Elder Rucker and the Ghosts

Posted by | October 17, 2013


Please welcome guest author James “Sparky” Rucker. Rucker has been singing songs and telling stories from the American tradition for over fifty years. Sparky performs with his wife, Rhonda Rucker, who adds vocals, guitar, banjo, and spoons to their music. Rhonda recently penned Swing Low, Sweet Harriet, a historical novel for young readers based on Harriet Tubman’s work as a spy and scout during the Civil War. Sparky and Rhonda appeared on the Grammy-nominated CD, Singing Through the Hard Times, in 2009. Sparky has released fifteen albums, and their 1991 release, Treasures and Tears, was nominated for the W.C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Recording. Sparky is currently searching for a publisher for his collection of preacher tales, The Preacher’s in the Pulpit: Old-time African American Preacher Tales.


My paternal grandfather, John Lindsay Rucker, was born on July 10, 1873 in Riceville, TN to ex-slave Daniel Rucker and his wife Patsy Haney Rucker. Patsy died from complications with the birth and the child’s father Daniel and his mother’s parents, Henry and Parthina Haney, raised him.

John met his wife, Luola Cunningham, when she was about 16-17 years old. They were married on May 27, 1896. The marriage produced 12 children … six boys and six girls. Imagine trying to get a biscuit at that breakfast table!

John L. and Luola Cunningham Rucker. Courtesy Sparky Rucker.

John L. and Luola Cunningham Rucker. Courtesy Sparky Rucker.

To support this large family, John worked odd jobs for the railroad and he also spent 3 months out of every year in Hot Springs, Arkansas working in the bath houses at the world-famous spas.

While he was working there his life had a momentous change. He was “saved” listening to a street- corner preacher and soon found his way to the life of a preacher. He moved his family to Knoxville, Tennessee where he soon found a church in need of a pastor.

His fame grew as he baptized hundreds in the raging waters of the Tennessee River, and preached to the multitudes on Reservoir Hill under a large tent. His good works earned him the title of Bishop of the Church of God, Sanctified, and he went on to spread the church north to Detroit and Chicago, as well as to Haiti, Jamaica, and the Virgin Islands. He lived a full life that he departed on July 12, 1947 at the age of 74.

My career as musician and a storyteller has led to “telling stories” about Bishop Rucker. One device is to tell the complete “truth” and another is to embellish the “truth.”

There is a genre in African American storytelling called Preacher Tales. I weave fact and fiction together while making my grandfather, Bishop J. L. Rucker, the “hero” of these tales. Here is one of them:

Being raised Church of God, Sanctified, was a joy. We’d have an Annual Meeting in Nashville, TN every August. It was so grand when they’d put together a mass choir with all of the luminaries from the various choirs all singing together and praising the Lord.

My paternal grandfather, John Lindsey Rucker, had been the Bishop of the Church, and being his grandson had its advantages.

During the early days, when he was a young preacher, he’d go to the annual meeting alone. Back in that time, [during Jim Crow] motels for Black folks was hard to come by … and they’d house folks with the local Nashville congregation.

Sister Safford always had room for the single and bachelor preachers, ‘cause Sister Safford was a good cook! Her chicken & dumplin’s were legendary and her biscuits were tall enough for anybody! But … Sister Safford’s house was hainted!

You know what hainted means don’t cha? That’s when you’re in a room … and the temperature drops …and the room gets cold … and out of the corner of your eye … in your peripheral vision … you see somethin’ moving … and you say to yourself … “that h’aint there!”

Well … Sister Safford started clearing away the dishes and said, “I’ll leave you young gentlemen alone to discuss your preacher bizness,” and headed into the kitchen.

No sooner had she departed, than the room became colder, and the lights dimmed, and a bit of ectoplasm was seen to float into the room.

Now, these being good Church of God preachers … well … they weren’t gonna show any fear towards some kinda ghosts … so … they began to plan how they were gonna deal with the situation.

Elder Smith was a preacher who could pray! I mean, he could out-pray Brother Johnson. Brother Johnson was a man who had many endings to his prayers. You know, like “The Grace of our Lord be with you all, etc.” Well, most folks had a way they’d commonly end their prayers, but Brother Johnson used them all.

In my church, they’d ask you to stand up for the prayer. And we had a lot of elderly sisters in our church and they’d have to lean on the pew in front of them for support … ‘cause they was a’standin’ there in them pumps … and their feet hurt … and they’d be a‘swayin’… waitin’ for Brother Johnson to finish his prayer … and they’d hear one of them endings and think he was done … but then he’d continue to yet another prayer ending and they’d have to straighten back up. Oh yes, Brother Johnson could pray!

But … Elder Smith could out-pray Brother Johnson! And he commenced to pray at that ectoplasm. He prayed the Old Testament … he prayed the New … He prayed the Beatitudes … he prayed the Sermon on the Mount … Oh, yes! He PRAYED … had his eyes shut hard while he prayed. Then he opened them … and looked up … and there where three ghosts answering him back … being his Amen Corner! Elder Smith was perplexed … what could he do? He whipped out a handkerchief … wiped the sweat from his brow… and sat down.

Next it was Elder Jeter’s turn to try. Elder Jeter was a man who could sing. He could out-sing the famous George Beverly Shea. It was said that when Elder Jeter sang even the Angels in the Heavenly Choir took notice. Elder Jeter folded his hands in a prayerful grip and closed his eyes and began to sing. He sang, “Blessed Assurance,” … He sang “Nearer My God to Thee,” … He sang “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms.” While in the bliss of his sweet songs he began to hear the swelling of a chorus behind him. He opened his eyes and beheld in the air … scores of ghosts in purple and black choir robes who had come to join in singing with him! He began to tremble as he sat back down … defeated!

Then Elder Smith & Elder Jeter looked imploringly at my grandfather, Elder Rucker, as his time was nigh.

My grandfather arose … looked about him … and in a calm voice said, “Well … we’ve had the praying … and we’ve had the singing … now … I reckon its time to take up the collection!”

Man … you’ve never seen ghosts disappear so fast!

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