As my memoir Accidental Preacher comes out in print, I want to share a series of reflections with you. This calling to preach continues to be an adventure, one I am thankful for and overwhelmed with every day.
My formal political instruction came by overhearing uncles’ arguments during protracted Sunday dinners at my grandmother’s.
“Some of the ignorantest people come from Edgefield, I tell you, Willie, and not only the Baptists,” Uncle Charles pronounced in response to a request for a ruling on Edgefield-bred senator J. Strom Thurmond.
“That’s the gospel truth,” agreed Uncle Gene in a rare affirmation of another uncle’s adjudication.
“Thieving, low-country politicians out of Barnwell ruined this state,” added Uncle Henry, moving wider the geographical bounds of political ineptitude. That Henry was a lawyer and had married a Jewish woman whose family owned Greenville’s biggest department store added clout to his pronouncements.
An oft-repeated political parable was of the Greenville Christmas parade when Governor Thurmond showed off by riding a huge white horse down Main Street in front of the Shriners.
Pointing to him, my cousin Rusty asked, “Who’s that?”
“Don’t you know?” exclaimed Uncle Gene. “That’s J. Strom Thurmond.”
Rusty persisted: “Who’s that old man on top of J. Strom Thurmond?”
During a major political debate one Sunday at table, I ventured, “Are we going to vote for General Eisenhower?” Stunned, awkward dismay all round.
Mama maternally patted my hand. “No, dear. He is a Republican. We are Democrats.” Murmurs of agreement in the assembly.
“Never met anybody with any sense in the army,” added one of the uncles, “’specially the generals. Please pass the chicken. Government leeches.” Consumption resumed.
“Are there Republicans around here?” I persisted.
Mama adjusted the napkin in her lap and patiently responded,
“No, dear, not that we know of.”
“Well, where are Republicans?” I continued. (I had seen pictures of them on stamps in my album.)
An uncle dropped his fork clanging into his plate and threw up his hands. “Good Lord, God A’mighty.”
“They tend to live in Illinois and Michigan, places of that nature.” She sighed patiently.
“Why are they Republicans and we are Democrats?”
Those at table believed Mama had been overly indulgent. “Child, if people live by choice in places like Illinois and Michigan, they will be strange in other ways too.”
“Amen,” said somebody. That was that.
In college, I participated in a 1966 statewide student debate on the war in Vietnam. In response to my presentation the dean of students at the University of South Carolina (retired army colonel) stamped and snorted, “You leftist students are ruining this country. It’s unthinkable that America would lose a war!”
Recalling the mythmaking evasion of my white Southern family, I quipped, “Sure you can. I’ve got uncles who could teach you how.”
First time I ran for bishop (without appearing to be running for bishop; no small feat), I withdrew on the eighth or ninth ballot. An officious layperson bustled up and said haughtily, “Reverend Willimon, I was offended by your concession speech.”
“Offended?” I responded. “I withdrew! You should be pleased I lost.”
“You sounded arrogant, like you thought you were the only person who could change the Methodist church.”
“How could I be both a loser and arrogant?” I asked.
A layperson from Mississippi, standing nearby explained, “Will’s from South Carolina. Hell, his people have been both defeated and arrogant for two hundred years!”