Will D. Campbell

Major Works

Will D. Campbell

Will D. Campbell

  • Up to Our Steeples in Politics (2005) with James Y. Holloway
  • A Black Politician’s Journey to the House: Robert G. Clark’s Story (2003)
  • And Also With You (Providence House Publishers, 1997)
  • Forty Acres and a Goat (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988)
  • Cecelia’s Sin (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1983)
  • The Glad River (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1982)
  • Brother to a Dragonfly (a National Book Award Nominee).  Memoir. (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1977)
  • Up to Our Steeples in Politics (New York: Paulist Press, 1970)
  • Providence
  • The Stem of Jesse
  • The Convention
  • God on Earth: The Lord’s Prayer for Our Time
  • Race and Renewal of the Church
  • The Pear Tree That Bloomed in the Fall
  • And Also with You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma

William Campbell: A Biography

by Brandon Frazier (SHS)

Will Campbell was born on July 18, 1924, in Liberty, Mississippi, to Lee Webb and Hancie Campbell. He attended the public schools in Amite County, Mississippi  (Will Campbell).   Campbell attended Louisiana State University from 1941-1943. He went into the army in 1943 and served until 1946. He was a sergeant. After he was released from the army, he married Brenda Fisher and had three children. He then attended Wake Forest University, Tulane University, and Yale Divinity School from 1946-1952 (Lisa Patterson,186).

In his early career he was a Baptist minister in Louisiana from 1952-1954. He became the Ole Miss Religion-in-life Director from1954-1956, and race religious consultant and member of the National Council of Churches from 1956-1963. He then moved to Tennessee where he was the only white member on the Committee of Southern Churchmen and a preacher at large from 1963-1972. (Aleda Shirley, 47) He often calls himself ” A preacher without a pulpit.” (Will Campbell)

All of this time he was writing nonfiction books, novels, and other literary works. He was awarded the Lillian Smith Prize, the Christopher Award, and a National Book Award Nomination for Brother to a Dragonfly. His book, The Glad River was named Friends of American Writers first place winner.. He was also awarded the Lyndhurst Prize and the Alex Haley award for distinguished Tennessee writer (Susan Glisson, 47).

Will B. Dunn of Kudzu cartoon

Kudzu cartoon frame by Doug Marlette. Will Campbell was model for Will B. Dunn.

Will D. Campbell is not only an accomplished writer, but also one of the most successful Mississippi writers that is nationally recognized today. It is said that he is the model for the comic strip Kudzu minister Will B. Dunn (Aleda Shirley, 47). His book about Duncan Gray is the story of an Episcopal priest who fought for simple justice for all people as he provided leadership during a period when black students were first being admitted to schools and universities in Mississippi. His book Robert G. Clark’s Journey to the House, written in 2003, is a biography of the man who, in 1967 was elected Mississippi’s first black state legislator since Reconstruction. Campbell lives today in Tennessee.


Will D. Campbell died at the age of 88 on June 3, 2013, of complications from a stroke he had two years ago. He most recently lived in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, outside of Nashville. His memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, was a finalist for the 1977 National Book Award, which Time magazine named one of the ten most notable works of nonfiction of the 1970’s.

According to an article by the Associated Press, “Campbell was the Nashville representative of a pro-integration operation called the National Council of Churches.” Bernard Lafayette, a civil rights leader and close friend of Campbell, said, “When we had the sit-ins, Will would show up. We knew there was somebody who cared and was concerned about what happened to us. He was reminding us that there were some white people who believed in what we were doing.”

M. Alex Johnson, a staff writer for NBC News, listed the following as some of Campbell’s many accomplishments:

  • He was one of the four people who escorted the black students who integrated the Little Rock, Ark., public schools in 1957.
  • He was the only white minister among about 60 pastors invited to attend the meeting in Atlanta that same year where King laid the foundations for the SCLC.
  • He joined the Freedom Riders who worked to integrate buses in Alabama in 1961.
  • He was with King for the march on Birmingham in 1963.
  • He was with King for the march on Selma, Ala., in 1965.

