there in his own jail cell, the blood of two of his and my brothers on his hands. The thought gave me a shaking chill in a non-air-conditioned room in August. I had never considered myself a liberal. I didn’t think in those terms. But that was the camp in which I had pitched my tent. Now I was not so sure.
Among his books worth reading, Brother to a Dragonfly, a memoir of his brother and his journey in the civil rights movement.