Plodding Through the “ills of life”

Especially in unsettling times, it is helpful for Christians to examine the lives of faithful saints of old, who finished their race well. One brother and father in the faith, today perhaps remembered in Baptist circles and in North Carolina, was Elder Martin Ross. As a young man, Ross served as a soldier in the Continental Army in the war for independence; was converted by the age of nineteen; and several years later began a lifelong preaching ministry in the Baptist churches of northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. His life, ministry, trials, and character are worthy of our consideration today.

Born in November 1762 in rural Martin County, North Carolina, little is known of Martin Ross’s early years except that he resided on his father’s plantation “and assisted him in the various offices of husbandry.” His ancestors had emigrated from Scotland to Virginia, and his father moved his family from there to North Carolina. Martin was one of ten children; two of his five brothers also became Baptist ministers. In 1828 Ross’s memorialist, a fellow Baptist minister, Elder Thomas Meredith – best known in later years as the editor of the Biblical Recorder periodical – wrote that Ross “obeyed the call of his country,” accepting “the hardships and dangers of the camp” for a time. Most likely it was 1780 or 1781 when Ross enlisted, at which time Cornwallis was campaigning mainly in North Carolina (in October 1781, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia). When Ross joined up, it was quite possible he had not yet reached his eighteenth birthday.[1]

After returning home,

he was led to consider the claims of the Christian Religion. He soon became sensible of its peculiar suitableness to the condition of fallen man, its sufficiency to sustain him under the manifold ills of life, and its ability to qualify him for the momentous events of eternity. Especially, he became convinced of its applicableness to his own individual case. Oppressed as he was by the weight of unpardoned guilt; tortured by the reproaches of an awakened conscience, and cast down by the frowns of an angry God, he found this blessed system alone [biblical Christianity] possessed of the power to change his mourning into joy.[2]

Professing the Christian faith as his own, Ross was baptized in January 1782. Soon he became convinced of God’s call to the gospel ministry, of which his church approved. Ross began to preach in July 1784. The year prior, he had married a widow, Mrs. Deborah Moore, by whom he had several children, including two sons and apparently at least one daughter. But in 1796, his wife “was removed by death, and he was called to weep over an early and afflictive bereavement.” Ross was 33 or 34 years old when he lost his first wife. Meanwhile, from 1787 – the year in which the Constitutional Convention met at Philadelphia – to 1796, he pastored a church in Martin County.[3]

In 1796, Elder Ross accepted a call to a church in Chowan County, North Carolina, and not long thereafter married another widow, Mrs. Mary Harvey, by whom he had one son. Ross ministered in Chowan until about the year 1806, when he relocated – again, not far away – to accept a call from the church at Bethel in Perquimans County, North Carolina – a church he himself had helped to organize. Once situated with Bethel, Martin Ross “continued [as their] ardent and devoted Minister to the day of his death.” During two decades there, in addition to his ministerial labors with his own congregation, Ross was instrumental in establishing several new churches. Meredith wrote that he assisted many others by “his faithful and fatherly counsels.”[4]

In 1817, a young Baptist missionary from Pennsylvania, Thomas Meredith, was sent south to minister in North Carolina. Arriving in Edenton, he immediately became acquainted with Ross – whose church was nearby – thus beginning a close friendship that lasted until Ross’s death a decade later. One historian referred to Ross – a leader in the Chowan Baptist Association – “as a father” to Meredith upon his coming to Edenton. Another noted the two men were known to ride together in a buggy on evangelistic trips, perhaps including some taken to Tarborough where they organized a church in 1819. Also by that year (if not before), Meredith was serving in the newly organized Baptist church at Edenton, of which he became the pastor in 1825 (following ministry in two other locales). Ross’s young Timothy, if you will, described the most difficult year of his mentor’s life:

In the year 1825, our venerable brother experienced a succession of the most trying and painful bereavements, in the loss of his excellent wife, and his only son by his second marriage. The former had been his faithful and devoted companion for nearly 30 years, and had become endeared to him as well by the lapse of time, as by her social and amiable qualities. The latter [his son] he had regarded as the staff of his old age, the comfort and solace of his declining years. Both were torn from him by the hand of death in one fatal year. . . . Children indeed he had had; – but they were no more. They had fallen one by one, like branches from the hoary and shattered oak; and he was now left to mourn in solitude.[5]

