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.