The “Cotton Patch” Gospel is a colloquial translation of most of the New Testament by Southern Baptist minister Clarence Jordan. (Jordan also founded the Christian community Koinonia Farm, in Sumter County, near Americus.) Between 1968 and 1973 Jordan published four Cotton Patch volumes: The Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles, The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts: Jesus’ Doings and the Happenings, The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John: Including the Gospel of Matthew (Except for the “Begat” Verses) and the First Eight Chapters of the Gospel of John, and The Cotton Patch Version of Hebrews and the General Epistles. He did not attempt a translation of Revelation.
Jordan’s goal was to communicate the New Testament in the idiom of the South so that “plain folks” could better understand it. To do this, Jordan, who worked from Greek texts, changed both the setting and the language of the New Testament. For example, John the Baptist conducts baptisms in the Chattahoochee River, the disciple Peter is given a “Yankee” accent, and Jesus is born in Gainesville. Also, Jesus makes such statements as “Come to me, all of you who are frustrated and have had a bellyful, and I will give you zest” (as opposed to the Matthew 11:28 verse, traditionally translated from the Greek as “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”).
A musical, Cotton Patch Gospel (1982), written by Atlanta-based actor Tom Key and stage director Russell Treyz, was based on Jordan’s version of the Gospels of Matthew and John. The popular music songwriter Harry Chapin collaborated with Key and Treyz on the adaptation, which they completed in June 1981, one month before Chapin was killed in an automobile accident. Three months later the musical opened off-Broadway and had a successful run; it has since been performed in numerous venues.
The adaptation delves even further into the southern vernacular than Jordan’s original; for example, Jesus’ mother, Mary, becomes Mary Hagler, daughter of a deacon at First Baptist Church of Clayton; Mary gives birth to Jesus in an abandoned trailer behind Dixie Delite Motor Lodge as she and Joseph travel to Atlanta for an income-tax audit; and Jesus is not crucified but lynched by the Ku Klux Klan and Georgia governor Pilate. The production’s country songs move the characters through the stages of Jesus’ earthly ministry, most of which occurs in Georgia. Like Jordan’s original, the musical adaptation is intended to offer people a fresh perspective on Jesus’ life and provide a modern twist on the Gospel message.