John Knox Church is a key part of the streetscape in the main thoroughfare of Stewarton and has an important history both to the town and wider Scottish church history.

The church opened as a Church of Scotland church in 1842. In 1843, it became a Free Church when the Minister, Rev David Arthur, walked out of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland began in the event known as The Disruption. In 1900, the church was called John Knox United Free Church and in 1929 it became Church of Scotland again. Thomas Cassels, who was the minister from 1894-1903 began a project to build a hall and installed the pipe organ.

Auld Lichts

The history of the church dates back to the late 18th century when small groups of people started leaving the established Church all over Scotland. One group from Stewarton, called the Auld Lichts, went to Kilmarnock for their service. After 1814, the Kilmarnock minister did not make them welcome, and they formed their own congregation back in Stewarton and met in a weaver’s shop in the High Street. In 1825, the minister of this group, Rev James Duncan built a New Church at top of Avenue Street in 1828. Arguments within the church meant that by 1839, the congregation were looking for a new building. The local landowner, William Cunningham was not keen to have another church built on his land, but this piece of ground was owned by a Mr Snodgrass, and the land was acquired and the church built in 1841.

Stewarton Case

William Cunningham then used his influence as the major landowner in the area to prevent a newly appointed minister from Irvine from coming to Stewarton. A legal battle ensued and the result, in favour of William Cunningham, meant that this and other new congregations throughout the country lost their buildings. Cunningham asserted that the John Knox Church belonged to the Established Church and tried to deprive the congregation of their properties. This ‘Stewarton Case’ has been cited in some sources as being one of the factors which led to the Disruption in the Church in 1843. Eventually, the congregation were given the legal ownership of the Kirk.

The church is named after the 16th century leader of the Reformation in Scotland, John Knox, considered to be the founder of the Church of Scotland. 

The church is named after the 16th century leader of the Reformation in Scotland, John Knox, considered to be the founder of the Church of Scotland. 

Architecture

The church is built in a simple Classical style and is little altered externally.

The interior remains substantially intact with a dominant, finely carved pulpit. The church has an interesting ecclesiastical history which is of significance both for the town and wider church history in Scotland in the mid 19th century.

Dated 1841. Symmetrical, 2-storey, 3-bay rectangular-plan church with 3-stage steeple over entrance bay to S. Tooled, squared and coursed sandstone to S, rubble to other elevations. Base course, band course, cornice and blocking course. Some raised cills. Later single storey hall extensions to rear with Church Officer’s Cottage.

SOUTH (ENTRANCE) ELEVATION: slightly advanced central pedimented entrance bay with 2-leaf, 6-panel timber entrance doors with rectangular fanlight above and consoled cornice above. Steeple with clasping Doric pilasters and round-arched louvred openings to 1st stage. Clock stage above. Finialled stone spire.

INTERIOR: cohesive interior scheme with panelled timber gallery on 3 sides supported by slender cast iron columns. Timber pews. Pair of symmetrical, decoratively carved flanking curved staircases lead to carved timber pulpit with organ case behind.

Shallow piended roof with grey slates. Predominantly diamond leaded-pane windows with coloured glass decorative borders and images.

Listed Category: B
Date Listed: 14 April 1971
Historic Scotland Building ID: 41065

Source: Historic Environment Scotland