On Friday 29th June past, a large crowd gathered at the Shanaghy and Vow Road junction to mark the 250th anniversary of the ordination of Rev William Martin. Rev Martin was the first Covenanter (Reformed Presbyterian) clergyman to be ordained anywhere in Ireland and this was not the only significant mark he made in history.
William Martin was born near Ballykelly but finished his education in Dumfries, Scotland. On 2nd July 1757, he was ordained a Covenanter minister in an open air service held at The Vow, between Ballymoney and Kilrea. As the only Covenanter minister in Antrim and Down, the two counties became his parish, so to speak, and Rev Martin, though resident at Kellswater, had supervisory responsibility for Covenanter groups at Ballymoney, Dervock, Cloughmills, Leighmore and Cullybackey.
Rev William Martin was no shrinking violet. On top of his mammoth preaching and pastoral duties, he was vocal in his opposition to the High Church (Anglican) authorities who openly discriminated against those whom Martin represented. The oppressed Presbyterians were subjected to excessive rent demands and when payment could not be found to cover them, the tenants were evicted. After much prayerful deliberation, Rev Martin recieved a call to Rocky Creek, a small settlement in South Carolina.
In 1772, around a thousand Covenanters and others, including Roman Catholics, left Ulster under the leadership of Rev Martin. It took 5 ships to ferry the emigrates to the New Country, namely the James and Mary, Lord Dunluce, Pennsylvania Farmer, The Hopewell and The Freemason. Most of those on board the ships came from Ballymoney, Kilraughts, Derrykeighan, Ballyrashane, The Vow and Kellswater. It was a tremendous feat at that time to lead so many people so far in such vessels yet this only goes to illustrate the determination of Rev William Martin.
Although, due to the excessive numbers involved, the large group was scattered throughout the New Country, the majority settled in and around Rocky Creek. In 1774, Rev Martin's congregation opened their own meetinghouse and he began a prosperous ministry. When the War of Independence broke out, he supported the Patriots (Americans) against the British and openly urged others to do so too! James Anderson was but one Ballymoney native to heed the call and die at the hands of the British in that war. Rev Martin had his meetinghouse burned down in 1780 and was himself imprisoned for his patriotism.
The service at The Vow on 29th June was well attended and a plaque in memory of this great Covenanter who made such a difference in the Ulster Scots heartland was erected at the old Vow graveyard. The addresses were given by Rev Robert Hanna and Rev John Hawthorne. It was a fitting tribute to a great yet humble man and the Covenanters should be commended for marking the life of Rev William Martin in this manner.
The plaque can be viewed at any time at the old Vow graveyard.