Dictionary of Virginia Biography


John Craig (17 August 1709–22 April 1774), Presbyterian minister, was born in Donegore Parish, County Antrim, Ireland. His parents, who have not been identified, may have moved from Scotland to Ireland in the 1690s. Little is known of his early life other than that he did well as a student at an academy, was baptized at age fourteen or fifteen at a Presbyterian meetinghouse, and received an M.A. in 1733 from the University of Edinburgh. Craig declined the small Scottish lairdship of the octogenarian uncle for whom he was named and instead chose to immigrate to America.

Craig arrived in New Castle, Delaware, on 17 August 1734. The following month, after hearing Gilbert Tennent plead for so-called New Light, or evangelical, ministers to be admitted to the Synod of Philadelphia, Craig affiliated with the so-called Old Light conservatives who opposed the Great Awakening. While teaching school and studying for the ministry, he lived for three years with a Presbyterian clergyman in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Craig received a license to preach in August 1738 and for the next two years supplied congregations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. He was ordained on 3 September 1740 for the Triple Forks of Shenandoah congregation in the new county of Augusta.

The first settled Presbyterian minister in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Craig registered as a dissenter in February 1741, as required by law, and for nearly a decade traveled as far south as the later site of Roanoke and west into the Allegheny Mountains to preach, baptize, and organize congregations in frontier settlements. He was for a few years the only Presbyterian minister in the area, and his record of 883 baptisms performed during the 1740s is the earliest surviving document of its kind from the region. Craig's own congregation had two churches, one at Tinkling Spring (later Fishersville) and the other at Augusta Stone (later Fort Defiance). Following clashes with some members of the Tinkling Spring church, he was formally discharged on 4 May 1764, but he remained pastor at the Augusta Stone Church and was regularly appointed to supply other congregations in the region.

In 1743 Craig purchased 335 acres of land in Beverley Manor about four miles northeast of present-day Staunton. On 11 June 1744 he married Isabella Helena Russell, who was also from Ireland. They had five daughters, three sons, and another child who died in infancy. Craig and his wife began housekeeping and farming without servants, but by the time of his death he owned five slaves. In 1763 a young man of mixed-race ancestry successfully sued Craig for his freedom. During the Seven Years' War, when many frontier Presbyterians fled to safer territory, Craig counseled his congregation to remain and defend their homes. Among those who attended Craig's church were William Preston, who had become one of the most prominent men in southwestern Virginia by the time of the American Revolution, and Selim, an Algerine who after a remarkable captivity in the West was converted from Islam to Christianity under Craig's supervision.

Craig adhered to the Donegal Presbytery, Synod of Philadelphia, during the split of American Presbyterians between the Old Lights and New Lights. He kept his distance from the Hanover Presbytery, which the New Light Synod of New York formed in 1755. After the unification of the Synods of New York and Philadelphia in 1758, however, Craig was ordered to join the reconstituted Presbytery of Hanover. He had reluctantly acquiesced by the following year, when he was chosen moderator. After Craig and other western ministers complained to the synod of the hardships of traveling to Hanover, the synod ordered that meetings of the Hanover Presbytery alternate between eastern and western locations. He served several times as moderator, collected funds for the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) beginning in 1769, and in 1773 advocated passage of an act of religious toleration in Virginia. John Craig died on 22 April 1774 in Augusta County and was buried in the graveyard at Augusta Stone Church.


Sources Consulted:
Autobiographical "A preacher preaching to himself from a long text of no less than sixty years: On review of past life" (ca. 1769), with birth and marriage dates, and John Craig Papers, both Presbyterian Historical Society, Montreat, N.C.; variant birth and death dates on gravestone erected by son in 1798 ("In memory of the Revd. John Craig, D.D., commencer: of the Presbyterian Ministerial Service, in this place, Ano Domini, 1740, and faithfully discharged his duty in the same. To April the 21st, Ano Domini, 1774, then departed this life with fifteen hours affliction: from the hand of the Great Creator. Aged 63 years and 4 months"); biographies in William Henry Foote, Sketches of Virginia, Historical and Biographical (1850–1856), 28–33, Alfred Nevin, ed., Encyclopędia of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1884), 161 (with variant birth date of 21 Sept. 1710), J. N. Van Devanter, History of the Augusta Church, from 1737 to 1900 (1900), 12–21, Henry Alexander White, Southern Presbyterian Leaders (1911), 32–35, and Lillian Kennerly Craig, Reverend John Craig, 1709–1774: His Descendants and Allied Families (1963), 39–61, 63–74 (text of farewell sermon at Tinkling Spring, his only surviving sermon); Howard McKnight Wilson, The Tinkling Spring, Headwater of Freedom: A Study of the Church and Her People, 1732–1952, 2d ed. (1974), 64–83, 97–101, 123–134; Record of Baptisms (1740–1749), Augusta Stone Church, Fort Defiance, alphabetized and transcribed in Wilson, Tinkling Spring, 470–484; Donegal Presbytery Minutes, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia; Hanover Presbytery Minutes (including death on 22 Apr. 1774 noted on 13 Oct. 1774, 1:55), Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond; Orange Co. Deed Book, 7:125–128; Augusta Co. Order Book, 7:462, 8:122–123; Robert Doares Jr., "'But for the Saviour, I Could Not Bear It': The Story of Selim the Algerine," Colonial Williamsburg 24 (summer 2002): 15–18 (portrait silhouette believed to be of Craig on 16); appraisal of estate in Augusta Co. Will Book, 6:505–506.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Katharine L. Brown.

How to cite this page:
Katharine L. Brown,"John Craig (1709–1774)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Craig_John_1709-1774, accessed [today's date]).


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