We Must Fight!

On this date in 1780, Rev. William Martin preached a sermon which moved people to action like few other the history of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America. He called men to arms and women to sacrifice in their own neighborhood.

As seen in the last post, the Scots-Irish immigrants who filled the upcountry of South Carolina were abuzz six days after the Battle of Waxhaws, including the Covenanter settlement, a mere 30 miles to the west. At Waxhaws, British Col. Banastre Tarleton, directing the cavalry for Gen. Cornwallis, had savagely butchered Col. William Buford’s men. The Reformed Presbyterians of Rocky Creek, like many others of the region, had been given bounty land by the government. The so called “Rice Kings” of the low country, near the coast, were mostly Anglican, and had not invited their ugly-step-siblings, the Scots-Irish, to populate the land because they loved them, but only because they hated the Indians more. They had needed a buffer between themselves and the natives, and their lower-class Presbyterian kin would do the job, if only to escape oppression in Ulster. Some of the early RP’s to settle the area had, in fact, been scalped by the Cherokee. But, over twenty five years, and especially over the last eight years, the wilderness had been tamed. Now these who had lived peacefully watched the British invade their land.

We continue the first hand account richly told by a “Mrs. Green.” She was born in 1750 in County Antrim, Ireland and came to South Carolina on one of the five ships filled with men and women recruited by Rev. William Martin. The story is recounted in William Glasgow’s History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America.