In 2000 President Bill Clinton awarded Campbell the National Humanities Medal. Campbell’s wife of 67 years, Brenda Fisher,; a son, Webb; and two daughters, Bonnie and Penny, survive him.

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A Review of Cecelia’s Sin

by Brandon Frazier (SHS)

Brandon Frazier, SHS

Brandon Frazier, SHS

In his second work of fiction Cecelia’s Sin. Campbell established his parameters about the nature, or origin, of reconciliation and the Baptist faith. The story, actually partially written as a section of The Glad River, took place in Amsterdam in 1549. It centered upon the last few months of Cecelia Geronymus, Goris Cooman, and Pieter Boens, Anabaptists who awaited their deaths at the hands of the Catholic state.

The Anabaptists, or rebaptizers, a sect started by Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland, in the 1520s, faced brutal suppression for their beliefs at the hands of the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic states in Europe. Their ideas of adult baptism, communal property, and the total separation of church and state struck most mainstream religious groups as heresy.

Despite severe state oppression, however, this group’s ideas continued to trickle down to the present. Campbell believed the early origins of the modern American Baptist church came from within this movement, although real vestiges only manifest themselves now in such groups as the Amish and the Mennonites.

Cecelia, Goris, and Pieter expected death because of the arrest of the itinerant elder who had baptized them. Since baptism of an adult constituted a seditious act, men called missionaries wandered from place to place performing the act of the faithful. These mend kept lists of those they baptized for communication purposes. Gillis, their misnomer, fell to the authorities in a failed attempt to escape the country. Instead of fleeing to prevent the inevitable, the three stoically stayed in Amsterdam to await their fate. Cecelia decided to record the travail of the followers of their faith, so that future generations might learn, not so much about their theology, but of the prices they paid.

To begin their report they listed the reasons the authorities hated them so. Many in Amsterdam called them Doopsgesinde, or baptism-minded. They believed that the baptism of a three-day old child meant nothing since that child could not yet realize the implications of the action. As a result they practiced rebaptism, or adult baptism.

Concerning the question of child versus adult baptism, neither Campbell nor his characters turned to the Scriptures. Coincidentally the New Testament actually says little one way or the other. Very little direct evidence of pedobaptism exists in the Gospels. The same is true, however, for the postponing of the ceremony until adulthood and a profession of faith. This oversight provided any religious group the opportunity to establish its own standard of ritual.

Pieter provided a reason for the Holy Roman Empire’s preference for child baptism. It allowed the state to register and monitor the person throughout life. As such, the act of baptism became a civic ceremony, not a religious one. Obviously, the similarity between the church state’s records and the missionaries’ lists did not occur to Pieter, or indeed, to Campbell.

Other reasons existed to make the state wary of Campbell’s Anabaptists. They refused to serve in the military, or to kill for any reason for either the state or church. They refused to take oaths, as commanded by Jesus in Matthew 5:34-37. This edict, as a result, barred them from civic duty such as serving on juries. By adherent to these conventions they furthered the separation between themselves and state control.

Campbell believed that one particular practice raised more antagonism in the state than any other of those listed above. Pieter told Cecelia and Goris that the state’s fear of their community of goods led to the greatest persecution. Based on love, and not on fear, the Anabaptists will share their worldly goods with their brethren constituted the greatest threat to the control of the sovereign state.

The Scripture provided justification for their community of goods. In the early years of the church in Jerusalem, the Christians followed a system of communal life. They did not do so to provide equality of possession, but out of the joy of God’s grace. Just as inflammatory at its beginning, as in the time of Cecelia, Goris and Pieter, the advent of the community of goods created the first dissension in the early church.

