In writing this sketch of Martin Ross I have used Burkitt and Read's "History of the Kehukee Association"; the minutes of the Chowan Association from 1806 to 1828, including the "Memoir of Elder Martin Ross," by Thomas Meredith, found in the minutes of 1828; Hassell's "Church History," and Hufham's "The Baptists in North Carolina."
Martin Ross was born in Martin County near Williamston on November 27, 1762. His ancestors had come from Scotland to Virginia and moved from there to North Carolina. His father was a planter. Martin had four sisters and five brothers, two of whom, Reuben Ross and James Ross, also became Baptist preachers.
We know nothing extraordinary of Martin Ross in his boyhood but "at an early age," says Meredith, "he obeyed the call of his country," and became a soldier in the Continental Army. To this service in war Dr. Hufham thinks he owed his wide knowledge of men and affairs, his keen appreciation of the value and power of organized effort, and a reputation that gave him influence in winning many who had hitherto been opponents of the Baptist cause.
In January, 1782, he became a member of the Flat Swamp Church, being baptized by Elder John Page. In 1784 he was licensed by the same church to preach and in March 1787 was ordained pastor of the Skewarkey Church, near the present town of Williamston, by Elders John Pace and Lemuel Burkitt. In the same year his church became a member of the Kehukee Association. (Hassell, p. 707)
He continued pastor of this church until 1796, and during this pastorate he reorganized the church at Morattuck, near Plymouth, and served also as its pastor. Much to the regret of the Skewarkey Church (History of Kehukee Association, p. 217) Ross took his letter in 1796 and removed to Yeoppim in Chowan County – ten miles west of Edenton - and became the pastor of the church there. He continued in this charge until 1806 when he was called to the church at Bethel in Perquimans County, "a church which had been formed under his own hand" (Meredith), and which he served as pastor until his death in 1827.
The character of his work as a preacher and pastor may be seen in the record of his church at Bethel shown in the Minutes of the Association. In 1806 it had 65 members. Under Ross's charge 16 baptisms were reported in 1809; 33 in 1810; 43 in 1811; 16 in 1812; 12 in 1813; 37 in 1814; 10 in 1815; 17 in 1816. In this year its membership had reached the number 187, of whom 138 were dismissed by letter to help constitute the new church at Edenton. In the matter of contributions, too, the Bethel church was easily the first in the Association.
Meredith says of his work at Bethel: "During his connection with this church, which forms much the longest period in his history, our deceased friend was actively and successfully engaged in the multifarious duties of the Christian minister. Besides the labors devoted to the church more immediately under his charge, and which were frequently blessed in a high degree, he did much for the interests of the gospel in the adjoining regions of the country. Several new churches were established by his toil and perseverance, and many others were greatly assisted by his ministerial labors and his faithful and fatherly counsels. And in the Association with which he was connected, where his influence was extensively and beneficially exerted, and to which his watchfulness and care were assiduously devoted, his loss will be acutely felt, and long and sincerely lamented."
There were certain progressive features in the work of Martin Ross which should make his name one of the greatest in the Baptist annals of North Carolina. Although all of his activities had one common purpose, it will be convenient to consider them under three aspects, 1. An improved ministry; 2. Missions, and 3. Organized effort.
Ross wrote the "Circular Letter" appended to the minutes of the Kehukee Association: for 1791, and in it made a plea for a more liberal support of gospel ministers. After an able and convincing argument based on an appeal to Scriptural passages, he says:
"Thus have we, dear brethren, clearly proven from express Scripture, that the ministers of the gospel are justly entitled to a comfortable maintenance from the people…. The truth of these things, beloved brethren, we make no doubt you are convinced of, but the neglect of them is too glaring to us, yourselves and others. We cannot but feel exceedingly sorry on this account. The consequences arising from this are very pernicious. By this sad neglect the poor ministers of the gospel are necessarily obliged to follow their worldly avocations for the supporters of themselves and their families, which prevents them from reading the Holy Scriptures, meditating, preaching constantly, and giving themselves wholly to the work – which wakens their hands, dulls their ideas, cools their zeal, and of necessity they are not so profitable to the churches, nor to the cause of Christ in general."
Let it be remembered that this was written at a time when many in Baptist churches stoutly objected to a minister's "receiving anything at all as a reward for ministerial labors," and scornfully referred to a paid minister as a "hireling" and "lover of filthy lucre" – in days when twelve dollars a year was considered a bountiful salary for a preacher.
It will be observed that in urging a "necessary support" Hosea's words – his main object was better preaching. This was a subject that he discussed at greater length in the "Circular Letter," found in the minutes of the Chowen Association for 1809. There was in that day much preaching in the Baptist churches that was little more than rant. This was an evil that Ross was seeking to correct.
