Clarence Jordan and the Southern Tradition

The Southern Tradition is not something easily defined in a few words.  Its specific formulation comes from the work of Richard Weaver as he interpreted the thought of the Nashville Agrarians with significant augmentation by M.E. Bradford.  For my purposes here I will just consider it to be the sum of the myriad ways that southern culture, history, and ways of life are distinguished from other ways of life found in the larger American culture around it.  One thing that is characteristic of the Southern Tradition is the way that that larger culture has persistently tried to alter the southern way of life to its own purposes.  As we will see when we look at his life, it might seem by that measure that Clarence Jordan could not be an exemplar of the Southern Tradition as he apparently wanted to bring about a change to a key characteristic of the southern way of life during his time, racial segregation.  But I think a different case can be made.  I want to make that case here (Let me be clear – I am not making a claim that Clarence Jordan, were he alive today, would agree with what I am saying.  I think it would be unjust to him to assume this.  And, those who knew him might also claim something different.  I am simply arguing a case that I think can be made from the facts of his life.)  I want to argue that the life of Clarence Jordan can be better understood as a development from within the Southern Tradition than from outside of if.  In addition, his life and work are a valuable contribution to that Tradition which would otherwise be seriously deficient without it.

Clarence Jordan was born in Talbotton, a small town in Georgia about 80 miles southwest of Atlanta, on July 29, 1912.  His parents were native Georgians with many generations of southern ancestry.  Clarence’s father, Jim, was a successful businessman in Talbot County, of which Talbotton was the county seat.  Some of his businesses were agricultural in nature and Clarence helped with these.  Clarence’s parents were devout Southern Baptists and Clarence, too, at the age of 12, made a “profession of faith” and joined the Talbotton Baptist Church.  After a seemingly normal and happy childhood and adolescence Clarence matriculated at the University of Georgia and studied agriculture.  His Christian faith, however, had intensified during his time at the university and after he graduated in 1933 he entered the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, known as “Southern.”  He would eventually earn a Ph.D. in Greek New Testament in 1939.

Clarence pursued a number of activities during and after his student years including preaching in local churches and mission activities in Louisville and the surrounding area.  One area of particular interest to him was the Haymarket in the Louisville inner city.  It had started in the 1880’s as an outdoor farmer’s market.  During Clarence’s student years it had begun to decline and the surrounding area was home to an array of bars, gambling houses, pornography shops and houses of prostitution.  It was a dangerous area to work but Clarence later called it the “place of his spiritual awakening.”

This meant that for Clarence his Christian work needed to be directed toward the poor and dispossessed.  Eschewing a conventional ministerial career, by 1942 Clarence had formulated a path forward.  Married by this time and with children, Clarence and another missionary family, Martin England and his wife, had bought agricultural land in Sumter County in southwest Georgia, a few miles outside the county seat, Americus, and not that far from where Clarence had grown up.  Their plan was to found an agricultural community that would be biracial and hold all material goods in common.  The model was the community of Christians described in Acts 4:32.  They called the new community “Koinonia,” Greek for “fellowship.”  The idea was that living in fellowship with other human beings, in a community which did not make a distinction based on race or economic condition, would be a witness to the way of life that Jesus had called on all to live.  Additionally, Clarence wanted to use his knowledge in agricultural technique to improve the economic condition of the people of the area, both black and white.  And, in fact, the farm did bring some agricultural innovations to the area.

At this point I have to summarize the long and complex story of Koinonia Farm, where Clarence lived for the rest of his life, until his sudden death there on October 29, 1969, while working on his translation of the Gospel of John in what was known as “Clarence’s writing shack.”  From the beginning there was considerable tension between the local people and Koinonia.  For example, while the farm slowly grew, it was not the case that people of different races could be found living together and sharing what they had in a “common purse.”  Only whites were actual members of the community.  Insufficient trust existed on both sides to do more than that.  More often Clarence and the others, including blacks, would just work together.  But then, taking a midday break they would also eat together, violating a southern taboo of that time.  They also provided transportation for young black children to school, transportation which the local school system did not provide.  People noticed and let them know of their objection to these activities.  Nevertheless, things went along and Koinonia was able to maintain relations with the town, buying and selling from local businessmen.  Downing writes, “… while Clarence and the Koinonians saw real success in the first decade in cultivating and fostering interracial relationships and advancing the cause of African Americans in Sumter County, at the end of that decade, they were confronted by the church, which saw itself as the guardian of Southern society.”

