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Elijah Craig: The Minister as Entrepreneur
By Ira "Jack" Birdwhtstell
      In their meeting at the Baptist church at Bryant's Station in August, 1787, the messengers to the Elkhorn Baptist Association were faced with this "Query" (queries were questions concerning church practice which were frequently brought before associational meetings): "Whether it is agreeable to scripture for churches to suffer men to preach and have care of them as their minister that are a trading and entangling themselves with the affairs of this life?"

      Although no names were mentioned, the question probably had in mind none other than Elijah Craig, then pastor at Great Crossings, who was indeed involved in "trading and entangling" himself "with the affairs of this life." One of the most unusual and controversial of the early Kentucky Baptist preachers, Craig, although hardly a model for a modern bi-vocational pastor, certainly lived a life full of "human interest" for modern readers.

      Born in Orange County, Virginia, about 1743, of a family of remarkable brothers, Elijah Craig enjoyed the young manhood of a fairly well-to-do Virginia planter. The tranquility of the neighborhood was disturbed in 1764, however, when the Baptist preachers David Thomas (a Regular) and Samuel Harris (a Separate) began to hold meetings. Under conviction of his lost estate, Craig began to hold meetings for prayer and preaching in his tobacco baran. When these meetings resulted in several conversions, Craig journeyed to North Carolina to bring James Read, another Separate preacher, to Virginia to baptize these new converts, including Craig himself.

      Ordained to the ministry in May, 1771, Craig became pastor of the newly organized church at Blue Run, where his preaching soon gained the attention of the Virginia authorities. Like his older brother, Lewis (1737-1827), Elijah Craig was imprisoned for preaching the gospel "contrary to" the Anglican religious establishment. In the words of David Benedict, a Baptist historian of the early nineteenth century,

He was accounted a preacher of considerable talents for that day; which, united to his zeal, honored him with the attention of his persecutors. They sent the sheriff and posse after him, when at his plough. He was taken and carried before three magistrates of Culpepper. They without hearing arguments, pro or con, ordered him to jail. At court, he, with others, was arraigned. One of the lawyers told the Court, they had better discharge them; for that oppressing them, would rather advance than retard them. He said, they were like a bed of camomile; the more they were trod, the more they would spread. The Court thought otherwise, and were determined to imprison them. Some of the Court were of the opinion, that they ought to be confined in a close dungeon; but the majority were for giving them the bounds. After staying there one month, preaching to all who came, he gave bond for good behavior, and came out. He was also confined in Orange jail, at another time.
      In 1781, Lewis Craig moved his family and many of his Upper Spottsylvania Baptist congregation to the new land of Kentucky, settling at Gilbert's Creek (near present-day Lancaster) in December of that year. By 1783 much of this famous "traveling church" had located in Fayette County at South Elkhorn. Among those who joined forces with Craig's party after they reached the Bluegrass were Robert Johnson ( ) and his family, former members of the church at Blue Run. Largely due to the dispersal of "the traveling church," Baptist congregations emerged at various settlements throughout the Bluegrass, including one (1785) at Robert Johnson's station at the Big Crossing, on Elkhorn Creek in what is now Scott County. In late September, 1785, representatives of five of these churches met at Clear Creek (John Taylor, pastor) to organize Elkhorn Baptist Association. The minutes of that meeting include this entry: "Bro. Elijah Craig invited to a seat with this association." The former tobacco barn exhorter had arrived in the Bluegrass!

      Precisely when Elijah Craig came to Kentucky is not clear. He was "requested to take a seat" at the associational meeting of August, 1786, and a year later he appears in the minutes as the minister at Great Crossings. Meanwhile, Craig had been busy in one of the major business activities on the Kentucky frontier - speculation in land. About this time, he acquired much of the land-near the Royal Spring in Scott County and "invented" a town which he called Lebanon (later, Georgetown). Here he began to expand into other businesses, including the manufacture of paper, the making of rope from the abundant hemp of the Bluegrass region, and the distilling of whiskey from the finest Kentucky corn. Whether Craig truly invented the process for making Bourbon Whiskey is open for debate. Ann Bevins, historian of Scott County, attributes to Newton Craig, Elijah's nephew, the tradition linking the preacher to the process. That Craig was involved in distilling, however, is certain. In fact, distilling according to law was not frowned upon by the pioneer Baptists. Abuse of alcohol, however, was a grave matter.

