New Cumnock Free Church (1843-1900)
First Secession 1733 and Second Secession 1761
The Church of Scotland, or the Established Church had witnessed a number of divisions
within its ranks since the Restoration of Presbyterianism in 1690. At the core of these schisms were the different views held within the Church on the omnipresent hot-potato of patronage, the right of the congregation to reject candidates presented to it by the patron of their church.This right could be traced back to the days of the Reformation and the First Book of Discipline of 1560-1561.
‘ It appertaineth to the people, and to every several congregation to elect their Minister. For altogether this it to be avoided, that any man be violently intruded or thrust in upon any congregation‘. [Donaldson].
The 18th century saw those opposed to civil interference in this fundamental right of the church to leave the main-stream of the Established Church in the First Secession of 1733, under Ebenzer Erskine and then in the Second Secession of 1761 under Thomas Gillespie.
The Disruption 1843
As the new century dawned so too did the age of Evangelicalism, seen as a new threat to the Moderates within the Established Church, leading to10 years of conflict between these two factions. The Evangelical party emerged victorious and in 1834 the General Assembly, the governing body of the Church, passed the ‘Veto Act’, reasserting the fundamental right of a congregation to reject the presentation of the patron. However, victory was short-lived and before the end of the decade private patrons had successfully challenged the veto through the civil courts. Further challenges followed, ultimately resulting in 1842 to the Assembly clearly stating their position on civil encroachment to the Government in the form of the Claim, Declaration and Protest anent the Encroachments of the Court of Session, known simply as the Claim of Right.
However, the Government was resolute and dismissed this claim, perhaps resigned to accepting the aftermath of any minor secession that may follow. The secession was anything but minor with over 400 ministers eventually leaving the Established Church whilst many of the 750 ministers that remained continued to sympathise with the views
of their departed brethern. The greatest schism the Established Church had witnessed became known as The Disruption and the seceeders formed their own church, the Church of Scotland Free, a church free from civil interference. The Reverend Thomas Chalmers was moderator of the first General Assembly of the Free Church at Canonmills, Edinburgh in 1843 and here 451 ministers signed the Deed of Demission, or the Disruption Document, whereby ‘the signatories relinquished all the emoluents and privileges they had enjoyed within the Establishment’ [J.H.S.Burleigh]
The strategy of the Free Church was to recreate a mirror image of the Established Church. ‘In every parish in the country a Free Church should stand over against the old parish church, manse over against manse, Free Church school over against the parochial school over which the Established Church retained control.’
New Cumnock more than met these aspirations. The Free Church , the manse and the school were all erected on the castlehill, the historical heart of the parish, on the site of Cumnock Castle and a stone’s throw from the ruins of the Auld Kirk, the first parish church of New Cumnock. The memorial stone was laid on 29th August, 1843.
New Cumnock United Free Church (1900-1912)
In 1900 the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church joined to form the United Free Church of Scotland. The church on the castle hill now the New Cumnock United Free Church.
Arthur Memorial United Free Church (1912-2015)
The Arthur family had a long association with the Free Church of New Cumnock. James Arthur of Benston and his brother David in the neighbouring farm of Wellhill were elders in the original Free Church.
David Arthur and his wife Jane Findlay had one daughter anf four sons , including William Arthur who would later work Wellhill in partnership with his father. William Arthur continued to farm Wellhill after his father’s death and later retired to his house at Pathhead, appropriately called Arthur’s Seat.
William Arthur died a wealthy man in 1894 and in his will he left money for the buidling of a new Castle Free Church to replace the original Free Church.
The memory of William Arthur of Wellhill, and afterward of Arthur’s Seat, Pathhead, will ever be held in grateful remembrance in New Cumnock. Mr. Arthur was born at Wellhill in 1810. On the retiral of his father he succeeded to the tenancy of his farm, one of considerable extent on the estate of the Marquess of Bute, and that he worked successfully and well for the greater part of his lifetime. As the burden of years increased, he gave up the cares of business and went to live in Pathhead, where he died in 1894. Always careful in money matters, he was yet generous to a degree as his last will and testament abundantly proved. In a very signal way he gave effect to a divine injunction, and “remembered the poor and needy.” His estate amounted to nearly £10,000. Of this sum he desired that £1000 be invested on behalf of poor people. After payment of certain legacies three-fifths of the residue he desired to be devoted to a building fund for the Castle Free Church, and the remaining two-fifths to the furtherance of any object which might meet with the approval of the Trustees. From the interest of the £1000 referred to, forty-four of the deserving poor receive each a half-sovereign at the Whitsunday and Martinmas terms’.
The Trustees of the Arthur Trust delivered and in some style with the an elegant church built by contractors Messrs John and William Reid of Catrine to the design of architect William Beddoe Rees, who had designed many chapels in Wales and was later President of the National Free Church Council of Wales.
The original Free Church was demolished with some of the stone used to build a church hall behind the new church that now sat on the castlehill. The memorial stone was laid on 7th September, 1912 and the church was was named the Arthur Memorial United Free Church. The church continued to serve the community until the 1970s and lay empty for many years. When the Arthur Memorial church was demolished in 2015 a time capsule was discovered , which contained items placed there when the church was built in 1912 along side items from the time capsule that must have been placed in the original Free Church in 1843, the year of the Disruption.