Shortly after arriving at Koinonia, Clarence joined the closest local church, Rehobeth Baptist.  He and other Koinonians were active participants there throughout the 1940’s.  There were some incidents between the church and the Koinonians that caused tensions but nothing caused an open break.  (Clarence was also brought to the attention of the FBI during this period for allegedly encouraging young men to resist the draft – due to Clarence’s pacifism – more on this below.)  This changed in August, 1950 when Clarence and some other Koinonians brought a young Indian visiting the farm with them to church.  Clarence and the others did not perceive this action as an intentional violation of the social norms but the members of the church did and expelled Clarence and all the Koinonians from the church and told them they could not attend services there at all.  After this event Clarence Jordan never attempted to join another church.  There appears to have been mixed feelings about this action in the congregation.  When asked to vote on the expulsion resolution,

Two-thirds of the congregation stood in favor of the motion.  Then the people got quiet for a long time, Jordan recounted.  Then someone began to sob, and soon others joined.  For five minutes, the congregation cried quietly.  Then they got up and, one by one, they began to go out the door. [1]

There does not appear to have been unanimity in the church about this action either.  Shortly after the expulsion, the chairman of the board of deacons, an elderly man, came to see Clarence and expressed his opinion that the board had been wrong in its action and asked Clarence’s forgiveness for having been a part of it.  On Clarence’s advice the man became a ‘divine irritant’ to the local congregation over this action.  But the man did not live much longer.

Downing reports that, “After the Rehobeth incident, Koinonia turned its attention to farming and, for a time, lived a rather quiet, even if ‘uneasy but peaceful [,] co-existence’ with the folks of Sumter County.”  In fact, this period of time seems to have extended into 1956 during which the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court decision, among other things, had ignited a massive resistance among white southerners.  In March, 1956, Clarence had been asked by two young black applicants to help with their application to enter the Georgia State College of Business in Atlanta.  He agreed to do so.  Word of this got out in Americus and ignited the first of what became a years-long series of violent attacks on Koinonia. 

From that time forward, there were many forms of violence perpetrated against Koinonia – from small, random acts to potentially deadly acts.  The violence began with drive-by shootings and anonymous, threatening calls.  Sometimes the phone would ring every ten minutes, all night long.  In the first couple of years there were twenty-three acts of violence with firearms, with fire, or with dynamite.  With all of the violence, it was only short of miraculous that no one at Koinonia was hurt physically.

In August of 1956 a boycott of buying and selling to the farm began, cutting off its economic lifeline.  Ultimately this resulted in Koinonia developing a mail order business for its products so that it was not economically dependent on the local community.  Because of its communal nature the farm was regarded as “communist.” 

But again the attack on Koinonia did not involve the entire local community.  In May, 1957, a local feed store told Clarence that it would no longer participate in the boycott.  Shortly after this the store was dynamited, sending a message to other merchants about what straying from the path of isolating the farm would cost them.  The boycott remained.  Moreover, there was at least some perception in the community of the source of Clarence’s vision. In its investigation of Clarence the FBI received these two responses from informants.  One said, “Dr. Jordan is a very highly educated religious man, and his ideas from a social standpoint are very extreme for our part of Georgia … Our information indicates that he is thoroughly sincere, but not very popular.”  Another wrote “[Doctor Jordan is] very religious, and that his opposition to the war is based on his religion and that his socializing with Negroes is based on his religion.”  On another note, a local resident said that the farm should be taken “’well above the Mason-Dixon line.’”[2]

By the early 1960’s the events of the 1950’s had left Koinonia depleted of its resources.  There had been sixty people living at the farm before the crisis began in 1956 whereas there were only three families and a few others three years later.  The southern economy was changing away from agriculture and people were moving from the rural areas to the cities.  Moreover, Jordan perceived that, for blacks, belonging to such an intentional community as Koinonia would mean continued dependency on whites and thus was not something that would appeal to them.  Americus itself became a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement from 1963 to 1965 under the auspices of SNCC and the NAACP.  Koinonia Farm played a peripheral role in this activity, allowing its facilities to be used by SNCC for training sessions and residences of some of the leaders (see more on Clarence’s views on the Civil Rights Movement below).  Clarence began to rethink his vision.  He also began to write his translation of the New Testament, which became known as The Cotton Patch Gospels

