Augusta Founder Opposed “Scandal to Our Nation”
Recorded in the autobiography of one of Augusta County’s first founders we find these words:
“What made the times (circa 1755) distressing and unhappy to all the frontiers, was the French and Indian War, which lay heavy on us, in which I suffered a part as well as others. When General Braddock was defeated and killed, our country (Augusta) was laid open to the enemy, our people were in dreadful confusion and discouraged to the highest degree. Some of the richer sort that could take some money with them to live upon, were for flying to a safer place on the country. My advice was then called for, which I gave, opposing that scheme as a scandal to our nation, falling below our brave ancestors, making ourselves a reproach among Virginians, a dishonor to our friends at home (Ulster), an evidence of cowardice, want of faith, and a noble Christian dependence on God, as able to save and deliver from the heathen (Indians); It would be a lasting blot to our posterity.
“They required me to go before them in the work which I did cheerfully, though it cost me one-third of my estate. The people very rapidly followed, and my congregation in less than two months was well fortified.”
Thus spoke the Rev. John Craig, a stalwart Scots-Irish parson, born in 1709 who became the first settled pastor in Augusta County before 1740. In the decade before Braddock’s defeat, Craig had already established both the Tinkling Spring Meeting House and the Augusta Stone Church. He had also helped establish many other meeting houses throughout the county, which stretched to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi headwaters, baptizing as he went some 784 boys, girls, and some adults. Parson Craig had met every requirement of his denomination in schooling and practice back in Ireland before accepting the call of the Augusta County Presbyterian congregations, who had previously been meeting in homes without a pastor. When he arrived and completed all the necessary steps of authorization by Gov. Gooch, he was the first official settled dissenting preacher in all of Virginia. In fact, Presbyterianism was the only established denomination other than the Anglican Church in Virginia at this time.
Virginia was a Royal Crown colony ruled by the king and governed by the Parliament through the Episcopalian system of Vestries, which at that time did not exist west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Gov. Gooch arranged with the English parliament to grant the Scots-Irish then living in Ulster the right to establish their own church in Augusta County if they agreed to settle in the county and defend—with their very lives, if need be—the frontier against French and Indian encroachment.
Parson Craig had written concerning his call to Augusta that he “was thankful that I was born after the age of heathen ignorance, barbarities, popish cruelties, rack stake and flames, after Episcopal zeal for conformity, Bartholow Days, Five Mile Acts, fines for preaching and hearing ye Word of God, after butes of pine, thumekins, the helter and gallows.”
Little did he realize then that he would experience instead a mortal sickness, from which God miraculously healed him; a raging sea that tossed him overboard at night (God miraculously tossing him back on deck again with the next wave); the loss of three of his children in their infancy; the mysterious death of all his livestock; being forced to travel fourteen miles one-way to face Sheriff James Patton for frivolous questioning, once while at worship services, and once while tending his wife’s labor; being accused of witchcraft and beating a slave, both untrue; nor of being at the center of a split within the Presbyterian denomination he so loved (his congregations disavowing the Great Awakening and its enthusiasms, pitting the Old Lights against the New Lights which embraced the movement’s effects and spiritual awakenings). He was also the principle teacher for many of the sons of prominent men of Augusta County.
Parson John Craig also found that his two congregations, one at Tinkling Spring and one at Augusta Stone, would prove to be irreconcilable. He wrote in his autobiography, “The people had thought there should be two congregations. One, Tinkling Spring, most and richer than the other and managed ye public affairs of the whole settlement… Their leaders proud, self interested, contentious and ungovernable, all of them cross handed about providing necessary things for pious and religious use, and could not agree…” (The John Lewis – James Patton feud by this time had split the congregation.)
“The other part called Augusta (Stone), fewer in number, lower in worldly circumstances, good natured, prudent, governable people, generous, always unanimous among themselves, loving and kind to me for thirty years, supported me under the persecution of those ambitious men of the other part.”
All these things Parson Craig wrote created in him “a steady dependence on God (that) far exceeds human wisdom.”
In addition, John Craig faced during his travels and life in the valley, wild beasts, savage Indians, economic hardship, traitors, murderers, drunkards, and thieves, all “in the plot in Christ’s vineyard where I was to labor.” Life was so hard that Craig was known to carry his musket to services each week, leaning it up against the pulpit.
After twenty-five years at Tinkling Spring Meeting House, Parson John had had enough and resigned as its pastor, delivering his final plea: “O sinners, will you halt and think a little from your career of sin, self conceit, pride, vanity, hypocrisy, wickedness and folly, and hear, yea, listen attentively to the best words to you of your sincere friend and pastor, now bidding you farewell as to that relation; But oh, how can I leave you at a distance from Christ, strangers to the God that made you? I cannot leave you till I give you another offer of Christ and the covenant of grace.”
John went on ministering to the Augusta Stone Church, traveling the valley to encourage believers, and succeeding at quite a few business enterprises. He encouraged those seeking independence and liberty and preached to the militias from the days of the Sandy Creek Expedition until he died. John Craig passed on in 1774, just short of the Battle of Point Pleasant, the opening salvo of the Revolutionary War, and was buried at the Stone Church cemetery as he had requested. Today, some of his personal items can be seen in the museum at the church, located in Fort Defiance. It would be hard to measure the great impact Parson Craig, with his dogged determination and unyielding integrity, had on stabilizing an often wild and unruly frontier population.