James Martin: a sigh of relief

James Martin (1869-1877)

The Reverend James Martin: now here’s a man you want in a crisis.

Decimated by Taylor’s humiliating departure, Collins Street was a broken church, but one bearing an extraordinary weight of ministries: an on-site Sunday School of up to 400 along with five branch Sunday Schools, missions in Bouverie Street and West Melbourne, an ‘outstation’ in Bacchus Marsh, and the Gospel Hall in Little Bourke Street. The deacons were determined to find a replacement for Taylor who could both lead and heal. And did they score!

The 48-year-old Martin, graduate of London and Bonn Universities, was already established as one of Britain’s leading scholar-pastors. His reputation for fine preaching, intelligent scholarship and wise leadership was well known. The fact that he accepted Collins Street’s invitation was a remarkable blessing.

Martin arrived in Melbourne with his family in 1869. In dramatic contrast to Taylor, Martin was a quiet, unassuming, even ‘bookish’ man. Regardless, his wise and measured leadership played a very significant role in healing this broken community. By the end of his eight-year tenure, the membership was back up to 417 with 20 or 30 being baptised every year.

Martin and his wife–a woman of equal ability and influence–were an extraordinary team and great supporters of the Gospel Hall in Little Bourke Street. Though such ministries with the poor came under increasing public criticism, the church redoubled its efforts in its work with the town’s most vulnerable. Mrs Martin was a regular visitor to the slums and hospitals where she went with food for those who could not afford it. She was tireless in her work with children, especially the hearing impaired and those defined as ‘mentally deficient’ in the Kew Homes.

In the midst of all his pastoral duties, Martin managed to publish scholarly works on textual criticism and the New Testament and exercised masterful leadership in the wider denomination, especially in the establishment of the Home Mission work. He had an assiduous commitment to repairing the rifts and dissensions among Baptists in the colony–of which there were many–and played a key role in the establishment of the Baptist Association, now known as the Baptist Union of Victoria.

Of course, Martin didn’t have everything go his way. This was a Baptist church after all! In 1872 he tried very hard to persuade the church to adopt open membership, but the deacons would have none of it. What’s more, out of his commitment to worship he attempted to introduce a new hymn book and the practice of chanting the psalms. Both movements, though ultimately successful, met with strong resistance and even sustained resentment from some quarters.

At age 56, while on a hiking vacation in Tasmania, Martin died suddenly from a heart attack, a tragedy felt deeply throughout the churches of Victoria but most keenly by the community at Collins Street. Martin and his wife were much loved and his death left a gaping hole.

It’s an extraordinary thing to me that as I look out at today’s congregations, two of Martin’s great granddaughters are still with us. The quality and depth of their own character is yet another testament to the very deep spirituality the Martins brought to and nurtured at Collins Street, a spirituality that remains.


  1. I am delighted to have found this article – James Martin was my gr-gr-grandfather. His daughter Mary was still living during my early childhood; she died when I was about ten, and I remember her well. I recently completed research into my mother’s family, and James Martin was one of the most interesting of my ancestors. I had no idea what he and Hannah might have looked like, so I’m thrilled to see their photos, and I’ll be passing this article on to my children and my cousin.

    Thank you,
    Carolyn White


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