At the end of 1965 Millard Fuller and his family stopped by Koinonia Farm and met Clarence, an event which has been described as a “’magnificent collision.’”  Earlier in 1965 Millard, a young and wealthy businessman from Montgomery, Alabama, had experienced a personal and familial crisis.  The resolution to this crisis prompted him to recommit himself to Christ, sell everything he had, and give it to the poor.  Shortly thereafter, after his meeting with Clarence, there were  even further changes.  Then, three years after their first encounter (when Koinonia was down to only two families), Clarence and Millard reunited at Koinonia and put together the plan with a new vision of what they called a “Fund for Humanity.”  After Clarence’s death in late 1969, Millard continued to implement this vision into what became Habitat for Humanity (but that is another story).  Millard Fuller often said that Clarence Jordan was closer to being Jesus than any person he had ever met.

This is a story of one man’s courage, and that of the community he led, to try to do what he saw as right in the effort to correct a great injustice.  But what does this story have to do with the Southern Tradition?  To begin with, Downing lays great emphasis in his book on Jordan on the importance of Clarence’s mother in his life.  He was the first of Clarence’s biographers to have access to and make extensive use of Clarence’s correspondence with his mother.  Downing claims that Clarence thought of Maude Jossey Jordan as a saint.  She was a person of devout Christian belief.  She was also a lifetime member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  I am not aware of any instance where Clarence was critical of his mother for this affiliation.  Downing also mentions that as a high school student, Clarence was asked to write an essay on the person no longer alive that he would most like to meet.  Clarence’s choice was Robert E. Lee.

Of course, these could be aspects of his life that Clarence would repudiate at a later point.  In fact there is at least one recorded incident in his later life that might be taken that way.  Clarence Jordan was a pacifist, though it is interesting how he came to be one.  He was in the ROTC while in college and considering a career in the military.  One time during the end of his studies he was at an ROTC camp.  The exercise was to ride through the woods on horseback with pistol and saber, shooting cardboard dummies and running through straw figures.  Clarence had been intensively studying scripture, including memorizing the Sermon on the Mount. He had a sudden epiphany that the command to love his enemies was contradicted by what he was doing at that moment. He told the local officer in charge of the exercise, “You and Jesus are teaching me opposite things.  I have to relinquish either one or the other.”  Clarence abandoned the exercise and shortly after left the ROTC entirely. 

A later incident came after Clarence had given a sermon on pacifism.  An elderly lady came up to him after the sermon and told him that her grandfather had fought in the Civil War and that she would never believe a word that Jordan said.  Clarence responded, “Ma’am, your choice seems quite clear.  It is whether you will follow your granddaddy or Jesus Christ.”  I do not draw from this a criticism by Clarence of tradition as such but simply the same injunction as from the previous incident. If some aspect of your life or tradition is in direct contradiction to an imperative of Jesus, the imperative must take precedence.

I think that Clarence Jordan is better understood from within the Southern Tradition than outside it.  Many of those critical of the South seem to think that the South should abandon that entire Tradition.  To them, it is fundamentally wrong and needs to be replaced.  I don’t think Jordan thought this way.  First, he was agrarian.  He grew up farming and studied agriculture in college.  Koinonia was first and foremost a farm.  In 1958 Clarence was asked, with all the troubles he was encountering at Koinonia, why he did not just move somewhere else.  He replied:

Fifteen years ago we went there and bought that old run down eroded piece of land.  It was sick.  There were gashes in it.  It was sore and bleeding.  I don’t know whether you’ve ever walked over a piece of ground that could almost cry out to you and say “Heal me, Heal me.”  I don’t know if you feel the closeness to the soil that I do.  But when you fill in those old gullies and terrace the fields and you begin to feel the springiness of the sod beneath your feet and you begin to feel that old land come to life and when you walk through a little old pine forest that you set out in little seedlings and now you see them reaching for the sky and you hear the wind through them; when you walk a little further over a bit of ground … and you go on over a hill where your children and all the many visitors have held picnics and you walk across a creek that you’ve bathed [in] the heat of the summer, and men say to you “Why don’t you sell it and move away?” they might as well ask , “Why don’t you sell your mother.”  Somehow God has made us out of this old soil and we go back to it and we never lose its claim on us.  It isn’t a simple matter to leave it.[3]

Such was Jordan’s attachment both to the land and to a specific place.  Clarence was described “as being ‘as much at home in a hay field as on a lecture platform’ and possessing a ‘rare combination of Greek scholarship and the practical imagery of a dirt farmer,’”[4]

Second, Clarence valued community.  Not only was Koinonia an intentional community but Jordan respected other communities.  He respected the existing community of Americus and its ways and sought to change them by example, not by coercion. 

