The Legacy of Thomas Coke: Father of Methodist Missions, Part 2

|

Continued from The Legacy of Thomas Coke: Father of Methodist Missions, Part 1.

Birth of American Methodism

Wesley, though not supporting this initial missionary effort of Dr. Coke, did have a special assignment that suited his skills and energy in America. Thomas Coke had joined the Methodists at a time of transition. For all of Wesley’s concern about the coldness and formality of the Church of England, he still considered it the greatest national church. 

The Methodist societies were to be a revival movement; members of Methodist societies were still to attend public services and receive the sacraments from the Anglican church. The gaps between the Methodists and the Church of England widened. The situation was untenable. The Napoleonic Wars, the Revolutionary Wars, and the expansion of Methodism to other lands and regions further complicated the organizational structure. Dr. Coke’s delicate legal labors for the “Deed of Declaration” in his early years with the Methodists were a start with giving the Methodists properties and organization formal legal standing.

Even as late as the forty-third 1786 conference in Bristol, no societies were allowed to completely separate from the Church of England unless the minister was notoriously wicked or preached heresy, the Anglican churches in a locality were insufficient for half of the community, or there were no churches within two or three miles. While Wesley was still not ready to ordain his itinerant band of preachers in England or form a separate church, the issue was forced across the Atlantic. With the American War for Independence, as many as three-quarters of the Anglican clergy had returned to England. Wesley shared his perspective,

I have still refused [to ordain ministers]: not only for peace’ sake, but because I was determined, as little as possible to violate the established order of the national Church to which I belonged. But the case is widely different between England and North-America. Here there are Bishops who have a legal jurisdiction. In America there are none, neither any parish Ministers. So that for some hundred miles together there is none either to baptize or to administer the Lord’s Supper. Here therefore my scruples are at an end: and I conceive myself at full liberty, as I violate no order, and invade no man’s right, by appointing and sending labourers into the harvest. 

Methodism in America was already burgeoning before the War. Their first conference in 1773 was attended by ten ministers and reported over one thousand class members with many additional uncounted society members. In 1784, Wesley and the British Conference quietly commissioned Dr. Coke along with Revs. Whatchoat and Vasey, to organize American Methodism into the Methodist Episcopal Church. Dr. Coke was ordained as “Superintendent” or Bishop of the American Societies.

The formal organization of American Methodism was accomplished at the Christmas Conference of 1784 over which Dr. Coke presided. Francis Asbury, already the leader of American Methodism, was ordained as a co-superintendent in America with Dr. Coke, as directed by Wesley. Coke would also travel extensively through the eastern states on his nine visits to America and preside over the important 1787 and 1791 conferences which, among other things, settled the issue of American autonomy with authority resting in the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Another very important factor from the Christmas Convention of 1784 was the commissioning of three missionaries to two foreign fields, Nova Scotia and Antigua. These were the first Methodist missionaries commissioned in America. Francis Asbury’s journal simply records their appointment as a matter of business, and one might infer the influence of Coke in finally securing missionaries. Unfortunately, Rev. Lambert, appointed to ministry in Antigua which had so captivated Coke’s attention, would have a serious health crisis and pass away before he was able to reach his assignment. 

It was Thomas Coke, rather than John Wesley or Francis Asbury, who launched early American Methodism on its early missionary course.

Due to Coke’s extended travel overseas and limited time in America, Bishop Asbury is rightly honored for doing the lion’s share of the promotion, organization, and oversight of Methodism in America, but Barclay observes, “Asbury… was essentially missionary in spirit and purpose, but it was Thomas Coke, rather than John Wesley or Francis Asbury, who launched early American Methodism on its early missionary course. He was, in fact, the herald and apostle of both British and American Methodist missions.”

The Methodist Advance  

1786 was an epochal year for Methodist missions, due in large part to Dr. Coke’s impetus. In this year, he published a new missionary appeal under the title, “Address to the pious and benevolent, proposing an annual subscription for the support of missionaries in the Highlands and adjacent islands of Scotland, the isles of Jersey, Guernsey, and Newfoundland, the West Indies, and the provinces of Nova Scotia and Quebec.”  This plan was more passionate, but also more pragmatic than his first, in its limited scope and more diplomatic appeal to the rather reluctant Methodists. Here Coke cordially admits, “the providence of God has opened to us so many doors nearer home, that Mr. Wesley thinks it imprudent to hazard at present the lives of any of our preachers….” This plan had Wesley’s blessing and was an important start to a new era for Methodism.

Later that same year, Coke and three other missionaries embarked on a transatlantic journey to establish mission works in Nova Scotia and Antigua. Bitter storms threw them off course, and instead of arriving in Nova Scotia, the battered ship made the first landfall two thousand miles south in Antigua on Christmas Day. Walker notes that they perceived this to be the providential ordering of God and immediately embarked upon ministry there. Large crowds attended their services and there was much fruit as they built on the labors of the laymen and women who had pioneered the work. 

Dr. Coke states that “being thus in a providential manner, and without any design, brought into the Archipelago,” he “considered it as his duty to improve the opportunity, and to endeavor to introduce the gospel into other islands as well.” After ministering with the missionary band for several months, Dr. Coke continued on, leaving behind all three missionaries, including the two appointed to serve in Nova Scotia. God’s blessing was on the work in the West Indies’ islands. By the fifty-third conference in 1799, they would report the organization of 13 circuits served by 23 preachers with a total membership of 11,700. This was already more than one-tenth of the size of the English conference!

From the time Dr. Coke returned from the Christmas Conference in America, he would be the face of Methodist missions as he relentlessly recruited missionaries, raised financial support, provided oversight to the fledgling mission works, and served as the liaison between the missions and the conference. According to Stevens, in America Dr. Coke was so moved by the appeal for laborers for Nova Scotia by William Black that the conference not only set aside two laborers for service in that conference, but he also personally “begged and gave funds for their support, but returned to England to procure additional men and money for it.” 

