The first Methodist preacher to visit Lisburn was George Whitefield who came north from Dublin in July 1751. The following year the first Irish Conference decided that Lisburn should be one of four Irish venues, the only one in the north of Ireland, in which quarterly meetings would be held. John Wesley made the first of many visits in July 1756. The first Methodist preaching house was erected in 1772.
Wesley formed significant friendships with the Gayers in nearby Derriaghy, and their daughter Mary of Lambeg House, about two miles from Lisburn.
On Wesley's penultimate visit to Lisburn in 1787 he visited Lambeg House. Tradition has it that on this visit he demonstrated his hope that the Methodist Connexion and the Church of Ireland should become one, by intertwining two beech saplings which have since grown together to form two interlocking beech trees. Because of this tradition it was at Lambeg House, now called Chrome Hill, that the Covenant between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland was signed on 26 September 2002.
The leaders in the Lisburn Society were not slow in voicing their opinions on matters which were dividing Methodism following Wesley's death. In 1795 their memorial to the Irish Conference requesting that the Sacraments be administered in Methodist preaching houses was rejected. Another memorial in 1798, requesting that there should belay representation to the Conference, was refused and was described as rebelliousness of spirit, founded on the principles of Jacobinism. The 32 leaders were expelled from the Methodist Connexion, formed a new society and soon afterwards became the first of several Irish congregations to be affiliated to the Methodist New Connexion.
The preaching house of 1772 served the congregation for about 100 years. In 1875 it was replaced by the present church, built on an elevated site in Seymour Street. A few years later a manse was built on an adjacent site.
John Wesley's Journal:
July 1756: 'I preached in the market-house at seven. One man only gainsayed; but the bystanders used him so roughly that he was soon glad to hold his peace.
[Next day]: 'The rector, with his curate, called upon me, candidly proposed their objections, and spent about two hours in free, serious, friendly conversation. How much evil might be prevented or removed would other clergymen follow their example!'
[Three days later] 'In the evening I spoke very plain at Lisburn, both to the great vulgar and the small. But between Seceders, old self-conceited Presbyterians, New Light men, Moravians, Cameronians, and formal Churchmen, it is a miracle of miracles if any here bring forth fruit to perfection.'
May 1758: 'Abundance of people attended the preaching in the evening as well as in the morning.'
May 1760: 'The people here (as Mr. Boston said) are "all ear"; but who can find a way to their heart?'
April 1762: '… in the evening I had many rich and genteel hearers.
[Next day, Sunday]: The congregation was larger in the morning than the evening before, and many appeared to be deeply wounded. Oh may none heal their wound slightly! But far the largest congregation of all met in the evening; and yet I saw not a scoffer, no, nor trifler, aming them.'
May 1765: 'I rode on to Lisburn, and in the evening preached in the market-house. The wind was as keen as in December; yet a large congregation attended. I then met what was left of the society; and the spirit of many that were faint revived.
[Next day] 'I preached in the room at five, which had been discontinued for three years. And this alone would account for the scattering of the people, and the deadness of them that remained. In the evening I preached in the Linen Hall, so called, a large square, with piazzas on three sides of it. And so deep an attention I never saw in the people of Lisburn before.
[Next day, Sunday] 'For the sake of the country people I delayed the morning preaching till half an hour past nine. At eleven the church service began, and we had a useful sermon on "Follow peace with all men, and holiness." At five I preached in the Linen Hall again to a numerous congregation, on "Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord." '
March 1767: 'At six I preached in the Linen Hall (a small square so called), as also the two following evenings. We had many people of fashion there, and the congregation increased continually.'
April 1769: 'The wind was still piercing cold; yet it did not hinder a multitude of people from attending at the linen-hall - an open square so termed, as are all the linen-halls in Ireland.'
June 1773: 'I preached in the evening at Lisburn. All the time I could spare here was taken up by poor patients…'
June 1778: 'At eleven our brethren flocked to Lisburn from all parts, whom I strongly exhorted, in the apostle's words, to "walk worthy of the Lord." At the lovefeast which followed we were greatly comforted, many of the country people declaring with all simplicity, and yet with great propriety both of sentiment and expression, what God had done for their souls.'
June 1785: 'At six I preached in the Presbyterian meeting, a large and commodious building; and I was now with the most lively society that I have seen for many days; owing chiefly to the good providence of God bringing sister Johnson hither…
[Next day, Sunday]: 'We had a solemn opportunity in the morning. In the afternoon, as no building could contain the people, I stood abroad and proclaimed, "There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth…" The hearers (allowing five persons to a square yard) were seven or eight thousand.'
June 1787 [Sunday]: 'In the afternoon I preached in the linen-hall at Lisburn to a still more numerous congregation [than at Belfast]; I think the largest that I have seen since we left England; and all, excepting a few giddy children, behaved as men that heard for life.
[Next day] 'It being the Quarterly Meeting, I preached at eleven in the Presbyterian meeting-house, a large and handsome building, frely offered both by the minister and his elders; and it then contained the congregation. But in the evening the multitude of people constrained me to return to my old stand in the linen-hall; and I have hardly had so solemn an opportunity since we came into the kingdom.'
June 1789: 'In the evening I was at the new chapel at Lisburn, the largest and best finished in the north of Ireland.
[Next day, Sunday]: 'It was well filled at nine We went to church a little before twelve, where the singing was admirably good; the clerk, who teaches them to sing, having been formerly a leader in our society. The day continuing stormy, I could not preach in the street, but we were glad to retreat into the linen-hall. Here was such a congregation as I have not seen since I came into the kingdom; but some things, called gentlemen, were walking to and fro, and talking during the greatest part of the sermon. If these had been poor men, probably they would have had common sense. The meeting of the society which followed, at which we permitted many others to be present, was exceeding solemn. The power of God fell upon many… I did not wonder, therefore, that the room was filled at five, and that we had a parting blessing.'