By Sid Salter
I’m sure that there are other small churches that have contributed significantly to this nation’s culture, but I likewise rather doubt that any church in America has had a more profound impact on the culture of the rural South than has East Fork Baptist Church, located about a mile off Highway 24 in rural Amite County.
The church has been there for more than 200 years, not far from the east fork of the Amite River for which the church was named. With 240 or so members on the books, the present pastor says that “on a good Sunday” some 50 to 70 souls gather to worship.
There are literally hundreds of such small, rural houses of worship around Mississippi. But what makes this church and the Smithdale community east of Liberty special is that they spawned two of the most memorable characters in Mississippi’s history – minister, writer and civil rights activist the Rev. Will D. Campbell and Nashville comedian and Christian storyteller Jerry Clower.
Campbell, born in 1924, and Clower, born in 1926, share the roots of their educations at East Fork Consolidated High School and both were members of East Fork Baptist Church. Campbell was at age 17 ordained to preach at East Fork Baptist, where he was baptized in June 1931.
Clower accepted Christ as his savior at a July 1939, revival and was baptized on the same day with his future wife, Homerline.
Campbell died June 3 in Nashville at age 88 after an extended illness. Clower died in 1998 at the age of 71. They interacted in church and in school. One local historian suggests in her writings that they were distantly related.
But that’s where the similarities end.
I was fortunate to come to know Jerry Clower reasonably well and to maintain a relationship with his late brother, Sonny, as well. Jerry Clower was loud and boisterous, the kind of man who sucked all the air out of the room when he entered.
His stories were funny, but clean. He never told a joke on stage that he could not have told from the pulpit at East Fork Baptist Church. His was a born-again, evangelical Christian who was affiliated with Christian pursuits in both his business and personal life.
He used his fame to engage in evangelism and he avoided the trappings of fame. He did not associate with the more colorful colleagues he encountered at the Grand Ole Opry. He was a by the Good Book Christian who lived his faith each day.
Campbell, who I met in Oxford and with whom I maintained an intermittent correspondence, embraced the hard Nashville cases like Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall and Waylon Jennings. In a Rolling Stone interview in 1970, Campbell – the model for the late Doug Marlette’s Rev. Will B. Dunn in the comic strip “Kudzu” – was a minister who did not attend church, made and drank whiskey, and whose vocabulary was peppered with robust but well-chosen expletives.
Few Mississippians of his generation had more courage in embracing the cause of civil rights or advocacy for the poor, the downtrodden and the marginalized. His writings were brave and important and he was not afraid to be critical of organized religion. His ministry was to those who did not trust churches or the institutions that supported churches.
Here’s a suggestion. Find some recordings of Jerry Clower’s tales of the Ledbetters and share his lamentations on the life of poor rural God-fearing rednecks down in the Amite County of his childhood. Then read Campbell’s “Brother to a Dragonfly” or “Forty Acres and a Goat” along with “Providence” and “The Convention.”
Their politics were different. They came at their respective artistries from different philosophical points. But the echoes of gnawing rural poverty, isolation, hopelessness and the sometimes blind faith that only God and hard labor offered any respite are so familiar. Both men told marvelous stories, stories that flowed from the east fork of the Amite River.
SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.