Third, the effort put together by Clarence and Millard Fuller, which was first the Fund for Humanity and later became Habitat for Humanity and still later The Fuller Center for Housing, has given millions of smallholders real property of their own for the first time, something consistent with the beliefs of the Agrarians and the distributists with which some of the Agrarians found common cause (e.g., see Who Owns America?).  Enabling property ownership for smallholders is at the heart of the Jeffersonian vision and the Southern Tradition.

Nor did Clarence set himself against his fellow Southerners as many other “reformers” have done.  I have listened to recordings of his and I do not get the sense that he ever considered himself anything but a Southerner.  His Cotton Patch Gospels are written in a rural southern idiom, not to mock his people but to reach them.  He often used this idiom in his sermons.  He remarked about his fellow Southerners that he thought they were “conflicted” about their racial views, as if it were entirely possible that they could change their ways on their own.  One interviewer from New York City once asked him what they could do to help him with the struggles “down there.”  He replied that he was sure she had plenty of problems of a similar nature where she lived that she could work on.

I have never detected a note of hate in Clarence Jordan’s attitude toward his fellow Southerners, though that could certainly have been justified on the part of normal human feelings.  Certainly he was frustrated.  With bullets riddling their farm, including those from a 50-caliber machine gun, dynamitings, and other acts of violence over more than a decade, not to mention the ostracism from the community, Clarence paid a high price.  His own family rejected him.  His brother, an attorney who later became Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, told Clarence at a moment of great need that he could give him advice but he could not provide him services or he would lose all his clients.  Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s campaign manager and chief of staff, was a close relative of Clarence’s.  He took the time to get to know Clarence better and once remarked to him, “Uncle Clarence, we only see you at weddings and funerals, why is that?”  Clarence replied, “You’re half right, Ham.  Funerals don’t require an invitation.”  Clarence had every reason to be bitter.  But he wasn’t.  He understood the weakness of human beings, the fear that would exist in the minds of those sympathetic to him but intimidated by the terror of the Klan.  His Lord and Savior mandated that he love his enemies and that was all the motivation he needed to do so.  Koinonia Farm is still viable today and a valued member of the local community surrounding Americus.[5] 

Finally, I want to talk about civil rights.  Clarence knew Martin Luther King and, although I think they only met once, Clarence appears to have liked him and respected what he was doing.  But he disagreed with King in two respects.  First he did not think protests and demonstrations were the way to bring about racial reconciliation.  He thought they alienated people.  He once told his own daughter, who wanted to participate in a protest in Americus, that he would follow her all the way to the Supreme Court in defense of her right to sit in a restaurant but that he would not get her out of jail if she were arrested at a protest.  Thus, he seemed to be saying that people should feel entitled to have their innate dignity respected but that they were not entitled to assault others, literally or figuratively.  That would not be a Christian approach.  Then Clarence criticised King for appealing to the U.S. government for help in the civil rights cause.  Clarence was highly critical of Lyndon Johnson for the Vietnam War.  He could not endorse appealing to government coercion to enforce something that he thought should come from a different source.

Clarence devoted his life to fighting consumerism, militarism, and racism.  In my view these are core values of The Southern Tradition as laid out by the Agrarians and Weaver.  I could go into this in much more detail but the pursuit of affluence and military hegemony by the American Empire are not things they would have endorsed any more than Clarence did.  I would add that far too many Southerners have aided that Empire in pursuit of its objectives.  To Clarence the pursuit of wealth and military dominance were anathema.  The Agrarians did not say so much about racism (except perhaps later for Robert Penn Warren who was the only one to address the issue in I’ll Take My Stand) but if pursued in a way that did not abandon other southern values, I do not think they would have ultimately objected to what Clarence did (although Donald  Davidson did support segregation, perhaps even he would not have objected to Clarence’s approach).

The Christian tradition is at the very heart of the Southern Tradition.  Southern writers such as Allen Tate, Caroline Gordan and Walker Percey, among others, have the conflict between the Stoic tradition and the Christian tradition as a central theme in their work.  One thing that Clarence added, that the Agrarians and Weaver did not emphasize to the extent that Clarence did, was his strict reliance on the word of God as the core meaning of the expression of Christianity.  Nor was this reliance unsophisticated.  His sermons and other writings show a grasp of the meaning of scripture based on a deep knowledge of the original language and culture.  His response to the racial system in the South was exactly parallel to his response to his assigned task with the ROTC.  To continue with his assigned role as a white southerner, and a white Christian southerner at that, was the exact opposite of what the Bible taught him.  The history of the races in the South is long and complex.  But to Clarence that was of no import.  He simply had to act as his Savior instructed him and he did that.  His own life demonstrates that this does not necessarily lead to clear resolutions but it does establish a clear direction.   