      Craig also showed an interest in education. In 1787, he advertised in the Kentucky Gazette, published in Lexington, the opening of a "classical school" in Georgetown. The actual history of this school is not known.

      In his spare time, evidently, Craig preached on the first Sunday of each month at Great Crossings - until the arrival in the Bluegrass in 1789 of Joseph Redding (1750-1815) a highly effective Baptist preacher.

      Evidently the church at the Crossings chose up sides - some wanting Craig as preacher, others, Redding (both men appear as messengers to the association in August, 1790). At the next annual meeting, however, the association became involved in what had become a donneybrook of a church fight at the Crossings. Craig had been excluded from the church, taking about thirty of the members with him. The two parties were eventually reunited, but the feud between Craig and Redding simmered until 1795, when Craig withdrew to enter into the constitution of a new church at McConnell's Run (now Stamping Ground). That same year, Craig was chosen to preach the "introductory sermon" at the associational meeting held at Cowper's Run Church, a reflection that he was still held in high esteem by his peers.

      After preaching to the church at McConnell's Run for five months, Craig relinquished his duties to William Hickman (1747-1834), one of the noblest of the pioneer Baptist preachers, best known for his nearly thirty years as pastor at Forks of Elkhorn. In his autobiography, Hickman describes his relation to the church at McConnell's Run:

About this time Bro. John Scott, from Scott County, came to one of our meetings, and invited me to come to his neighborhood and preach, which I did. I preached in a barn of Mr. Ficklin and I hope not in vain. After this I attended many times, and at his own house; some old Baptists living near, together with the new converts, formed a very respectable church for business under the care of Brother Elijah Craig. As he lived in Georgetown, and was a good deal of his time under bodily complaints, he advised the church to get some preacher to attend them statedly, and he would come as often as he could; they called me to attend them one year.
      In the summer of 1796, Jacob Gregg, a much traveled preacher from Virginia, visited Kentucky and recorded his impressiions of his old friend, Elijah Craig:
His riches do not make his mind more happy. He complains of being unwell. Bro. Kay having informed me of a young man in Mason who had lately hung himself, Bro. Craig told of an old member in the Crossings who had just done the same thing.
      Craig was evidently not very active in the McConnell's Run Church. In January, 1798, John Payne, one of the more influential members, was instructed to visit Craig because of his "non-attendance." In spite of this, Craig continued to represent McConnell's Run at associational meetings through the meeting of August, 1802. Meanwhile, the old dispute between Craig and Redding had been rekindled by an invitation by McConnell's Run to Redding to preach for them "as often as he could make it convenient." In early 1801 Craig published a pamphlet, "A Few Remarks on the Errors That are Maintained in the Christian Churches of the Present Day," in which he argued that pastors of churches should not be paid for their labors but that they should travel the same thorny way of the laity, of labor, cares of this life, etc."

      The church at the Crossings took Craig's pamphlet as a direct attack on their pastor, Joseph Redding; and the McConnell's Run Church, where Craig was still a member, accused him of "falsehood, perverting the scriptures and slandering in the highest degree the ministers of the gospel and Baptists in general." In the midst of the turmoil, which included an attempt by a council of sister churches to settle the problem, Craig left McConnell's Run (October, 1802) to become a member of the church at Silas, in Bourbon County.

      In the meantime, Craig had enjoyed great success in his business dealings According to the research of Fred J. Hood, professor at Georgetown College, Craig was one of the wealthiest men in Scott County (second only to Robert Johnson of the Crossings). According to tax records for 1800, Craig owned over 4,000 acres of land, eleven horses, thirty-two slaves, and extensive business operations in both Georgetown and Frankfort. His wealth, however, was not able to buy him peace in the ecclesiastical realm.

