Monday, November 12, 2007

The Story of Rev James Hamilton of Ballywalter – Part One

The year was 1626. Sir James Hamilton’s estate was by now well established. He arranged for the London cartographer Thomas Raven to draw a set of maps charting Hamilton’s lands (they’re on permanent display at North Down Heritage Centre in Bangor. The Heritage Centre is holding a lunchtime lecture about the Raven maps on Tuesday 4th December.)

Ballywalter needs a minister!
The new Scottish settlers had by now more or less taken over east Ulster and had done a fine job in farming the land, building villages, homes and harbours. But the ancient church buildings (small by today's standards, stone and originally built by the Anglo-Normans in the 1200s) had been confiscated by King Henry VIII around 1540 and were then burned down in the 1570s by Sir Brian O’Neill.

Sir James Hamilton and Sir Hugh Montgomery (by this time they were Viscount Clandeboye and Viscount of the Great Ardes respectively) began a remarkable series of church restoration projects when they arrived in 1606, and the coastal village of Ballywalter was next on the list. So the ruined church of “Whitkirk” or Whitechurch was to be rebuilt. The “Low Country” of the Ards Peninsula was to have a restored church - therefore it also needed a minister.

That's today's Whitkirk/Whitechurch in the photos above - set in a flat area of land overlooking the Scottish coast (look closely at the pic). There's not much of the church left today, which is probably what it looked like in 1626 before it was rebuilt. There are even three 13th Century Anglo-Norman graves still there today.

Just about 9 miles up the road in Bangor was Rev Robert Blair, who was described in a biographical booklet recently published by the Presbyterian Historical Society as “the leader of the Ulster-Scots”. Sir James Hamilton was a member of Blair’s church – today known as Bangor Abbey, and lived just up the hill (on the site of what is today the Town Hall).

Young James Hamilton
Hamilton’s nephew and namesake, also James Hamilton, had been brought from Scotland to look after his uncle’s financial and estate management affairs. Young James’ father, Gawin Hamilton, was a merchant in Glasgow and had estates “at the foot of the River Clyde… Holywood and Coleraine”, and was “…very wealthy and great in his station…”

But young James felt compelled towards the church. He attended Bangor Abbey and was an assistant to both Blair and Rev Robert Cunningham of Holywood (from my last post). Young Hamilton continued to develop his spiritual interests in secret.

But then one Sunday, Blair invited young James Hamilton to preach in the Abbey. Adair’s Narrative tells the story:

“…An honest and godly young man, being a daily hearer of Mr. Robert Blair, showed much tenderness and ability. He being then chamberlain to the Lord Claneboy, his uncle, Mr. Blair, and Mr. Cunningham, (the then minister of Hollywood,) put him to private essays of his gifts, and, being satisfied therewith, Mr. Blair invited him to preach publicly at Bangor, in his uncle's hearing, he knowing nothing till he saw him in the pulpit, (they fearing my lord would be loath to part with so faithful a servant).

But, when my lord heard him in public, he put great respect upon him the same day, and, shortly after, entered him unto a charge at Ballywalter, where he was painful, successful, and constant, notwithstanding he had many temptations to follow promotion, but was graciously preserved from these baits, and made a successful instrument in the work of Christ in these parts."

In Rev Robert Blair’s Life he says of young James Hamilton:

"Being satisfied with his gifts, I invited him to preach in my pulpit, in his uncle's hearing, who, till then, knew nothing of this matter ; for, Mr. Hamilton, having been his uncle's chamberlain, and chief manager of his affairs, we were afraid the Viscount would not part with so faithful a servant. But he, having once heard his nephew, did put more respect on him than ever before. Shortly thereafter (about the year 1625.), Mr. Hamilton was ordained (by Bishop Echlin) to the holy ministry at Ballywalter, where he was both diligent and successful, and notwithstanding he had many temptations to espouse episcopacy, and might easily have obtained promotion in that way, yet the Lord did graciously preserve him from being ensnared with those baits, and made him very instrumental in promoting His work."

Rev John Livingston, described Rev Hamilton as "a learned and diligent man," and that "his gift of preaching was rather doctrinal than exhortatory."

Rev James Hamilton has no “formal” memorials. Today, Whitechurch graveyard surrounds the remains of the old church where young Hamilton preached. And just about a year ago, an old building – a former Presbyterian church hall – in Ballywalter main street was being refurbished to become a new community centre (with some small shop units on the ground floor). In cleaning the old building they discovered a datestone high on the front wall. 1626 – a small but important memorial of the arrival of young Hamilton at Whitkirk.

Part Two...
But this is just the start of the story, for young James’s life is a tale of persecution, failed emigration, exile… and then a triumphant return.