South East Lancashire and East Cheshire, with their large parishes, dispersed settlements and residual Puritanism, were fertile fields for the early Methodist preachers, notably John Bennet who was active here in the 1740s. Following his break with John Wesley in 1751, a WM circuit based on Manchester was created. This embraced the two counties and beyond and was progressively subdivided. The industrial revolution gave Methodism great opportunities as the population grew. Chapels were opened in Manchester and Liverpool in 1751, but West Lancashire, with its ancestral Catholicism, poor communications and lack of industry, remained something of a Methodist backwater for many years.
From the 1750s John Wesley paid annual visits, usually travelling north from the Potteries. Oldham Street Chapel, Manchester, opened in 1781, rivalled Wesley's Chapel, London in size and opulence; but Methodism was also successful in rural Cheshire and the growing mill towns. In the nineteenth century all branches of Methodism were active there, but WM was dominant except in Rochdale, a stronghold of the WMA, and Ashton-under-Lyne, where the MNC was largest. PM was strong in rural Cheshire and mining areas. Manchester was the centre of the WMA agitation in 1834 and the scene of the expulsion of William Griffith, James Everett and Samuel Dunn at the Conference of 1849. Warrington was the cradle of Independent Methodism in 1796 and industrial Lancashire has remained an IM heartland.
Didsbury College was established in Manchester in 1842, followed by Victoria Park UMFC College in 1872 and the PM (later Hartley) College in 1881. In 1883-86 Oldham Street chapel was replaced by Methodism's first purpose-built Central Hall. This was the nucleus of the Manchester and Salford Mission which flourished under Samuel Collier and claimed the largest regular Methodist congregation in the world at the Free Trade Hall. Prior to this the first Central Mission had been established in Liverpool, but not in special premises. After 1850 Blackpool and Southport became strong centres.
In 1851 the Religious Census recorded 932 Methodist places of worship in the two counties (including WM 496, PM 238 and WMA 133). By 1989 there were 807 churches serving a much larger population. Total attendances recorded in 1851 were 266,628 (10.7% of the population; significantly higher in Cheshire than in Lancashire). In 1989 adult worshippers averaged 1.3% of the population, again higher in Cheshire than in the conurbations.