A preaching 'genius' faces his toughest convert

The Rev. Fred Craddock's stories revolutionized preaching, but few know about the pain behind them.

Story highlights

  • Fred Craddock revolutionized art of preaching
  • Craddock was selected as one of the world's best preachers
  • He only hinted at his chaotic childhood in sermons
  • Craddock on troubled father: "I struggled with his silence"

Blue Ridge, Georgia (CNN) Fred Craddock was a young preacher trying to find his voice when he received a call from his mother one day.

"You need to go see your father," she said. "He may not live longer."

Craddock found his father in a VA hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Fred Craddock Sr. had whittled down to 73 pounds. Radiation treatments had burned him to pieces. He couldn't eat or speak.

    When he saw his son, he picked up a Kleenex box and scribbled on it a line from Shakespeare's "Hamlet": "In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story."

    "What is your story, Daddy?"

    His father's eyes welled with tears. He wrote:

    "I was wrong."

    'A preacher like no other'

    Craddock never became a televangelist, built a megachurch or preached to an adoring crowd in a packed stadium. He is a diminutive, bespectacled man whose voice is so soft that he once compared it to "wind whistling through a splinter on the post."

    Yet he is a pulpit giant, a man who, one preaching scholar says, tilted the preaching world "on its axis" after creating a revolutionary method that led to him being selected as one of the 12 best preachers in the English-speaking world.

    "He is a preacher like no other" is how the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, who also made the top 12 list, describes him.

    Craddock preached his last official sermon in October. He is 83 and struggling with Parkinson's disease. When he greets a visitor, he moves gingerly to his seat. He is 5-foot-5 with a plump belly and an impish smile.

    He lives in Blue Ridge, Georgia, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains that looks like a rustic postcard, with its small white-steeple churches and autumn forests bristling with burgundy and gold.

    Friends worry about Craddock's health, but he seems to treat his illness as an annoyance.

    "I should have something by 83," he says with a quick smile when the conversation turns to Parkinson's.

    His arms shake when he talks at length, but everything else is there: his phenomenal recall of names, details, places.

    Though he has gathered all manner of awards during 50 years of preaching, he never received praise for his calling from the one man he wanted to hear it from most: his father.

    "I struggled with his silence," Craddock says. "I wanted him to say he was proud of me."

    A father like no other

    Fred Craddock Sr. had plenty to say about other subjects. He stood 5-foot-7, weighed 150 pounds and even in his 50s could do one-arm chin-ups. He liked to dance, race his horse at county fairs.

    Most of all, he loved to tell stories.

    Fred Craddock in grade school, where he struggled to hide his poverty from classmates.

    His son and namesake, Fred Jr., was one of his most devoted fans. Father and son developed a storytelling ritual. At the end of the day, the elder Craddock would return to his home in the small town of Humboldt, Tennessee, roll a Bull Durham cigarette by the fireplace and say to no one in particular, "Boy, I never hope to see what I saw today."

    Craddock, his three brothers and his sister flocked around their father.

    "What'd you see today?"

    "Oh, you kids still up? No, you go to bed. You don't want to have nightmares."

    His children protested. Back and forth they'd go before Craddock Sr. finally said, "Well, sit down, but don't blame me if you have nightmares."

    Craddock Sr. thrilled his children with adventure stories about Chief Loud Thunder, Civil War battles and, on occasion, stories from the Bible. The elder Craddock taught his son some of his first lessons in theology.

    Each student in Craddock's first-grade class was required to answer morning roll call with a Bible verse. Craddock didn't know any, until his father taught him one. One morning, he stood up "like a bantam rooster" and repeated his father's scripture:

    "Samson took the jawbone of an ass and killed 10,000 Filipinos."

    The teacher sent Craddock home with a stern note to his parents for his use of profanity. Ethel Craddock chided her husband, but he chuckled, saying, "I bet the class enjoyed it."

