The club was formed as Christ Church Football Club in 1874, and adopted its current name in 1877. Founder members of the Football League in 1888, Bolton have spent the highest number of seasons of any club in the top flight without winning the title (the 2011–12 season was their 73rd, non-consecutive, year in the top flight). The closest they have come to the title is third in the First Division on three occasions (1891–92, 1920–21 and 1924–25). As of 2015, the club has spent more seasons in the top division than any other club outside the current Premier League.
Bolton were a successful cup side in the 1920s, winning the FA Cup three times. The club won the cup a fourth time in 1958. A leaner spell followed, reaching a nadir in 1987 when the club spent a season in the Fourth Division. The club regained top-flight status in 1995 after a 15-year absence. In a period of relative success, the club qualified for the UEFA Cup twice, reaching the last 32 in 2005–06 and the last 16 in 2007–08.
The club played at Burnden Park for 102 years from 1895. On 9 March 1946, The Burnden Park disaster occurred, which was a human crush in which 33 Bolton fans lost their lives. In 1997 it moved out of town to the Reebok Stadium, named after long-term club sponsor Reebok. The stadium was renamed the Macron Stadium in July 2014, to reflect the club's new deal with Italian sportswear company Macron.
The club was founded by the Reverend Joseph Farrall Wright, Perpetual curate of Christ Church Bolton and Thomas Ogden, the schoolmaster at the adjacent church school in 1874 as Christ Church F.C. It was initially run from the church of the same name on Deane Road, Bolton, on the site where the Innovation factory of the University of Bolton now stands. The club left the location following a dispute with the vicar, and changed its name to Bolton Wanderers in 1877. The name was chosen as the club initially had a lot of difficulty finding a permanent ground to play on, having used three venues in its first four years of existence.
Bolton were one of the 12 founder members of the Football League, which formed in 1888. At the time Lancashire was one of the strongest footballing regions in the country, with 6 of the 12 founder clubs coming from within the boundaries of the historic county of Lancashire. Having remained in the Football League since its formation, Bolton have spent more time in the top flight (Premier League/old First Division) than out of it.