Campbell was born in Amite County, Mississippi, United States, the son of a farmer. He credited his family with having raised him to be culturally tolerant, even though his family church had Bibles emblazoned with a Ku Klux Klan symbol. He was ordained as a minister by his local Baptist congregation at age 17. He attended Louisiana College, then enlisted in the Army during World War II where he served as a medic. After the war, he attended Wake Forest College (BA, English), Tulane University, and Yale Divinity School.
Though he held a pastorate in Louisiana from 1952 to 1954, Campbell spent most of his career in other settings. In 1954, he took a position as director of religious life at the University of Mississippi, only to resign it in 1956, in part because of the hostility (including death threats) he received as a supporter of integration.
He subsequently took a position as a field officer for the National Council of Churches, where he had his closest contact with the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, Campbell left the NCC to become director of the Committee of Southern Churchmen, which provided a home for his activism in the subsequent years. This organization published a journal, Katallagete, the title of which is the New Testament Greek for the Pauline phrase "be reconciled," a reference to 2 Corinthians 5:20. The journal featured articles about politics and social change, as understood through the lens of the Christian faith, particularly the neo-orthodox movement, which Campbell became acquainted with at Yale. Edited by James Y. Holloway of Kentucky's Berea College, Katallagete was published from 1965 until the early 1990s; the CSC relinquished control of the journal to Campbell and Holloway in 1983. By 2005, Campbell described this last organization in the past tense as “nothing ... a name and a tax exemption and whatever I and a few other people were doing on a given day," and he continued his work on a personal basis among his network of acquaintances including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dick Gregory, Jules Feiffer and Studs Terkel.
Although remaining a Baptist, he reputedly conducted house church worship services in his home late into his life. His home was in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, outside of Nashville.
Campbell died on June 3, 2013, in Nashville, Tennessee, from complications from a stroke he suffered in May 2011. He was 88 and is survived by his wife of 67 years, Brenda Fisher, a son, Webb, and two daughters, Bonnie and Penny.
In 1957, while working for the National Council of Churches, Campbell participated in two notable events of the Civil Rights Movement: he was one of four people who escorted the black students who integrated the Little Rock, Arkansas, public schools; and he was the only white person present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some black delegates opposed admitting him; but Bayard Rustin sponsored him. In 1961, he helped "Freedom Riders" of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to integrate interstate bus travel, despite white mob violence, in Alabama. In a 1964 interview with Robert Penn Warren for the book Who Speaks for the Negro?, Campbell discussed many of the issues of the Civil Rights Movement, including the assassination of Medgar Evers by Byron De La Beckwith, Desegregation busing, and the relationship between theology and social activism.
He appealed to Southern Christian churches to end their own segregation and fight discrimination, rather than remain silent. Mr. Campbell eventually left organized religion, though he remained firmly Christian.
Despite these efforts, Campbell later claimed, "I never considered myself ... an activist in the civil rights movement, though a lot of other people considered me an activist."
His uncompromising theology has led him to keep his distance from political movements. He has insisted that "anyone who is not as concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian" and that "Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well". These convictions sometimes caused friction between Campbell and other civil rights figures, for example, when Campbell ministered to members of the Ku Klux Klan and visited James Earl Ray in prison. He remarked in 1976, "It's been a long time since I got a hate letter from the right. Now they come from the left."
In his book, "The Stem of Jesse", Will examines the experience of Sam Oni, the first black student to attend Mercer University in Macon Georgia as well as the moral courage of Dr. Joseph Hendricks, who shepherded Mercer through the process of desegregation. The book also profiles Samaria Mitcham Bailey, a young American female of African descent, and her resolve in coping with the racial challenges she faced while matriculating at Mercer University.
While Campbell is best known in connection with civil rights activism, he also took an interest in other political issues. He participated in protests against the Vietnam War and helped draft resisters to find sanctuary in Canada. In the late 1970s he spoke out against the death penalty, particularly after forming a relationship with John Spenkelink, whom the state of Florida executed in 1979. Campbell also expressed an opposition to abortion. Akin to the likes of William Stringfellow and Jacques Ellul (who were both contributors to Katallagete), Campbell espoused a fairly strong distrust of government and a belief that people must make their own history. These last two stands sharply distinguish Campbell's thought from that of most religious liberal activists, bringing his views in line with those of more recent postliberal theologians, who denounce liberal (as well as conservative) esteem for civic society as a misplaced faith, an idolatry taking the place of God and Jesus Christ in the Christian life. Will D Campbell was photographed by Henry Groskinsky from TIME magazine on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel, standing in front of the room that Martin Luther King Jr. was staying in the very night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, it was quiet but creepy said Henry Groskinsky, and he was taken aback at his unfettered access to the scene of the crime.
This list contains every, or nearly every, book-length work authored primarily by Campbell, but it makes no attempt to list shorter works.Race and the Renewal of the Church (1962)
Up to Our Steeples in Politics (1970, reprint 2005) (with James Y. Holloway)
The Failure and the Hope: Essays of Southern Churchmen (1972, reprint 2005) (edited with James Y. Holloway)
... and the criminals with him ..." Lk 23:33: A first-person book about prisons (1972)
Brother to a Dragonfly (1977): part autobiography, part elegy for Campbell's brother, part oral history of the Civil Rights Movement
The Glad River (1982): novel
Cecelia's Sin (1983): historical novel set among the early Baptists
The Lord's Prayer for Our Time (1983) (with Will McBride and Bonnie Campbell)
Forty Acres and a Goat (1986): autobiography (40 acres is about 16 hectares)
The Convention: A Parable (1988): allegory based on the conflict between moderates and fundamentalists within the Southern Baptist Convention
Covenant: Faces, Voices, Places (1989) (with photographs by Al Clayton)
Chester and Chun Ling (1989): children's book, illustrated by Jim Hsieh
Providence (1992, reprint 2002)
The Stem of Jesse: The Costs of Community at a 1960's Southern School (1995, reprint 2002): account of racial integration at Mercer University
"Little Red Riding: The Babtist Red-headed Girl" (1996, reprinted 2001): children's book, illustrated by Picasso
"Elvis Presley as Redneck" (1995): address delivered at First Elvis Presley Symposium, University of Mississippi
The Pear Tree That Bloomed in the Fall (1996): children's book, illustrated by Elaine Kernea
And Also With You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma (1997): a tribute to the Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray, whom Campbell calls one of his heroes
Bluebirds Always Come on Sunday (1997)
Shugah and Doops (1997)
Soul Among Lions: Musings of a Bootleg Preacher (1999)
Robert G. Clark's Journey to the House (2003): a biography of the man who, in 1967, was elected Mississippi's first black state legislator since Reconstruction
"Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance" (2010)
"Crashing the Idols: The Vocation of Will D. Campbell" (2010)
"And the Criminals With Him: Essays in Honor of Will D. Campbell and the Reconciled" Edited by Will D. Campbell and Richard C. Goode. (2012)