Clarence Jordan

A Radical Pilgrimage in Scorn of the Consequences

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Frederick L. Downing
  • Atlanta, GA: 
    Mercer University Press
    , November
     2017.
     277 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780881466324.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Clarence Jordan (1912-69), a prophetic Baptist preacher with a PhD in New Testament Greek from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, founded the interracial Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia in 1942. This first biography has a striking dust jacket to entice the curious. It shows a farmish Jordan wearing a ragged straw hat, looking down as though to find the basis of radicalism appropriately rooted somewhere below. Such a book is sorely needed: Jordan has been dead almost fifty years and is little known. Tracy Elaine K’Meyer did publish a fine history of Koinonia, Interracialism and Christian Community in the Postwar South: The Story of Koinonia Farm (University of Virginia Press, 1997), but that was nearly twenty years ago.

The book’s author, Frederick Downing, is head of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Valdosta State. He devotes the bulk of his work (chapters 5-16) to a straightforward, if somewhat incurious, recounting of Jordan’s studies at the University of Georgia and in Louisville and his efforts to create Koinonia in rural southwestern Georgia as a model interracial, cooperative community to influence Christian observers to follow his lead. Within a couple of decades though, he began to grow disillusioned, what with boycotts, cross-burnings, and other assorted violence, not to mention that he and other Koinonians were expelled from the Baptist church where they were members. In addition, Jordan spoke widely across the nation, at denominational assemblies, colleges, and churches. All of this is traditional fare for a biography.

Yet Downing seems uninterested in a typical biographical approach: he writes in his preface that he has produced a volume that is “not a traditional biography” (xiii). He deems it non-traditional because he draws on the psychological insights of Erik Erikson, James Fowler, and Donald Capps, all of whom asserted that the best way to understand a mature human being is to look at the subject’s childhood. He does recognize that even poets, like William Wordsworth, had a similar perception, for he quotes that Englishman at least three times to remind readers that “The child is father of the man.” There is obviously nothing untraditional about that, except that Downing has Jordan’s mother controlling his childhood, something he mentions repeatedly as he draws on letters between the two after the son was fifteen, when he was no longer exactly a child. Having also written on Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and Elie Wiesel, Downing calls them up frequently to compare them to Clarence jordan.

Sad to report, the book never rises to its promise, either traditionally or non-traditionally. Downing has to strain to concentrate on Jordan’s childhood, especially when it comes to demonstrating what he labels as Jordan’s life-long guilt. He stresses, following recommendations of his psychological mentors, that Jordan throughout his life tried “to atone for something like an existential indebtedness . . . a profound feeling of guilt (253).” Yet other than statements like this one, he offers little evidence of how and when this guilt emerged in Jordan’s career. It was not guilt that led to Jordan’s perception of the evils of white supremacy and violence but simply open-eyed observation. Downing may be right about Jordan’s guilt, but to convince readers knowing little else of Jordan he has to do more than assert.

Downing’s intention to offer readers a non-traditional biography can be seen elsewhere. Jordan’s partner in founding Koinonia was a married Baptist missionary driven out of Burma because of World War II, but about all we learn about him are those bare details: nothing about his ideas, why he cast his lot with his cohort, and why he chose to depart from Americus soon after they founded the Koinonia community. And Downing neglects to tell us anything about others who may have been important to Jordan’s life and career. So he relates nothing of the influence of Jordan’s college and seminary roommate, Claude U. Broach, who went on to become a well-known minister in Charlotte, North Carolina, although he is mentioned in passing. In the same way he glides right by millionaire Millard Fuller, who apparently convinced Jordan to create Habitat for Humanity as a Koinonia-like successor. Downing reveals next to nothing about Fuller or his ideas or his relationship to Jordan.

Perhaps the publisher is responsible for the worse excuse for an index I have ever encountered. Numerous names in the text do not show up there (e.g., Claude Broach), and there are page numbers for people never mentioned anywhere I could find (e.g., Wallace M. Alston). Named people and groups appear in the index but are never otherwise introduced or explained (e.g., Elton Trueblood and his Yokefellow Institute). Moreover, words are used incorrectly (e.g., on page 3, “populous” as a noun). Sources for information about some people mentioned (Broach and D.B. Nicholson, 88) are totally absent.

Downing is on to something vitally important—and something that surely needs celebrating—when he shows in the bulk of his book that Jordan witnessed the pain around him caused by war, racism, and economic inequality. He was, to be sure, a southern prophet, one able to rise above and to challenge the culture he grew up in, but he did so, I believe, for reasons more than internalized guilt. Koinonia and Habitat survive still, the former much different from its original charter and struggling, the latter more successful; they bespeak the labor and spirit of a relatively unknown figure who demands our attention and needs to be remembered. Downing has offered an uneven introduction, but we need a more aware reading if Clarence Jordan, Baptist preacher and radical groundbreaker, is to be appreciated as widely as he deserves to be. So deprived, I closed this book with the wish for what might have been.

About the Reviewer(s): 

H. Larry Ingle is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frederick L. Downing is professor of philosophy and religious studies and department head at Valdosta State University. His previous books, To See The Promised Land: The Faith Pilgrimage of Martin Luther King, Jr., received national attention and Elie Wiesel: A Religious Biography won the Georgia Author of the Year Award.

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