Behind the stone facade of Jon Knox Church in Stewarton's High Street lies a fascinating piece of Scottish Church history.
Until the 19th century there was only one Church in Stewarton, namely the Parish Church now known as St. Columba's Parish Church.
As the town began to increase in size, another congregation appeared, and in November 1829 they asked the Presbytery to formally add Stewarton to its list of Congregations. In 1835, however, the General Assembly passed two reforms which had grave consequences for the 'Kirk'.
The first measure was the Veto Act, which dealt with the worst abuses of Patronage (i.e. the Laird picked the minister, no matter the views of the congregation.)
The second measure was the Chapel Act, by which newer churches, known as 'Chapels of Ease', were to be given Parishes of their own, and full voting rights in Church assemblies, so in May 1839 they were admitted to the Presbytery of Irvine and their Church was built at a cost of £340.
Court cases over the Veto Act had already begun as early as 1834 in Auchterarder, then William Cuninghame Jr of Lainshaw decided to take action by challenging the right of the Kirk to create a new Parish Church in Stewarton and say who should attend it. The problem was that he still saw himself as Patron of the Parish Church, and he picked the minister and nobody else. He took the Kirk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh in 1840 and the case dragged on for three years, until the Court ruled in favour of William Cuninghame*.
This was the year in which there was a split in the Church, led by Dr Thomas Chalmers, and those who walked out were to become known as the 'Free Churches', with over 400 ministers walking out of the Church, Stewarton among them, but Cuninghame had the better of them by having the Court ruling in Edinburgh on his side.
The majority of the Free Churches rejoined the Church of Scotland in 1929, and this was when the 'John Knox' Church once again became a Church of Scotland.
Parishioners walk out of church in protest at the unpopular appointment of a minister in the parish of Marnoch, Strathbogie in 1841.
* The Stewarton Case is still seen as one of the most important rulings in the history of the Church of Scotland, and one of the Judges admitted that it was probably the most important decision he had ever had to make in his time on the bench. The above is obviously a simplified version of events, but the Society hold a Transcript of the decisions made by Lord Cuninghame and the other Judges in the Stewarton Case.