The Elijah Craig You Thought You Knew

By Joe Holland    |    September 11, 2023

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I live three miles from the Culpeper County jail. I’ve been there a few times.1 The current building sits only a few hundred yards from where the original jail sat2 and the courthouse that gave the historic name to my little town—Culpeper Court House.3 I frequently drive from Culpeper to Richmond and Charlottesville. On those drives through the verdant countryside of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I travel south on either Route 522 or Route 15. Both of those routes take me through Orange County, Va. Route 15 takes me past the Orange County jail. Few people know it, but my time in this little part of Virginia places me in direct contact with the historic locale of the life and ministry of Rev. Elijah Craig (1738–1808). Yet, if I want to find his name mentioned in Culpeper, I have to visit one of the two ABC stores4 on the north and south sides of Culpeper. Nikolaus Zinzendorf said that it was the preacher’s task to “preach the gospel, die and be forgotten.” In saying that, he warned the preacher against making a name for himself; he wasn’t encouraging the erasure of church history. It’s time we revived the memory and gospel legacy of Elijah Craig beyond the bourbon brand that bears his name.

Birth, Conversion, and Ministry

In 1738, when Virginia was still a colony, Elijah Craig was born in Orange County, Va., to Polly and Taliaferro5 Craig. He was the Craig’s fifth child. He was born to tobacco farmers, as were many sons Craig’s age in Virginia. Through the ministry of David Thomas, Craig was converted in 1764. Showing the initiative that would later mark both his ministry and entrepreneurial endeavors, Craig started his Christian faith by hosting Christian meetings in the Craig family’s tobacco barn. After two years, Elijah Craig convinced North Carolinian pastor James Read to come to Virginia to baptize the fledgling congregation and Craig.6 Seven years later, Craig was ordained to gospel ministry.7 Elijah’s first pastorate would be Blue Run Church, nestled between Barboursville and Liberty Mills, Va.8

Courage and conviction were woven into Elijah, partly because of his birth and partly through his theology. His family lived in the westwardly expanding Virginia colony. Colonists in this area had to carve out a living from farming, resiliency, and dependence on their family and community. Nothing came easily, and that fact tended to instill in those early colonists the character attributes of diligent work and industry. Elijah was a man of his time, born before the American Revolution and learning the requisite skills to build a society.

He added to his upbringing his new-found Christian faith, expressed in a robust Calvinism.9 The same theology that had sustained Christians for centuries in the steadfast, sovereign care of God sustained Craig in his early years as a Christian and into his life of gospel ministry. His character and Calvinistic theology were both used by God to form him into an influential colonial preacher. John Taylor wrote of him,

In a very large association, in Virginia, Elijah Craig was among the most popular, for a number of years. His preaching was of the most solemn style, his appearance, as a man who had just come from the dead, of a delicate habit, a thin visage, large eyes and mouth, of great readiness of speech, the sweet melody of his voice, both in preaching and singing, bore all down before it; and when his voice was extended, it was like the loud sound of a sweet trumpet. The great favor of his preaching, commonly brought many tears from the hearers, and many, no doubt, were turned to the Lord by his preaching.10

But Craig’s boldness in preaching, like many Christian pastors before him, would earn him persecution.

Imprisonment and Politics

At the time of his ordination to gospel ministry, Virginia was an establishmentarian colony. The Anglican church was the official denomination of Virginia, and its ministers were supported, in part, by colonial tax dollars. In addition to the colony financing the Anglican church, any preacher needed a license to preach. Rather than change their biblical convictions, many non-Anglican pastors—known as “dissenters”—including Craig, preached anyway, understanding the risk of fines or imprisonment.

Elijah Craig would be jailed at least twice in Culpeper and Orange counties for preaching without a license. In both of his imprisonments, his response was the same. Instead of being bullied into silence by his imprisonment, he would continue to preach through the bars of his jail cell. It is said, on one occasion, that his congregation gathered outside the jail to hear his preaching. When he was imprisoned in Orange County, the authorities, frustrated by his continued obstinance, confined him to solitary confinement11 in hopes of silencing the bold preacher.12

The establishmentarian laws that existed in early America may not be exactly equivocal to the kind of persecution and martyrdom that early Christians faced; nevertheless, Elijah Craig experienced a real cost to his faithful proclamation of the gospel and showed a tenacity in gospel ministry that should mark all ministers of the gospel.

Craig’s gospel ministry naturally led him to advocate for religious liberty in Virginia and in what would become a new nation. Because of his influence, he was sent by his fellow Baptist ministers to be one of their legislative liaisons to the Virginia legislature and to the Ratification Convention of 1788 that approved Virginia joining the new United States under a draft version of the U.S. Constitution. That would have put Craig in direct contact with James Madison and Patrick Henry, proponents of the unification of the colonies under a federal government. Out of the Virginia Ratification also came a draft of the Bill of Rights, which included what we now know as the First Amendment, protecting the religious liberty of U.S. citizens. It is historical speculation, but that Craig, a dissenting Baptist minister who suffered religious persecution, was present at the convention suggests that Elijah Craig contributed, either by example or by participation in the convention, to the drafting of what would become the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

Classical Christian Schools

During Craig’s early ministry, Kentucky was a county in the western portion of the Virginia colony. For both religious freedom and economic prospects, many colonists moved west. In 1781, Craig’s brother, Rev. Lewis Craig, moved to Kentucky County along with his parents, siblings, and congregation. This exodus of Christians into the hinterlands of Kentucky would be known as The Traveling Church.

