It was the fortune of Clayton Sullivan to be born and reared in Mississippi, a child of the Great Depression. Working after school in the kitchen of a hotel in Jackson, he was – against his will – “called by God to be a Southern Baptist preacher.” As a student at Mississippi College he pastored country churches and preached revivals across the state, shouting and pounding the pulpit, calling sinners to repent.
Then, at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Clayton Sullivan encountered new ideals of critical scholarship and intellectual honesty. With the same passionate zeal that had once pursued the souls of the unchurched and the backsliders of Mississippi, he embraced the critical study of the New Testament, remaining eight years in order to become a Doctor of Theology. When, near the end of this idyllic season of study and contemplation, he had mastered the language and forms of the New Testament and was writing his dissertation, the “Battle of Lexington Road” erupted, sending thirteen of his professors into exile. He was forced to rewrite his dissertation to suit other ideals, and finally he was told, “You have no moral right to be a Southern Baptist preacher.”
In the aftermath of the crisis at Southern, Dr. Sullivan washed dishes, served time in a perfunctory position in the seminary library, and finally – through the influence of friends at the seminary and in Mississippi – became pastor of a church in a small Mississippi town. There he would strive for an effective ministry among people he came to know and love – but again the times were out of joint. There he would witness the struggle of Mississippi blacks for civil rights and the angry, often violent reaction of white Mississippians. There he would also confront the tragedy of undeserved suffering among members of his church and a caste system that shut him out of real influence in the community.
Finally, fatigued by conflict and confused by problems he could not resolve, Dr. Sullivan – again with the help of friends – became a professor of religion and philosophy in a state university. There he would experience yet another intellectual awakening, in the study of philosophy and non-Christian religions. But he would also confront a brutally despotic administration that attempted three times to fire him from his job. Yet there he remained, and today he is a tenured professor.
Clayton Sullivan is not where he started out to be. But, he tells us, “I have survived and survival is the essence of a Mississippi redneck!” His story, told with unsparing candor and a novelist’s eye for detail, will not fail to fascinate every reader who traversed any of the territory.
Book write review's| Posted April 15, 2015
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