Despite broad recognition of Thomas Coke’s influential role in early Methodist missions, Coke remains somewhat obscure. His life and ministry were overshadowed by Wesley and Asbury in Methodism and by other luminaries such as Carey and Judson in foreign missions. His noble life and service should not be overlooked.
Jonathan Crowther’s 1815 biography notes that Dr. Thomas Coke served Methodism with “pre-eminent distinction” and that he had an “active and principal hand in every notable transaction among them for thirty and forty years.” Among his many activities, Dr. Coke served as a prime mover of the early Methodist missionary enterprise.
Dr. Coke is worthy of an elevated place in Methodist history because of his legacy of intense missionary labors that ushered the Methodist church into the great global harvest.
Coke’s Life Before Methodism
Thomas Coke was born September 9, 1747 in Brecon, in South Wales, eighteen years after John Wesley’s “heart-warming” Aldersgate experience. He was raised as an only child in the home of a wealthy and influential surgeon. His early education included preparatory education before being placed under the tutelage of a Rev. Griffiths until his entrance into Jesuit College of Oxford at seventeen.
Through much of his period at Oxford, Coke was swept along with both the insalubrious behavior of his peers and the “enlightened” godless thinking of the university. Ill-equipped to counter the attacks on the Christian faith, he was first silenced by the scorn of the skeptics then seduced by their sophistry. God was faithful in dealing with his conscience nonetheless, and Coke, at least, was not drawn into any disreputable scandal. He was drawn back to an acknowledgment of the truth of the Christian faith in part through the treatises of Bishop Sherlock and Dr. Witherspoon. Finally breaking off his ungodly associations, he pursued his studies diligently until obtaining his doctorate in civil law in 1775.
Well esteemed in his hometown, Dr. Coke was made the magistrate of Brecon and earned the favor of the community for keeping good order. Shortly after, having received his ordination in the Anglican church, he secured a position, through the influence of Brecon’s parliamentary member, as curate in England’s Somerset County. According to Drew, Coke was not at this point genuinely converted; the truth was abstract and not experiential.
For his sermons, he selected material (perhaps even reading others’ sermons) on the great themes of the Gospel and preached with great animation. His own soul though became more and more restless as the Spirit dealt with him until he became an earnest seeker of true religion. Everything the Spirit revealed to him, he preached with great passion. Crowds were attracted to hear him proclaim the Gospel, but he found it impossible to press home the claims of the Gospel before having personal assurance of salvation.
In his seeking, Coke eventually became convinced that the Methodist emphases on justification by faith and the witness of the Spirit were true.
In his seeking, Coke eventually became convinced that the Methodist emphases on justification by faith and the witness of the Spirit were true. Preaching at South Pemberton, the truth of redemption shown increasingly on his own heart, he was soon genuinely converted. As he mounted the pulpit that Sunday, he found his manuscript inadequate to express the joy and passion in his soul.
He discarded his prepared message and preached extemporaneously; God anointed him, and three individuals were awakened in that first service and became seekers after true religion. His increased zeal and pointed messages quickly drew the ire of some of his congregations. On a second appeal to the Bishop, the disgruntled faction succeeded in ousting him.
Joining the Methodists
On August 13, 1776, John Wesley recorded that he had met the young minister in Kingston, “Here I found a clergy man, Dr. Coke, late gentleman-commoner of Jesus College, in Oxford, who came twenty miles on Purpose: I had much conversation with him, and an union then began which I trust shall never end.” In just a year’s time, Wesley’s desire was fulfilled. On August 19, 1777, Wesley writes, “I went forward to Taunton, with Dr. Coke, who, being dismissed from his curacy, has bid adieu to his honourable name, and is determined to cast in his lot with us.” Dr. Coke would invest all his energy, fortune, and life with the Methodists.
