Following is chapter 4 from Edward’s autobiographical book, The Sound of His Voice: Discovering the Secrets of God’s Guidance. In this chapter he remembers his father — Benjamin (“Bennie”) Lee Fudge (1914-1972) — the unique, colorful publisher, author, preacher and always disciple of Jesus Christ. Copyright 1995 by Edward Fudge.
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And in my Father’s Image
There have been Fudges since at least the 12th or 13th century in England. Although I cannot prove it, I am confident that my ancestor Jacob Fudge, Sr., born in 1723 in the American Colony of Pennsylvania, descended from the British Fudges.
Patriots, planters and Johnny Rebs.
Although Jacob received three land grants from King George III, he was an American patriot who fought for independence in the Revolutionary War. He later moved his wife and nine children to Indian country in South Carolina. There he owned both land and slaves. I do not know the details of Jacob’s religion or the extent of his piety. However, his last will and testament indicates that he was a Christian believer, if not an outstanding speller. As he faced death in 1789, he wrote:
In the name of God, Amen, I Jacob Fudge Senior of South Carolina and Edgefield County, being weak in body but of perfect mind and memory thanks be given unto God. Caling unto mind the mortallity of my body and knowing that it is appointed for all men once to die, do make and ordain this My Last Will and Testament. . . . I gave and recommend my soul unto the Hands of Almighty God that gave it, and my body I recommend to the Earth to be buryed in a decent Christian Buryal at the Discretion of my Executors, Nothing doubting but at the General Resurrection I shall receive the same again By the mighty power of God.
William, the third of Jacob’s five sons, began his own family in South Carolina. Sometime between 1800 and 1810, he migrated west to Limestone County in North Alabama. There he reared his son Solomon, and established roots that continue until this day. Solomon begat seven children, as the Bible puts it. The sixth was William Henry Fudge.
When the Civil War erupted, William Henry enlisted in the 35th Alabama Infantry, Confederate Company “G”. He was captured by General Sherman, held as a prisoner of war, and released on Independence Day of 1861. Still passionate for the Confederate cause, he soon re-enlisted and fought at the Battle of Shiloh. William Henry Fudge had six children. His oldest was born in 1864 as the war raged and the South burned. William Henry named him Edward Benjamin Lee, the “Lee” bestowed in honor of the beloved Southern general, Robert E. Lee.
His parents may have named him Edward Benjamin Lee Fudge, but the neighbors called him “Ed.” In time, Ed Fudge married Susie Smith, who was about 30 years younger. She taught him to read after they married, using the King James Bible as a primer. They had eight children, my father being the oldest of the brood. Ed Fudge’s household was poor but always devout.
Ed operated a gristmill for a time and also ran a country store. Mostly, however, he farmed, as a sharecropper on other people’s land. I remember visiting my Fudge grandparents as a preschool youngster. They lived in a small wooden house in the country, unpainted, with an empty thread spool for a doorknob. Grandpa Fudge had long whiskers, wore overalls, and frightened me without knowing it or intending to. He and Grandma Fudge both died before I started school.
Bennie Lee Fudge: a little man with big ambitions.
My father, Benjamin (“Bennie”) Lee, was born on April 5, 1914, when Ed was 50 years old. Bennie Lee weighed in prematurely at a fragile 3-1/2 pounds. Susie wrapped him in a piece of wool blanket and gently laid him in a shoebox. She then positioned the shoe box near the wood stove in the kitchen, the warmest place in the house, and asked God to spare her firstborn. God answered her prayers for that baby’s survival. Thirty years later, Susie’s baby, now a father, would keep vigil all night over his own premature firstborn son, beseeching God to save my life, even as his own life had once been spared.
Bennie Lee never grew to be large, but he made up for it in determination and tenacity. As a young teen, he watched some older boys jump over a huge log that had fallen in the forest. Bennie Lee tried to jump the log also, but fell short, breaking his leg. The leg was in a cast for six weeks. When the cast was finally removed, Bennie Lee’s first order of business was to go jump that log. People did not always agree with his judgment but few ever doubted his determination.