"Before we conclude" says he, "we beg leave to say a word to the ministers of Christ among you, both old and young. And to these we would recommend a particular attention to the character of Apollos…. The dear ministers will observe in the first place that Apollos was instructed in the way of the Lord. ‘Tis the great work of a minister to teach men, but particularly to teach men the way of the Lord; and ministers therefore should be well instructed themselves in the way of the Lord. You are to feed the flock with knowledge and understanding. It is therefore essentially necessary for you to be blessed with knowledge and understanding yourselves. 'Such as I have I give unto thee.' But that which you have not you cannot give. O brethren, give yourselves to reading and aim to be like Apollos, mighty in the Scriptures. Where is the man who has dived so far in them that he cannot go farther? Many have said respecting the knowledge necessary or useful to a minister, 'The Spirit of God needs none of man’s learning.' With much greater truth and propriety it may be said, 'The Spirit of God needs no man’s ignorance.' Knowledge, brethren, sound gospel knowledge, is what is necessary; noise and rant, confusion and uproar may set the world a gazing, but divine truth – it is the mighty force of divine truth that turns souls to God. What Apollos knew he taught; what he did not know he was willing to learn; yea, he discovers his thirst for knowledge in his humbly sitting as a learner a the feet of a tent-maker and his wife."
"Guard against a random, lazy and flimsy kind of preaching. Let your subjects be fathomed not skimmed; discussed and not merely proposed; preach not only what is according to the analogy of faith, or what may be said in general, but what belongs to your particular text. Take heed lest your discourses should be protracted to an unreasonable length; everything cannot be comprised in the compass of one sermon. Among other things study to take a short, clear view of your subject. Speak in audible, grave and serious manner. Borrow no man’s voice, tone or gesture."
There is abundant evidence also in the Minutes of the Chowan Association for the years which Ross was a member of it that he was a member of it that he was much concerned about the ignorant Baptist ministry of the time. It had from the days of Shubal Stearns been a Baptist dogma that a classical education should not be made a necessary qualification for a preacher. Taking advantage of this fact many churches were licensing men to preach who were grossly ignorant. Many churches had as many as four or five of such licentiates. The result was that they were driving the better educated from the field. Against the practice of licensing and ordaining such men Ross in his old age addressed the Chowan Association. The minutes reads:"He urged a caution against too much haste; exhibiting the evil which might be (as it has been) the consequence of too hastily laying hands on any man. A zeal for the cause of Christ, and the solicitude of old age, conscious that it can but a little longer bestow its advices and instructions upon the objects of its affections, pervaded his remarks. His words ceased with a flood of tears."Meredith tells us that he was an earnest friend to intellectual improvement of preachers, and that "he was an open and straightforward advocate for an improved and well taught ministry." It was very probably from ross, then, that Meredith got the idea which he incorporated in the constitution of the Baptist State Convention in 1830, that one of the two objects of that body should be the education of young men called of God to preach the gospel – a purpose which led to the establishment of Wake Forest College.
I next take up the zeal of Ross for missions. Of his activity in spreading the gospel in his own section I have already given instances. But he contemplated the uttermost parts of the earth. He was far in advance of his age and fellow Baptists in the United States when in 1803, to the Kehukee Association meeting at Conoho in Martin County he introduced a resolution in the form of a query, which read:"Is not the Kehukee Association with all her numerous and respectable friends, called on in Providence, in some way, to step forward in support of that missionary spirit which the great God is so wonderfully reviving amongst the different denominations of good men in various parts of the world?"Today the resolution seems only a matter of course. But in 1803 it produced little less than consternation, according to Hassell, the historian of the Kehukee Association. He says: "It gave rise to contentions, heartburnings, bickering, animosities and strife, broke the peace of the brethren and was a firebrand in their midst." He thinks that it might have failed but for the fact that it came "at a time when the zeal and credulity of many hundreds of new converts were at their height"; otherwise "it would have received no favorable consideration among the staid old members of the association." Many are the objections which to us seem quibbling and amusing brought by Hassell against the resolution. We can easily understand the commotion and disturbances which it which it brought about. It was the first clarion call to any body of Baptists in America to move forward in the cause of world-wide missions. And, as Hufham says, this was seven years before Judson decided to go as a missionary and nine years before he and Rice were baptized. After it had under the rules lain over for a year it was adopted, and Martin Ross was appointed along with Elders Lemuel Burkitt, Aaron Spivey and James Read to meet such delegates as might be appointed by the Virginia, Portsmouth and Neuse Associations at Cashie in Bertle County, Friday before the third Sunday in June 1805, to devise ways and means to support the missionary cause. At this meeting arrangements were made to enter upon a system of collecting money for missionary purposes. ( Hassell.) "Thus" says Hassell, "Elder Ross had gotten his bantling born and Cashie seemed to be the cradle in which to nurse it."
The delegates from the three associations met and formed the Philanthropic Missionary Society. With reference to it Hufham says:“The Kehukee Association under the lead of Martin Ross was the first body of the kind in the United States to take official action in behalf of missions to the heathen and to formulate permanent plans for the support of the enterprise. It was the beginning of the new and larger work to which God was calling the Baptists of North Carolina."
I cannot find that the society ever held a second meeting. This was perhaps due to the confusion incident to the founding of the Chowan Association in 1806 from the churches of the Kehukee Association north of the Roanoke River.
