Chapter II - First Church - Its Origin - Virginia - Lewis Craig
From the time that Tinsley and Hickman preached the first sermons near the town spring at Harrodsburg, to the establishment of the first regular worshiping congregation in Kentucky, five years had elapsed. The intervening period was as momentous as any in the world's history. The storms of revolution swept over the colonies spreading calamity and gloom. Nowhere did the contest rage more fearfully than in Virginia, and nowhere did the opposing parties put forth mightier efforts. It was the battle of truth, of principle, of natural life; fought not for America alone, but for the world. The dark hour was succeeded by the sun-rise of freedom. In the midst of this conflict, ere the storm had subsided, Kentucky rose into being, like the fabled spirit of beauty from the agitated sea. The very principles which triumphed in the revolution were the causes and the elements of her existence; and the men who had suffered most from opposition, and had lifted up their voice for freedom from within the jails of Virginia, were the first settlers in Kentucky. The little church that followed their pastor through the Cumberland Gap into the "tangled wilderness" in 1781, had followed him to the gates of Fredricksburg jail, where he was incarcerated a few years previous for daring to exercise soul-freedom in religion. The principles which actuated them, and which have ever characterized the Baptists, had been working, silently but effectually, for a century previous in Virginia.
"The plebian sect of the Anabaptists," I quote from a Pedobaptist historian, "with greater consistence than Luther applied the doctrines of the Reformation to the social positions of life, and threatened an end to priest-craft, king craft, spiritual domination, tithes and vassalage. The party was trodden under foot, with foul reproaches, most arrogant scorn, and its history is written in the blood of myriads of the German peasantry; but its principles, safe in their immortality, escaped with Roger Williams to Providence, and his colony is the witness that, naturally, the paths of the Baptists are paths of freedom, of pleasantness, and peace."1
But these immortal principles, were in active operation in Virginia cotemporarily with Roger Williams and the settlement of Rhode Island, the Virginia legislature declared to the world, that, "whereas," to use the language of the preamble, "many schismatically persons, either out of adverseness to the orthodox established religion or out of new fangled conceits of their own heretical inventions, did refuse to have their children baptized," it was enacted that whoever "in contempt of the divine sacrament of baptism" should thus refuse, when he might "carry his child to a lawful minister within the county to be baptized," should be fined two thousand pounds of tobacco, "half to the parish, half to the informer."2 Those against whom this statute was promulged were baptized, and doubtless were such before Roger Williams embraced their "immortal principles." And even had the revolution never occurred they would have escaped with Craig to Kentucky and over its luxuriant soil would have waved the same glorious standard which Roger Williams unfurled in the wilds of Narragansett Bay. The same principles were cherished by both. The same dauntless courage and uncompromising opposition to a law religion and "an hireling ministry," characterized each. Freedom - entire freedom of conscience in the worship of God - was the watchword of both. While Williams was achieving the freedom of Providence and John Bunyan was pleading for it in Bedford jail, the ancestors of Kentucky Baptists were struggling for it in the wilderness of Virginia. A linked brotherhood, noble in their steadfastness, sublime in their sufferings, passed along the torch of truth, down time's rugged path, from the hills of Judea, the cities of grace, the valleys of the Pyrenees, and the mountains of Wales, till it broke in beauty on Rhode Island and Virginia, and gleamed on the "dark and bloody ground" of the Indians. Monuments of true greatness shine all along that blood-stained path, and among them let the pastors of the first church in Rhone Island, and the pastors of the first church in Kentucky be numbered. Let them stand together. Alike in their religious and political principles, alike in their fortitude, their courage, and their triumph - let their names be united and their memories embalmed. Down-trodden, scorned, banished, imprisoned, execrated; the truths they uttered, the principles they proclaimed, "safe in their immortality," are this day accepted by thirty millions of freemen on this continent - their happiness and glory. "Truth is mighty and will prevail;" crushed to the earth it will rise again. Chains cannot bind it. Time cannot weaken it. Victory is its destiny. Eternity its guardian.