To rural families in those days, large families meant more hands for necessary labor, of which there was always plenty to go around. When my father was 14, Grandpa Fudge was disabled, and young Bennie Lee assumed additional responsibility as the oldest able-bodied man of the house. For the next 15 years, he and his younger brothers alternated going to school and farming to support the family.
Since the family could not afford a tractor, even if one had been available, Bennie Lee plowed with mules. An earnest student of the Scriptures, he often carried his Bible into the fields, reading it whenever the mules rested. He considered the Bible to be his governing authority, and he eagerly digested its contents from start to finish. From the book of Philippians he took a lifetime motto: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Alongside that Scripture, he frequently quoted another, uninspired saying: “It’s amazing what one man can accomplish if he doesn’t care who gets the credit!” Early on, Bennie Lee dedicated his life to God’s service with little thought of personal credit, or glory for the results of his faithful service.
The fields also provided his first pulpit. At age 20, still farming to support the family, Bennie Lee often practiced sermons while he plowed. Soon he began to receive invitations to speak at nearby churches. More than once, neighbors who happened past the fields reported hearing Bennie Lee preaching to the stumps and to the mules.
Daddy graduated from high school at age 21, worked a few more years to support the family, then went to Nashville, Tennessee to attend David Lipscomb College. To earn his keep, he cleaned campus buildings at night and did other odd jobs. A teacher at heart, he savored the academic environment, but he was particularly inspired by the college president E. H. Ijams, a godly man, deeply committed to Jesus Christ and absolutely unconcerned with personal advancement or church politics.
David Lipscomb was then a junior college, so after finishing courses there, Bennie Lee traveled to far-away Texas to complete his bachelor’s degree at Abilene Christian College (now University). He majored in Greek, the original language of the New Testament. There he also met Sybil Short, who at age 17 had journeyed even farther — from Africa. Their initial impressions of each other were a study in contrasts. After their first date Bennie Lee told his roommate, “If Miss Short was not determined to go to Africa, I’d marry her.” He did not know that before their date Sybil had told her roommate, “I wouldn’t marry him if he were the last man on earth.” But she later changed her mind and married him anyway.
They thought Africa, but God said no.
Bennie Lee and Sybil planned to finish college, marry, then return to Africa as missionaries — after Bennie Lee had fulfilled another longstanding dream. First, he intended to found Athens Bible School, a private institution in his Alabama home town, where students could study the Bible every day alongside their regular academic classes, and whose administration and faculty would consciously seek to instill Christian principles and values in their students.
The vision became reality in 1943 when Athens Bible School opened its doors with grades 7-12, adding lower grades thereafter year by year. The African dream was not to be fulfilled, as the same God who led Will and Delia’s path to that continent now turned Bennie Lee and Sybil’s path away from it.
My parents graduated from Abilene Christian College in 1943, married the next evening, and moved to Rogersville, Alabama, a village about 20 miles west of Athens. There they lived for about four years, where my father preached for the local Church of Christ, before moving to Athens to be closer to the new school.
Although he never made it to Africa in person, Bennie Lee was destined to become a world evangelist while remaining in Athens, Alabama, through the pulpit of the printed page. “Twenty-six lead soldiers,” my father called the alphabet, “soldiers that can conquer the world!” It began as a simple bookrack at Athens Bible School, where students, staff or visitors could purchase any of a handful of basic Bibles or study tools. Soon, however, it grew into a small business, clearly destined to become an independent bookstore — if someone felt called into that ministry.
Bennie Lee felt called. Under his enthusiastic and untiring leadership, the fledgling business kept expanding until its heyday when it included four retail stores, a publishing arm, a dealership division and a direct sales force that hired college students to sell Bibles and other books door-to-door during summers. Bennie Lee named his business to reflect its purpose: Christian Education Institute, or “C.E.I.” for short. After its ministry expanded worldwide, he kept the same initials but chose the corporate name of Christian Enterprises International.
