By Justin Cox
As I scooted into a booth at the small Indian restaurant I had no idea my spiritual direction and understanding were about to shift. So much had changed in the last few months with my wife and I moving to Winston-Salem, N.C., buying a home and me preparing for my first year at Wake Forest School of Divinity. I should have suspected something as I watched the man I had come to meet, Don Durham, enter through the glass doors.
I had been told to connect with Don from one of my professors at Campbell University. I believe Dr. Brian Foreman thought we’d get along for a few reasons; the most obvious being our shared affinity for facial hair. The other I would soon discover, as we enjoyed our conversation over curry, was a mutual questioning of how ministry was “supposed to look.” Don shared his story with me and I with him. Somewhere in our conversation Don mentioned the name Will Campbell. I guess my blank expression was enough for him to sat his fork down and raise his eyebrows.
“You don’t know who Will Campbell is,” Don asked?
“No, never heard of him,” was my meek reply. Schleiermacher, Barth, Harnack. These names I knew. But Will Campbell I had never run across.
“I’m going to tell you the same thing that I was told by the man who introduced me to Will Campbell,” Don said. “Don’t you tell anybody that you’re a Baptist until you read him.”
Don gave me a list of books by Campbell that I jotted down in my moleskin. He began to tell me about a white man from Mississippi who had referred to himself as a “bootleg Baptist.” Campbell would fight segregation at the University of Ole Miss in the mid 1950s, be the only white person at the first Southern Christian Leader Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and later minister to members of the Ku Klux Klan. As I heard Don describe this man I could hardly believe he was describing a Baptist.
I left Don’s company that day and immediately logged onto my Amazon Prime account and ordered his first Will Campbell recommendation, Brother to a Dragonfly.
The story is an autobiographical telling centering around Campbell’s upbringing and the relationship he shared with his older brother Joe. In the midst of unpacking boxes and painting our new home, I would rise early in the morning and read Campbell’s work. As someone who fancies themselves an avid reader, I found myself stretching this book out. I would read passages and bookmark pages as I tried to digest what I had just read. Slowly I began to feel a true connection with a denominational identity I was discovering I knew very little about.
I took my questions and curiosity into Dr. Bill Leonard’s History of Baptist course during my fall semester. On the second floor of Wingate Hall, Dr. Leonard has exposed me to the writings of Howard Thurman, Walter Rauschenbusch, Roger Williams, etc. The experience has been on par with trying to drink from a fire hose. So much history that gives me joy and a promise of hope.
I learned that Baptist heritage was built on dissenting and questioning those institutions that imposed corrupt legislation and ideologies on those less fortunate. I learned that the voices of Sara Wait and Anne Hutchinson would lay foundational stones for future generations of strong Baptist women. African-American men such as Thurman and Rufus Perry would help the black Baptist church in developing their own distinctiveness.
I learned that there are A LOT of different kinds of Baptists! Calvinistic Baptist, Arminian Baptist, American Baptist, Primitive Baptist Universalist, Cooperative Baptist, Reformed Baptist, Two Seed in the Spirit Predestination Baptist, and on and on. I could keep going, but the point I’m coming to understand is that Baptist identity is found in the freedom the faith allows and is defined by. The assurance of freedom that someone like myself, who has always identified as a “black sheep”, can find a place at the Baptist table.
Since that conversation with Don, I’ve read a lot of Will Campbell, and like Campbell I’m discovering what kind of Baptist I am. So if you see me, and ask me to describe where I fall on the Baptist spectrum you might get this for an answer; I’m a Southerner who is a Cooperative Baptist. Who knows, I might even be a “bootleg Baptist” before it’s all said and done. Or maybe something else? “Black sheep Baptist” has a nice ring to it don’t you think?
Justin Cox serves as the Minister to Students at First Baptist Church Statesville, N.C. He is a CBF Leadership Scholar pursuing his M.Div. at Wake Forest School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he and his wife, Lauren, live.