The Rev William Martin’s Covenanting Zeal

THE Rev William Martin, a highly colourful Covenanting pastor, was synonymous with Ulster-Scots Presbyterian settlements in the South Carolina backcountry during the late 18th century.

As the first Covenanting minister in the region, Londonderry-born Martin was not only an uncompromising advocate of the gospel, but fearless in his opposition to the High Church-influenced British authorities who had discriminated against his people in the north of Ireland and on the American frontier.

William Martin belonged to the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ulster and it was after a period of excessive rent demands and evictions of tenants from their homesteads that he declared from his pulpit in Ballymoney, Co Antrim that “enough was enough”.  He said:  “Anyone who knows anything about the Ulster countryside realises that the rents are so high that the land does not bring in enough to pay them.  Many of us are beggered and in time all would be.”

As a minister, William Martin said he could not stand idly by and await the violence and ruin that would come.  “Steps should be taken now to see that such situations did not develop”, was his advice.  He proposed they all pool their limited resources and send to Belfast to charter ships for emigration to South Carolina where they “would obtain free land and live free men”.

William Martin, son of David Martin, was born near Ballyspollum (Ballyspallan) near Ballykelly, Co Londonderry in 1729.  He was ordained as a minister of the Reformerd Presbyterian Church at The Vow near Rasharkin in 1757 and was appointed to the charge of nearby Ballymoney congregation.  His education in theology was obtained at the University of Glasgow and he became active in establishing Reformed (Covenanting) churches across Ulster.  By 1763, there were sufficient ministers to form a Reformed Presbytery.  Ballymoney congregation agreed they must leave their homeland if life was to be made humanly bearable and, with other Covenanters, they left for Charleston.

In all 467 families (more than 1,000 people) huddled together on the arduous nine-week journey across the Atlantic in the autumn of 1772 in five wooden vessels:  James and Mary (220 tons), Lord Dunluce (400 tons), Pennyslvania Farmer (350 tons), Hopewell (250 tons) and Free Mason (250 tons).

The James and Mary arrived at Charleston on October 18 with 200 people on board.  The other vessels with a greater number of passengers on board were soon to follow.  But because some passengers had smallpox ships were not permitted to clear for embarkation for several weeks.  Strict quarantine was observed if disease was confirmed. Between 1750 and 1775 thousands of Scots-Irish people moved into South Carolina, mostly Presbyterians, although some belonged to the Church of Ireland, Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Irish Baptist movement.  Even five Roman Catholics travelled from Ulster in the Martin party.

The Presbyterians were not all of the mainstream tradition – there were Covenanters, Seceders, Burghers, Anti-Burghers and Associates.

A majority of the immigrants arrived in South Carolina under the “bounty” scheme.  This entitlement of £4 was offered to “poor Protestants” from Europe to settle the region, with smaller amounts paid to children.  Ulster-Scots were among those who availed generously of the bounty, but when the offer was abolished in 1768 the South Carolina authorities ruled that the settlers should be given land free.

The Rev William Martin and his Covenanting congregation from Ballymoney settled on free lands, alongside members of the Seceders, a splinter Presbyterian group from neighbouring Ballyrashane, Derrykeighan and Kilraughts.  Martin received a call to South Carolina in 1770 and this may have influenced his decision to emigrate.  With other Ulster settlers, Martin’s group combined to join a union church at Rocky Mountain Road, 15 miles from the town of Chester.  The inter-denominational Reformed church was named “Catholic” (universal) and Martin preached there for several years until his own Covenanting people withdrew and built their own church.