It can be hard to tell where Judith Campbell ends and Olympia Brown begins.
The Rev. Dr. Judith Campbell is an author. She is also a Unitarian Universalist community minister whose work combines religion and art. A former college professor, she teaches workshops on writing and fabric art, has two adult sons, and is married to an Englishman.
Olympia Brown is the main character in Campbell’s books. She is usually known in UU circles as a crusading 19th century Universalist minister and suffragist, but in Campbell’s novels the character by the same name is a UU minister and college professor who teaches art and religion. She has two adult sons and is married to an Englishman.
Campbell writes what she knows.
And she writes about it prolifically. Since 2010, Campbell has published three Olympia Brown mysteries, and a fourth is slated to be published this October. The first in the series is A Deadly Mission, followed by An Unspeakable Missionand A Despicable Mission. All are psychological thrillers, and, in each, Olympia Brown seeks to unravel the destructive misdeeds of people around her. The action is fast-paced, each book leading to a knuckle-biting conclusion, and the themes have ethical and social messages.
“The stories are part of my ministry and part of the Unitarian Universalist message,” said Campbell, who calls herself “the Sinister Minister.” “I’m preaching without shaking my finger or thumping a Bible.”
Olympia Brown has a knack for stumbling upon social disorder and exploitation. In one book, she dismantles a Christian cult. In another she wades into domestic violence and family secrets. The third book tackles people who try to swindle the elderly. Campbell’s forthcoming book, An Unholy Mission, delves into the right to die.
Olympia Brown has frequented many of Campbell’s real-life haunts. Both taught college in Cambridge, Mass., and both served as ministers on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard. Campbell served the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard from 2001 to 2008. Olympia Brown was a summer minister there. “Olympia will always be a contract or developmental minister so she can move around,” said Campbell. That allows her character to be in many communities facing a wide range of issues.
Campbell herself is no longer linked with just one church or issue. She is a community minister, affiliated with First Parish in Kingston, Mass. She also guest preaches and occasionally teaches at UU churches near her home in Plymouth, Mass., where she lives with her husband, Chris Stokes. Campbell looks younger than her 71 years. That’s partly due to the energy radiated by her deep green eyes, and partly because of the waves of creativity that emanate from her.
She teaches regular writing and poetry workshops, and she teaches fabric art and painting—all part of what she sometimes calls her “arts ministry.” She also leads an annual quilting and writing workshop for English Unitarians. In addition to her Olympia Brown books, she has published two volumes of poetry and two books about watercolor painting. “I see the divine in creativity. In creativity I find the divine,” Campbell said.
Her three-story Plymouth townhouse offers a glimpse into Campbell’s creative mind. The walls are hung with her quilts and paintings, which in later years have incorporated photography. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves overflow with her sculpture and photographs, crammed between novels and religious texts. “I read theology and philosophy in the morning, and fiction and mysteries at night,” Campbell said. She writes at a small white desk wedged between a table littered with fabric scraps and a picture window overlooking Skooks Pond. The front of her home looks onto Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
Campbell says her characters are all composites of people in her life. Her husband closely parallels Olympia’s English spouse. And her sons, both in their 40s, appear in different characters in the books. Olympia reflects Campbell in many ways: quick-witted, curious, opinionated, justice-seeking, and tempted by a fridge full of food. Readers often assume that Campbell and Brown share everything. The fictional Brown had an out-of-wedlock child at 17 that she gave up for adoption. That never happened to Campbell, but people often ask her if it did.
Her main character’s name also prompts questions. “My protagonist is not modeled after the historic Olympia Brown, other than my protagonist is a strong woman with a keen awareness of justice for disadvantaged people,” said Campbell. “I chose the name to honor the real Olympia Brown and her place in women's and UU history. Plus, it's a really neat name!”
The Connecticut-based independent Mainly Murder Press publishes the series. Campbell said that working with a small press has allowed her to be involved in many facets of the books, including design and cover art. Her third book features one of her photographs of the bell tower of the Martha’s Vineyard UU church.
In the two years since the first Olympia Brown mystery was published, Campbell has begun to attract a following. Many readers are UU; many are not. She counts among her fans a Maryknoll priest and people of no religious leaning. “The books are not just for UUs,” she said. “The audience is people who like a well-written, intellectual message.” Campbell said she does not obsess over sales. But each book has sold about 1,000 copies. And she’s becoming accustomed to cashing modest quarterly royalty checks.
How many Olympia Brown books does Campbell have in her? “I don’t know. Ten?” she said. “I’ll keep writing them as long as I can. I do anything as long as it’s exciting and fresh and wonderful.”
Correction 11.20.12: Earlier versions of this article, including the version that appeared in the Winter 2012 issue, mistakenly referred to the nineteenth-century Olympia Brown as a Unitarian minister. She was, of course, a Universalist.