Thomas Coke

Thomas Coke

Thomas Coke (September 9, 1747 – May 2, 1814) was the first Methodist Bishop and is known as the Father of Methodist Missions.

Born in Brecon, south Wales, his father was a well-to-do apothecary. Coke, who was only 5 foot and 1 inch tall and prone to being overweight, read Jurisprudence at Jesus College, Oxford, which has a strong Welsh tradition, graduating Bachelor of Arts, then Master of Arts in 1770, and Doctor of Civil Law in 1775. On returning to Brecon he served as Mayor in 1772.

In the same year as his mayoralty he was ordained in the Church of England and served a curacy at South Petherton in Somerset. He had already allied himself with the Methodist movement and this made for trouble when a new Rector arrived in the parish. Coke had begun to hold cottage services and open services of the sort promoted by Wesley. He was dismissed from his post on Easter Sunday 1777 and his parishioners celebrated at the Rector’s behest by ringing the church bells and opening a hogshead of cider. He returned to Petherton in 1807 and preached to a crowd of 2,000.

He met John Wesley in August 1776, becoming one of his closest assistants. Wesley called Coke “the flea” because he seemed always to be hopping around on his missions.

He was appointed Superintendent of the London District in 1780 and President of the Methodist Church in Ireland in 1782 – a function he was to serve many times in the coming decades.

Following the American Revolution most of the Anglican clergy who had been in America came back to England. Wesley asked the Bishop of London to ordain some ministers for the New World, but he declined. At this point Wesley was still an Anglican and he therefore considered only a canonically consecrated bishop capable of conferring Holy Orders. However, in 1784 Wesley consecrated Coke as the Superintendent, a title soon replaced by that of Bishop (Greek episkope) in spite of Wesley’s strong disapproval. Since Coke was already a priest (Greek presbuter) or presbyter in the Church of England, some interpret this consecration as the equivalent of episcopal consecration. He set sail for New York; during the voyage he read Augustine’s Confessions, Virgil’s Georgics, biographies of Francis Xavier (Jesuit missionary to India) and David Brainerd (Puritan missionary to North American aboriginals), and a treatise on episcopacy. A conference of Methodist preachers was held at Baltimore at which Coke and Francis Asbury were elected bishops and the Church was constituted as an independent body under the name of the Methodist Episcopal Church. On 27 December 1784 Coke ordained deacons and presbyters and consecrated Asbury bishop: they are regarded as having been jointly the first Bishops and Superintendents of the Methodist Church in America (the American Conference formally endorsed the title of Bishop in 1787).

Coke returned to England in June 1785 and made eight further visits to America until he made his final visit in 1803. While in America he spoke out against slavery and wrote a letter on the subject to George Washington. Washington met Coke twice and even invited him to preach before the United States Congress. After spending some months travelling throughout Great Britain and Ireland Coke made his first mission to the West Indies in 1786, making further visits in 1788-89, 1790, and 1792-93.

Following Wesley’s death in 1791 Coke became Secretary to the English Conference, having been widely supposed to be Wesley’s desired successor. He was President of the Conference in 1797 and 1805, on both occasions trying to persuade the Conference to confer on him the official title of Bishop.

In the same year he went to Paris and preached in French. He established a mission in Gibraltar in 1803 and then spent five years travelling in the cause of Methodist missions, including visiting Sierra Leone. He promoted others in setting up missions in Canada and Scotland.

In 1805, at the age of 58, Coke married Penelope Smith, a wealthy lady who happily spent her personal fortune furthering the missions. She travelled with him until her death. In 1811 he married for a second time and his wife died the following year.He hoped to open Methodist missions in the East Indies and at his own expense he set sail for Ceylon on 30 December 1813. He had in fact tried to persuade the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, to appoint him to an Indian bishopric in the Church of England (the appointment of Church of England bishops being then, as now, a prerogative exercised by the Prime Minister on behalf of the Sovereign). However, Coke died after four months at sea on the way to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Asbury described Coke as “a gentleman, a scholar, a bishop to us; and as a minister of Christ, in zeal, in labours, in services, the greatest man in the last century.”Coke’s publications included a Commentary of the Bible (1807), A History of the West Indies (3 volumes, 1808–11), History of the BibleSix Letters in Defence of the Doctrine of Justification by FaithFour Discourses on the Duties of a Minister, and a Preacher’s Manual, as well as, jointly with collaborators, a Life of Wesley (1792). 

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