The Bourbon Baptist: A Look at Elijah Craig’s Life

Church History

[By: Mark Nenadov]

Introduction

The vaults of church history are rich storehouses that should be plundered regularly. We have an embarrassment of riches and yet at times large swaths of history lay on the shelf, dusty.

It can be tempting for us Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians to jump from the New Testament times to the 16th and 17th century and then into the 20th century. And yet, the American Baptist community of the 18th and 19th century is, in my opinion, comparatively neglected. I love and appreciate the life and theology of the 17th century Particular Baptists, but sometimes I think we’ve underestimated the legacies of those who came after them.

As an independent, amateur researcher, I’ve been writing short biographical sketches of some noteworthy and yet sorely neglected individuals in 19th century American Baptist history. For instance, I’ve written two soon-to-be-published papers on John Newton Brown: “A Recipient of Inestimable Legacies”: The Early Life of J. Newton Brown (1803-1868) and “Sweet Temper, High-toned Piety”: The Life of John Newton Brown (1803-1868). They should be appearing in Kettering soon. And I’ve focused in on S. Dryden Phelps in “An Eloquence in Nature’s Voice” The Pastor-Poet S. Dryden Phelps (1816-1895).

11748618_10153214268454342_914956416_nMost of my writing has been about Baptists in New England. The Baptist community there was surprisingly vital just a couple centuries ago! As of late, though, there is an intriguing character who takes me further down South: the 18th-19th century Virginia and Kentucky Baptist preacher and entrepreneur Elijah Craig (1745?-1808).

This article is much less formal than the other ones I’ve written recently. Also, I do not pretend to have researched Elijah Crag’s life as thoroughly as John Newton Brown or S. Dryden Phelps. Nevertheless, I aspire here to a lighter, more casual treatment of his life, which brings into focus some interesting angles in an age of perennial concerns about religious liberty!

Early Life and Conversion

Though Elijah Craig was “one of the most remarkable of the early Kentucky Baptist preachers,” very little is known about his early life in Orange County, Virginia. We don’t even know whether his birthdate was in the 1730s or 1740s and have essentially no details dating before 1764.

By the mid-1750s, colonial American Baptists were often identified as either “Regular” or “Separate.” Both were solidly Calvinistic in their theology, but the “Separate Baptists” closely identified with the Great Awakening and are known for emphasizing evangelism and heart-felt religion, whereas the “Regular Baptists” in some ways distanced themselves from this orientation.

In 1764, Elijah was converted while sitting under the preaching of the Regular Baptist David Thomas (1732-1812), who had organized one of the first Regular Baptist churches in Virginia. Almost immediately upon conversion Elijah “began, at once to exhort.” In the early days, his chapel was located in his tobacco house! By 1766, he became a Separate Baptist.

Ministry in Virginia

Elijah’s preaching was “of the most solemn style,” often bringing listeners to tears. He had “a thin visage, large eyes and mouth” and was “of great readiness of speech.” His voice was melodic, and both his preaching and singing were so loud that it “bore all down.”

At some point, Elijah married Frances Smith and had three children: Joel, Simeon, and Lucy. When Frances died, Elijah married a widow, Margaret, and had three more children: Lydia, Polly, and John.

Baptists were persecuted in 18th century Virginia. Like the Carolinas, Georgia, and Maryland, Virginia had an established church—the Church of England. The principle of religious liberty had not taken hold in the social culture of the day and “the rage of the persecutors had in no wise abated.” Baptist pastors were often mocked, slandered, and jailed. In 1779, over 40 pastors were placed in jail. Elijah was arrested twice.

While ploughing his field in 1768, Elijah was arrested and imprisoned for seventeen days for preaching “schismatick doctrines.” Apparently, prison couldn’t keep Elijah down and he preached the gospel through the bars of his jail window and, consequently, the authorities built a high wall around the prison to keep people from hearing.

After release from prison, Elijah pastored Blue Run Baptist Church, which gathered just a few miles from the Madison family plantation. The church chose him as their pastor upon constitution in 1769, and formally ordained him into the ministry in 1771. Under his pastoral care, the church flourished.

Though political upheaval began earlier, it wasn’t until 1775 that the American Revolutionary war began. During the war, Elijah served as a chaplain. He also “played a vital role in communicating the views of the Virginia Baptists to the new state government.” It is highly likely that Elijah Craig played at least an indirect role in some of the early musings that eventually led to the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Life in Kentucky

In early 1786, Elijah brought his congregation, the Great Crossing Church, from Virginia into the vicinity of present day Lancaster, Kentucky. It was a large group of perhaps half a thousand people. Persecution hastened the move. Hence, Virginia’s established church appears to have brought many Baptists to Kentucky.

While in Kentucky, Elijah got busy. He laid out plans for the town of Lebanon, later renamed Georgetown. He also founded one of the earliest classical academies in the state, the Rittenhouse Academy, which according to some would evolve into Georgetown College, though the connection is somewhat debatable. An advertisement for the academy in the Kentucky Gazette observed that it “will teach the Latin and Greek languages, together with such branches of the sciences as are usually taught in public seminaries.” Legend has it that the “stately columns” of Giddings Hall at Georgetown College hide “a keg of whiskey belonging to Elijah Craig.”