Not surprisingly, Meredith was convinced that the loss of Ross’s second wife and his only surviving son (by the year 1825) assisted to undermine his constitution and hastened his own death. Meredith’s assessment seemed corroborated in May 1827 when the Chowan association’s minutes stated Ross had been unable to write the circular letter as appointed, due to “his afflictions, age and infirmities.” Ross himself served as the association’s moderator at the time, and so in a sense the duty had been self-assigned. While he might easily have rested on his laurels after forty years of ministry, despite failing health and deep sorrow, Ross plodded on.[6]

In the fall of 1827, his condition became critical, “and death approached with a sure and rapid step.” At the start of 1828, Meredith was with his friend about a fortnight from the end. “He knew in whom he had believed,” wrote Meredith, “and he knew he was able to keep that which he had entrusted to his care.” Ross was “conscious that he had ‘fought the good fight,’ that he had ‘finished his course’ and that he had ‘kept the faith;’ – and he therefore confidently believed that he should obtain that ‘crown of righteousness’ which is kept . . . for all them that hold out unto the end.”[7]

Meredith added,

His tranquility, his confidence, his firm, but meek and modest assurance; his ardent aspirations after heaven, continued even until the last. When his hour had come, he was sensible of its arrival; and met it without a tear, and without a struggle! He took a deliberate and affecting leave of his family – composed himself on his pillow – and peacefully closed his eyes in death.[8]   

On the day after his death, his “decayed and emaciated form” was “laid by the remains of his wife and son, beneath the spreading branches of his favorite willow; while his liberated and triumphant spirit, had doubtless found ‘a building of God; an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.’”[9]

Of Ross’s character as a minister, Meredith wrote, “he combined those qualities which are useful, rather than dazzling; and which are calculated to secure the approval of heaven, rather than the applause of men.” Although Ross had been “denied the advantages of a liberal education, he had not failed to enrich his mind . . . with the various fruits of observation, reflection, and extensive reading.” It was noteworthy that despite his lack of a literary education, Ross was a “steadfast advocate for an improved and well taught ministry. He heartily disapproved of the practice too prevalent among our Churches,” according to Meredith, “of admitting candidates to the sacred office, without sufficient precaution, and before they are sufficiently qualified.” While such views may seem commonsensical today, for many early Baptists (and some others) it was not. Ross was ahead of his time; more important, he was biblical, understanding that the minister needed to devote himself to the study of God’s Word (I Tim. 4:15); and that “the workman is worthy of his meat (Math. 10.9 and 10)” (many early Baptists were paid a pittance).[10]

In another example of Ross’s forward thinking – although he did not live to see its fruition – his initiative was instrumental in preparing the way for the (North Carolina) Baptist State Convention’s formation. He and Meredith had conversed on the proposed convention many times. In March 1830, it was Ross’s dear friend who carried in his pocket a copy of the proposed constitution of the convention – which was adopted without a single change. There can be little doubt of Martin Ross’s influence upon Meredith in the matter.[11]

As a public speaker, Ross was said to be eloquent but he was not a “polished orator.” Without attempting “to dazzle” his listeners, Ross typically “set forth in a plain and manly style” so as to instruct from the whole counsel of God. In phrases echoed by some pastors in our own generation, Elder Ross “well knew that the road to the heart and the conscience was through the understanding, and that, to produce any lasting or beneficial effect, the judgment must be informed and convinced. And he also knew, that to accomplish the great end of preaching, the heart must be assailed and the conscience must be roused.”[12]

Given such a favorable summary of Elder Ross’s ministry and character, perhaps it will surprise some readers to learn that, at least near the end of his course, Ross’s church was quite small. A decade earlier, in 1816, Bethel’s membership had approached one hundred ninety. In 1826 and 1827, the Chowan Baptist Association listed some three thousand two hundred members in the fellowship of its 26 churches, an average of well over one hundred per church. The largest church, Cashie, had close to four hundred in fellowship; Colerain, well above three hundred; and several churches counted more than two hundred. By comparison, in 1826 and 1827, Ross’s church at Bethel listed between 40 and 49 members (the ones digit was unclear in the 1827 minutes).[13]

The reason for such loss of members? In 1817 a new church was organized at Edenton, only ten miles from Bethel Church where Ross pastored. Either Edenton was closer or more convenient for most of Bethel’s members, or perhaps (not unlike today), some simply wanted a change or the opportunity to go into town in conjunction with worship. In any case, in that year exactly 138 of Bethel’s 191 members were dismissed by letter to join the Edenton church. Bethel never enjoyed more than about fifty members during Ross’s remaining decade (by 1830, the church had increased to about seventy, under the ministry of several including Thomas Meredith). Yet, in the final two years of his life, 1826 and 1827, despite pastoring one of the association’s smallest churches, declining in health, and grieving the loss of his second wife and third son, Martin Ross served as Chowan’s moderator – a testament to his reputation, character, and willingness to continue to serve despite his afflictions, and few congregants, by that time.[14]      

