The Rev. Judith Campbell may be officially retired, but the Unitarian Universalist minister continues to occasionally officiate weddings, funerals, and blessings of animals. To reach a larger audience, however, the 78-year-old Plymouth resident relies on her pen more than a pulpit.
To date, Campbell has published 12 books in the Olympia Brown mystery series, named for the first woman ordained to the Universalist Church ministry in 1863. Her inaugural book in the Viridienne Greene mystery series came out in 2018. All are available from Amazon.
“Ministry and murder are unlikely bedfellows,” said Campbell, whose self-given nicknames include “the sinister minister,” “irreverent reverend,” and “perspicacious parson.” “But put them together and they make for a good story and a good teaching tool.”
Although she was raised in the Episcopal faith, Campbell recalled asking to accompany childhood friends to their churches, eager for insight into different services.
“I was always searching for my truth,” she said, “always questioning.”
Campbell, who grew up in Hyde Park, earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Lesley University in Cambridge and a master’s degree in fine arts from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt. She said she was a thirtysomething single mom to two sons when a “bona fide calling washed over me while listening to Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria,’ and all of a sudden, I knew in my DNA that I was going to be a minister.”
Unable to devote herself to the seminary at that time, however, Campbell resolved to “live out holy in my own way, where I was,” through her art, writing, and teaching at Lesley University, where she was an art professor for 27 years.
Then in her 50s, at a time when she was contemplating what to do next, Campbell said God called to her once again. She earned a doctorate in the arts and religious studies from Union Institute & University in Cincinnati and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where she was minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society from 2001 until resigning in 2008.
Since that time, Campbell has viewed writing as part of her ongoing ministry. Brown, her protagonist, is a minister whose partner-in-sleuthing, Father Jim, leaves Catholicism for the Anglican Church where he feels his homosexuality is more accepted.
“My books address some pretty heavy topics, but I don’t preach or give my opinion one way or another,” Campbell said. “What I do is hold up difficult issues for people to consider. I raise the questions, but I don’t give the answers. It is a very different approach to writing a novel.”
In “The Mission That Rocked Olde Plimoth,” for example, readers are asked to consider whether a woman who freely chooses the sex trade as her profession is a sinner. Further, if a man dies in bed with the “wrong” woman, how can his church refuse to hold the funeral when to err is human, but to forgive is divine?
Other social and ethical issues examined in the series include bullying, religious cults and hypocrisy, alcoholism and domestic violence, sexual abuse, scamming the elderly and would-be romantic partners, right to life, clergy sexual misconduct, revenge, abortion, white privilege, and immigrant rights.
While Campbell intends to add to the series, Brown now has competition. Last year, Campbell published “Forgery in Red,” whose heroine, Greene, is a 6-foot-tall, artsy cult escapee with her own penchant for solving mysteries.
Campbell also has published books of watercolor instruction, poetry, children’s stories, and essays on religion, spirituality, the arts, and creativity. She presents writing workshops and Writing as Spiritual Practice workshops, for which she travels nationally and internationally, and shares poems, political satire, writing hints and ideas, and even recipes on her blog at judithcampbell-holymysteries.com.
“Through my writing and my ministry,” Campbell said, “my words have work to do.”