From the first records of regularly constituted churches in Virginia, in 1714, to the persecution of Craig and his co-laborers, the Baptist and their principles slowly but steadily increased. They were generally poor, and illiterate. Without state patronage, or the influence of great talents, wealth or learning - looked upon as a low, plebian sect, unworthy of opposition or notice, they were permitted, for half a century, to worship God unmolested, and the laws against them were a dead letter on the statute books. When at last, their numerical strength aroused the fears of the clergy, the contest was as unequal as any that can be imagined. The established clergy were classical scholars, graduates in divinity, surrounded by wealth and respectability. The customs of the country were on their side; and they were backed by the strong arm of the law. The mobs, too, easily excited and carried along by the current, by the passing blast of popular fury, assailed them with insults and personal indignity. Every interest seemed allied against them, and their destruction approaching. They saw the approaching storm, and girt themselves for the conflict. "No dissenters in Virginia," says Hawkes, an Episcopalian historian, "experienced, for a time, harsher treatment than did the Baptists. They were beaten and imprisoned, and cruelty taxed its integrity to devise new modes of punishment and annoyances," but "the men who were not permitted to speak in public found willing auditors in the sympathizing crowds who gathered around the prisons to hear them preach from grated windows."3 Such is the candid acknowledgment of a foe to Baptist principles. He even tells us that the conflict with the Church was the beginning of the contest with the crown, with which it was closely allied. "It is a mistake that the revolution commenced with the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill." With the first determined and successful opposition to the clergy in Virginia, he identifies, as every candid man must, the commencement of the revolution. And the first individual who braved the vengeance of the clergy, the first that ever was actually imprisoned for preaching in Virginia, was the pastor of the first church in Kentucky.
But the lines were now drawn, the conflict had commenced. "May it please your worship," said the prosecuting attorney at Craig's trial, "they cannot meet a man upon the road but they must ram a text of scripture down his throat." "Give me leave," said James Ireland, on another occasion, "to argue the point in hand with the person," who was active in giving his assistance at the trial, "and if I do not confute him I will go to prison as a volunteer." He with a smile replied, "the word of God does not pass current in this house." "It appears so," said Ireland, "or they would not imprison those who preach it."4 "Thank you gentlemen," said Craig to the jury which condemned him, "I shall take the spoiling of my goods joyfully." His courage, his steadfastness, and piety, impressed the wickedest, and "swearing Jack Waller," became his son in the gospel, and his co-laborer and sufferer in the thickening contest.
In the yard of the little meeting house in Spotsylvania county, Craig, Waller and several others were arrested by the Sheriff, and carried before a magistrate. Insulted and brow-beaten, they refused to give security to desist from preaching, and were ordered to jail. Crowds were assembled. The streets of Fredericksburg were thronged. The mob was ready to insult or pelt them, scorn and triumph curled the lips of their foes. Despondency filled the minds of their friends. Suddenly the full voice of Craig rung out the song of Watts:
"Broad is the road that leads to death,
And many walk together there;
But wisdom shows a narrow path,
With here and there a traveller."
His companions took up the strains in full-voiced harmony.5 The mob was awed. Tears started from many an eye. It was victory in the midst of apparent defeat -- as noble an example of moral heroism as the annals of America record. And if, as must be acknowledged, the struggle with the Church of England commenced and terminated in the struggle with the government of England, then whose memory deserves to be more warmly cherished than he who first entered the breach and met the first fury of the storm -- the almost forgotten Lewis Craig!
But he was only the prominent exemplar of the immortal principles of the Baptists. Says their opponent already quoted: -- "Persecution had taught the Baptist not to love the establishment, and they now saw before them a reasonable prospect of overturning it altogether. In their association they had calmly discussed the matter and resolved on their course; in this course they were constant to the end; and the war which they waged against the Church was a war of extermination. They seem to have known no relentings, and their hostility never ceased for seven and twenty years. They revenged themselves for their sufferings by the almost total ruin of the Church; and now commenced the assault, for, inspired by the ardor of patriotism, which accorded with their interests6 they addressed the convention and informed that body that their religious tenents [sic] presented no obstacle to their taking up arms and fighting for the country; and they tendered the services of their pastors in promoting the enlistment of the youth of their persuasion. A complimentary answer was returned, and the ministers of all denominations, in accordance with the address, placed on an equal footing. This it is believed was the first step toward religious liberty in Virginia."7 Nor did their efforts end here. When the general assessment bill was still pending a memorial from the Baptists thus expressed the principles which ever distinguished them. "Resolved, That it is believed to be repugnant to the spirit of the gospel for the legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion. That no human laws ought to be established for this purpose, but that every person ought to be left entirely free in respect to matters of religion. That the holy author of our religion needs no such compulsatory measures for the promotion of his cause. That the gospel wants not the feeble arm of man for its support. That it has made, and will again, through divine power, make its way against all opposition. And, that should the legislature assume the right of taxing the people for the support of the gospel, it will be destructive to religious liberty." An address was moved and prepared, and presented to the legislature by Rev. Reuben Ford. In 1779 the question was finally settled against the assessment. "The Baptists," says Hawkes, "were the principle promoters of this work and in truth did more than any other denomination in its accomplishment."8
Thus have we rapidly traced the first efforts to snap the chain which bound America to the throne of a tyrant and the denomination of a state church to the ancestors of the Kentucky Baptists. Poor and defenceless, they entered the contest, fearlessly they grappled with a powerful priesthood backed by the power of Britain, and after years of struggle and suffering they emerged from the conflict covered with victory. And among these noble champions in the battle, in the front with the foremost, was the pioneer of Kentucky - Lewis Craig.
