Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Elijah Craig (ca. 1745–18 May 1808), Baptist minister and distiller, was born in Orange County and was the son of Tolever Craig and Mary Hawkins Craig. He received a rudimentary education and lived an unremarkable life until 1764, when the preaching of David Thomas led him to a religious conversion. The following year Craig attended meetings held by Samuel Harriss, another prominent evangelist, who convinced him to spread the gospel. Along with other new believers Craig began holding worship services almost daily in his tobacco barn. In 1766 he journeyed to North Carolina and persuaded a clergyman, James Read, to return with him to Orange County in order to baptize the converts. Craig soon began preaching but did not abandon farming because he believed ministers should not rely solely on pastoral duties for their livings. An uncompromising Calvinist with a solemn yet powerful presence (a contemporary described him as like "a man who had just come from the dead"), he quickly established himself as a leading Baptist preacher. In 1769 he helped found Blue Run Church in Orange County, became its presiding elder, and later, probably in June 1770, was ordained as a minister.

Like many other nonconformist evangelicals, Craig ran afoul of the law and the established Anglican Church. At least twice he was arrested and imprisoned in Culpeper and Orange Counties. During a month of incarceration in the Culpeper County jail, he was fed only rye bread and water; though weak he preached to passersby through the bars of his cell. His boldness ensured him a wide following among the Baptists, and the Separate Baptist Association delegated him on several occasions to lobby the Virginia General Assembly on behalf of religious dissenters.

Although many traditional accounts list Craig as a member of the so-called Traveling Church, a large group of Baptists who migrated in 1781 from Spotsylvania County to central Kentucky, he did not accompany his two elder brothers, Joseph Craig and Lewis Craig (also Baptist ministers), who led that famed party. He remained in Virginia, but during the next few years he speculated in Kentucky land and may several times have visited the area in which his brothers had settled. Craig participated in a meeting of Baptist preachers in the area in 1785 but may not have permanently moved to what became Scott County, Kentucky, until 1786, the year he sold his Orange County farm. In 1787 he became pastor of the Baptist church at Great Crossing. About five years later the congregation split because some members wished to replace Craig with another minister. Excluded in 1791, Craig later regained his pulpit but left about 1795 to lead nearby churches at McConnel's Run and Silas.

It was not as a religious leader, however, that Craig left his principal mark in the western district of Virginia. Within a few years of his arrival, he had established himself as a prominent entrepreneur and land speculator. Craig acquired approximately one thousand acres of land in Scott County, where he laid out the town of Lebanon, which the General Assembly incorporated as Georgetown in 1790. Historians have credited him with establishing Kentucky's first paper mill, some of the earliest saw- and gristmills, a ropewalk, a fulling mill, and a ferry across the Kentucky River. Among his other enterprises was distilling, and Craig's fame derives largely from his reputation as the Baptist minister who created bourbon whiskey. Though he distilled a significant quantity of whiskey from corn—he paid $140 in federal excise taxes in 1798—there is no evidence that he developed the bourbon formula, nor did he make such an assertion.

In December 1787 Craig announced that the following month he intended to open an academy for boys at Lebanon. The planned curriculum of the boarding school, designed to serve about fifty students, included Greek, Latin, and the sciences. Later Craig organized the board of trustees of Rittenhouse Academy, which the Kentucky legislature incorporated in 1798 and which was a forerunner of Georgetown College. Craig continued to preach almost until his death. He defended his variant of Baptist theology in at least three pamphlets, A Few Remarks on the Errors That Are Maintained in the Christian Churches of the Present Day (1801), Three Letters from Philemon to Onesimus (1803), and A Portrait of Jacob Creath (ca. 1807).

About 1763 Craig married a woman named Frances whose surname may have been Smith. The Kentucky Gazette, published in Lexington, reported the death of his wife in April 1802, and many accounts maintain that he later married Margaret Kay (or Tabb) Gatewood. There is no record of their marriage, however, and she is not mentioned in his will, which he dictated on 13 May 1808. It is likely that Craig and his first wife had four sons and three daughters, but some accounts attribute three of these children to a second wife. Elijah Craig died in Georgetown on 18 May 1808 and probably was buried there. In a brief eulogy, the editor of the Kentucky Gazette declared, "If virtue consists in being useful to our fellow citizens, perhaps there were few more virtuous men than Mr. Craig."

Sources Consulted:
Biographies in Robert B. Semple, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia (1810), 414–417, James B. Taylor, Virginia Baptist Ministers (1859), 1:65–67, William Cathcart, ed., The Baptist Encyclopędia (1881), 284–285 (with birth ca. 1743), J. H. Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists (1885), 1:27–28, 87–89, and Morgan Edwards, Materials Towards a History of the Baptists, ed. Eve B. Weeks and Mary B. Warren (1984), 2:60 (with undocumented birth date of 15 Nov. 1745); Lewis Collins and Richard H. Collins, History of Kentucky (1874), 1:516, 2:183, 194, 700; B. O. Gaines, The B. O. Gaines History of Scott County (1905), 2:19; Lewis Peyton Little, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia (1938); Gerald Carson, The Social History of Bourbon: An Unhurried Account of Our Star-Spangled American Drink (1963), 36–40; John Taylor, Baptists on the American Frontier: A History of Ten Baptist Churches of Which the Author Has Been Alternately a Member, ed. Chester Raymond Young (1995), 90 (first quotation); Lexington Kentucky Gazette, 19 Jan. 1788; Scott Co., Ky., Will Book, A:410; obituary in Lexington Kentucky Gazette, 24 May 1808 (second quotation).

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Thomas H. Appleton Jr.

How to cite this page:
Thomas H. Appleton Jr.,"Elijah Craig (ca. 1745–1808)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Craig_Elijah, accessed [today's date]).

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