Speaking of whiskey, Elijah distilled whiskey. He may have begun as early as 1789. Yes, Baptists used to distill whiskey. Just two years earlier, a Baptist minister, James Garrard, was indicted for retailing whiskey without a license. One source notes that John Schackelford received thirty-six gallons of whiskey for his preaching in 1798. In 1796, the Elkhorn Baptist Association, a Kentucky association (constituted in 1785), ruled that denying a member church membership because he sold intoxicants was unjustified. It should also be remembered that it wasn’t until 1886 that the Southern Baptist Convention began passing resolutions against alcohol.

11721425_10153214268419342_1283120141_nBaptists who enjoy reading this article and are not teetotalers may like to know that they can indeed drink the Elijah Craig brand bourbon whiskey this very day. There is a bit of legend swirling around about Elijah’s involvement in the whiskey trade. It is commonly stated that he was the first person to make bourbon, but that is likely untrue. The legend states that Elijah accidentally charred some white oak staves and, due to frugality, stored the whiskey in them anyway, noticing the taste difference and afterwards producing it that way purposely. This legend seems to have its origin in a history of Kentucky from 1874 and has been further propagated by Heaven Hill Distillery who produces the Elijah Craig brand bourbon whiskey.

In reality, Elijah was probably making the same sort of whiskey that others in Kentucky were making at the time. Whatever we may make of the legend, it is clear that Elijah was a prominent distiller and one of Kentucky’s earliest and most zealous “industrialists.” Beside his whiskey production, Elijah kept busy building a saw mill, a grist mill, making paper and rope, and fulling cloth. He also got caught up in some land speculating, which involves risky financial transactions which attempt to profit from fluctuation in real estate prices. As we shall soon see, the speculating seems to have had a negative effect on him.

In 1791, for some reason Elijah became “obnoxious” to his church and was excommunicated. Very little is known about the specific circumstances, but we can infer a few things from what was going on in Elijah’s life at the time. He remained excommunicated for some amount of time, but was eventually restored to fellowship. We may speculate that Elijah’s excommunication was related to a spiritual decline which may have been in some way connected to his involvement in land speculation, a trajectory which appears to have dragged down his ministry. Robert Baylor Semple, who wrote A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia, observed that Elijah had a “censorious” temper, a temper that was kept in check as long as he was “warm in religion.” However, Semple opines that a period of religious decline in his life connected with his land speculation involvement might have caused his censoriousness to become unchecked.

Semple cites Elijah’s two published works as examples of his censoriousness. While in Kentucky, Elijah published A Few Remarks on the Errors That Are Maintained in the Christian Churches of the Present Day (1801), in which he argued that “pastors…are precluded by the Scriptures from receiving any compensation for their services,” and A Portrait of John Creath (1807), which is the account of some private dispute between a Mr. Creath and a Mr. Lewis. The later pamphlet is no longer accessible. Semple described it colorfully as having been written with a pen “dipt in poison.”

We do not know when and under what circumstances Elijah was restored to fellowship, we merely know that he was a member of the congregation when he died in 1808.

Whereas John Newton Brown, who also ministered for a time among slave-owners in Lexington, Virginia, spoke loudly and clearly against the institution of slavery, Elijah Craig, like many Southern Baptists, seems to have quietly profited from the cruel institution of American slavery. According to tax records from 1800, Elijah owned “over 4,000 acres of land, eleven horses, [and] thirty-two slaves.”

His Death

For one reason or another, Elijah lost a good deal of his wealth by the time of his death. According to his last will and testament, he had only one slave left to leave for his children, a slave boy named Harry.

On May 13, 1808, Elijah was “in a low state of health but of sound mind & memory,” and penned his last will and testament. He died by May 18, 1808. On May 24th, the Kentucky Gazette wrote the following eulogy:

“He possessed a mind extremely active and his whole property was expended in attempts to carry his plans to execution—he consequently died poor. If virtue consists in being useful to our fellow citizens, perhaps there were few more virtuous men than Mr. Craig.”

Conclusion

You will find the story of Elijah Craig’s life unsatisfying if your use history to cherry-pick laudable heroes in which you expect to find no wrinkles or complications. If you want a hero, I’d argue you can find much more unalloyed hero material in someone like John Newton Brown or S. Dryden Phelps.

Nevertheless even this slave-owning and allegedly censorious Baptist makes for a fascinating historical study in our Baptist heritage. In particular, his involvement in pre-Revolutionary happenings concerning religious liberty and his location at the early development of the Baptist church in America makes him a remarkable character. He also provides a fascinating early case study for a variety of other reasons. He provides us with an early example of Baptist church discipline being put into practice. He shows how the earliest Baptists were generally not teetotalers or prohibitionists. He is an early example of a Baptist entrepreneur. He is involved in debates for and against bi-vocational pastorates.

We do not know enough about Elijah Craig to form a substantial impression of his theology and piety. There are, however, a number of fascinating aspects of his life which would make him an interesting study, if more information could be found.

I don’t pretend to have done Elijah Craig’s legacy justice, nor do I claim to well-suited to be the individual to uncover and connect further details about him. I merely hope I can stir up some interest in him. We can only hope that some more information is uncovered in the future! Such is the optimism of history, there is always the hope that more will be discovered some day.

Mark Nenadov blogs regularly at All Things Expounded.

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4 thoughts on “The Bourbon Baptist: A Look at Elijah Craig’s Life

  1. Loved reading this! Thanks for taking the time to write it. Although you didn’t mention it in your post it certainly seems to me that a good bit of Mr. Craig’s problems might certainly have come from a problem with alcohol.

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