A strong Puritan tradition contributed to the success of Methodism, from the time of John Bennet's first visits in 1746-47. John Wesley paid at least 24 visits after 1748. A chapel was opened in Acresfield in 1751, where Bennet led a secession following a confrontation with Wesley in 1752. After initial difficulties, the society became one which Wesley held up as an example to the rest of the connexion. A new chapel in Ridgway Gates, which Wesley praised as the most elegant in England, was needed by 1776 and Bolton became the head of a circuit in 1784.
The Barlow family were prominent WM benefactors, providing funds for the first NCH home outside London at Edgeworth, north of the town, and the initial stages of Thomas Champness's Joyful News Mission for training lay evangelists, which began in Bolton in the 1880s. A Central Mission, the Victoria Hall, began in 1897 in the former Ridgway Gates chapel; the Victoria Hall (by J.J. Bradshaw), seating over 2000, opened in 1900 and was modernized in 1968. The work extended to a second mission hall, the King's Hall, also by Bradshaw, opened in 1907, as well as to a drill hall and nearby theatre. The social work included free maternity and sickroom aid.
During the nineteenth century every branch of Methodism established itself in the town - MNC, UMFC, PM, IM, and there was even a BC chapel. The IM Conference met there 13 times up to 1934. In 2014 four local churches, Astley Bridge, Chorley Old Road, Delph Hill and Halliwell, came together to form a single congregation in a new building on the Delph Hill site.
John Wesley's Journal:
August 1748: 'At one I went to the Cross in Bolton. There was a vast number of people, but many of them utterly wild. As soon as I began speaking they began thrusting to and fro, endeavouring to throw me down from the steps on which I stood. They did so once or twice; but I went up again, and continued my discourse. They then began to throw stones; at the same time some got upon the Cross behind me to push me down, at which I could not but observe how God overrules even the minutest circumstances. One man was bawling just at my ear when a stone struck him on the cheek, and he was still. A second was forcing his way down to me, till another stone hit him on the forehead; it bounded back, the blood ran down, and he came no farther. The third, being close to me, stretched out his hand, and in the instant a sharp stone came upon the joints of his fingers; he shook his hand, and was very quiet till I concluded my discourse and went away.'
October 1749: 'We came to Bolton about five in the evening. We had no sooner entered the main street than we perceived the lions at Rochdale were lambs in comparison of those at Bolton. Such rage and bitterness I scarce ever saw before, in any creatures that bore the form of men. They followed us in full cry to the house where we went; and, as soon as we were gone in, took possession of all the avenues to it, and filled the street from one end to the other. After some time the waves did not roar quite so loud. [His companions, Edward Perronet, John Bennet and David Taylor each confronted the mob in turn.] Believing the time was now come, I walked down into the thickest of them. They had now filled all the rooms below. I called for a chair. The winds were hushed, and all was calm and still. My heart was filled with love, my eyes with tears, and my mouth with arguments. They were amazed, they were ashamed, they melted down, they devoured every word. What a turn was this!...
'Abundant more than the house could contain were present at five in the morning, to whom I was constrained to speak a good deal longer than I am accustomed to do. Perceiving they still wanted to hear, I promised to preach again at nine, in a meadow near the town. Thither they flocked from every side; and I called aloud, "All things are ready; come unto the marriage." Oh how have a few hours changed the scene! We could now walk through every street of the town, and none molested or opened his mouth, unless to thank or bless us.'
April 1751: 'By the huge noise which was in the street as we entered Bolton, I conjectured Satan would try his strength once more; but God suffered him not. The mob soon was vanished away, and I had both a numerous and quiet congregation.'
June 1752: 'So hot a day as this I do not remember to have felt in England. The congregation seemed to forget the heat, though the room was like an oven. For it was a comfortable hour - God refreshing many souls with the multitude of peace.
[Next day] 'The house was fuller this evening than the last, while I enforced that gracious invitation, "Come unto Me,, all ye that are weary and heavy laden."
[Sunday] 'After preaching in the evening, I took occasion to tell the whole congregation that there had been a mistake concerning the house which J[ohn] B[ennet] imagined I had contrived to make my own property; but Mr. Grimshaw had now cleared it up, having assured Mr. B. (1) that I knew nothing of the deed relating to the house till after it was made; (2) that I had no property in it still; only a clause was inserted whereby Mr. G., my brother and I were empowered to appoint the preachers therein.'
