At the time of John Wesley's visit in July 1784 Burnley was still a small country town. During the 19th century it grew into a busy industrial town of 110,000 inhabitants.
The earliest references to local Methodism are found in 1763 and 1775. Soon after Wesley's visit a society existed and had built the first chapel, said to have been in the neighbourhood of Lane Bridge. This was replaced in 1788 by one on Keighley Green, in the face of local opposition. Burnley was at that time in the Colne Circuit and did not become the head of a separate circuit until 1810.
In 1833 the Keighley Green society was split by a secession of a hundred of its members, who joined the Protestant Methodists the following year. Despite this, the Wesleyan society grew fast enough for it to build a larger chapel, 'Wesley', in Hargeaves Street, opened on17 July 1840 and seating 1,600. The Keighley Green chapel was sold the following year. A Sunday School building was added in July 1852 at the junction of Red Lion Street and Parker Lane.
As part of its social outreach Wesley gave rise to a 'Benevolent Society for the relief of the Industrious Poor', a 'Dorcas Society' providing clothing for the needy and a 'Friendly Sick Society', as well as a Tract Society.Samuel Chadwick, a future President of the Conference, grew up in Back Hammerton Street and is comemorated by a plaque at Central Church.
Primitive Methodism reached Burnley in 1823, meeting in rented rooms until a chapel was built in Curzon Street in 1834 which housed the society until replaced by a larger chapel called Bethel, opened in Hammerton Street in June 1852 Improvements to Bethel and its seating were made in 1871 and 1880, electric lighting was installed in1896 and the organ replaced in 1901. In the early years of the new century a flourishing branch of the Band of Hope met there. But following Methodist Union in 1932, at a time when there was a dispersion from central Burnley into the suburbs, Bethel closed and was sold to the Christian Scientists. Rehoboth, another PM chapel whose name derived from the Bible (Genesis 26:18-22) was opened in December 1869 in a still rural area to the north of the town. It survived Methodist Union, but closed in 1953.
Curzon Street was taken over from the Primitive Methodists by the Wesleyan Reformers., successors to the Protestant Methodists from Keighley Green, but only until 1855 when the chapel was put up for sale . It was replaced by what became known as Brunswick Chapel, opened in September 1869 in Market Street (now Manchester Road). By then it had become part of the United Methodist Free Churches, which in turn was one of the three denominations joining forces to form theUnited Methodist Church in 1907. Brunswick had among its ministers both Silas and Joseph Hocking, well-known novelists in their day. It eventually closed in September 1962, despite a membership of about 200, its members joining those of Wesley and Fulledge Churches to form a united congregation.
Brunswick was sold and became the site of commercial premises. On the site of Wesley a new building, Central Methodist Church, was opened in April 1967. In addition to Sunday worship, this provides a coffee bar open to the public during the week and for a wide range of community activities. The church has moved on from being a gathered church for well-off Methodists to being a mission in the town centre. It runs a Job Club in association with the Job Centre next door, a debt advice service, trauma counselling, addiction support, and cell groups for those seeking faith in Jesus.
John Wesley's Journal:
July 1784: 'I wen to Burnley, a place which had been tried for many years, but without effect. It seems the time was now come. High and low, rich and poor, now flocked together from all quarters; and all were eager to hear, except one man who was the town-crier. He began to bawl amain, till his wife ran to him and literally stopped his noise: she seized him with one hand and clapped the other upon his mouth, so that he could not get out one word. God then began a work which I am persuaded will not soon come to an end.'
April 1788: '…A multitude of people were waiting; but we had no house that could contain them. Just then the rain ceased, so we went into the inn yard, which contaied them well; and it was an acceptable season, as indeed it was both the times before when I preached at Burnley.'