New College emerged out of the Disruption of 1843, when over a third of the ministers and perhaps half the lay membership left the established Church of Scotland in protest against what they perceived as state efforts to undermine the Church's spiritual independence and integrity. Against all odds, the outgoing clergy and laity formed the Free Church of Scotland as a new national Church, free from state connection and acknowledging only the headship of Christ.
Amid the idealism and fervour aroused by the Disruption, the struggling Free Church founded New College as an institution for educating not simply a learned ministry, but a new Scottish Christian leadership. For a time, New College was envisaged as a free university, a citadel of conscience which would stand against the system of patronage and privilege that for centuries had enabled the Crown and members of the gentry and aristocracy to dominate the religious and intellectual life of the nation.
New College remained an independent church institution for some eight and a half decades - from its beginnings to 1900 as a Free Church College and then from 1900 until the church Union of 1929 as a United Free Church College. It merged with the Faculty of Divinity in 1935.
adapted from text at: http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/divinity/about/history/new-college