Thomas B. Craighead was a 1775 “New Light” graduate of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). He became Nashville's first minister when James Robertson and other pioneering settlers invited him to the Cumberland region to establish a Presbyterian church and school. The residents promised to purchase 640 acres of land for his use and pay him 50 pounds, about $125, annually for three years. Like most frontier areas, the Cumberland region was characterized by profanity, drunkenness, and crime and offered very little in the way of religion. Before coming to Nashville, Craighead had held preaching engagements in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, and he began his Nashville career shortly after his arrival by mounting a stump and preaching to all who would listen. Although Craighead arrived in Nashville in 1785, however, the Presbyterians did not formally organize a church there until 1814. In addition to preaching, Craighead also established Davidson Academy, chartered by the legislature of North Carolina in 1786. Like other schools of the period, Davidson emphasized classical education, with heavy emphasis on Greek and Latin. The enrollment remained small.
Although described as calm, sober, even eloquent in his preaching, Craighead conducted a ministry often controversial with Presbyterians as well as other denominations. Other ministers chastised him, and leaders of his own church admonished him for his “liberal beliefs.” During a period of religious revivals, when emotion sometimes overcame common sense, Craighead challenged his listeners to think. Craighead denied the Augustinian doctrine of total depravity and gave man some responsibility for his own destiny. He believed in “freedom of the will” and denied original sin, arguing that sin was a thing of will and not of nature. He relegated “Divine Grace” to a secondary role by asserting that the human will must take the initiative in determining salvation. Few frontier Christians accepted his controversial views, and in 1811 his own synod suspended his ministry. Despite this action, Craighead continued to teach and preach, and in 1824 the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church restored him to the ministry.
Shortly after his vindication, Craighead, suffering from the misfortunes of poverty, ill health, and blindness, died at Spring Hill, where he had lived since his arrival in Nashville. He was buried near his home and school. At the time of his death, friends and colleagues remembered him as a scholar, an independent thinker, and a man of dauntless courage.