July 2: Rev. William Martin (1757)

Five Shiploads of Settlers to South Carolina

Not that long ago in Ulster or North Ireland. some 250 Christians gathered at a crossroads in County Antrim, known as the Vow, to remember the ordination of the Rev. William Martin. That ordination took place on this day, July 2, 1757. He was the first Covenanter minister ordained in Ulster. He had a wide place of ministry, essentially covering two counties. In fact, in seven separate towns, he pastored various societies. In addition to his pastoral role, he became the voice of opposition to the Anglican authorities who sought to place huge rent demands on the Presbyterian tenants, often evicting them from the land for failure to pay those demands.

Sometime during the year 1770, Rev. Martin received a call from the Scot-Irish settlers in South Carolina to come and pastor the church at Rocky Creek.  After prayerful consideration, Rev. Martin decided to go.  But being a true shepherd of the flock, he urged a mass movement of his congregations in Ulster to join him in South Carolina. Think of the administration gifts needs to move shiploads of settlers to South Carolina that year of 1772. But that is exactly what occurred. Five ships—the James and Mary, the Free Mason, the Lord Dunluce, the Hopewell, and the Pennsylvania Farmer—carried over 1200 Scot Irish from Ulster to South Carolina. And while some went to other areas of the South, most settled in the region around Rocky Creek.

As astonishing as this move was, consider the fact that this large number of settlers were composed of several factions of Presbyterians from the old country. There were Associate Presbyterians, Covenanters, Burgher Presbyterians, Anti-burgher Presbyterians, and Seceders. All of them came together in the local congregation known as Catholic Presbyterian Church. An interesting fact which shows up in the record is that the families lived in tents on their property until the church building was erected! The Lord came first.

When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, Rev. Martin preached a fiery sermon reminding the congregation that there was a time to pray and a time to fight. Two companies were raised out of the congregation, and over fifty fought and died from the congregation. Rev Martin himself was imprisoned for six months by the British.

All was not right however with Rev. Martin himself. After returning to the parish for three years, he was let go by the congregation for “intemperate” remarks. Finally in 1801, six charges were brought against him. Two of these were habitual drinking and the holding of slaves. He was deposed by the Presbytery in 1801. He died five years later in 1806.

Words to Live By: We cannot take away the amazing work which Rev. Martin did in transporting so many Christian Presbyterians to the new land of opportunity. Certainly, he remains as one of the stalwarts in establishing Presbyterianism in the South. But at the same time, we who are involved in the Lord’s work must pray and work to remain in good standing with the Lord. It is so easy to fail and fall away from the standards of His Word. So people, pray much for your pastors that they will remain solid in the Lord until their labors are finished on the earth.

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  1. Phil Pockras’s avatar

    Just to be clear on a few things — First, “Associate”, “Seceder”, “Burgher”, and “Anti-Burgher” are all Associate Presbyterians. The formal name was Associate Presbyterian, just like Reformed Presbyterian. “Seceder” was a nickname, like “Covenanter” for RPs. “Burgher” and “Anti-Burgher” were two halves of a basic division in the Associate Synod back in Scotland. It was over whether it were moral to take a certain oath under the then-current British government. A later development was Auld Licht (Old Light) vs. New Licht, which had to do with holding to, or rejecting, church establishment or voluntarism in church/state relations. But that’s after the time the article is dealing with.

    Second, the Rev. William Martin was always an RP (Covenanter) minister, though sometimes in good standing, sometimes not. Soon after the founding of Catholic Presbyterian, the RPs formed their own congregation, which eventually became several in what’s now Chester County, SC. If the Rev. W. M. Glasgow’s history of the RPCNA is correct, Mr. Martin never preached statedly at Catholic congregation, and the RPs had separated off before calling him while he was still in Ulster. Further, Mr. Martin was the only RP minister who did not go into the ARP at its founding in 1782.

    Lastly, Mr. Martin was under discipline initially for intemperance, i.e. drunkenness, not intemperate language. Sadly, he had trouble with that in later years, and persisted in slaveholding. He was restored from his first suspension in 1793 by a committee of the RPC of Scotland, only to be suspended again in 1801 by a committee of the Reformed Presbytery of North America, for the sins mentioned in the article. Sadly, he was not the only RP minister to be suspended for drunkenness, nor the only one in South Carolina. The Rev. James McGarragh sinned in the same way some few years later, and was similarly disciplined.

    We continued to have congregations in South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee till the mid 1830s, with most people moving to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, or else staying and becoming part of the AR Synod of the South. The last Covenanter minister in South Carolina, the Rev. Thomas Donnelly, died in 1847; the last congregation in the Chester area, Bethesda, in 1848; and the last RP church member, as far as I know, in 1867.

    We finally have work going on in South Carolina again, though to the east two counties — Pageland, in Chesterfield Co. It’s still what we call a Mission Church. The church planting minister there, the Rev. Ian Wise, is a native South Carolinian, from York Co. He grew up in Bethany ARPC near York.

  2. archivist’s avatar

    Most helpful. Thank you, Phil.

    Our readers will be helped to know that Rev. Phil Pockras is a pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and speaks from that vantage point.

    I will also note that he was honored to serve as Moderator this year at the RPCNA’s recent Synod meeting.

  3. archivist’s avatar

    To read more about the original Reformed Presbyterian congregation in South Carolina, see chapter four of the Memoir of the Rev. Alexander McLeod [p. 53ff.]–a remarkable account of how, in costly obedience to a denominational decision, this congregation freed their slaves. “Not less than three thousand guineas were sacrificed on the altar of principle.”

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