    The elder Craddock developed a following. Storytellers were admired in rural Tennessee during the first half of the 20th century. Television was nonexistent. Books were expensive. People spent their day around pot-bellied stoves, whittling wood and spitting tobacco while swapping stories.

    When Craddock Sr. stopped on a corner to roll a cigarette, crowds gathered, because they knew a tall tale was coming. They rarely guessed how it would end. Craddock Sr. would uncork a story, lead his audience up to the edge, then suddenly announce that he had to go to work and walk away.

    Says his son: "I'm convinced now that he didn't know where his stories were going when he started."

    'Another name, another pledge'

    Stories, however, don't feed hungry children.

    Craddock's father had enough education to devour Shakespeare in his spare time. But he discovered, after inheriting 10 acres, that he couldn't farm. He wasn't good with his hands, either. Doors, fixtures and steps hung off-kilter in his house.

    The elder Craddock had a bigger problem. He was an alcoholic.

    When the Great Depression tore into rural Tennessee, Craddock Sr. drank to cushion the pain. His drinking, though, only magnified his self-loathing. His mood darkened. He yelled at his family, but Craddock says he never saw his father hit his mom. When visitors came by, though, everyone was embarrassed.

    Sometimes, Craddock saw his father break down in tears.

    "He wanted to do better by his family. He didn't know how."

    At times, Craddock Sr. would sober up. He vowed never to drink again. He found an odd job. Once, he even arranged for a dentist to pull a gold crown from one of his molars so he could buy Christmas toys for his children.

    "Sometimes, when something nice happened," Craddock says, "he would just go into the kitchen, take my mom away from the stove, and they would dance around the house."

    His father's pluck, though, couldn't prevent the family's slide into poverty. They lost the farm and moved into a shack with a dirt floor and no electricity. A spigot in the yard was the only running water.

    Craddock's family even struggled to clothe him. He still remembers walking to grade school on a cold day, hiding his donated sweater under a bridge and walking to school shivering in his shirtsleeves. He didn't want to risk any classmate recognizing that he was wearing a sweater that had once belonged to them.

    "There's something worse than being poor," Craddock said. "It's being ashamed."

    Ethel Craddock held the family together. By day, she worked in a factory, sticking labels on Buster Brown shoes. At night, she gathered her children around the fireplace to play word games: "If you can say it, you can spell it: omnivorous."

    And faith held Ethel Craddock together. She took her children to church, sang hymns at home to the accompaniment of her harmonica and welcomed down-on-their luck strangers who needed a hot meal or a place to stay.

    At first, Craddock's father shared the pews with his family. He was even named after a preacher. But he stopped attending as his drinking grew worse.

    "He felt guilty," Craddock says. "He'd say, 'Every time I go to church, they preach against the drunks like they can't go to heaven.' "

    Craddock Sr.'s hostility toward the church deepened when they decided to come to him. The church dispatched preachers to his home, hoping to draw him back to the pews. He belittled them so much that Craddock's mother worried a fight would erupt.

    "I know what the church wants," he'd say. "Another name; another pledge. Right?"

    Craddock, though, found acceptance in the church. It was the only place where he didn't feel different -- any less or any more than anybody else. Pastors told him he would be a good preacher one day; church ladies doted on him with new shoes and a picture book filled with stories about Jesus.

    "We loved our dad, but we loved the church," Craddock says.

    Fred Craddock Sr. battled his own demons during the Great Depression.

    Home was a place filled with fantastic stories. But Ethel Craddock kept one story from him. It centered on the horrible night when she decided her son had been set apart by God.

    Saved by a miracle?

    A winter night in 1928, Humboldt, Tennessee.

    Ethel Craddock is sprawled in a barn on a bale of hay, crying and praying to God. Her 8-month-old son, Fred, is dying.

    He has diphtheria, a highly infectious disease that forms blockages over the lungs, gradually suffocating a child.

