Clarence Jordan, a white Southern Baptist minister, cofounded Koinonia Farm in Sumter County and translated many New Testament books into the “Cotton Patch “ versions, colloquial interpretations set in the American South. Jordan committed his ministry to racial reconciliation and economic justice. A gifted preacher and teacher, he was a popular and frequent speaker at progressive religious gatherings across the United States from the 1940s through the 1960s.
Clarence Leonard Jordan, the seventh of ten children who survived infancy, was born to Maude Josey and James Weaver Jordan on July 29, 1912, in Talbotton. One of his brothers, Robert H. Jordan, served as a justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia and as chief justice from 1980 to 1982.
In 1933 Jordan earned a B.S. degree in agriculture from the University of Georgia, where he was editor of the Georgia Agriculturist and state president of the Baptist Student Union. Responding to a call by God into the Christian ministry, Jordan entered the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1933. Ordained in 1934, he served as pastor of three rural churches while earning a Th.M. degree (1936) and a Ph.D. degree in the New Testament (1939). Jordan married Florence Kroeger of Louisville, Kentucky, in July 1936. They had four children: Eleanor, James, Janet, and Frank. Although Jordan received invitations to teach at Baptist colleges and to pastor prominent Baptist churches, he chose instead to move with his family to rural Georgia and, with Mabel and Martin England, establish Koinonia Farm in 1942.
Jordan later cited childhood events as his first experiences of the economic disparity and racial animosity between Black people and white people. As a college student, he attended national YMCA conferences that deepened his sense that the Christian Gospel and prevailing cultural traditions regarding race were incompatible. His theological and biblical study as a seminarian convinced him that God regarded all people as equals and intended for humankind to do the same.
Jordan decided to incorporate his agricultural training into his ministry and established Koinonia Farm as a Christian community in which members pooled their resources into a common treasury and treated all persons as equals, regardless of race or class. Koinonia taught local farmers, Black and white, advanced farming techniques to increase production and profit in an effort to break the cycle of poverty that trapped so many local families. Koinonia also endorsed pacifism, a practice that made the community a target during World War II (1941-45). Opposition to the war was not tolerated by the majority of U.S. citizens, who supported the “good war” as a safeguard to democracy, and conscientious objectors, like those at Koinonia Farm, were often ostracized or threatened. The farm’s racially integrated working and living environment also invited such severe violence, prosecution, and economic boycott during the Jim Crow era of the 1950s that the community became nearly dormant. In 1968 Koinonia Farm reincorporated as Koinonia Partners and launched an ambitious but pragmatic low-cost, interest-free house-building program that eventually evolved into Habitat for Humanity.
Jordan led Koinonia from 1942 through 1969. He also traveled widely as a speaker and translated much of the New Testament into the Cotton Patch versions. Tom Key, an actor and playwright from Atlanta, and Russell Treyz, a director and playwright from New York, transformed the Cotton Patch version of Matthew into The Cotton Patch Gospel, an off-Broadway musical with a score by Harry Chapin.
Jordan died of a heart attack on October 29, 1969, while working at Koinonia on a Cotton Patch translation. His papers are housed at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia. Florence Jordan died of cancer at Koinonia on June 17, 1987, and was buried with her husband at Koinonia.