Rev. Will Davis Campbell man of constant comfort to the biblical “least of these,” died peacefully in the unbroken circle of his extended family on Monday evening, June 3, 2013. He was 88. A native of Amite County, MS, he and his two brothers and one sister were the children of Lee Webb and Hancie Parker Campbell. Will was ordained to the ministry at East Fork Baptist Church near his family’s farm when he was 17 and enlisted in the army soon thereafter, serving as a medic in the South Pacific during World War II. In 1946 he married Brenda Fisher, whom he had met at Louisiana College in Pineville before he joined the army. Will went on to complete his higher education, earning degrees at Wake Forest, Tulane and Yale Universities; he received the Doctor of Divinity at Yale in 1952. Returning to the South, Rev. Campbell served for two years as pastor of a Baptist church in Taylor, LA, before becoming principal campus chaplain at the University of Mississippi. He was eased out by the school administration in 1956 because of his outspoken support of racial integration. The Campbells then moved to Nashville, and Will became a special representative in the South for the National Council of Churches. By the mid-1960s, he and Brenda and their three children had settled on a small farm near Mt. Juliet, in Wilson County, and Will was named director of the Committee of Southern Churchmen, a lay organization of whites and blacks working since the 1930s to bring a social gospel of reconciliation and hope to the masses of Southerners who suffered from racism, poverty, discrimination and neglect. Down through the years, the Campbell farm became a safe harbor and place of healing for uncounted hundreds of troubled souls and kindred spirits. Will’s “church without a steeple” attracted a wonderful menagerie of humanity—defrocked ministers, country music “outlaws,” alienated academics, hard-bitten journalists, Ku Klux Klan members, student protesters, Black Panthers, Vietnam War resisters, runaway children, death-row inmates and sundry other untouchables shunned by polite society. “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway,” Will was fond of saying. “If you love one, you gotta love ‘em all.” He wrote 17 books, the most celebrated of which was Brother to a Dragonfly, and received numerous honors, including personal words of praise for “Brother Will” from Jimmy Carter and a Presidential Medal from Bill Clinton—two Southerners and national chief executives who admired his conviction.
In addition to his parents, Will was preceded in death by his brother, Joseph Lee Campbell, and sister Lorraine Campbell Honea.
Survivors include: Brenda Fisher Campbell, his wife of 67 years; brother Paul Edward Campbell (Bettye); daughter Penny Elizabeth Campbell; daughter Bonnie Ruth Campbell (Steven Hallman); son Lee Webb Campbell II (Donna Bandy Campbell); and four grandchildren: Will Harlan Dylan Campbell (Amy Lynn Waples), Kyle Lindsey Campbell, Will Davis Campbell II and Cole Bandy Campbell.
A memorial service for Will will be held at noon Saturday, June 22, at St. Stephen Catholic Community, 14544 Lebanon Rd., with family visitation preceding at 11 a.m. and continuing at the church after the service. The Campbell family wishes to express its deepest affection and gratitude to the staff of the Richland Place Health Center for their thoroughly professional, warmly personal and always loving care of Will over the past two years. In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested that alternative donations be made to nonprofit public-service organizations such as Park Center, 801 12th Ave. S., Nashville 37203, and Second Harvest Food Bank, 331 Great Circle Rd., Nashville 38228.
Arrangements by Sellars Funeral Home at Mt. Juliet, 2250 N. Mt. Juliet Road, Mt. Juliet, TN 37122, (615)758-5459, obituary line (615)758-8818, www.sellarsfuneralservices.com.