Clarence once remarked, “We thought we had a hundred years to resolve the race question.”  When he started Koinonia in 1942 he was far ahead of his time.  He was making progress, though slowly, when Brown vs, Board of Education occurred in 1954 and the firestorm erupted and engulfed him and Koinonia.  They suffered greatly during the decade that followed.  I think it is more than just conceivable that if the South had been able to follow the lead of people like Clarence Jordan, if they had come on their own to see the better light, then things would be better today.  The other path, the one actually taken, has not solved fundamental racial issues.  In fact, the nation is now being torn apart by them.  Moreover, it has provided a pretext by which government power has been allowed to intrude into every area of life and given powerful levers of control to others who use them to manipulate the people to no good end.  If I am right and Clarence Jordan is better understood as an exemplar of the Southern Tradition, then it is also the case that he demonstrates that the Southern Tradition contained within itself the capacity to correct the injustice that was Jim Crow segregation, no matter who or what was responsible for that situation, and that the white South was able to initiate the change.  Clarence had embarked on his “demonstration plot for the kingdom of God” a dozen years before Brown vs. Board of Education.  Just as Lincoln’s war against the South pre-empted whatever the South might have done about slavery, the Supreme Court pre-empted whatever the South might have done about Jim Crow segregation.  And just as the outcome of Lincoln’s war left a legacy of racial conflict that was unresolved for a hundred years, the Supreme Court’s decision has left a legacy that is unresolved today. 

Clarence Jordan founded Koinonia scarcely ten years after the Agrarians published I’ll Take My Stand.  He was an exact contemporary of their disciple Richard Weaver.  While they were writing he was doing (and also writing).  He was establishing community (the same one for almost his entire life).  He was tilling the soul.  He was embracing his fellow Southerners, white and black.  And he was actively creating and achieving the real possibility of property ownership for millions of people for whom that had previously not even been conceivable.  Clarence Jordan is not easily categorized onto the political spectrum.  One observer wrote, “Clarence Jordan was as conservative as the Word of God and as liberal as the love of God.”[6] It is interesting to speculate on the possibility that, if there were to be a reunion of the Agrarians today, would they accept Clarence Jordan within their ranks?  Would they see that more might need to be said regarding southern religion than Alan Tate’s insightful and useful but perhaps overintellectualized account, something more representative of southern evangelical religion, the Word made flesh in its immediacy and addressed directly to the race question as well?  Would Jordan accept their invitation?  We can only speculate about that, of course.  But we can make a choice for ourselves.  Is the Southern Tradition something that inheres only in the past?  Or is it something that carries forward to the future?  Is it capable of authentic new departures that are true to its historic antecedents but surpass certain limitations that are also there.  The thrust of my argument has been that the life of Clarence Jordan offers one of those departures.  It is a viable option for those who see themselves part of a still living Southern Tradition. 


[1]  All quotations unless otherwise noted are from Frederick L. Downing, Clarence Jordan:  A Radical Pilgrimage in Scorn of the Consequences. (Mercer University Press, 2017).

[2] Clarence clearly would not have thought that racial segregation was limited to the South.  Koinonia at the height of persecution in Sumter County tried to start a sister farm in New Jersey.  The people there shut it down entirely.

[3] Cited in Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community, Basic Books, 2005, Chapter 2.

[4] Greg Carey, “Clarence Jordan as a (White) Interpreter of the Bible” in Kirk and Cori Lyman-Barner (eds.), Roots in the Cotton Patch:  The Clarence Jordan Symposium 2012, Volume One, Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, 2014.

[5] Koinonia had later problems.  After Clarence died and Millard Fuller went to Africa as a missionary the farm changed its form of organization.  Under corrupt leadership that embezzled assets it had to sell half its land to pay its debts.  It later returned to being an intentional community and exists in that form to this day.

[6] Tony Campolo, Foreward to Roots in the Cotton Patch:  The Clarence Jordan Symposium 2012, Vol. One, eds. Kirk and Cori Lyman-Barner, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books [Kindle Edition], 2014.

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