Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Lewis Craig (ca. 1737–by July 1825), Baptist minister, was born in Orange County and was the son of Tolever Craig and Mary Hawkins Craig. One of his younger brothers, Elijah Craig, also became a prominent Baptist minister and distiller in Kentucky. Largely self-taught, Craig lived, by his own account, a life of folly and vanity until he was about thirty, when he experienced a religious conversion through the sermons of Samuel Harriss. Although not yet ordained and also without possessing a license as required by law for dissenting ministers, Craig began preaching in Orange and the neighboring counties. On several occasions he was arrested and held in jail for such offenses as disturbing the peace and conducting unlicensed religious services. In June 1768 authorities seized Craig and several other ministers during a worship service. Offered freedom if they promised not to preach again for a full year, the men refused and were incarcerated in Fredericksburg. A defiant Craig reportedly preached through the grates of his jail cell to large and supportive crowds during his one month of imprisonment.

In November 1770 Craig was ordained and named pastor of the Upper Spotsylvania Baptist Church, which steadily increased in membership. Known more for his practical nature and common sense than as a scholar of the Bible, Craig had a congenial personality and melodious voice that made him effective in the pulpit. He conducted revivals and assisted in forming congregations in at least six Virginia counties. He continued to run afoul of the law and in 1771 was confined to the Caroline County jail for three months.

Like many of his contemporaries, Craig became fascinated with the opportunities said to be awaiting in Kentucky. According to Baptist lore, he once described God's celestial kingdom as a Kentucky of a place. When he informed his congregation of his intention to move west, he was astonished to learn that more than half of them desired to accompany him. In September 1781, as Craig, his brother Joseph Craig (who was also a minister), and their party set out from Spotsylvania County bound for Kentucky, he likened their 600-mile journey to the exodus of Moses and the Israelites to the Promised Land. Perhaps as many as 600 people, 200 of them members of his church, formed what was probably the largest group of pioneers ever to enter the Kentucky District. After three months the members of the so-called Traveling Church arrived at their new home on what became Gilbert's Creek, a tributary of Dick's River (later Dix River), in the portion of Lincoln County that became Garrard County, Kentucky. In the autumn of 1783 Craig and most of his followers moved to South Elkhorn, in Fayette County, approximately five miles from Lexington, where they formed the first congregation of any denomination north of the Kentucky River.

After nine years as pastor of the South Elkhorn Church, Craig chose to leave that congregation in 1792. Although one account speculates that he may have been embarrassed because of land dealings that went sour, he offered no explanation for his decision. Craig purchased a farm near the small community of Minerva, in Mason County, where the following year he organized the Bracken Baptist Church. He served as its pastor until 1807 and remained active in ecclesiastical matters in the region until at least 1812.

Although Craig's name is among the most recognizable in the history of the Baptist Church in Virginia and Kentucky, many aspects of his life remain shrouded in mystery. By 14 November 1766 he had married Elizabeth Sanders, of Spotsylvania County. They may have had as many as five daughters and five sons. When Craig composed his will in June 1821, he listed four living sons. Even the date and manner of his death are uncertain. Lewis Craig died probably late in the spring or early in the summer of 1825; his will was first presented for probate during the July session of the Mason County Court. His grave was unmarked and unheralded until 1930, when local Baptists surrounded the presumed site with an iron picket fence and placed a commemorative stone tablet.

Sources Consulted:
Biographies in Robert B. Semple, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia (1810), revised by G. W. Beale (1894), esp. 29–30, 32, 472–473 (with death ca. 1824), James B. Taylor, Virginia Baptist Ministers (1859), 1:85–91, William Cathcart, ed., The Baptist Encyclopędia (1881), 285 (with approximate year of birth), J. H. Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists (1886), esp. 1:26–32, and Lewis N. Thompson, Lewis Craig: The Pioneer Baptist Preacher (1910); marriage date derived from Spotsylvania Co. Deed Book, G:228; some Craig letters in George Stovall Smith Papers, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort; John Taylor, A History of Ten Baptist Churches of Which the Author Has Been Alternately a Member… (1823), 27, 41–55; Lewis Peyton Little, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia (1938); George W. Ranck, "'The Travelling Church': An Account of the Baptist Exodus from Virginia to Kentucky in 1781," Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 79 (1981): 240–265; Mason Co., Ky., Will Book, F:291–292; gravesite restoration described in John T. Simpson Jr., letter dated 28 Jan. 1982, in Lewis Craig Biography File, Kentucky Historical Society.

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

How to cite this page:
Thomas H. Appleton Jr.,"Lewis Craig (ca. 1737–by 1825)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Craig_Lewis, accessed [today's date]).

Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.

facebook twitter youtube instagram linkedin