Bishops and Conference

Thomas Coke
Thomas Coke

Thomas Coke returned to Britain in 1787, 3 years after he arrived. (He would be back to America several different times. Coke was a very active missionary whom Wesley would refer to as “the flea” because he seemed always to be hopping around on his missions.)

After returning to Britain, Thomas Coke returned again to the United States later in 1787 with explicit, written directions from Wesley to “appoint a General Conference of all our preachers in the United States, to meet at Baltimore on 1st May 1787” and further that “Mr. Richard Whatcoat may be appointed Superintendent with Asbury” and Freeborn Garrettson be superintendent for British North America.

Such directives accorded with the “binding minute” from the Christmas Conference to obey Wesley’s commands and with Wesley’s vision of a global connection. But they hardly accorded with newly rewarded American sensitivities to be free of British influence. Of Wesley’s several directives, the Americans honored the most inconsequential. They met May 1 in Baltimore rather than as they had appointed at Abingdon, Maryland, on July 24. They also rescheduled two other conferences for Charleston in late March and Virginia in late April, gathering for the latter as many as three thousand at Rough Creek, Virginia.

Francis Asbury & Thomas Coke
Francis Asbury & Thomas Coke

At the latter conference, in addition to confirming Coke (when present in the States) and Asbury as their General Superintendents – vs. Wesley’s desire for Whatcoat (he would later be elected a bishop, don’t worry) – they also rescinded the binding minute of loyalty to Wesley from the Discipline, sometimes described as dropping Wesley’s name from the Minutes.

Sometime after the 1787 conferences, Coke and Asbury took another action hardly to Wesley’s liking. They substituted the word bishop for superintendent, an alteration ratified in the 1788 conferences and Discipline.

John Wesley
John Wesley

As the MEC’s relation to Wesley evolved so did the relative power and authority of the two superintendents in the American context. While Coke enjoyed the personal relation with Wesley and seemed to be trying on the aging Mr. Wesley’s (he was 85 by this point, just three years before his death in 1791) mantle and authority, Asbury consolidated influence with and power over the American itinerants. He did so by riding with them through their circuits, preaching and praying, by making the quarterly meetings and presiding in conference, by meeting classes and staying in Methodist homes, by hearing their efforts to preach and counseling with them, by filling the appointments with insight about both preachers and circuits, by traveling the entire connection.

So Asbury exhibited, daily and constantly, privately and publicly, the office of itinerating general superintendent. He understood himself as the exemplary traveling Methodist preacher. Thomas Coke might write letters of counsel and direction. Coke’s name might go first on Minutes and Discipline. In conference, Coke might preach and preside. And when the two superintendents traveled together, Coke might claim the pulpit. However, Francis Asbury ran the show. Coke performed. Asbury governed.

Coke’s relation with Asbury and his standing among American Methodists deteriorated further when his secret negotiations later surfaced. Without Asbury’s knowledge, Coke wrote and then met with Bishop William White of the newly constituted Protestant Episcopal Church (The American version of the Anglican church, today’s Episcopal Church) about union of the two churches, outlining advantages to Episcopalians, Methodist conditions, and probable roadblocks (among them, Asbury). They worked out a scheme that predicated union on relaxation of Episcopal ministerial standards, reordinations of Methodist preachers, reconsecration of the two bishops and some continuing oversight of specifically Methodist work by the two Methodist bishops. Coke also wrote the High Church Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, Samuel Seabury, summarizing the plans.

Asbury discovered the scheme, responded negatively, and resisted submission of the plan to the 1792 General Conference. That body emerged to deal with such issues of power and authority.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a contemporary event that just occurred in March of this year, an event that might have caused Coke joy and Asbury consternation.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

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