In short order, Dr. Coke was filling a role as Wesley’s chief lieutenant, and Coke’s union to Wesley’s leadership team was greatly appreciated as providential. Wesley had hoped that the saintly Fletcher would succeed him, but Fletcher was failing in health and would pass on to glory before Wesley. Coke became Wesley’s adjutor until Wesley’s passing in 1791. He would fulfill many administrative positions over the years. In one of the first of these, Coke was sent to Dublin in 1782 and was chosen to preside over the Irish conference, a position he would hold for much of his life and which would require many trips there for oversight.
There can be no question though that early Methodism was defined by fiery evangelism. Methodists actively sought to evangelize nominal Christians and Roman Catholics. It was not uncommon to refer to the unconverted from their own nation and communities as heathen. Wesley’s societies and band of itinerant lay preachers were zealous and energetic in this great spiritual harvest at home. In America, there was a similar missionary zeal lead by Asbury and his band of zealous circuit-riding preachers. It all was blessed extraordinarily of God. In Wesley’s words:
In what age has such a work been wrought, considering the swiftness as well as the extent of it? When have such numbers of sinners, in so short a time, been recovered from the error of their ways? When hath religion, I will not say since the Reformation, but since the time of Constantine the Great, made so large a progress in any nation, within so small a space? I believe hardly can either ancient or modern history supply us with a parallel instance.
“When hath religion, I will not say since the Reformation, but since the time of Constantine the Great, made so large a progress in any nation, within so small a space?” —Wesley
Stirring Methodism’s Missionary Vision
Despite the continuing expansion and general missionary spirit of Methodism, Dr. Coke would find Wesley and British Methodism reticent about foreign missions opportunities. His historical review of the West Indies missions notes that many years before even the first stirring of Methodism in the American colonies under Strawbridge and Embery, a Methodist layman named Nathaniel Gilbert lived on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean. He laid aside an honorable position as the Speaker of the House of Antigua to establish a Methodist society among the slaves. After Gilbert’s death, the work was continued by two native women until a Methodist dockworker arrived and began serving as a local preacher. According to Vickers, the Methodist conference was aware of this work but made no attempts to fill the need for a minister.
Despite Wesley’s world-parish aphorism and seemingly boundless zeal, in practical reality, the frenzied development of Methodism in the home territory was more than enough for one man to oversee. Wesley’s perspective on expansion was that the Holy Spirit would direct Methodism to the places where it would bring forth the most abundant harvest, and it was hard to imagine that being possible to the same degree in other places. Resources of men and finance were best applied where it would be most fruitful. While this stratagem undoubtedly helped consolidate the work and produced very healthy societies, Dr. Coke would find his enthusiasm for foreign missions often rebuffed and his plans unfunded.
At the 1778 conference, Coke’s first with the Methodists, the need for missionaries for Calabar in West Africa was considered. Some years previous, two African princes who had been enslaved and freed appealed to the Methodists for missionaries. Two Germans from the Bristol conference quickly responded but almost immediately lost their lives due to the unhealthy climate that claimed so many missionaries. Coke had evidently been tasked with penning an appeal for replacement missionaries. Two ministers responded to his appeal offering themselves for service, and a large sum was raised to finance the mission.
The 1778 conference, however, decided against the mission with the statement that “the time had not yet arrived for sending missionaries to Africa.” This was likely quite disheartening to young Coke, but a passion for world missions had now been kindled in Thomas Coke that would never be extinguished.
In 1783, that missionary passion was revealed again when Coke published his “Plan for the Establishment of a Mission among the Heathen,” a piece rather mechanical in its style but distinctly missionary in its substance. Perhaps attempting to circumvent the conference which he feared would squelch the effort, Coke proposed that a new missionary society be formed of members by subscription. These donations could be used to fund the cause of foreign missions by supporting missionaries and printing literature.
This “Plan” was published a full eight years prior to William Carey’s Inquiry, but this first attempt would not succeed. Whether directly rejected or quietly tabled, Coke’s first plan would not have Wesley’s support.
Continue reading: The Legacy of Thomas Coke: Father of Methodist Missions, Part 2.