This pattern he followed through the remainder of his career. The conference was notoriously slow to provide funding. and Coke would unashamedly “beg” for donations, even door to door if needed, or he would provide for the needs from his own resources. His determined recruitment of missionaries also was a concern for Wesley who wrote, “Ought we to suffer Dr. Coke to pick out one after another of the choicest of our young preachers?”

Though the work in the West Indies would prove to be the most successful mission established under his leadership, it was by no means the only area that attracted his attention and missionary passion. He is credited with the founding of Welsh Methodism for his initiative in sending missionaries to labor in northern Wales according to the plan laid out in his 1786 “Appeal.” Additionally, the work in Nova Scotia by both British and American missionaries saw good success. Vickers observes that his desire to rectify the failure of Methodism to replace the missionaries to Africa probably led to a premature, though noble plan to establish a mission in what is now Sierra Leone. He dreamed that the converted Negros from the West Indies would one day carry the Gospel back to Africa. Martin reminds us that he also energetically pursued mission outreach in France, trying to establish a foothold for Methodism there before the Calvinistic London Missionary Society did, while Thomas notes that “during the Napoleonic Wars [Coke] organized work among the 70,000 French prisoners of war held in England.”

In 1814, he embarked on a new venture to serve personally as a missionary in India with a missionary band of nine as he had long desired since his first missionary publication in 1783. They weathered terrible storms amiably and were nearing their destination. As they passed through the Indian Ocean, Dr. Coke’s health was failing, and he passed away peacefully in his sleep on May 3, 1814, at the age of 66.

A Missionary Legacy

Though Dr. Coke was actively engaged in administrative duties for British and American Methodism, he must be remembered chiefly for his missionary legacy. Drew’s biography of Coke neatly gives this synopsis

Under his influence, missions were established in almost every English Island in the West Indies. The flame of his missionary zeal burst forth on British America. Methodist societies were also formed by him, or under his superintendence, in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the islands on the eastern coast of the American continent, and subsequently in the Bahamas, and in Bermuda; and to the coast of Africa also he directed his zealous efforts.

As evidence of his zeal, one must mention his endless travels which exceeded both Whitefield and Wesley, including crossing the Atlantic an astounding eighteen times. Further, he is to be noted for his sacrificial giving which was more than any other Methodist and probably any Protestant of his day. He gave up his own inherited fortune and, marrying twice, also found his wives willing to bestow freely their fortunes for the cause of missions; he often personally covered the deficit needed to finance the Methodist mission efforts. He was not an arm-chair philosopher, but he served shoulder to shoulder with the men he recruited.

Dr. Coke was not without his foibles and shortcomings. Taggart documents various charges that Coke faced during his lifetime and by historians since then; he had too much ambition, he was too authoritative, he did not work well with the mission committee, he was too lax with the discipline of missionaries, he did not provide adequate financial oversight of the missions, he was a poor judge of the character of the men he recruited as missionaries, and he left no guidelines for the missionaries to Asia when he passed away. Some of these were legitimate charges. The first attempt at establishing the West African mission largely failed because of missionary ineptitude, for example. To the missionary recruits who failed, Coke was very gracious. He was personally aware of the enormous challenges of culture, climate, and adversity the new missionaries faced.

Grace can certainly be extended to Dr. Coke for multiple reasons. First, this was very early in the development of Protestant missions. The best practices and policies would be hammered out in real time. He would be among the first in the Protestant world to attempt long-distance oversight, grapple with issues of delayed communication, organizational structure, and mission financing. 

Once Coke had the fire of missionary possibilities kindled in his soul, he was intensely focused on that goal no matter the obstacle…

Second, Dr. Coke was terribly overloaded with all of his varied administrative responsibilities, travels, prolific writing, fundraising and much more. Third, while the Methodist conference sometimes organized committees to oversee missions, they were more interested in curtailing spending than planning and strategizing for success. The conference appointed mission oversight committees met sporadically (some of them never met). Put simply, the Methodist conference did not even establish a regular conference-wide missionary society until 1818, four years after Coke’s death.

Vickers refers to Dr. Coke as a “One-man Band,” a characterization which seems perfectly legitimate. Wesley was resistant. The conference was distracted. Once Coke had the fire of missionary possibilities kindled in his soul, he was intensely focused on that goal no matter the obstacle or how many other responsibilities and obligations filled his time. This is not to disparage Wesley or British Methodism at all, but it was Coke who single-handedly and doggedly kept the cause of foreign missions alive in their circles. Walker would state, “It was Coke’s work to develop in Methodism the Missionary spirit, already latent, but not yet manifest.”

The influence of Dr. Coke on Methodism has not been uniformly appreciated. McLeister and Nicholson’s Conscience and Commitment: The History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America, a 700-page tome commissioned by the Wesleyan Church History Committee, does not so much as mention the name of Dr. Coke. In many other cases, Coke is referenced only in association with the establishment of the American Church. 

This cursor review of the life and labors of Dr. Coke may surely confirm that he embodied the missionary zeal of Methodism, not only in spirit but in relentless activity. The fiery missionary life of Dr. Coke should be honored as his true and enduring legacy. Laboring in world contexts far removed from Coke’s era, missionaries today should be inspired by eternal difference wrought by one obscure missionary ambassador with vital spirituality, singular focus, and relentless passion.

Jordan Satterfield
Rev. Jordan Satterfield is a pastor serving a Lakota community on Standing Rock Sioux Reservation where he lives with his wife Kayla and three children. He is pursuing his Master of Arts in Global Studies through Liberty University School of Divinity. You can connect with him on Twitter @jrsatterfield.