He was the favorite story-telling uncle for generations of Disciples. The Rev. Dr. Fred B. Craddock passed to new life in Christ on Friday, March 6 at the age of 86. He made himself the brunt of jokes about his physical size, but his stature as a preacher was unparalleled.
Whenever Craddock was scheduled to speak at an event, the halls would fill to bursting. Most recently at the 2011 General Assembly in Nashville, the lines at Woodmont Christian Church stretched out the doors more than an hour before the service was to begin. General Minister and President Sharon Watkins said, “To hear him was to be moved – before we quite knew it was happening – moved to sudden laughter or unbidden tears, about Bible passages we thought we knew by heart. Experiencing his preaching is cause enough to celebrate sharing this life with Fred for awhile.”
But Craddock was not just a beloved Disciples’ treasure. In CNN’s story aired this past weekend and in a 2011 profile, he was hailed as a “preaching genius.” Newsweek had named him as one of the 12 best preachers in the United States in the 1990s and more recently in 2010, the magazine Preaching named his books as one of the 25 most influential preaching books of the past 25 years. He pioneered an approach to preaching where the listener is converted from a passive recipient to a more inductive approach in which the hearer participates in the study process. His Southern gentlemanly style and folksy, humorous stories endeared him to many.
Those who only experienced Craddock as a preacher may not be aware of his scholarly credentials. He was frequently a lecturer across the country at colleges and universities, but he was also a professor himself, having written numerous books including The Pre-Existence of Christ (1968), As One Without Authority(1971, rev. 1974 and 1979), Overhearing the Gospel (1978), The Gospels (1981), commentaries on John (1982) and Philippians (1984), Preaching (1985), a commentary on Luke (1990) and a collection of sermon related anecdotes (Craddock Stories. 2001). He taught at Phillips Theological Seminary and Candler School of Theology at Emory University, influencing innumerable preachers in the process.
After retiring from academia, Craddock was not done. He and his wife of nearly 65 years moved back into his native Appalachia where he wanted to teach preaching to those who could not afford seminary. He was available at no charge for a weekend of preaching and teaching in the small towns of North Georgia, east Tennessee, western North Carolina, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Only those without a seminary diploma could attend.
As he and Nettie searched for a church home, they were approached by area Disciples who began meeting once a month and gradually more frequently until Cherry Log Christian Church was founded.
“Anybody can draw a crowd,” Craddock said. “But to what purpose?” And so The Craddock Center was founded in 2001 to meet the needs of the children in a nine-county area. Its work, said Craddock, “turned Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at least sideways, if not completely on its head,” assuming that children need books and music as well as food and shelter. Financially separate from the congregation but strongly supported by the church, the center serves nine counties in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
Craddock’s concern for the children of Appalachia grew from his own humble beginnings in rural Tennessee. He worked his way through his undergraduate degree at Johnson College (now Johnson University). He graduated from Phillips Theological Seminary in 1953 and continued his studies at Vanderbilt University before returning to Phillips to teach. It was there that he was asked to teach outside his New Testament expertise. Craddock had not even had a class in the subject before.
Disciples will sorely miss Craddock’s gentle presence in the pulpit but he will continue to loom large in the sermons of generations of preachers to follow.