April 1753: 'I rode to Bolton, and found the society just double what it was when I was here last; and they are increased in grace no less than in number, walking closely with God, lovingly and circumspectly with one another, and wisely toward those that are without,'
April 1755: 'Being now among those who were no "strangers to the covenant of promise," I had no need to lay the foundation again, but exhorted them to "rejoice evermore." Their number is a little reduced since I was here before; and no wonder, while the sons of strife are on every side - some for Mr. Bennet, and some for Mr. Wh---- [Whitefield?]. The little flock, nothwithstanding, hold on their way, looking straight to the prize of their high calling.'
August 1756: 'Though I came unexpected, the house was well filled.'
Charles Wesley's Journal:
October 1756: 'Above forty of this poor shattered people still keep together. Many of those without flocked to the word. In great bodily weakness I warned them to fly to the city of refuge. Tried to calm the spirits oif our children, an we were comforted together through hope of our Lord's appearing…
'Richard Lucas returned from Bolton. Informed me that John Hampson had been scattering his firebrands there also, mocking the people for going to "Old Peg", as his fellows and he call our Church…'
John Wesley's Journal:
April 1761: 'I find few places like this; all disputes are forgot, and the Christians do indeed love one another. When I visited the classes,… I did not find a disorderly walker among them; no, nor a trifler. They appeared to be one and all seriously seeking salvation.'
July 1764: 'About seven I preached in the street at Bolton, to twice or thrice as many as the room would have contained. It was a calm, still evening, and the congregation was as quiet as the season; though composed of awakened and unawakened churchmen, dissenters, and what not. As mnany as the house would well contain were present again at five in the morning. About seven in the evening the multitude of people constrained me to preach in the street, though it rained. But in a very short time the rain stopped, and I strongly enforced our Lord's word, "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth." '
April 1765: 'I rode to Bolton, and, nor being expected, was the more welcome. The house was filled in the evening, and the hearts of many filled with joy and peace in believing.
[Next day, Good Friday] 'Mr. Johnson preached at five; I preached at twelve and at six. What a blessed calm has God at length given to this poor, shattered society! For many years the men of bitter and contentious spirits were harrassing them continually. But they are now sunk into quiet, formal Presbyterians; and those they have left enjoy God and one another.'
April 1766: 'About six I began in the street at Bolton. The wind was then high, and cold enough; but I soon forgot it, and so did most of the people… When I began on Sunday, in the afternoon, the wind was exceeding sharp; but it fell in a few moments, and we had a mild, agreeable summer evening.'
April 1772: 'How wonderfully has God wrought in this place! John Bennet, some years ago, reduced this society from seven score to twelve, and they are now risen to a hundred and seventy.
[Next day, Sunday]: 'I preached at eight to as many as the house would contain, but at noon I was obliged to stand in the street and explain the one thing needful.'
April 1774: 'In the evening I preached at Bolton, to the most lively and most steady people in all these parts.'
April 1777: '…I preached … in the evening at the new house in Bolton, crowded within and without, on the "wise man" qho "built his house upon a rock." Many here are following his example, and continuously increasing both in the knowledge and love of God.'
July 1778: 'The new house here is the most beautiful in the country. It was well filled in the evening, and I believe many of the audience tasted largely of the powers of the world to come while I enlarged upon our Lord's words, "Neither can they die any more; for they are equal to angels, and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection." '
March 1780: 'I went on to Bolton, where the work of God is continually increasing.'
April 1781: 'The society here are true, original Methodists. They are not conformed to the world, either in its maxims, its spirit, or its fashions, but are simple followers of the Lamb; consequently they increase both in grace and number.'
May 1781: 'Bolton, where the people seemed to be on the wing, just ready to take their flight to heaven.'
May 1783: 'I preached … in the evening at Bolton, to a people much alive to God.'
April 1784: 'I think every member of the society at Bolton does take my advice with respect to other things as well as with respect to dress and rising early; in consequence of which they are continually increasing in number as well as in grace.'
April 1785: 'I preached to our old, loving congregation at Bolton.'