In writing the report of the plight of their brethren, Cecelia committed her sin. Campbell used this situation to demonstrate the danger sometimes inherent in Christian service. Cecelia made an idol out of her mission. She ignored the advice of Jacob Cool, one of the Anabaptists they interviewed, that “the telling of the story is not the story”. Obsessed with her pending death, she almost made the record a testimonial to her own martyrdom, not to the movement as a whole. As Campbell said, she replaced the love of God with the love of the love of God.

In Cecelia’s Sin, Campbell also clearly defined his concept of a true church. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus declared that when two or three witnesses gathered in his name, he would be with them. The passage falls within the parameters of the discussion of the structure and administration of the Church. Goris questions his comrades on the matter. He gave them pause by his suggestion that if one person could not make a church, them more than three could not either. He reasoned that if more than three people assembled, one would try to assert himself as leader. Campbell demonstrated a strong fundamentalist outlook on this regard. No doubt, he used this scripture to justify his own itinerant brand of ministry.

Campbell’s Anabaptists experienced two other episodes that warrant examination. While the author never declared these actions as historical articles of faith to his religious outsiders, that he included them in the novella at all demonstrated the weight these matters held for him.

After hearing that their time had indeed finally come, Cecelia tied a towel around her waist, knelt before Goris and Pieter, and bathed their feet. After she finished, they washed her feet. Campbell set the state to correspond closely with John 13:4-20, in which Jesus, at the Last Supper, washed the feet of His disciples. Generally performed by the servants of a household, foot washing had long been a custom extended to guests in Palestine. By performing this duty, Christ turned it into a ceremony that symbolized both an act of baptism and a humble service of love.

By including this ritual in Cecelia’s Sin, Campbell no doubt hoped to minister to the modern, established churches. In his earlier writings he praised the fundamentalist sects for their unreserved performance of such acts of faith as foot washing, shouting and snake handling. Campbell did not applaud these actions so much as he did the absolute belief in which the Fundamentalists performed them. He declared that more mainstream churches should use the perfect faith of the Fundamentalists as an example to return unrestricted worship to religion.

In keeping with Campbell’s ideas on religious spontaneity or unrestrained worship, shortly after the foot washing ceremony, Cecelia, Goris and Pieter underwent a charismatic experience. The three fell into a spell of heavy sighing, silent at first, but gradually louder. Groans of lamentation and distress filled their upper room. Separately they began to utter scattered pieces of scriptures. Then, instinctively, one after the other, they raised their hands toward the ceiling and recited together, “Let the sighing of the prisoners come before thee; according to the greatness of thy power preserve thou those who are appointed to die.” At that point spiritual deliverance poured forth upon them. They laughed, rejoiced and frolicked about the room, sliding down the banister, twisting in circles, and crawling under the tables in sheer joy. While they never spoke in other languages, as had the early Christians on the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in the second chapter of Acts, they no less experienced much the same infusion of the Holy Spirit. God reconciled them to him. They reconciled themselves one to another.

Cecelia Geronymus received her second and ultimate baptism in the spring of 1550, drowned in the Amstel River for sedition because of her religious beliefs. An hour after her death, Pieter Boens and Goris Cooman received their own baptisms by fire.

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Written Interview with Will D. Campbell

by Brandon Frazier, SHS

Question- When did you start writing?

Answer- In High School

Question- What do you believe is your best work of literature to date?

Answer- The Glad River

Question- What inspired you to write Brother to a Dragonfly?

Answer- My brother, Joe

Question- How long did it take you to write this book?

Answer- Seven years

Question- Do you have any advice for me today?

Answer- Read! Read! Read!

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Related Websites

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  • Aleda, Shirley. Mississippi Writers Directory and Literary Guide. The Center for the Study of Southern Culture, 1995
  • Will Campbell. Written Interview.
  • Haley, Janice. Contemporary Authors. New York: 1985
  • Yardley, Jonathan. Book Review in New York Times. November 22, 1977.
  • Culpepper, Clark. Journal of American History, Dec 95, vol. 82 Issue 3, p.1290, 2p.

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