“Such was the aspect of affairs [the community abuzz with the news of Waxhaws] up to a certain Sabbath in June, 1780. On the morning of this memorable Sabbath, the different paths leading up to the log meeting house were unusually crowded. The old country folk were dressed with their usual neatness, especially the women, whose braw garments, brought from Ireland, were carefully preserved, not merely from thrift, but as a memorial of the green isle of their birth. Their dresses of silk, chintz, or Irish calico – fitted each wearer with marvelous neatness, and the collars or ruffles of linen, white as snow, and the high-heeled shoes. They wore fur hats with narrow rims and large feathers; their hair neatly braided, hanging over their shoulders or fastened by the black ribbon band around their heads, comprised their holiday attire. It was always a mystery to the dames, who had spent their lives or many years in the country, how the gowns of the late comers could be made to fit so admirably; their own, in spite of every effort, showing a sad deficiency in this respect. The men, on their part, appeared not less adorned in their coats of fine broadcloth, with their breeches, large knee buckles of pure silver, and hose of various colors. They wore shoes fastened with a large strap secured with a buckle, or white topped boots, leaving exposed three or four inches of the hose from the knee downward. It must be acknowledged that these people, so strict in their religious principles, were somewhat remarkable in their fondness for dress. They considered it highly irreverent to appear at church not clad in their best clothes, and through when engaged in labor during the week, they conformed to the customs of their neighbors, wearing the coarse homespun of their own manufacture, and on the Sabbath it was astonishing to see how much of decent pride there was in the exhibition of the fine clothes brought from beyond the seas. As the years rolled on many of the dresses and coats began to show marks of decay; but careful repairing preserved the hoarded garments, linked with such endeared associations, and only a few, who had married with the ‘country-born,’ had made any alteration in them. The peculiarity of dress gave the congregation, assembled for worship in that rude sanctuary, a strange and motely appearance – European finery being contrasted with the homespun gowns, hunting shirts and moccasins of the country people. It was always insisted upon as a point of duty by Covenanters, that children should be brought to church with their parents. The little ones sat between the elders, that they might be kept quiet during Divine service, and also to be ready at the appointed hour to say the Catechism. The strict deportment and piety of this people had already done much to change the customs formerly prevalent. Men and women who used to hunt and fish upon the Sabbath day, now went regularly to meeting, and some notorious ones whose misconduct had been a nuisance to the community, now left the neighborhood. The Stroudes, Kitchens and Morrisses, formerly regarded as the Philistines of the land, were regular in attendance upon Divine service. Upon this particular Sabbath, the whole neighborhood seemed to have turned out, and every face wore an expression of anxiety. Groups of men might be seen gathered together under shade trees in every direction, talking in loud and earnest tones, some laying down plans for the assent of their friends; some pale with alarm and listening to others telling the news; and some, transported with indignation, stamped the ground and gesticulated vehemently as they spoke. Everywhere the women mingled with the different groups, and appeared to bear an active part in what was going on. At eleven o’clock, precisely, the venerable form of William Martin, the preacher, came in sight. He was about sixty years of age, and had a high reputation for learning and eloquence. He was a large and powerful man, with a voice that might have been heard at the distance of half a mile. As he walked from the place where he hitched his horse, towards the stand (it being customary when the congregation was too large to be accommodated in the meeting-house, to have the service in open air), the loud and angry words of the speakers must have reached his ears. The voices ceased as he approached, and the congregation was soon seated in silence upon the logs surrounding the stand. When he arose to speak every eye was fixed upon him. Those who had been most noisy expected a reproof for their desecration of the Sabbath, for their faithful pastor was never known to fail of rebuking those whose deportment was unsuited to the solemnity of the day. But at this time he also seemed absorbed with the great subjected that agitated every bosom. ‘My hearers,’ he said, in his broad, distinct Irish dialect, ‘talk and angry words will do no good. We must fight! As your pastor, in preparing a discourse suited to this time of trial, I have sought for all light; I have examined the Scriptures and other helps in ancient and modern history, and have especially considered the controversy between the United Colonies and the mother country. Sorely have our countrymen been dealt with, till forced to their declaration of independence. Our forefathers in Scotland made a similar one, and maintained that declaration with their lives. It is now our turn, brethren, to maintain this at all hazards.’ After the prayer, and singing of the Psalms, he calmly opened his discourse. He cited many passages of Scripture to show that a people may lawfully resist wicked rulers; pointed to historical examples of princes trampling upon the rights of the people; painted in vivid colors the rise and progress of the Reformation in Scotland; and finally applied the subject by fairly stating the merits of the revolutionary controversy. Giving a brief sketch of the events of the war, from the first shedding of blood at Lexington, and, warming with the subject as he proceeded, his address became eloquent with the fiery energy of a Demosthenes. In a voice like thunder, frequently striking with his clenched fist the clapboard pulpit, he appealed to the excited concourse, exhorting them to fight valiantly in defence of their liberties. As he dwelt upon the recent horrid tragedy – the butchery of Buford’s men, cut down by the British dragoons while crying for mercy – his indignation reached its height. Stretching out his hand toward Waxhaws – ‘Go see,’ he cried, ‘the tender mercies of Great Britian! In that church you may find men, through still alive, hacked out of the very semblance of humanity; some deprived of their arms, some with one arm or leg, some with both legs cut off, and others with mutilated trunks. Is not this cruelty a parallel to the history of our Scottish forefathers, driven from their conventicles, and hunted as beasts of the forest? Behold the godly youth, James Nesbit, chased for days by the British for the crime of being seen on his knees upon a Sabbath morning, etc.!’ To this stirring sermon the whole assembly responded. Hands were clenched and teeth were set in the intensity of feeling; every uplifted face expressed the same determination, and even the women were filled with the spirit that threatened vengeance upon the invaders. During the interval of Divine worship, they went about professing their resolution to do their part in the approaching contest; to plough the fields, and gather the crops in the absence of the men, aye, to fight themselves rather than submit. In the afternoon the subject was resumed and discussed with renewed energy, while the appeals of the preacher were answered by even more energetic demonstrations of feeling. When the worship was concluded, and the congregation separated to return homeward, the manly form of Captain Ben Land was seen walking among the people, shaking hands with every neighbor, and whispering in his ear the summons to the next day’s work. As the minister quitted the stand, William Stroud stepped up to him. This man, with his sons, were noted for strength and bravery. They were so tall in stature, that like Saul, they overlooked the rest of the congregation. ‘He doubted not,’ he said, ‘that Mr. Martin had heard of his “whipping the pets”’  ‘I rather think,’ he continued, ‘some people will be a little on their guard how they go to Rocky Mount for ‘tection papers! Yesterday I was down at old deaf Lot’s still house, and who do you think was there? John and Dick Fetherston. John said he had been to Rocky Mount to see the fine fellows, and they were so good to him as to give him ‘tection.’ ‘Do, John, tell me what that is,’ I asked. He said ‘it was a paper, and whoever had one was safe; not a horse, cow or hog would the British take without paying two prices for it. So John, says I, I know now who told the British about James Stinson’s large stock of cows which they drove off yesterday – knocking down Mrs. Stinson for putting up old brindle in the horse stable, so as to keep one cow to give milk for the children!’ ‘Now, John, as you have British ‘tection, I will give you Whig ‘tection.’ ‘With that I knocked him down. Dick came running up, and I just give him a kick and doubled him up. John got up and ran, and Dick begged like a whipped boy. I told him he might carry the news that ‘tection paper men should be whipped, and have their cows taken from them to pay James Stinson for his. I think this is what you call the law of Moses. And as for those Britishers, if I don’t make old Nelly take in their ears, and be dad to them!’  ‘Excuse me for swearing this time, if you please. Now, Mr. Martin, here is old Bill – that is two; then here is young Will, Tom, Jack, Hamp, Erby, Ransom and Hardy.’ The manner in which this characteristic speech was delivered may be imagined. Mr. Martin showed his acceptance of the proffered help by talking William’s hand and introducing him to Captain Land. As they passed away from the stand, and on their way home from the meeting, one of the sturdy Covenanters, William Anderson, was unusually silent, as if some weighty matter engaged his thoughts. His wife spoke first, after reflecting. ‘I think, William, little Lizzie and I can finish the crop, and gather it in if need be, as well as take care of the stock.’  ‘I am glad of that, Nancy,’ was the reply. ‘I was silent, for I did na ken how to let you know it, but to-morrow morning I leave home. The way is now clear; the Word of God approves, and it shall ne’er be said that the Covenanters, the followers of the Reformers of Scotland, would na lend a helpin’ hand to the renewal of the Covenant in the land of America! Now, Nancy, Captain Land will be out before day, giving notice that up at the cross roads hard by, he will drill the men who are willing to fight; this was agreed upon as I left meeting.’ They journeyed home and ate their dinner. As they arose from the table, Mrs. Anderson said, ‘William, were you out at the Kirk in Bally-money, upon that Sabbath when Mary Martin, our minister’s first wife, lay a corpse in his house? No one thought he could attend to preaching in his sore distress; but precisely at the striking of the hour, he was seen walking down the long aisle to the pulpit. I never shall forget the sermon! There was not a dry eye in the whole congregation; old men and women fairly cried out. I thought of that to-day wheu, after the sermon, old Stroud went up to him as if he had been one of the elders. Did you see the man of God clap Stroud on the shoulder? Our minister is a wonderful man; he can persuade people to almost anything.’ Mr. Anderson looked up quietly and asked, ‘Did he persuade you to marry him, Nancy, when he went to your father’s a courting?’  ‘Na, indeed, Wiliam, I could na think of an old man when I had you fairly in my net. But I did a good turn in letting him know that Jenny Cheny was setting her cap for him, and sure enough he took my advice and they married.’ The Sabbath evening wore away amid the accustomed religious services, but the conversation frequently turned upon the war.”

The powerful words preached on this Lord’s Day were sure to reach the ears of the British. Monday, we will recount the events of the remainder of the week after this memorable day of worship.

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