Methodism is inextricably linked with the industrial expansion and economic prosperity of the town. In 1801 Barrow was a tiny fishing village and farming community, but the discovery of large deposits of haematite in the neighbourhood and the opening of the Furness Railway led to the development of iron, steel and shipbuilding industries, as well as deep-water harbour facilities. In 1851 the population was 4,684; by 1861 it was 22,513, and by 1871 had become 40,343. Expansion peaked in 1951 at 76,619.
Methodism reflected this population explosion. Wesleyan services were begun in 1855 through the efforts of Ulverston and Dalton local preachers. The Ulverston WM circuit records show Barrow with a membership of two in 1856 and in 1862 a chapel was opened in Hindpool Road, with the first of several extensions added in 1868. In December 1869, the membership stood at 130 and a separate Barrow Circuit was formed in 1871. A Wesleyan day and Sunday School was opened in Dalston Road in 1868. Classes in navigation, nautical astronomy and other subjects required by the Board of Trade were held in the day school, which at its peak in the 1870s had over 500 scholars. Economic depression in the 1890s led to many non-Cumbrians leaving Barrow as quickly as they had arrived. Nevertheless, Abbey Road WM Church was completely rebuilt during that decade and the King’s Hall WM Mission opened in Hartington Street on 12 September 1907.Seating 1,040, it was used for numerous public as well as church events and, like many Central Hall Missions, operated as a separate circuit.
Primitive Methodism also expanded rapidly in the later 1860s as PMs from other parts of Britain moved into the area. During 1865 the Kendal PM Circuit launched a mission in Ulverston, with Robert Robinson as minister in Barrow. Forshaw Street chapel was built in 1866 and Barrow became a separate circuit. Over the next decade several nearby villages appear in the circuit records and Hartington Street (1874) and Marsh Street (1875) chapels were built in the town. However, the PM cause in Barrow suffered setbacks from over-ambitious building schemes and financial mismanagement, with scant support from the Connexion. The situation was compounded by the economic downturn of the 1890s, when hundreds of active Primitive Methodists left Barrow, many returning to their home districts. But the Forshaw Street congregation managed to rebuild its town centre premises in 1896.
The arrival of large numbers of Cornish workers in south-west Cumbria led to the establishment of Bible Christian societies by Richard Kelley, helped by a Mission to Cumbria in 1871. Several sites were acquired, but one of the few chapels built was at Barrow (1876). By 1880 a separate Millom Circuit with 200 members had been formed, leaving the remaining Barrow and Dalton Circuit with 190 members. A Barrow and Durham BC District was also created, but the lack of work in the 1890s caused many of the Cornish to leave. A 1905 revival added over 100 new members to the BC churches of Barrow, Dalton and Millom, all of which survived until the 1907 Union which produced the United Methodist Church.
Apart from Barrow-in-Furness, the Methodist New Connexion made little impact in Cumbria. The developing iron industry brought people, including some MNC members, from the Midlands, especially from the Dudley area. They formed a mission in the Hindpool part of the town in 1872, meetings being held in cottages, and sometimes in the open air. The Mission grew rapidly: by October 1872 there was a Sunday School of 150 scholars and the same year the foundation stones of Christ Church were laid. This impressive complex of buildings, comprising a church seating almost 1,000, a large schoolroom, lecture hall and smaller rooms, was built at the junction of Abbey Road and Dalkeith Street in the town centre, on a site gifted by the Duke of Devonshire. It soon became the strongest nonconformist congregation in Barrow.
Another impressive set of premises was built in 1894 by the Storey Square congregation of the United Methodist Free Churches, on the site of its 1874 premises, also known as Allison Street. At the time of the 1907 Union, Christ Church (MNC) joined with Storey Square (UMFC), Roose Road (BC) and Broughton Road, Dalton (BC) to form the new United Methodist Church Circuit.
Following the 1932 Methodist Union, further amalgamations and closures took place, while in World War II 11 of the 13 Methodist chapels in Barrow suffered damage by enemy action. In October 1939 members of Christ Church had begun a Sunday School in the developing Beacon Hill area . In May 1941 the Christ Church buildings were so severely damaged that they could no longer be used. In 1946 a new society, comprised mainly of members from Christ Church and Forshaw Street (ex-PM) was established to serve the Beacon Hill and New Barns estates and in 1956 a new Christ Church (Beacon Hill) was built with war damage money, with a school hall added in 1963. In the town centre the King’s Hall congregation merged with that of the nearby Hartington Street church in 1951 and in 1953 Greengate Street (ex-WM, built 1876; rebuilt 1904) merged with Storey Square (ex-UMFC) and Marsh Street (ex-PM) to form Central Methodist Church (which closed on 1 September 1996). In 1991 Abbey and Hawcoat Methodist Churches and Emmanuel United Reformed Church came together to form Trinity Church Centre. The South-West Cumbria United Area of Methodist and URC churches came into existence in September 2010 as a pioneering Local Ecumenical Partnership of twelve churches.