Who are the top Christians of all time (after the New Testament and the period of the early church)? I presented my list of “top ten Christians” on this blog in September 2010 (check it out here). Although I modified it some after the original posting, Clarence Jordan continues to be on that list.
Jordan was born 100 years ago yesterday, on July 29, 1912. Born in west central Georgia, he completed a degree in agriculture at the University of Georgia in 1933. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Four years later, in 1942, he and Florence, who had married in 1936, and another couple created an interracial, Christian farming community near Americus, Georgia. They named their experiment Koinonia Farm, using the New Testament Greek word meaning fellowship as used in Acts 2:42 (and elsewhere). The Koinonia partners committed themselves to the ideals of equality of all persons, rejection of violence, ecological stewardship, and common ownership of possessions.
Jordan and the others were pacifists and in the years following World War II were advocates of racial integration and equality when such ideas were not popular—especially in the South.
The story of Jordan and the Koinonia Farm is told well in Dallas Lee’s The Cotton Patch Evidence: The Story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experience (1971, republished in 2011). It is a book I remember reading with fascination in the 1970s, and writing this makes me want to read it again.
Cotton is one of the crops grown on farms in Georgia, and the Koinonia farm was founded to be a demonstration plot of how the Kingdom of God looks if people take seriously, and live by, the teachings of Jesus. Thus, Lee’s book presents the “cotton patch evidence” of that noble experiment.
Jordon’s experience of seeking to communicate the ideals of Jesus in rural Georgia motivated him to use his considerable knowledge of the Greek language to translate large parts of the New Testament into what came to be known as the Cotton Patch Version of the Bible.
The first book of Jordan’s “cotton patch” paraphrase, the letters of Paul, was published in 1968, just the year before he died in October 1969. It was a sudden and unexpected death of a man who was only 57 years old.
I first heard about Clarence Jordan when I was in seminary in the early 1960s, and his life and work was highly admired by some of my professors. It was not until a number of years after his death, however, that June and I were able to visit Koinonia Farm for the first time. We were happy to meet Florence, who didn’t pass away until 1987, on that visit.
I am sorry that I never got to meet Jordan or hear him speak in person. But I did buy several LP records of his sermons and greatly enjoyed listening to them. Not only was he a great Christian, he was a gifted preacher as well.
Clarence Jordan proclaimed, and demonstrated, that faith is life lived “in scorn of the consequences” (Lee, p. 143). That is one reason he made my list of the top ten Christians: he lived faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ as he understood them in spite of the persecution and opposition that faith elicited.
If a saint is an extraordinary person who helps us know God better, Clarence Jordan was a saint. And I am happy to write this in praise of Jordan, the saint from the cotton patch who was born 100 years ago yesterday.