FREE CHURCH FEDERATION, a voluntary association of British Nonconformist churches for co-operation in religious, social and civil work. It was the outcome of a unifying tendency displayed during the latter part of the 19th century. About 1890 the proposal that there should be a Nonconformist Church Congress analogous to the Anglican Church Congress was seriously considered, and the first was held in Manchester on the 7th of November 1892. In the following year it was resolved that the basis of representation should be neither personal (as in the Anglican Church Congress) nor denominational, but territorial. England and Wales have since been completely covered with a network of local councils, each of which elects its due proportion of representatives to the national gathering. This territorial arrangement eliminated all sectarian distinctions, and also the possibility of committing the different churches as such to any particular policy. The representatives of the local councils attend not as denominationalists but as Evangelical Free Churchmen. The name of the organization was changed from Congress to National Council as soon as the assembly ceased to be a fortuitous concourse of atoms, and consisted of duly appointed representatives from the local councils of every part of England. The local councils consist of representatives of the Congregational and Baptist Churches, the Methodist Churches, the Presbyterian Church of England, the Free Episcopal Churches, the Society of Friends, and such other Evangelical Churches as the National Council may at any time admit. The constitution states the following as the objects of the National Council: (a) To facilitate fraternal intercourse and co-operation among the Evangelical Free Churches; (b) to assist in the organization of local councils; (c) to encourage devotional fellowship and mutual counsel concerning the spiritual life and religious activities of the Churches; (d) to advocate the New Testament doctrine of the Church, and to defend the rights of the associated Churches; (e) to promote the application of the law of Christ in every relation of human life. Although the objects of the Free Church councils are thus in their nature and spirit religious rather than political, there are occasions on which action is taken on great national affairs. Thus a thorough-going opposition was offered to the Education Act of 1902, and whole-hearted support accorded to candidates at the general election of 1906 who pledged themselves to altering that measure.
A striking feature of the movement is the adoption of the parochial system for the purpose of local work. Each of the associated churches is requested to look after a parish, not of course with any attempt to exclude other churches, but as having a special responsibility for those in that area who are not already connected with some existing church. Throughout the United Kingdom local councils are formed into federations, some fifty in number, which are intermediate between them and the national council. The local councils do what is possible to prevent overlapping and excessive competition between the churches. They also combine the forces of the local churches for evangelistic and general devotional work, open-air services, efforts on behalf of Sunday observance, and the prevention of gambling. Services are arranged in connexion with workhouses, hospitals and other public institutions. Social work of a varied character forms a large part of the operations of the local councils, and the Free Church Girls' Guild has a function similar to that of the Anglican Girls' Friendly Society. The national council engages in mission work on a large scale, and a considerable number of periodicals, hymn-books for special occasions, and works of different kinds explaining the history and ideals of the Evangelical Free Churches have been published. The churches represented in the National Council have 9966 ministers, 55,828 local preachers, 407,991 Sunday-school teachers, 3,416,377 Sunday scholars, 2,178,221 communicants, and sitting accommodation for 8,555,460.
A remarkable manifestation of this unprecedented reunion was the fact that a committee of the associated churches prepared and published a catechism expressing the positive and fundamental agreement of all the Evangelical Free Churches on the essential doctrines of Christianity (see The Contemporary Review, January 1899). The catechism represents substantially the creed of not less than 80,000,000 Protestants. It has been widely circulated throughout Great Britain, the British Colonies and the United States of America, and has also been translated into Welsh, French and Italian.
The movement has spread to all parts of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Jamaica, the United States of America and India. It is perhaps necessary to add that it differs essentially from the Evangelical Alliance, inasmuch as its unit is not an individual, private Christian, but a definitely organized and visible Church. The essential doctrine of the movement is a particular doctrine of churchmanship which, as explained in the catechism, regards the Lord Jesus Christ as the sole and Divine Head of every branch of the Holy Catholic Church throughout the world. For this reason those who do not accept the deity of Christ are necessarily excluded from the national council and its local constituent councils.
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