      In 1805, Craig became involved in yet another church fight, one that was ' to divide historic Elkhorn Association. It all began with a dispute between Jacob Creath, pastor of Town Fork (near Lexington) and at McConnell's Run, and Thomas Lewis, a wealthy member of Town Fork, over a business deal which involved an exchange of slaves. Craig, who evidently had a low regard for Creath, published a pamphlet, "A Portrait of Jacob Creath," which accused the latter of misdeeds of a more or less serious nature. No copy of this pamphlet has survived; but according to David Benedict, it was "a personal phillipic" against Jacob Creath, "written with a pen dipped in poison."

      Before the controversy broke in full force, Craig moved his letter from Silas to Marble Creek (later East Hickman) in Fayette County. The churches in the association divided into "pro-Creath" and "anti-Creath" parties, the latter group of churches eventually leaving Elkhorn in 1809 to become Licking Association. Craig's pamphlet led the Town Fork Church into a feud with Marble Creek, which, after initially supporting their eminent new member (Craig) spent most of their church business time during 1807 trying to decide how best to deal with him. In April, 1808, the church appointed a certain Brother Carr to "wait on Brother Craig and inform him of the church's dissatisfaction and request him to attend our next stated meeting in order to give satisfaction i'f possible."

      But it was not possible. His health failing, on May 13, 1808, Elijah Craig penned the following last will and testament:

I, Elijah Craig of the County of Scott and State of Kentucky being in a low state of health but of sound mind & memory do make this my last will and Testament, and first it is my desire that all my Just debts be paid, and in order to make a provision therefore I do hereby authorize my executors hereafter to be named to sell rent or have all or any of the Estate which I may possess at the time of my death if they think proper and the money accruing from, them such sale first to be applied to the payment of my debts as aforesaid and the balance (if any) to be applied as hereafter directed. I give to my son Simeon Craig One Negro boy named Harry to wait on him and to his heirs forever and forty pounds per year for life. I give to my son John D. Craig the sum of Four hundred dollars and should there yet be a balance remaining my will and desire is that such balance be equally divided between my children to wit Joel, John, Lucy and Mary.

And I do hereby authorize and fully empower my Executors to Execute deeds for my lands or lots which I may have sold in my life time, and for which no deeds have as yet been made, and in all things relative to my Estate to wit in the same manner as would and all their . . . . person . . . .

And lastly I constitute and appoint my friend John Hawkins, my friend Josiah Pitts and my son John D. Craig to my Executors to this my last will and Testament haeby making void all other wills by me heretofore made.

      The Marble Creek minutes for May, 1808, record that Brother Carr, in his attempt to meet with Craig "was informed of his illness on the way and proceeded no further."

      Evidently Craig died soon thereafter, since the will was probated in June of that year. According to family tradition, he was buried near the Great Crossings in a graveyard which no longer exists. A portrait of Craig is purported to have been lost when fire struck the library of Georgetown College in 1935.

      Thus lived and died one of the most colorful of the early Baptist preachers in Kentucky. As Jacob Gregg had noted earlier, his business success did not seem to make him happy. He was involved in almost incessant controversy of one kind or another after coming to Kentucky. In church life, he remained fiercely loyal to the old Separate Baptist ways of Virginia. John Taylor, who knew Elijah Craig both in Virginia and Kentucky, capsuled his life this way: "Of the three Craig brothers," wrote Taylor,

Elijah was considered the greatest preacher of the three, and in a very large association in Virginia, Elijah Craig was among the most popular for a number of years. His preaching was of the most solemn style - his appearance as a man who had just come from the dead, of a delicate habit, a thin visage, large eyes and mouth, of great readiness of speech, the sweet melody of his voice, both to preach and sing bore all down before it; and when his voice was extended, it was like the loud sound of a sweet trumpet. The great favour of his preaching, commonly brought many tears from the hearers, and many no doubt turned to the Lord by his preaching: he was several times a prisoner of the Lord for preaching: He moved to Kentucky at a later date than his other brothers, his turn to speculation, did him harm every way - he was not as great a peace maker in the church as his brother Lewis, and that brought trouble on him: but from all his troubles he was relieved by death, when perhaps he did not much exceed 60 years of age, after serving in the ministry say 40 years.

[From The Kentucky Baptist Heritage Journal, Volume XII, November, 1985, Number 2, pp. 16-20 - (The organization is disbanded). Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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