REMEMBER: Our 2nd pre-trip lecture is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. tomorrow, April 26, 2015, in LC214. Al Hoppe will speak on the influence of European Pietism on Methodism.
In 1784, after American independence had been won, John Wesley sent over Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke to co-Superintend with Francis Asbury the work of the newly independent American Methodist Episcopal Church. Who was Thomas Coke, whose name makes up the first half of Cokesbury?
Thomas Coke was born in Brecon, South Wales on September 9, 1747. He lived to be 67 years old, dying on May 2, 1814. In between, he lived a life full of foreign missions to not only America, but also the West Indies, France, Gibraltar, and Sierra Leone. He promoted others in setting up missions in Canada and Scotland. He actually died aboard a ship headed on a mission to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the East Indies. Wesley would call his assistant Coke “the flea” because he seemed always to be hopping around on his missions.
His father, Barthomolew, was a well-to-do apothecary. Coke, who was only 5 foot and 1 inch tall and prone to being overweight, studied law at Jesus College, Oxford. (Anyone see the irony in that – a lawyer studying at Jesus College?) His college has a strong Welsh tradition. After taking an undergraduate and Masters degrees, Thomas graduated with a Doctor of Civil Law in 1775. On returning home to Brecon after receiving his Masters Degree, he served as Mayor in 1772.
In the same year as his mayoralty, Coke was ordained in the Church of England and served a curacy (a curate is like an assistant pastor) at South Petherton in Somerset, England. He had already allied himself with the Methodist movement, which was about 30 years old by then, and this made for trouble when a new Rector arrived in the South Petherton parish. Coke had begun to hold cottage services and open services of the sort promoted by Wesley. His new Rector was “not amused,” and Coke was dismissed from his post on Easter Sunday 1777. His parishioners celebrated at the Rector’s behest by ringing the church bells and opening a hogshead of cider. (Talk about a tough church!) Years later, after his service in America and other mission fields, Thomas Coke returned to Petherton in 1807 and preached to a crowd of 2,000! (That will show them!)
Thomas Coke had met John Wesley in August of 1776, becoming one of his closest assistants. 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.
In September 1784, in Bristol, Wesley consecrated Coke as Superintendent, a title replaced in 1787 in America by that of Bishop (Greek episkopos) in spite of Wesley’s strong disapproval (“superintendent” is etymologically equivalent to “episkopos”). Since Coke was already a priest (Greek presbuteros) or presbyter in the Church of England, some interpret this consecration as the equivalent of episcopal consecration. Wesley’s action took place two months before the consecration in Aberdeen of Samuel Seabury as bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA.
After his consecration, Thomas Coke set sail for New York with instructions from John Wesley for the new American Methodist Episcopal Church, which included instructions to ordain Francis Asbury to serve as a co-Superintendent. 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.
After landing in New York, Thomas Coke made his way south to Barratt’s Chapel in Delaware (which we will see on our trip, and while there, have a very special treat). There, in November, he met for the very first time, Francis Asbury, and together they planned for what became known as the Christmas Conference, in which the Methodist Episcopal Church was born. But more on that later.
After ordaining Asbury and co-Superintending the new church for nearly a year with him, Thomas Coke returned to England in June 1785. He would make eight more visits to America, his final visit being in 1803. The American Methodists made it clear that when Coke was away, he was NOT a co-Superintendent. In those times, they would take their orders from Asbury alone. While in America, Coke 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 the death of John Wesley in 1791, Coke became Secretary to the British 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. As stated above, he promoted others in setting up missions in Canada and Scotland.
On the personal side, on April 1, 1805 (April Fool’s Day?), at the age of 58, Thomas Coke married Penelope Goulding Smith, a wealthy woman who happily spent her personal fortune funding her husband’s missions. She travelled with him until her death on January 25, 1811. That same year in December he married for a second time, to Anne Loxdale, who unfortunately died the following year, on December 5.
Thomas Coke hoped to open Methodist missions in the East Indies. At his own expense he set sail for Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) on December 30, 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). It is thought he died of a “fit of apoplexy,” or possibly a stroke. He died aboard ship, located 2 degrees, 29 minutes south latitude, and 59 degrees, 29 minutes longitude east of London, England, in the Indian Ocean. This is where Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke, co-Superintendent with Francis Asbury of the Methodist Episcopal Church, was laid to rest.
Upon hearing of Coke’s death, Francis 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.”
Next time, we’ll return to the story of the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784.