In 1909 Ross brought forward in the Chowan Association a resolution for the establishment of a meeting of correspondence by delegates from the Chowan, the Kehukee and the Portsmouth associations. After a year the committee reported urging the creation not of a sectional meeting, but of one that should include all associations in the State. The association unanimously endorsed the plan and appointed a committee, of which Ross was a member, to correspond with the associations. The interest and cooperation of a majority of them were secured, and the first meeting was held at Falls of the Tar (now Rocky Mount) in June, 1911.
Evidence is not lacking that Ross was active, not only in the Chowan Association, but in the Kehukee in behalf of this meeting of correspondence. Hassell tells us that that the matter was brought up in the in the meeting of Kehukee Association in October, 1909, at Morattuck Church. As Ross was a messenger to that association from the Chowan, there is little doubt that he it was who presented it. In speaking of the missionary enterprise of North Carolina Baptists. Hassell says:"In the commencement of these troubles in the Kehukee Association there was a Martin Ross, of Martin County, to originate them, to plead and apologize for them, with the eloquence almost of an Apollos. He gained converts to his cause one after another, men of energy and talents, who so zealously and so continuously portrayed their great advantages that for years opposition was overcome in a measure, and their plans were encouraged by the association."It is interesting to follow the history of the General Meeting of Correspondence. It had annual meetings from 1811 to 1831, twelve years; in 1811 at the Falls of the Tar; in 1812 in Raleigh; in 1813 at the Falls of the Tar; in 1814 at Wake Union; in 1815, 1816, 1817 at places which I have not been able to determine; in 1818 at haywood's in Franklin County; in 1819 at Fayetteville; in 1820 at Tabb's Creek in Granville County; in 1821 at Wake Union in Wake County.
The General Meeting of Correspondence was known also by other names. We find it called "The Baptist General Convention of North Carolina" in the minutes of the Chowan Association in 1812. Hassell says that "Elder Reed delivered to the association (in 1811) thirty copies of the minutes of the General Convention of North Carolina Baptists." In this connection Hassell remarks that while he did not know the character of the minutes, "we infer that they favored men-made missionism," and so we all infer. In 1821 this General meeting was, according to Hufham, merged with the Central Philanthropic Society - a missionary organization created and fostered under the auspices of the Baptist Triennial Convention - and was henceforth known as the North Carolina Baptist Missionary Society.
But it seems that Ross soon became convinced that something more than the missionary societies was needed. In the year 1825, according to Meredith, he lost both his second wife and his only son by her, the former his faithful companion for nearly thirty years, and the latter regarded by him as “the staff of his old age, and the comfort and solace of his declining years.” He had previously lost his children by his first wife. But though left childless and [a]lone, he did not in his deep bereavement forget the matter that had so long been on his heart. In 1828 he again brought before the Chowan association the matter of a State Convention, and according to the minutes was appointed chairman of a committee "to correspond with the association of this State, with a view to forming a State Convention and report to our next association."
But the health of our hero was already seriously impaired. It had declined from the time of his bereavement of wife and son. He was unable to do the work of correspondence assigned him, and it was so reported at the meeting of the Association in 1827. He died in the autumn of that year.
In 1829 the Benevolent Society was organized: a year later this became the Baptist State Convention. It was Martin Ross who had cultivated the field for it and sown the seed. Both Purefoy (History of Sandy Creek Association, p. 91) and Hufham regard the Baptist State Convention as a continuation of the meeting at Cashie in 1806, and Hufham says that "Baptist State Convention was his conception."
I wish that all my readers could read the appreciation of Ross's character with which Meredith closes his "Memoir." I cannot forbear to give a few of his sentences:"In all his private relations Mr. Ross was admirable and exemplary. In his family he was uniformly the affectionate husband, the indulgent parent, and the mild and humane master…. His attainments were highly respectable. Although he laid no claim to the reputation of a classical or critical scholar, yet he possessed an ample fund of general and useful knowledge and on various subjects of practical importance his information was accurate and extensive…. Our deceased brother was a man of enlightened and liberal views. He saw and lamented the evils which result to every department of society, but particularly to the Church of Christ, from the prevalence of prejudice, bigotry and intolerance. He was aware that these with their whole train of [pernicious associate4s, owed their existence chiefly to ignorance…. He was decidedly and sincerely a Baptist, but he was not so far wedded to his own particular views as not freely tolerate and cordially to love all whom he had reason to believe loved the Redeemer…. In his private walks, as well as in his public ministrations, he evinced the tenderest solicitude for the salvation of man and for the glory of God…. His favorite topics were the goodness and mercy of the Creator; then Christ the Mediator…. Taking into consideration the long and laborious term of his ministry, and the various and perplexing trials which he encountered, few men, it is believed have sustained a more irreproachable character, borne to the truth a more honorable testimony, or left behind them the fragrance of a more grateful fame."
[From Biblical Recorder, December 3, 1924, p. 4f. On-line edition. Transcribed and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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