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.