When Bennie Lee was growing up, Sunday Schools in most Churches of Christ used literature called “the Quarterly.” Bennie Lee noticed that the Quarterly contained very few actual Scripture quotations, and that a pupil could complete all its exercises without ever having to open a Bible at all. “Why,” he reckoned, “a student could attend Sunday School for years with this material, and never use a Bible!” He believed that Sunday School pupils ought to have more, and that with God’s help he could provide it.
So he bought a variety of public school books for each grade level and immersed himself in them until he felt comfortable with the respective vocabularies and styles. Then he went away to a nearby town where he should not be disturbed, checked into a hotel, and wrote a series of Sunday School literature for all ages. Students growing up with his material progressed through the Bible time after time, beginning with a broad sweep of major childhood stories, gradually deepening the content through repeated cycles.
Bennie Lee called his series the “Use Your Bible” workbooks, and anyone using this literature did exactly that! Each lesson contained true/false questions, matching questions, fill-in-the-blanks and other type quizzes, usually requiring the student to read three or four chapters of the Bible through for each exercise. A generation or two of youngsters in the Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches grew up on these workbooks — many of them thinking that “Bennie Lee Fudge” was a woman. Sybil, who was an accomplished artist, illustrated the workbooks as Bennie Lee wrote them.
Besides his Sunday School workbooks, Bennie Lee also published gospel booklets, children’s Bible songs, a history of missionaries sent out by Churches of Christ and assorted other works. Over the years, some of this material was translated and published in Spanish and Norwegian as well as several languages of Africa and the Philippines. Meanwhile, the English editions found their way throughout the world.
Scholar and counselor to the multitudes.
While still a young adult, Bennie Lee also began a daily radio program over station WJMW in Athens, a cooperative effort of the Churches of Christ of Limestone County. The program was called “Spiritual Guidance,” and it started with different speakers each month. During one of Bennie Lee’s first months, a listener wrote him a letter asking several Bible questions, which Bennie Lee answered on the program. Soon other listeners sent in questions. Bennie Lee kept answering — and his audience kept asking — for the next 30 years.
It was my boyhood thrill to accompany Daddy to the radio station for his program shortly after noon. The rule was that I could sit at the studio table with the large microphone in the center, but I could not talk. If a cough or sneeze arose which could not be suppressed, there was a dime-size button one could push to temporarily deaden the mike.
In memory I still hear the announcer’s ringing introduction: “The time now is 12:15,” he began. “Each week day at this same time, the Churches of Christ of Limestone County present 15 minutes of spiritual guidance. The Churches of Christ and their ministers are always ready to help you with your problems of Bible study and Christian living. Your speaker today, and your regular speaker on the program, is Brother Bennie Lee Fudge. Brother Fudge.” At that cue, the red light bulb outside our studio flashed on, Daddy quickly cleared his throat and said, “Thank you, Bob, and good afternoon everyone!”
As Bennie Lee’s reputation as a biblical scholar and practical Christian counselor spread, his bookstore on the courthouse square became a haven for visitors from far and near. Because such welcomed distractions took much of his time during the day, Bennie Lee often walked the mile from his house to the office after the evening meal, then toiled there until midnight or beyond on his publishing business.
Every Sunday Bennie Lee ministered at some local church, serving a succession of congregations through the years. Wherever he served, he promoted world missions, preached expository sermons and usually taught a Sunday School class, often of teenagers. He was a master storyteller who enchanted children and kept their parents spellbound as well.
Conviction despite the consequences.
Throughout his life, Bennie Lee taught the Bible as he saw it, without regard to popularity or financial consequences. While still on the farm, he had concluded through his own study that Christians should not kill in the service of their country in time of war. The conviction grew firmer while he was at David Lipscomb College, a school whose namesake founder had urged complete disassociation from civil governments except to pay taxes as Jesus commanded.
In keeping with this line of thought, Bennie Lee never voted, although he was keenly interested in political issues throughout his life. While still in college at Abilene, in the midst of World War II, he wrote a booklet setting out his conscientious objector views. This stand was highly unpopular under the circumstances and earned him the scorn and censure of many. Although he did not enjoy being criticized, he never flinched or backed down when conscience compelled a course of conduct or teaching.