Though not going with the first batch of settlers, Elijah Craig would follow his brother, along with his Orange County congregation, to Kentucky County to settle the new territory in 1782, just following the Revolutionary War. Upon his arrival, Elijah purchased 1,000 acres of land and began to build a new society centered on education, business, and his Christian faith.

As were many of his pastoral colleagues, Craig was a strong advocate of classical Christian education. In 1787, Craig established the first classical school in Kentucky. His advertisement for the school, published in The Kentucky Gazette, read,

Education. Notice is hereby given that on Monday, 28 January next, a school will be opened by Messrs. Jones and Worley, at the Royal Spring in Lebanon Town, Fayette County, where a commodious house, sufficient to contain fifty or sixty scholars, will be prepared. They will teach the Latin and Greek languages, together with such branches of the sciences as are usually taught in public seminaries, at twenty five shillings a quarter for each scholar. One half to be paid in cash, the other half in produce at cash prices. There will be a vacation of a month in the spring, and another in the fall, at the close of each of which it is expected that such payments as are due in cash will be made. For diet, washing and house room for a year, each scholar pays £3 in cash, or 500 weight of pork on entrance, and £3 cash on the beginning of the third quarter. It is desired that, as many as can, would furnish themselves with beds; such as cannot may be provided for here, to the number of eight or ten boys, at 35s a year for each bed. Elijah Craig. LEBANON, December 27, 1787.13

This fledgling school would later become The Rittenhouse Academy. Craig also donated 600 acres of land to establish Georgetown College, the first Baptist college established west of the Allegheny Mountains.

His character and Calvinistic theology were both used by God to form him into an influential colonial preacher.”

—Joe Holland

Craig understood the importance of a classical Christian education for the maintenance of the family, church, politics, and society. But unlike many who hold similar views, Craig was willing to put the work in to see Christian schools become a reality. He had skin in the game.

Business and Bourbon

Craig was a serial entrepreneur. Today, we might call him a bivocational pastor with a keen business sense. It might have been because he was a frontiersman and American colonist who only knew how to develop land and build businesses. Or it may have been because he was uniquely gifted with the entrepreneurial spirit. Or it may have also been because he believed it was an important calling for Christians to establish business and industry for the good of the community of which they are apart. Whatever the motivation, Elijah was a busy and successful businessman in Kentucky.

Craig is counted as establishing a number of industries for the first time in Kentucky, including a fulling mill for the manufacturing of cloth textiles, a paper mill,14 a rope walk (for the manufacturing of rope from hemp), and the first lumber and grist mill.15 Craig also formed the Georgetown Fire Department and was its first fire chief.

Since corn, in addition to tobacco, was a key crop in Virginia, Craig, like many businessmen and farmers of his day, also founded a distillery to produce corn whiskey. The whiskey myth that Craig invented bourbon is spurious at best, despite the legend of a whiskey experiment with barrels charred after a fire in Craig’s barn. As of yet, there are no historically documented records that Craig distilled or claimed to have invented the amber whiskey innovation that is indelibly etched into Kentucky history.16 It would not be until 200 years later that the Elijah Craig name was trademarked in 1960. And Craig’s name would not appear on a bourbon bottle until 1986 when Heaven Hill Distilleries began marketing Elijah Craig bourbon.

Death and Legacy

Elijah Craig died on May 18, 1808. At his death, The Kentucky Gazette said of him, “He possessed a mind extremely active and, as his whole property was expended in attempts to carry his plans to execution. . . . If virtue consists in being useful to our fellow citizens, perhaps there were few more virtuous men than Mr. Craig.”17 Elijah Craig is known for two legacies. The first is a bourbon brand, barely forty-years-old. The second is for the bold proclamation of the gospel of Jesus, a vision of Christian political reform in America, a dedication to classical Christian education, and a commitment to Christian entrepreneurship. It is my hope that in the years to come, his second legacy might outlive and eclipse his first.

  1. No, I wasn’t arrested. My wife and I were foster parents of a foster child with an incarcerated parent.
  2. If you’re familiar with Culpeper, the old jail was very near to where Yowell Meadow Park now is.
  3. Culpeper Court House was founded in 1759. A seventeen-year-old George Washington was the surveyor of the original town. Over time, the “Court House” was dropped from the name and the town was just referred to as Culpeper.
  4. In Virginia, liquor sales are regulated by a state agency called Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control, or “ABC” for short.
  5. Pronounced “Toliver” and is still a last name among some folks around Culpeper.
  6. James Taylor, Virginia Baptist Ministers (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1859), 85–89.
  7. Two of his brothers (Lewis and Joseph) would also join him as prominent colonial Baptist ministers
  8. J. H. Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists, Vol. I (1885), 87-89.
  9. Dictionary of Virginia Biography, https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Craig_Elijah
  10. James Taylor, History of Ten Baptist Churches, 1827.
  11. Garnett Ryland, The Baptists of Virginia, 1699–1926 (Richmond: Virginia Baptist Board of Missions and Education, 1955), 60–63.
  12. Charles Fenton James, A Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia (1898).
  13. Henry Perrin, History of Bourbon, Scott, Harrison and Nicholas Counties, Kentucky, 180–181.
  14. Henry Perrin, History of Bourbon, Scott, Harrison and Nicholas Counties, Kentucky, 180–181.
  15. Spencer, History of Kentucky Baptists, Volume 1, 88.
  16. It is likely that Craig would have experimented with distilling bourbon like many distillers were in that region of Kentucky at that time.
  17. John E. Kleber, “Elijah Craig”, references the Kentucky Gazette, May 24, 1808; article in The Kentucky Encyclopedia.
Joe Holland

Joe Holland is professor of Christian ministry and academic dean for Grimké College. He also serves as managing editor for Grimké Seminary and College.

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