    The boy can barely draw breath. His father has run a mile to summon a doctor. But the doctor can't do much, and Craddock's breathing has grown more labored.

    His mother couldn't watch him suffer any more. She has fled to the barn, where she prays:

    "Dear God, if you will let him live, I will pray every day that he will serve you as a minister."

    She falls asleep on the hay. When she awakens at daybreak, she runs to the house, where the doctor says her son is going to be fine. He leaves without asking for payment.

    Ethel Craddock didn't reveal this story to her son until he came to her after turning 17 to tell her that he was thinking about becoming a minister.

    She began to cry after hearing the news, quickly regained her composure and told Craddock the story.

    He was bewildered. Why hadn't she told him before?

    She didn't want him to feel pushed into becoming a minister, she said. She believed that a deed couldn't be good if the motive was wrong.

    When Craddock told his father of his decision to join the ministry, he listened intently before finally saying it was a big decision. Then he simply said: "Good, son."

    Craddock was deflated. No tears. No sober, fatherly advice. The only reaction his father would give to his calling in the days ahead would be to crack jokes. "Don't be like John the Baptist and lose your head."

    "He might have been embarrassed that I became a preacher," Craddock says. "It was kind of the opposite of him. Maybe that created some discomfort.

    "I wanted more."

    His father seemed to rub away some of the luster from his calling again when Craddock went off to college.

    Wanting to make sure his call to the ministry was genuine, Craddock sought out a counselor. Over several sessions, the young student ended up talking about his childhood. The counselor's verdict was devastating:

    "I think I'm clear why you're in the ministry: to redeem your father."

    The counselor didn't elaborate, and Craddock was too stunned to ask questions. He thought about what his mother had taught him -- and knew what he had to do.

    "I thought I was disqualified," he says. "My mother had always told me nothing can be right if the reason is wrong."

    He quit the ministry and started picking up odd jobs.

    "It crushed me," he says of the conversation with the counselor. "I didn't have a Plan B in my life. I was kicking the can down the road every night, trying to figure it out."

    The answer came while reading one of his favorite books in the Bible.

    The book of Philippians, written by the Apostle Paul, is regarded by some as one of the most uplifting in the New Testament. Yet the backdrop for Paul's composition is grim. He is imprisoned, and the church is splintering into factions. Paul thinks he's about to be executed; his enemies are spreading division and preaching Christ out of selfish motives.

    But Paul says that none of that matters. Whether he lives or dies, or whether his enemies preach Christ out of selfish gain, what ultimately matters is that Christ is proclaimed.

    Something shifted inside of Craddock. What did it matter if he preached Christ to save his father or save souls? Christ is preached.

    "They're preaching for the wrong reason, yet Paul said thanks God for that," he says.

    The message was clear; living it would prove more difficult:

    "I had to get to a point where I disagreed with my mother. That was tough."

    Craddock returned to school and started preaching at rural churches. He had ignored his father and defied his mother's teaching to pursue the ministry.

    Now he was about to revolutionize preaching.

    Changing the rules of preaching

    Craddock had three books in his childhood home: his mother's King James Bible, his father's complete works of Shakespeare and "The Life and Times of Billy Sunday."

    Sunday was a Major League Baseball player who became one of America's most famous preachers during the early 20th century by transforming preaching into an athletic event.

    He'd smash chairs, throw parts of his clothing into the audience and run across the preaching platform as if he were sliding into home plate while proclaiming, "Safe at home -- by the blood of Jesus!"

    Sunday was the type of pastor Craddock grew up admiring. They strode the pulpit like human firecrackers: booming voices, explosive movements, big men who radiated power.

    Craddock had a problem. He couldn't bring the thunder. He was short, and his voice was weak. His high school counselor tried to talk him out of becoming a preacher because of his size. And his first church sermon landed with a thud. While preaching about three wise men visiting baby Jesus, an elderly man stood up in the back and blurted: "How do you know there were three?"

