John Wesley must have passed through frequently after the Great North Road was diverted through the town in 1766. According to local tradition he addressed a rowdy crowd in the market square in 1779 and another visit is recorded in his Journal in 1786.
Local traditions on the earliest society and chapel in the town vary. The first society is said to have been formed in 1776 either by a Scottish cattle drover or by John Macfarlane, a navvy working on the Retford and Chesterfield canal. In 1779 Macfarlane promised Wesley that he would build a chapel. This was built in Rosemary Lane in 1788. But another account speaks of a chapel in Spa Lane being registered in 1781. Originally in the Epworth Circuit, Retford became the head of its own circuit in 1802. In 1822 a larger chapel, flanked by preachers' houses, was erected in Grove Street for a membership of 250 in a circuit of 820. This was replaced on the same site by the present chapel in 1880. Other chapels were opened in Albert Road (1898) and at Ordsall.
PM missionaries from Nottingham arrived in 1819 and within two years Retford was the centre of a new circuit. Temporary premises were replaced in 1841 by the purchase of a Georgian theatre in Carolgate, dubbed, following alterations, the 'Swingboat' Chapel. With an average congregation of 270 this was replaced on the same site in 1870.A Countess of Huntingdon chapel was built privately in Chapel gate in 1795, but soon foundered. Following Congregationalist use, in 1851 a newly-formed WR society (head of yet another Retford Circuit) moved in. It became UMFC and was rebuilt in 1879.
John Wesley's Journal:
June 1786: 'I preached … in the evening at Retford, on "I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God." '