During the 1950’s, the Churches of Christ — and many individual families that composed them — divided over the way various evangelistic and benevolent works should be organized. One group believed that Scripture required congregations to support missionaries directly, without any intervening organization or coordinating congregation. The mainstream majority concluded that the Bible allowed diversity in such matters. Some people of both opinions discovered in this controversy an opportunity to advance their personal and partisan interests — even if it meant hurting others in the process.
A favorite forum for discussion was the public debate, which pitted advocates of both sides against each other and usually generated more heat than light. Although Bennie Lee had been a regional fundraiser for one of the evangelistic programs involved, he decided after one such debate that the opposition side was correct. Naturally, he notified the program’s sponsors that he could no longer support their activity. When the program’s sponsors learned this, they issued an ultimatum. “You may do as you please,” they told Bennie Lee, “but be aware that if you persist in this viewpoint, it will be our duty as we travel throughout the nation to warn all ‘faithful’ churches not to order their Sunday School supplies from your ‘anti’ business.”
Such threats only stiffened the convictions Bennie Lee had already formed. When it became evident that he would not budge, his adversaries did as they had warned and led a national boycott against his publishing company, ultimately forcing it into involuntary bankruptcy. Bennie Lee accepted all this as the price of conscience, however, and never complained or sought revenge. Nor did he draw lines of fellowship with those who persecuted him. “I’ll fellowship you as long as you will let me,” was his attitude. He remained an enigma to many, who could not understand how one so rigid in his own opinions could warmly embrace others who sincerely disagreed with those opinions.
Vision beyond sectarian boundaries.
For many years, Bennie Lee also edited a magazine called Gospel Digest, a Christian journal patterned after Reader’s Digest. During my childhood and youth, he subscribed to every paper published in English by any branch of our religious movement known to him throughout the world. He also received and avidly read many other papers from various people completely separate from our particular movement.
He encouraged others to have the same spirit of inquiry and open mind. When I was a teenager, I studied (and vigorously debated with) religious correspondence courses published by Seventh-day Adventists, the Catholic Knights of Columbus, Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, and other groups. Daddy encouraged me to critique material for myself. While he was always watching nearby, ready to answer questions, he never gave the impression that he was standing over my shoulder or imposing his own conclusions on me. “Study the Bible for yourself,” he always encouraged, “and stand firmly on whatever you find that it teaches.”
To be fair, most preachers I knew talked that way. The difference between many of them and my father was that he really meant it — and he expected us to do the same. That honest search for truth later led me to some conclusions with which my father, if living, would likely disagree. Occasionally, someone who knew his particular convictions confronts me by asking what my father would think of my own, different views. Without hesitation, I tell them that he would endorse my efforts to understand God’s Word for myself and would insist that I stand firm on my own convictions. In fact, that is what he taught me to do – by his word and also by his example.
Unlike many others in his religious fellowship, Bennie Lee regarded all immersed believers as brothers and sisters in Christ, whether they were connected with the Churches of Christ or not. When he died in February of 1972, more than 700 mourners attended his memorial service, and a cross-section of the community called on the family to express esteem for the man they all called “Brother Fudge.”
A heart full of compassion.
Daddy found it almost impossible to express emotion. When he took me to college 650 miles from home, he unloaded my suitcases and gave me $30.00, which was all the money he had with him. Then, rather than hugging me, as I would do with my own children, he extended his hand and said, “Well, see you in the funny papers.” Then he got in his car and drove away. Years later, my mother said he had told her it was the hardest thing he had ever done, and that he had to leave quickly before I saw him cry.
Yet he was one of the most tenderhearted men I have ever known. Many times I saw him buy shoes, or clothes or food for some needy family or individual. Every Sunday afternoon for many years, he and Mother called on a dear Christian sister who was confined to bed with a paralyzing disease, to read a chapter from the Bible and then to pray. “We go to encourage Mrs. Jarrett,” Daddy often observed, “but every time she encourages us instead.”