    A flustered Craddock had no reply. But he eventually found a way to be heard and owed part of that breakthrough to his father.

    When he started preaching in rural Tennessee during the 1950s, Craddock employed the traditional "deductive" preaching style. The sermon is structured like a term paper: thesis, three supporting points, restatement of thesis.

    "Something in me said that's not the way to do it," he says.

    Fred Craddock struggled as a young preacher to find an audience before experiencing a breakthrough.

    Maybe it was the stories he heard growing up, but Craddock gradually stumbled onto his preaching style.

    While serving as a young pastor at a church in Columbia, Tennessee, he noticed that people responded more to his informal talks outside church service than to his sermons.

    He started experimenting. What if you didn't structure the sermon like a legal argument but more like an extended conversation? The listener -- not the preacher -- would be challenged to give the sermon its meaning.

    Craddock never took to preachers who tried to bulldoze people into converting. He had seen plenty of preachers try to goad his father back to church. And his mother, by withholding the story of his near-death experience, had taught him that people's faith decisions must be genuine, not coerced.

    So Craddock became a preacher who didn't preach. He once said that a "yes" is no good unless a "no" is possible.

    "No one wants to listen to pulpit bullies, behaving as though they had walked all round God and taken pictures," he wrote in the introduction to his book "Craddock on the Craft of Preaching."

    Over the years, people have tried to describe Craddock's style. Some use the term "inductive," a word he resists because it sounds like a legal term. One of his prize students, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, offers one of the best descriptions of Craddock's preaching style.

    In an introduction to "The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock," Taylor wrote:

    "He assumes from the start that we are capable of attending to the text, handling some scholarship, dealing with open-ended stories, and drawing our own conclusions. He does not tell us what he is going to tell us, and then tell us what he told us. He sits down before we are ready. He lets us chew our own food."

    Craddock's sermons, though, don't go down like broccoli. They are playful, inventive, filled with hyperbole. They sound like probing short stories or front-porch yarns.

    In one sermon, Craddock recounts a conversation with an overweight sparrow that doesn't know it can fly. In another, he imagines bored teenagers who "sat out on the hoods of their camels" listening to a shaggy John the Baptist preach in the desert, and in another he pretends to emcee a debate at a dreary church committee meeting between early Christian leaders arguing over whether Gentiles should be included in the church.

    Craddock didn't have to break chairs to get people's attention. His stories did the job. His reputation spread. He began writing influential preaching textbooks. When he became a preaching professor at Emory University in Atlanta, he spawned a new generation of preachers who took his style out into the pews. People started describing him as a pulpit genius.

    In 1996, Craddock received one of his most celebrated honors. Baylor University in Texas polled 341 seminary professors and editors of religious periodicals and asked them to name the most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. Newsweek magazine published the top 12.

    Craddock was selected for the list. So were two pastors he heavily influenced: Taylor and the Rev. Thomas Long.

    Long says Craddock tilted the homiletic world "on its axis" with his 1971 book on preaching, "As One without Authority." He calls it one of the most pivotal books on preaching to appear in the past century.

    "There's a homespun nostalgic quality to his sermons," says Long, who now teaches at Emory. "He rarely preaches about the engineer with the complex ethical decision. It's more about the pot of beans served at the back door."

    Taylor still remembers the first time she heard Craddock speak at Yale Divinity School in 1978. She was working as a secretary at a local church on the weekends, but listening to Craddock stirred her desire to preach.

    "He simply spoke of the gospel so compellingly that I wanted know more -- about the way of life he was describing, about why his words struck me with such force and about how I could learn to use language that way, too."

    Some preachers transform their eloquence into business ventures. They build megachurches, TV empires. Some even get entourages. Craddock wasn't driven to build a personal brand. He has no e-mail address, doesn't drive and refused to turn on a personal computer his son and daughter bought him several years ago.

    "If Fred Craddock ever tweets, I'll know the world has come to an end," Taylor says.

