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Thomas Coke (1747 – 1814)


Thomas Coke

1747 – 1814

Wesley spoke affectionately of Thomas Coke as a flea, for it seemed the man “hopped” relentlessly in the service of the gospel. (“Flea” may also have described the physical appearance of the chubby fellow who stood one inch over five feet.) The son of an affluent pharmacist, Coke attended Oxford University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in arts and a doctorate in civil law.

Yet Coke spent little time in legal work as he knew himself called to the ministry. His first appointment following ordination as an Anglican clergyman was as assistant in a parish in Somerset. The flame that had ignited so many people fired soon him too, and in August, 1776, he sat down with John Wesley and offered himself as an itinerant preacher willing to go anywhere in the world. Wesley’s response was not what Coke expected: the young man was to “go on in the same path…visiting from house to house.” A few months later a new senior minister, hostile to Methodist convictions, arrived in the parish. Soon angry at his young assistant, the older man fired Coke on Easter Sunday, 1777 — and encouraged everyone to celebrate the dismissal by ringing the church bells and opening a hogshead of cider. (Thirty years later Coke would be vindicated: he returned to town and church and addressed a crowd of 2000.)

Throughout the Methodist awakening Wesley had forbidden his lay-preachers to administer the sacraments lest his people be accused of separating from the Church of England. An Anglican by conviction, Wesley wanted his unchurched converts to find a spiritual home in Anglicanism too. He knew as well that the Toleration Act that provided refuge for Dissenters wouldn’t protect his people, since he had never had them register with the authorities as Dissenters. His people would be seen as disruptive concerning the established church (and therefore liable to criminal prosecution) yet unsheltered by the laws safeguarding Christians who had publicly identified themselves as non-Anglicans. Wesley had always wanted Methodism to remain a renewal movement within the mother-Church.

In America the Methodist people were largely deprived of clergy and the sacramental ministry they provided. Wesley asked the Bishop of London to ordain men for the new world. The bishop refused. The shortage worsened after the American Revolution when nearly all the Anglican clergy, steadfastly loyal to the crown, returned to England. After much anguish Wesley “laid hands on” Coke. To anyone steeped in Anglicanism this could mean only that Coke had been consecrated bishop. On the same occasion Wesley ordained two lay-preachers as clergy for the New World. In the face of outrage from Anglican officialdom — and fury from his brother Charles who had always vowed, “Ordination means separation!” — Wesley resolutely stood by an insight that all biblical scholars today agree on: in the New Testament “bishop” (overseer) and “presbyter” (elder) describe the same person. Coke was to be the first Methodist bishop in the new world.

On the trip to America the learned man read Augustine’s Confessions for spiritual reflection, Virgil’s Latin Georgics for cultural enrichment, the lives of Francis Xavier (Jesuit missionary to India) and David Brainerd (Puritan missionary to North American aboriginals) for inspiration, plus 556 pages of a treatise on episcopacy so as to understand what sort of authority Wesley had conferred on him.

Upon landing in the new world Coke embarked on an 800-mile preaching tour of hinterland Methodism, noting with disgust and anger the abomination of slavery. Boldly he wrote an impassioned letter to George Washington — who later received him twice and in 1804 would ask him to preach before the United States Congress (all this in spite of Coke’s British citizenship!)

In 1791 the “flea” hopped over to France where, with the French Revolution at its most violent, he assembled hungry people in Paris and addressed them in French. In England he used his legal training to draft the “Deed of Declaration”, a document that secured legal protection for the Methodist Conference. In America again (he made nine round-trips) he collected money for a new college.

The year 1805 saw the 58-year old bachelor marry Penelope Smith, an aristocrat with the same financial privilege that Coke had known. Having spent his entire personal fortune to fund Methodist missions, he found his new wife willing to liquidate her estate for the same purpose — and thereafter to accompany her husband on his homeless journeyings.

While the aristocrat-turned-missionary found begging “a vile drudgery”, he did it unashamedly for the sake of supportirng the missions dear to him. And when his wife’s sudden death rocked him he fought his way out of the valley of the shadow with intensified preaching and “drudgery.”

Missions at home and abroad preoccupied him for decades. Four trips to the West Indies, a trip to Sierra Leone in Africa, the oversight of the Methodist work in Ireland, the provision of Methodist missionaries in Scotland and Wales, arranging for similar outreach in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia (he personally paid for long underwear for the Methodist preachers in Nova Scotia when he learned of the Canadian winter); this is what animated him above all else.

Following the death of his second wife after only one year together (they had married in 1811) Coke believed himself divinely appointed to Asia. He set out in the company of several missionaries, planning for concentrated work in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India. Several ships in the party were lost in horrendous storms around Cape Horn. His survived and was moving quietly through the Indian Ocean with the Ceylon mission-field before it when he was found dead in his cabin.

Francis Asbury, now the bishop of American Methodism, preached a memorial sermon in which he paid tribute to the man he had long loved and admired: “…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.”

Victor Shepherd
June 1997