The Associate Reformed Presbyterian denomination was formed in 1782 by the merger of two groups of Presbyterians who had immigrated to America from Northern Ireland and Scotland. Originally national in scope, the denomination began to break up into regional Synods in the early 1800s. Since 1822, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church has existed as an independent denomination, with most of its churches located in the South.
Because of the settlement patterns of Scots-Irish immigrants who established the denomination, the Piedmont area of the Carolinas has always had a concentration of Associate Reformed Presbyterian churches. York County was in the center of this "heartland" of the denomination. When Rock Hill came into existence, it was only natural that the denomination would seek to begin a church in the growing town surrounded by rural churches. Rock Hill began in 1852 as a depot on the newly built Charlotte and Columbia Railway. Early efforts were made to start an A.R.P. church in the community in the 1850s and 1870s. For reasons which are not clear, these efforts failed. By the 1890s, Rock Hill was growing into a small city. The recent explosive growth of the textile industry had led to rapid population growth. In 1895, Rock Hill won a state-wide competition for the location of Winthrop College, leading to further growth.
The Board of Home Missions of the A.R.P. denomination was determined to begin a work in Rock Hill. They were unable to attract an established pastor to the field, however. In the summer of 1895, a student at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West was persuaded to spend his summer in Rock Hill to begin holding services. Arthur Small Rogers heard many discouraging things about the possibility of developing a church in Rock Hill. However, he arrived in Rock Hill on July 4, 1895 and set to work immediately. On the next Sunday, the first services were held in the Armory Hall on Main Street. The service attracted 63 persons, and a Sabbath School was organized. During the remainder of the summer, attendance at the services grew and other auxiliary organizations were created. It was obvious that an A.R.P. church in Rock Hill would finally be a reality. Although Arthur Rogers returned to the Seminary in the fall to complete his senior year, pastors from surrounding churches were available to preach. The church was organized on November 19, 1895 with 26 charter members.
Upon graduation from the Seminary in the spring of 1896, Arthur Rogers was called to serve a term of five years as pastor of the young Rock Hill church. He almost immediately began planning for the construction of a church building. A lot was purchased from the White family, one of Rock Hill's founding families. Funds were raised throughout the denomination, with many churches and individuals giving gifts for the construction of a church. Charles C. Hook, a well-known architect from Charlotte, was selected to design the church. Construction was begun in June 1897 and completed in 1898. The sanctuary appears today much as it did when completed. With an energetic young pastor and a beautiful church building, the congregation grew rapidly. The debt on the building was retired in 1900, at which time a dedication service was held. In 1901, the church was fully self-supporting, and Rev. Rogers' term as mission developer ended. He was called by the congregation as its pastor, a relationship which would last until 1948.
First A.R.P. continued to grow and develop. By 1906, there were 150 members and a full range of church organizations, including a men's club, ladies' society, Sabbath School and youth groups. In 1911, the rear wall of the sanctuary was moved, providing for the expansion of the sanctuary and choir loft and the addition of several classrooms to the rear. A pipe organ was included in the addition.
In the 1920s, planning began for another church expansion. By 1929, the current Education Building was under construction. It included the first kitchen and fellowship hall on the first floor and classrooms on the second and third floors.
The church survived the Depression years and continued to grow. In July 1945, a fiftieth anniversary celebration was held for both the church and the ministry of Rev. Arthur Rogers. Rev. Rogers announced his retirement in January 1948 by stating, "I am neither sick nor tired of preaching, but I have contracted an incurable disease named old age." An era had come to a close.
For almost fifty-three years, the congregation had looked to one man for leadership. From the first service in a rented hall, the Rock Hill church had grown under his leadership to become one of the strongest congregations in the denomination with a beautiful and extensive church facility.
The new pastor called by the congregation was Rev. William Pressly Grier, Jr. He arrived in Rock Hill in September 1948 with a young family and an enthusiasm for new programs and activities. The first Christian Education Director was hired, and a new emphasis was placed on youth ministry. A Boy Scout program was begun in 1949, and a Scout Hut was later built to support this strong ministry of the church. Rev. Grier led in efforts to begin Presbytery level youth retreats and conferences. A repair and renovation program was undertaken in the church sanctuary during the early 1950s. As Rock Hill grew and began to expand in the post-war building boom, the need for a second church of the denomination was recognized. Under the leadership of Rev. Grier and the Session of our church, a daughter church was organized. Rogers Memorial Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church was begun in 1952 with a core group from First A.R.P. In 1963, Rev. Grier resigned to become pastor of the Mooresville A.R.P. Church.
The third minister was Henry Lewis Smith. A new building program was underway almost immediately. The addition included a new Fellowship Hall and kitchen, nursery rooms, and additional classrooms. A highlight of Rev. Smith's ministry was an exchange with a Scottish pastor in the summer of 1965. Rev. John Maclean came to Rock Hill and delighted the people with his friendliness and his Scottish brogue. The practice of pulpit exchanges has been repeated in recent years. While in Rock Hill, Rev. Smith married Anna Elizabeth Lynn. In January 1966, the congregation was shocked to hear that Rev. Smith had resigned to accept the pastorate of a new congregation in Florida.
The fourth minister to serve the congregation began his services in January 1967. Rev. Robert J. Robinson and his wife Mary came to Rock Hill from the New Sterling A.R.P. Church in Iredell County, N.C. Several building programs have taken place during the ministry of Bob Robinson. Between 1980 and 1982, the entire church facility was renovated and improved. The Visions for Growth project in the early 1990s resulted in the largest expansion project in the church's history. An adjacent furniture store was acquired and renovated to include a new fellowship hall, kitchen, rest rooms, and music suite. A new gymnasium was built to the rear of the property, creating a courtyard with a large playground. The old fellowship hall area was converted to additional classrooms and nursery spaces.
The church has also experienced a significant expansion in ministries. These include local outreach ministries, a greatly expanded music ministry, youth programs, and a full athletic program. Supporting these ministries is a full professional staff. During Bob Robinson's ministry, the church had its first full-time Associate Ministers, including Rev. Barry Dagenhart (1982-1986), and Rev. Robert B. Elliott, III (1992-1995). Special ministries have included First ARP Play School, the HARPs (a senior group), and a Girl Scout program.
In October of 2000 Dr. Robinson announced his plans to retire in January of 2001. On January 24, 2001 Bob and Mary Robinson were honored with a Retirement Dinner and Celebration. Dr. Robinson preached his last sermon at First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church on January 28, 2001 ending 34 years of dedication and service as pastor of First A.R.P. At a congregational meeting following the service, January 28 was declared Dr. Robert J. Robinson Day and he was named Pastor Emeritus. Dr. Robert J. Blumer assumed the duty of interim pastor on February 1, 2001. A Pulpit Nominating Committee was formed and efforts were begun to find a new minister.
On August 16, 2001, Dr. J. Barry Dagenhart was called to be Minister of First A.R.P. in Rock Hill and began work in September 2001. His Installation Service was held on the evening of November 11, 2001.
This historical information was provided by Paul Gettys, author of The Centennial History: First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Rock Hill, South Carolina.