Between the James and Rappahanock rivers, in 1767, Lewis Craig collected together the fruits of his ministry and a separate Baptist church was constituted, called the "Church of Jesus Christ called Baptists, at Lower Spotsylvania." Three years after its constitution he accepted its pastorship, and it was generally known afterwards as Craigs'. Its numbers gradually increased. Persecution united them closely together, and their rigid application of discipline displayed their simplicity and purity. The old church book is still preserved as a valuable relic by the descendants of the old clerk, who live in Kentucky. Its decisions about dress are amusing for their simplicity. The least ornament was forbidden, and playing on any musical instrument whatever, but especially the fiddle, was followed by severe reprimand. To attend parties or shows of any kind was dealt with as inconsistent and criminal, and singing, or repeating, fashionable or profane songs or ditties, or even to whistle them, was charged as the sin of delusion. If their course in all this was extreme, they erred on the right side; and compared with the fashion and gaiety of dress, the indulgence in festive amusements, and the uncensored frivolity which now prevail among Baptists, their severity is by far to be preferred.
In the close of the summer of 1781, the returning explorers of Kentucky spread everywhere the most glowing accounts of its rich soil, its broad and limpid river, its native clover and rich cane-brakes, and everywhere were the poor and enterprising preparing to depart to the paradise of the West. Dangers had to be encountered; mountains scaled, rivers crossed, and a trackless wilderness, filled with savage warriors, to be passed. But there were those in Virginia who knew little of fear, and would dare any danger. Among their number was the pastor of Spotsylvania church, Lewis Lunceford, who had visited the country and returned. Craig decided to go at once, not to visit the country, but to settle there for life. He communicated his intention to his friends and brethren in the church; all caught the enthusiasm. One Sabbath (it was probably the church meeting day, in September, which came on the 2d) he announced his intention to remove to the new country called Kentucky. It was dangerous, at that day, to cross the wilderness alone. Families waited at the out-stations until a company large and strong enough to venture on could be collected. The pastor desired that all who could commit themselves into the hands of the Lord, and would go to the "foreign land," to meet at the meeting house at an appointed day. The church had been greatly scattered during the revolutionary war; many had moved to the back-woods of Virginia. But nearly all the remaining members agreed, with enthusiasm, to follow their pastor to Kentucky. They were soon ready to depart. In the middle of October, 1781, the fellow laborers of Craig who lived near him, and some from a distance, came to give him and the church the parting hand. John Waller was there. They commended each other to God, and the words of his grace. Many tears were shed. Craig was parting forever from the scenes of his suffering, where he with his brethren had fought the good fight of faith. The last prayer was offered, the farewells were given. Lewis Craig and John Waller, those men of God, who sang together in Fredericksburg Jail, wept over each other's embrace, as they parted forever. The scene was as noble as affecting. The father and son in the gospel had stood together in many a trial, in many a hard fought battle. No jar had ever occurred between them, no rivalry had ever soured their feelings, no breach of confidence lessened their affection. They parted. The many farewells were all given, and the church journied on, with humble trust in Him who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, towards the setting sun.
The feelings of John Waller, as he parted with loved friends, were expressed in the following simple but expressive lines, which are preserved among the descendants of Joseph Craig:
"Let me sing of my best beloved, Whose vineyard a great while most fruitful proved, But lately got blasted, and now is earth-bound; Lord Jesus do plead for the poor cumbered ground. "Great sorrows of late filled my poor heart, To think that the dearest friends must soon part; A few left behind, while many will go, To settle the desert down the Ohio. "Lord, what will become of those left behind? Or what shall we hear, Lord, of those who go on? Shall places of worship most desolate stand - Their preachers and people in a foreign land?"
[From Samuel H. Ford, editor, The Christian Repository, February, 1856, pp. 69-77. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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