Billie Sol Estes: The Last Campbellite

Billie Sol Estes in a farmers field.  (Photo by Shel Hershorn//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Billie Sol Estes in a farmers field. (Photo by Shel Hershorn//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Billie Sol Estes died in a recliner last week at 88 with cookie crumbs on his lips. He was asleep when he shuffled off this mortal coil. His end came as it should have. There was enough drama and violence around him when he was alive. When the tornado came through Granbury, Texas after his passing it was as if God was trying to clean up the mess and as with so many things in Estes' life it simply did not work. In an ironic twist the storm destroyed a blue-collar subdivision built by Habitat for Humanity. Billie Sol always seemed to leave more questions than answers.

Estes grew up in the Church of Christ, a communion that is part of a larger movement that roiled religious waters in the new nation during the early years of the 19th century. Led by Alexander Campbell, hence Campbellites to their opponents, and Barton Stone, the Restoration Movement became a fast growing segment of the American religious scene until the Mormons came along and took away the energy, leaving the Campbellites to fracture into warring camps during the early years of the 20th century.

To call someone a Campbellite was a calculated insult. They followed no man, went the mantra, but the Bible and the Bible only. Practioners of the movement often were defined by their extremes. The leaders of the Disciples of Christ became early supporters of the ecumenical movement as it developed toward the middle of the 20th century. The Churches of Christ were known for a Biblicism that verged on bibliolatry. Both segments took noble ends to ignoble extremes. As the Disciples became an ecumenical denomination, mainstream denominationalism began a precipitous decline. The Churches of Christ were a non-denomination that acted like a denomination, enforcing an orthodoxy that killed the spirit of a Bible-centered faith.

Billie Sol illustrated the best traits of the Churches of Christ and was viewed as the personification of the can do rationalism that marked the movement. He knew his Bible and practiced a personal ethic that was consistent with many of his peers in far West Texas. I first heard of him when my college roommate returned from a choir trip to tell me of staying in a guesthouse where the bathroom fixtures were gold plated.

They always said that Billie Sol knew his Bible as if that was a primary virtue. The problem with treating the Bible like a mine to be exploited, a puzzle to be teased apart, is that with no contextual training it can become fodder for silver tongued con men. Elmer Gantry comes to mind. I grew up in the Churches of Christ and they are by and large good folk, but they have a weakness for success and for time Billie Sol was very successful. And they have a weakness for words and Billie Sol could talk.

The 1950s and 1960s saw lots of fortunes made by members of the Churches of Christ who perfected swamp coolers, built mobile homes, discovered oil or farmed cotton on the high plains of West Texas. I knew a man, a churchman, who thought air-conditioning was a plot hatched by the Russians to break our resolve. He never told me what he thought about trailer parks or fertilizer tanks.

Billie Sol told lots of stories about LBJ. LBJ simply told stories. Around him there was always a sense compromise and of deals struck. Lyndon backed his words with arm twisting that was world class. Despite the rumors he avoided legal troubles. He too was a Campbellite, but he was on the other end of the socio-economic scale. A member of the Disciples of Christ, he was part of the rich wing of the movement if you believed those who worshipped with Billie Sol.

Truth was that both of them began far from wealthy but they shared in common the notion that hard work was the key to everything. They both were concerned with racial minorities and Estes was known to support blacks training for ministry right up to his last days. He also was said to have damaged the finances of organizations supporting black aspirations when he failed to come through with his promises.

LBJ left a legacy that is burnished by the gridlock that afflicts Washington today. His Disciples ancestor James Garfield came to the presidency riding on a wave of hope based on his ability to get things done. Garfield died the victim of a gunman and incompetent medical care. LBJ came to the office because of a gunman and he delivered.

Billie Sol and LBJ teach us that politicians and preachers who depend on the persuasive arts and are ultimately accountable to no one, can lead us into the valley of the shadow of death. Estes spent two terms in prison and he is remembered as a con man. LBJ tried to save Vietnam and is judged by history. Today we could use his brand of arm twisting and compromise. The Campbellite label is out of fashion, used only as a placeholder for another time in American history. Both Estes and Johnson remind of us of the danger of those who can talk the paint off a trailer hitch.

With Johnson in the White House the Disciples got a good bit of attention. Many for the first time learned that Isaiah's words in 1:18, often quoted by Johnson, were at the heart of the Restoration Movement and called for thoughtful reasoning about religious matters. But by then the Restoration Movement itself had disintegrated and the Church of Christ Billie Sol Estes grew up in had traded thoughtful reasoning for the bullying tactics of debaters who believed in winning rather than learning. LBJ's political tactics had been baptized. When Billie Sol died a door closed in a religious tradition that nurtured many and promised more than it could deliver.