Ruins of Ballywallin Presbyterian Church, County Antrim, Ulster Plantation, ca. 1748 – Image Courtesy Ballywallin Presbyterian Church
Five generations ago, Hugh Gaston risked it all…and paid it all. He fled home, hearth, church and family risking everything for the freedom of reading, teaching and living the precepts of the Holy Scriptures. After attending an annual conference of ministers in 1766 he disappeared for nearly four months. Suddenly he reappeared in South Carolina, sought out his brother, John “Justice” Gaston of Chester County and set out for the back country to begin a new ministry. He preached just one or two sermons, then fell ill with the measles. He was dead within a month of his arrival. He is buried next to his brother and sister in law in Burnt Meeting House Cemetery just an hour’s drive south of Charlotte, NC. John wrote a letter home to his widow, Mary Gaston, and children telling of Hugh’s tragic demise. Hugh’s family stayed in Ulster and never came to America, but Hugh’s book DID come!
These freedoms that Hugh risked everything for had eluded the Gaston family for generations. Long before Hugh was born the Gaston family searched for the truth of the gospel with the Huguenots of France. Roman Catholicism was the state religion there in the 16th century. The Gaston’s, under persecution from Rome, fled France for Scotland where they associated themselves with the Reformed Presbyterianism of John Knox. Here too, they faced persecution, not from Rome but from London. The English, having subdued Scotland, were determined to force the Scots back into Romanism under Queen Mary and then into Anglicanism under Elizabeth I and James VI. Scotland was under the boot of the tyrannical English, land was scarce and times were hard. After several generations, the family sought a better life across the Irish Sea in what was then called Ulster Plantation, now known as Northern Ireland. Here they found more, better and cheaper land. However, they did not find the religious freedom that they so desperately longed for.
Ulster Plantation was designed by the English as an enclave where both Scots and English would settle Irish Catholic lands and eventually cause the Irish to give up their resistance to English rule. The plan backfired and the repercussions of this 400 year old plan are still resounding today in the streets of Northern Ireland. The Gaston’s faced the hatred of the displaced Irish Catholics and the persecution of the English Anglicans. It was literally a “stress sandwich.” However, early in the 18th century, these displaced Ulster Scots began immigrating to a new land that promised it all – freedom of religion, free land and unbridled prosperity in a land “flowing with milk and honey,” AMERICA. John and Esther Waugh Gaston along with two small daughters came to Pennsylvania before 1740. By 1754, the expanding family found their way south through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, through the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina, ending up in the rolling piedmont hills of upstate South Carolina. John became the top law officer on the frontier, the so-called “Kings Justice.” He also became the most successful surveyor of land in all the upstate. Here they would prosper in freedom and liberty. John and Esther would eventually have 13 children, all of which lived to adulthood, a blessing unheard of in that day and time. The only thing they lacked in the upstate were trained preachers for all the Scot – Irish, as we are called here in America. Hugh Gaston was not only a trained minister, he was the most brilliant Presbyterian scholar of his age. No amateur, Hugh was trained at the University of Glasgow as was his physician brother, Alexander. No wonder John was so excited to greet his brother on his way to Chester from Charleston when he arrived in 1766.
Hugh Gaston was a dangerous man to the English, perhaps the most dangerous man in all of Scotland and Ireland. Why? Hugh had in 1763 published a book, a book that threatened every Catholic and every Anglican in Ulster. It was book that, for the first time, provided the common man the tools needed for deep Bible study. Now the Ulster ploughman could within a very short period of time, know more Bible than any Catholic or Anglican “clergyman.” It was simple, yet brilliant. The book was a combination systematic theology, concordance and topical Bible. It became a bombshell! The name of the book? A Scripture Account of the Faith and Practice of Christians. Detailed knowledge of the Scriptures not only spoke of salvation, they shed the light of truth on all other aspects of life. Scot-Irishmen learned self-reliance, self-government, morality, virtue and courage. They also learned that the rights of man descended, not from the king, but from God Himself! They then began to “proclaim Liberty throughout the land!”
The publication of this book apparently cost Hugh everything. By 1766 he found himself broke and disgraced. Because he so soon died upon arriving in the new world, he left no information as the exact circumstances of his sudden departure. One thing is for sure. This book cost Hugh everything. He lost his family. He lost his position. He lost his wealth. He lost his life. He lost these things so that anyone could study the Bible for themselves.
Hugh Gaston gave everything so that others could take that journey as well. He was a man of great passion and love for the truth. Though Hugh was an “American” for less than six weeks, few others made such an impact. His book was republished numerous times for nearly 100 years after his death. Countless thousands of everyday people learned to read and study the Bible for themselves, no longer having to rely on government preachers to tell them how to live and believe. Every man, woman and child became his own priest before God. Gaston’s Collections as the book came to be known, taught its readers to become truly free, truly responsible and truly patriotic.
Now, one year shy of 250 years, the passion of Hugh Gaston has been replaced by passivity. “Christians” today have grown passive, lazy and unconcerned with the study, the teaching and the living of the Scriptures. Bibles sit unopened on the shelf or travel without use in the back seats of automobiles. People today are passive towards the claims of Holy Scripture and are ashamed of what it says. What Hugh Gaston died for in 1766, people in 2015 could not care less about. How about you? Are you passionate or passive?
Hugh Gaston is my great uncle, five times removed. John Gaston is my great grandfather five times removed. John and Esther gave four sons in death during the War for Independence. They also gave up their home, their possessions and their freedom. Three of their sons died on the same day at the Battle of Hanging Rock, 6 August 1780. Ebenezer, Robert and Dave Gaston gave their all just a few miles from the family farm on Fishing Creek. In fact, all nine of John and Esther’s sons served the cause of liberty. Hugh and John’s brother, Dr. Alexander Gaston, was murdered by the British in Newbern, NC in the presence of his wife and young son. At 80 years of age, John Gaston died in his sleep, still being pursued by the English. He had two loaded pistols under his pillow and a loaded musket at this bedside as he passed into eternity. The year was 1782. Esther joined him in death seven years later in 1789. On their tombstone is one simple inscription – “Patriots of the Revolution.”
The Gaston’s learned that “freedom isn’t free” from reading, studying and living the precepts of Holy Scripture. Hugh Gaston left a legacy of light and truth that still burns bright today.
- Russ McCullough – Mint Hill, NC – 21 May 2015