April 1786: [Easter |Day] 'I hastened back [from Warrington] to Bolton. The house was crowded the more because of five hundred and fifty children, who are taught in our Sunday Schools. Such an army of them got about me when I came out of the chapel that I could scarce disengage myself from them.'
July 1787: 'Here are eight hundred poor children taught in our Sunday Schols by about eighty masters, who receive no pay but what they are to receive from their Great Master. About a hundred of them (part boys and part girls) are taught to sing; and they sang so true that, all singing together, there seemed to be but one voice. The house was thoroughly filled while I explained and applied the first commandment. What is all morality or religion without this? A mere castle in the air. In the evening, many of the children still hovering round the house, I desired forty or fifty to come in and sing -
Vital spark of heavenly flame.
Although some of them were silent, not being able to sing for tears, yet the harmony was such as I believe could not be equalled in the King's chapel.
[Next day, Sunday]: 'In the morning I met the select society, a lovely company of humble, simple Christians. Several of them appeared to have sound and deep experience of the things of God, and stand steadfast in the liberty wherewith Christ had made them free. The house was at ten full and warm enough. Mr. Horne read prayers, and read them well. I preached on those words in the First Lesson, "How long halt ye between two opinions?" and was enabled to press the question home on the consciences of the hearers. We had five clergymen (although three only could officiate) and twelve or thirteen hundred communicants; and the Master of the feast was in the midst of us, as many found to their unspeakable comfort. After preaching in the evening, I took a solemn leave of the affectionate society. Here, at least, it undeniably appears that we have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain.'
April 1788: 'We went on to Bolton, where I preached in the evening in one of the most elegant houses in the kingdom, and to one of the liveliest congregations. And this I must avow, there is not such a set of singers in any of the Methodist congregations in the three kingdoms. There cannot be; for we have near a hundred such trebles, boys and girls selected out of our Sunday schools, and accurately taught, as are not found together in any chapel, cathedral, or music room within the four seas. Besides, the spirit with which they all sing, and the beauty of many of them, so suits the melody, that I defy any to exceed it; except the singing of angels in our Father's house.
[Next day, Sunday]: 'At eight, and at one, the house was thoroughly filled. About three I met between nine hundred and a thousand of the children belonging to our Sunday schools. I never saw such a sight before. They were all exactly clean, as well as plain, in their apparel. All were serious and well-behaved. Many, both boys and girls, had as beautiful faces as, I believe, England or Europe can afford. When they all sung together, and none of them out of tune, the melody was beyond that of any theatre; and what is best of all, many of them truyly fear God, and some rejoice in His salvation. These are a pattern to all the town. Their usual diversion is to visit the poor that are sick (sometimes six, or eight, or ten together), to exhort, comfort, and pray with them. Frequently, ten or more of them get together to sing and pray by themselves; sometimes thirty or forty….; and are so earnestly engaged, alternately singing, praying, and crying, that they know not how to part.'
April 1790: 'In the evening I preached in the lovely house at Bolton to one of the loveliest congregations in England; who, by patient continuance in well-doing, have turned scorn and hatred into general esteem and good-will.'
The death of Charles Wesley, 29 March 1788:
Samuel Bradburn, the assistant in the City Road circuit, immediately dispatched a letter to Wesley, informing him of his brother's death; but in consequence of its being misdirected, it failed to reach him till April 4, the day before the burial. Wesley was in Macclesfield, and to get to London in time for the funeral was impossible... Wesley had no disposition to tell the deep sorrows of his heart; but that he severely felt the departure of his brother there can be no question. A fortnight afterwards, when at Bolton, he attempted to give out, as his second hymn, the one beginning with the words, 'Come, O Thou Traveller unknown'; but when he came to the lines, My company before is gone, And I am left alone with Thee, the bereaved old man sunk beneath emotion which was uncontrollable, burst into a flood of tears, sat down in the pulpit, and hid his face with his hands. The crowded congregation well knew the cause of his speechless excitement; singing ceased; and the chapel became a Bochim. At length Wesley recovered himself, rose again, and went through a service which was never forgotten by those who were present at it.
Luke Tyerman, Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley, III pp.526-7:
William Ault to Zechariah Taft, 16 November 1810:
'At Bolton there is also a good work, 4 or 500 have been added there the last 2 years, & 100 I an informed since the Conference.'
* Methodist Recorder, 18 March 2010