The title given in England and Wales to religious bodies, previously known as Dissenters or nonconformists, that are not in communion with the Church of England or the Catholic Church. The term came into common use late in the 19th century and generally refers to the Methodists, English Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians, Churches of Christ, Plymouth Brethren, various Pentecostal sects, and, recently, Mormons. During the 19th century, Nonconformists agitated for disestablishment and promoted the principle of voluntaryism which held that the church ought to be spiritually independent of the state, that establishment of any one denomination was unjust to all others, and that state endowment of any religion must be rejected as a corrupting influence. In 1892, under the leadership of the Methodist Hugh Price Hughes and the Baptist John Clifford, a National Free Church Council was established in Manchester. It was intended to be a loose association of local councils and at its annual meeting a wide range of theological and religious questions were to be discussed. The efforts of J. H. Shakespeare of the Baptist Union led to the founding of the Federal Council of Evangelical Free Churches (1919), which excluded Unitarians and allotted representation on the basis of each denomination's membership. These two bodies united as the Free Church Federal Council (1940). Most Free Church bodies also joined with the established Churches of England and Scotland in the British Council of Churches (1942). The influence of the Free Churches in public and religious affairs of England has tended to decline with their numbers.
Bibliography: h. davies, The English Free Churches (New York 1952). e. k. h. jordan, Free Church Unity (London 1956). f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957) 526–527, 963.