Free Church of Scotland (known since 1900 as the UNITED FREE CHURCH), an ecclesiastical organization in Scotland which includes (1908) more than 500,000 of the 1,200,000 inhabitants of that country professing adherence to Presbyterian principles. The existence of the Free Church as a separate ecclesiastical body dates from 1843, when a large number of members, both lay and clerical, of the Established Church of Scotland, severed their connection with that body as a protest against the encroachment of the civil power on the independence of the Church, especially in the matter of presentation to vacant benefices.
According to the Free-Church view, the Church of Scotland, from the date of its inception in 1560, upon the overthrow of the old religion, had possessed the inherent right of exercising her spiritual jurisdiction through her elected assembly, absolutely free of any interference by the civil power. Such an independence had been asserted by her first leaders, Knox and Melville, and especially laid down and claimed in both her first and second books of discipline, issued in 1560 and 1581. The restoration of “prelacy” (the episcopal form of church government) in 1606 by James I, the revival of the self-governing powers of the Assembly in 1649, its subsequent suspension under Cromwell in 1653 and again after the Restoration, the Revolution settlement in 1690, and the Act of Queen Anne in 1712 reestablishing the system of private patronage in the Presbyterian Church, were the principal crises, now favorable, now the reverse, to the cherished principles of spiritual independence, through which the Church passed during the first century and a half of its existence. Throughout the eighteenth century a party within the Church continued to protest against civil interference with her rights, especially as regarded patronage; but at the same time there grew up the ecclesiastical party known as Moderates, who in this and other questions displayed an indifference towards state encroachments which more than neutralized the sentiments of the more fervent section. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the latter was strengthened by the growing force of so-called “Evangelicalism”, which was sweeping over Scotland as well as England. The views of the two parties, the Evangelical and the Moderate, became more and more opposed, the final result being the “Ten Years’ Conflict” between them, which ended in the triumph of the former, and in the passing by the General Assembly, in 1834, of the famous “Veto Act”. This act asserted (or rather reasserted, for the principle had often been declared in previous Assemblies) that it was a fundamental law of the Church that no pastor should be intruded upon a congregation contrary to the popular will, and that any presentee to a living should be rejected on the dissent of a majority of the heads of families. This direct blow at the rights of private patrons was soon challenged in the civil courts, and was ultimately decided (in 1838), in the famous Auchterarder case, against the Church. The decision immediately elicited from the Assembly a still clearer and more outspoken declaration of the independence of the Church; and when it was finally confirmed by the House of Lords, in 1839, the Assembly resolved to transmit to the sovereign, through the Lord High Commissioner who presided over its proceedings, a “claim, declaration, and protest” complaining of the encroachment of the civil power, and praying for the abolition of patronage. An unfavorable answer was received, and in response to a petition submitted to the House of Commons, that body refused any redress of the grievances complained of. Accordingly, at the next meeting of the General Assembly, 396 members, afterwards increased to 474, withdrew in a body, and constituted the first Assembly of the new Free Church, under Dr. Thomas Chalmers as moderator, The ministers and professors adhering to the newly constituted body publicly renounced all claim to the benefices which they had held in the Established Church, thus surrendering an annual income of upwards of £100,000.
A sustentation fund was at once inaugurated for the new organization, and nearly £400,000 was subscribed for the erection of churches in the first year after the “Disruption”, as it came to be called. Colleges for the training of the clergy were subsequently built at large cost in Edinburgh and Aberdeen; manses (residences for the ministers) were erected at a cost of a quarter of a million; and an equal or larger amount was expended on the building of congregational schools. After the passing of the Education Act of 1872 most of these schools were voluntarily transferred by the Free Church to the newly established school-boards.
The Free Church never professed to adopt any new article of faith, to inaugurate any new ritual, or originate any new principle of doctrine or discipline. She claimed to represent the Presbyterian Church of the country enjoying its full spiritual independence, and freed from the undue encroachment of the State; but it did not abandon the principle of establishment, or give up the view that Church and State ought to be in intimate alliance. This raised the difficulty in the way of its union with the United Presbyterians, the next most numerous and important body of seceders from the Establishment, and for many years rendered all negotiations for such union abortive. In 1876, however, another dissenting body, known as the Cameronians, or Reformed Presbyterians, joined the Free Church, and, possibly under the stimulus of this achievement, negotiations were renewed for union with the U. P.’s, as they were familiarly called. These proved finally successful, and the union between the U. P.’s and the Free Church became an accomplished fact on October 31, 1900. A small minority of Free Churchmen resisted the fusion of the two bodies, and these (the “Wee Frees”, as they were nicknamed) were successful in the Scottish Courts in claiming, as the original Free Church, nearly all the buildings erected by the body during the previous fifty-seven years. This anomaly, however, was rectified by a subsequent Act of Parliament (following on a Royal Commission) which permitted the “Wee Frees” to retain only such churches and other edifices as were proportionate to the small number of their adherents.
The well-wishers of the new United Free Church are naturally looking forward to an enlarged field of influence and a wider scope of activity, both at home and in the mission-field. What must, however, fill with anxiety every friend of Scottish Christianity who studies the teaching of this body, both in its training colleges and in its pulpits, is the spirit of rationalism by which it is becoming more and more pervaded. A generation has passed away since its most brilliant member, William Robertson Smith, was summarily removed from his professorial chair at Aberdeen on account of his latitudinarian views as expressed in his published articles. The “higher criticism” in the Free Church of today, largely based as it is on the rationalizing influence of German Protestant theology, goes far beyond the “heresies and errors” for which Smith was indicted thirty years ago. It is hardly too much to say that the modern Free Churchman is really not a Christian at all, in the Catholic sense of that word. The United Free Church, by the rearrangement of its two constituent bodies, has now (1908) twelve synods and twenty-four presbyteries. Its supreme court is the General Assembly, which meets every May in Edinburgh. According to the latest statistics, the total membership of the body is about 504,000, divided into 1623 congregations. 244,000 scholars, taught by 26,000 teachers, frequent the Sunday Schools, which number 2400. Some 300 agents from Scotland, and nearly 4000 native pastors and teachers, are employed in foreign mission work, and the whole income of the Church, at the close of the last financial year, was estimated at £1,029,000.