Researching Covenanter Ancestors

Though it is over 250 years since the signing of the Covenants of 1638 and 1643, the word Covenanter still has significance. Covenanter has been used as a general term to describe Presbyterians, though this article is focussed on its application to the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

A great many people in the United States are the descendants of eighteenth-century emigrants of Covenanter background. Emigration was not confined to the eighteenth century, of course, and many Reformed Presbyterians left Ireland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to seek a new life in another part of the world.

How difficult is it to trace Covenanter roots? It is well known that there are major obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of Irish ancestors. Researching Covenanter ancestors is especially difficult for a number of reasons. First of all, there is the paucity of Reformed Presbyterian records, such as registers of births, marriages and burials. This is discussed in more detail below.

Secondly, there are various categories of record from which Covenanters were excluded, or rather excluded themselves, because of their religious beliefs and in particular their views on the state. They did not vote and so will not appear in freeholders’ registers. They were opposed to the payment of tithes for the support of the Church of Ireland clergy, though to what extent they were able to evade the tithe collectors is unclear.

They do not seem to have made regularly wills that were probated as that would have meant recognising the authority of the Church of Ireland which had responsibility for all testamentary matters before 1858. Of course, as is revealed below in the discussion of the earliest session book of the Antrim congregation, there were those who broke the rules and were censured for it.

Researching Covenanter ancestors who emigrated to America in the eighteenth century is particularly problematic. A close reading of Jean Stephenson’s meticulous Scotch-Irish migration to South Carolina will show that in very few instances is it possible to identify the Irish place of origin of the hundreds of families, many of the them Covenanter, who emigrated from Ulster in 1772.

While the majority of these emigrants were probably from north Antrim, it is impossible to be more precise than this for all but a handful of the emigrants. One exception is Hugh McMaster, ‘late of parish of Ballymoney, Co. Antrim’, whose will of 1787 refers to his brother John back in Ballymoney and includes a bequest of money to a society of Covenanters in America. Careful sifting of records in America might reveal further references to places of origin in Ireland of Covenanter ancestors.

An initiative that merits attention is that of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America to digitise their older publications, such as the magazines The Covenanter and Reformed Presbyterian, both founded in the nineteenth century, and make these available online ( Obituaries notices were carried in these publications and, if the deceased was from Ireland, these will often include the individual’s place of origin on the island.