    Craddock used some of his renown to reach out to the region that nurtured him. He gave preaching workshops to itinerant pastors in the Appalachian Mountains and established the Craddock Center, a nonprofit group that offers free meals and storytelling to needy kids in three Southern states.

    He built a family as he built a career. He married his high school sweetheart, Nettie, and they raised their two children, John and Laura, as he taught at various seminaries and accepted preaching invitations across the country.

    Fred and Nettie Craddock were high school sweethearts and are still together more than 50 years later.

    "Sometimes we felt like we were in competition with the church and God," says Laura, his daughter, who named her son after her father.

    His son, John, never felt pressured to become a minister. He is the CEO of America's First Choice Warranty company in Atlanta. His father, he says, is the most remarkable person he has ever known.

    "I don't care if it's a guy on the street asking for a dollar or the president of the United States, he makes you feel as if you're the most important person in the world when he's talking to you.

    "I won the lottery as far as great fathers go."

    Telling his father's story

    Craddock yearned to hear such praise from his father.

    Yet his father never even came to hear him preach. Craddock says he sometimes overheard his father accept praise for his son's decision to enter the ministry, but he can't recall ever hearing his father admit to anyone that he was proud of his son's choice.

    "He never said it. I looked for little signals. I finally decided that I was reading into things that were not there."

    His father may not have acknowledged him, but Craddock affirmed his father. In the dedication in his book "As One without Authority," he wrote:

    "To my mother, and in memory of my father: She taught me the Word. He taught me the words."

    One Sunday, he did get a sign that maybe his father would have enjoyed hearing him preach. At his childhood church in Humboldt, Tennessee, a man approached after hearing him preach. The man was about his father's age.

    "You sound like your daddy," he said.

    The comment stirred strong emotions in Craddock. He had to compose himself before he shook the man's hand and thanked him. He says it was the grandest compliment he's ever had about a sermon.

    "He was a good storyteller and a good man," Craddock says of his father. "For him to relate me to my father ... I spent a lot of time working through my relationship with my father."

    Perhaps he still is.

    When asked in one interview whether he became a minister to save his father, he says, "I'll never know."

    Yet in his memoirs, "Reflections on My Call to Preach," he wrote:

    "I was confident that my being a Christian minister would have a life-changing effect on my father. With a son, his own namesake, going into the ministry, would not Daddy toss the bottle forever and return to the pew beside my mother? Surely. But I was naïve, knowing nothing about the power of addiction."

    Craddock's last visit with his father revealed to him the results of addiction. His father never stopped drinking or smoking and was hospitalized with throat cancer. He was 63.

    That's when Craddock received the phone call from his mom: You need to go see your father.

    When he entered his father's hospital room, he noticed that it was filled with flowers and a stack of get-well cards 20 inches deep besides his bed. Every card and every blossom came from Craddock's childhood church in Humboldt, the church his father scorned.

    His father confessed that he was wrong about the church and the people in the pews. They didn't just want a name and a pledge. They wanted him.

    His father's admission didn't provide relief. It deepened his grief.

    "It was so late. It was at the end. With his personality and his education -- he was generous to a fault; give you the shirt off of his back. He could have been such a good person, helping people, talking to people, playing with children -- he could do all these things."

    Would it have been better if his father had said he was also wrong about his son and his decision to become a minister?

    Would it have been better if he had finally said, "I'm proud of you, son"?

    Craddock doesn't dwell on those questions.

    "In my tendency to choose between yes and no, I choose yes. I really think he would be proud of me because he loved a storyteller. He would have taken credit for it, though. He would have said, 'I taught you real good, son.' ''

    What Craddock remembers of their last moments together is not just his father's confession but something his father did.

    After he asked his son to "tell my story," Craddock reached out and clutched his gaunt hand.

    "I just held his hand. ... He couldn't move. I couldn't move."

    Craddock squeezed his father's hand, and both men cried.