As Thomas Meredith expressed so well, Elder Martin Ross’s life, ministry, character – and his death – demonstrated that the Christian Religion he had embraced as a young man – by grace and through faith in Jesus Christ alone – was sufficient “to sustain him under the manifold ills of life” and “to qualify him for the momentous events of eternity.” Ross had buried two wives; all three of his sons; and presumably at least one daughter. He had no doubt watched with mixed emotions as many beloved members of his flock – the vast majority, in fact – departed for a new church in town. Yet through all this he kept on, as a faithful soldier of Christ and the shepherd of a church with forty-some members. As at least one present-day pastor – Kevin DeYoung, whose church is near Charlotte – might say, Elder Martin Ross embodied “The Glory of Plodding.”[15]  

In 2020, as millions face the uncertainties, even the fears, of an unknown virus and its impacts all around us, may Christians particularly be encouraged by the life of this faithful pastor of two centuries ago, Elder Martin Ross of rural northeastern North Carolina; whose example points laser-like toward the true Shepherd and the Keeper of His flock.             


[1] [Thomas Meredith], “Memoir of Elder Martin Ross,” contained in Minutes of the Twenty-Third Annual Meeting of the North-Carolina Chowan Baptist Association . . . [May 16-18], 1828 (Norfolk, Va., 1828), 9; Woodard, “Ross, Martin.”

[2] [Meredith], “Memoir of Elder Martin Ross,” 9.

[3] [Meredith], “Memoir of Elder Martin Ross,” 9-10; Woodard, “Ross, Martin.”

[4] [Meredith], “Memoir of Elder Martin Ross,” 10.

[5] Corinne Forehand Thorud, A History of Edenton Baptist Church, Edenton, North Carolina, 1817-1992 (Edenton, N.C., 1992), 62; Mary Lynch Johnson, “Meredith, Thomas,” NCPEDIA, 1991; [J. D. Hufham], “The Baptists in North Carolina, Part II (Second Paper),” in North Carolina Baptist Historical Papers. Volume Two. October, 1897, to July, 1898 (Henderson, N.C., n.d.), 227; [Meredith], “Memoir of Elder Martin Ross,” 10-11 [emphasis added].

[6] Minutes of the North Carolina Chowan Baptist Association . . . [May 18-20], 1827 (Norfolk, Va., 1827), 3-4.

[7] [Meredith], “Memoir of Elder Martin Ross,” 11.

[8] [Meredith], “Memoir of Elder Martin Ross,” 12.

[9] [Meredith], “Memoir of Elder Martin Ross,” 12.

[10] [Meredith], “Memoir of Elder Martin Ross,” 12-13; Minutes of the North Carolina Chowan Baptist Association . . . [May 11-13], 1816 (Richmond [Va.], 1816?), 7.

[11] [Hufham], “The Baptists in North Carolina, Part II (Second Paper),” 226-28.

[12] [Meredith], “Memoir of Elder Martin Ross,” 14-15.

[13] Minutes of the North Carolina Chowan Baptist Association, 1816, 4; Minutes of the North-Carolina Baptist Association . . . [May 19-21], 1826 (N.p., 1826), 2 (note the total number in fellowship of all 26 churches in the association was in error; the printed total was 3,023, but the sum of individual churches’ members was either 3,238 or 3,243 – one digit was either “3” or “8”); Minutes of the North Carolina Chowan Baptist Association, 1827, 3.

[14] Minutes of the North Carolina Chowan Baptist Association . . . [May 10-12], 1817 (Edenton, N.C., 1817), 4-5;   Minutes of the North-Carolina Baptist Association, 1826, 1; Minutes of the North Carolina Chowan Baptist Association, 1827, 3. Note that the 1817 minutes included a circular address on the observance of the Christian Sabbath, a strong clue to the Calvinistic leanings of the Chowan association.

[15] [Meredith], “Memoir of Elder Martin Ross,” 9 [emphasis added]; Kevin DeYoung, “The Glory of Plodding,” The Aquila Report, Apr. 15, 2012; Jan. 4, 2018.

About Forrest L. Marion

Forrest L. Marion graduated from the Virginia Military Institute with a BS degree in civil engineering. He earned an MA in military history from the University of Alabama and a doctorate in American history from the University of Tennessee. Since 1998, Dr. Marion has served as a staff historian and oral historian at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Commissioned in 1980, he retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 2010. More from Forrest L. Marion

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