Then there was Sam, a bewhiskered, toothless and handicapped man who operated a state-subsidized concession stand on the corner next to Daddy’s bookstore and resided in the old town hotel. Sam felt he couldn’t go to church, but he read his Bible regularly. Every Christmas, my father gave Sam an Annual Sunday School Lesson Commentary for the following year. “God can take care of Sam,” he once told me, “and I am sure he understands why Sam does not attend church.” No Christmas or Thanksgiving meal was complete at our house until we prepared a plate for Sam, which Daddy seemed to take great pleasure in delivering personally.
When Daddy died, Sam trudged a mile in freezing weather, hobbling on his cane, to pay respects to his old friend. A few years later, I had the honor of speaking at Sam’s funeral. The Lord only knows for sure, of course, but I encouraged those present to believe that God had taken care of Sam after all.
Forgiving as Christ forgave.
Because he knew God’s forgiveness, Daddy also forgave others who wronged him. Since childhood, Daddy had aspired to serve as an elder in a local church. Although he preached for many years, he never had that privilege. Two years before Daddy died, his congregation nominated him for its eldership. Because of Daddy’s recent business bankruptcy, however, another preacher in town, who did not belong to that congregation, protested the nomination and it was withdrawn. Daddy’s lifelong dream was crushed, and his spirit was crushed with it. However, he never complained or threatened to get even with the man who had hurt him.
About a year later, the telephone rang one evening as we finished dinner, and the caller asked for Daddy. It was an elder of another congregation in the county, about to employ a new preacher. “We are thinking of hiring Brother So-and-So,” the caller said, referring to the man who had killed Daddy’s dream a year before. “We know you know him, and we would appreciate your opinion of his qualifications.”
Without hesitation, Daddy replied. “He is a good man, and I think he will do an excellent job for you,” he said. “I hope you will offer him the position.” He hung up the receiver and sat back down.
The rest of us were mute with astonishment. “How could you say that?” we finally asked. “Don’t you remember what he did to you?”
We reminded him of the earlier incident.
“Well,” he said, “I had completely forgotten that. But even if I had remembered it, I would have said the same thing because it was true and he will do a good job for that church.”
Modeling priorities and values.
Perhaps most of all, Daddy instilled in his children a strong sense of priorities. A conversation shortly before he died will live forever in my memory. Each Christmas, Daddy invited us family members to an official, if informal, business meeting. It was a legal requirement for the various corporations of the family business, but it was more. Daddy also used the occasion to reflect on the past year and to sketch his vision of the year just ahead.
The scene was Christmas 1971. Though we did not know it then, it would be Daddy’s last Christmas on this earth. He had built a cherished business — a life ministry — and he had seen it crumble before his eyes. He was just beginning to rebuild from the ashes, as it were. There was little reason for excitement it seemed, and perhaps much cause for sorrow.
After the formal corporate necessities of the family business meeting were completed, Daddy took a sheet of paper from his pocket. “I have some wonderful news,” he exclaimed excitedly. “I have recently re-read all the major books on successful living known to me. From them I have compiled a list of the ten most important things in life. I am delighted to tell you today that I have nine of those ten. What is more, the only one I lack is money — and it is at the bottom of the list! ” Six weeks later he was dead at age 57, struck down by pneumonia within seven days from apparent good health. But the values and priorities he modeled will live in my heart forever.
Once he returned from college, Bennie Lee Fudge never lived outside northern Alabama, whose rich red soil his ancestors had tilled for more than a century. But in the providence of God, this boy who once preached to the stumps and to his crops lived to spread the gospel by printed page to continents and islands around the world. True to his slogan, he didn’t care who got the credit, and only God knows the full measure of his accomplishments.
This was the home and the environment into which, by the sovereign leading of God, I was privileged to be born.
TO REFLECT OR DISCUSS:
1. Edward’s father obviously influenced him in many ways. How has your father influenced you for good?
2. If you are a father, how would you like for your children to remember you?
3. How does the example of earthly parents help or hinder their children’s understanding of God as our heavenly Father?