Multum in ParvoReviewed by W.W. Finlator
Vol. 14, No. 4, 1992, pp. 30-32
Providence, Will D. Campbell (Longstreet Press, Atlanta, 1992, 292 pages)
Providence opens with a visit in 1955 by the Rev. Will D. Campbell and Professor McLeod Bryan of Mercer University to a place called Providence in Mississippi where Sherwood Eddy and Reinhold Niebuhr had set up an experiment in integration, a visit that cost Will his position as chaplain at the University of Mississippi and launched him on his strange and eventful spiritual Odyssey.
Who is Will Campbell? After writing 10 books and, for
Page 31half a century, preaching, lecturing, protesting, agitating, singing, counseling, and traveling far and wide, we still ask who is this brooding, prophetic, and gifted man, Will Campbell. It's easy to answer that when the Lord made him he threw away the pattern, but how would you describe the "pattern"?
Perhaps in Providence, Will, while writing of lots of others, lets us in for a heap of indirect self-disclosure, and we begin to see through a glass less darkly into the inner workings of this marvelous, multi-faceted, dreaming personality.
I mean by this that the author of this well researched history of Choctaw Indians, fur traders and pioneers, early settlers, missionaries, poor white farmers, slaves, Plantations, Civil War, Reconstruction, share-cropping, integration and the Civil Rights movement—all related to a parcel of land he repeatedly identifies as "a square mile of earth, Section Thirteen of Township Sixteen, North Range, in Holmes County, Mississippi"—is not only meticulous researcher and careful historian but also inadvertently, and certainly unintentionally, autobiographical.
And what a felicitous title! The book is about Providence Plantation, and no man in our day to my judgment has through a checkered and unchartered career of love and service been more under the guidance and governance of Providence than Will Campbell. He's had to be.
The book is also about love. Will Campbell loves the American Indians individually and collectively, but he hates what the European Americans have done and continue to do the Indians.
He loves black Americans individually and collectively, but he is pained and outraged by the scars of slavery and segregation. He loves Southern poor whites, even when they are called rednecks, but he utterly rejects every expression of their racism. He loves the plantation elite, but he calls down the wrath of God upon their exploitation of both the poor whites and the blacks while remaining pious leaders in the church.
He loves his Baptist faith and heritage, but decries what Baptists have done to it. He loves democracy, Jeffersonian and Jacksonian, but he can never forgive Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Jackson for their shameless parts in the forced removal of the Choctaw from Mississippi. He loves the good earth—and when it comes to a square mile of it in Holmes County, Mississippi, he venerates it—but his heart and his flesh cry out in agony and anger when the barbarians, whether individuals, corporations, or the Department of Interior, rape it.
A word we toss around today is holistic. Matthew Arnold wrote about seeing life steady and seeing it whole. Many authors in many books have told us the story of our Southland and from many points of view.
But when it comes to telling us about 160 years of joys and griefs and despairs of red, black, and white Southerners across the sweep and surge of history from the perspective of a preacher, theologian, social prophet, philosopher, guitar singer of country, reformer, whiskey-drinking, tobacco-chewing Baptist, farmer and home maker, totally in love with life and people, providentially we have Will Campbell. Multum in parvo. So much stirring history packed in that little parcel of land in Holmes County, Mississippi.
You really ought to read this book. Some people think it's his best.
W.W. Finlator of Raleigh, long-time Baptist Pastor and A.C.L.U. leader, is an absolutist about the Bill of Rights and the original principles of his Baptist faith (principles now despised by the heretics who control the Southern Baptist Convention.)