Man of Brecon, Anglican Priest and World Methodist
Thomas Coke was born in 1747 in a house just a stone’s throw from St Mary’s Church, where he was baptized just a week later. Two earlier brothers had already died in early infancy, despite his father’s local reputation as an apothecary and medical factotum. Bartholomew and Ann(e) Coke were taking no chances with their latest arrival. Two earlier members of Thomas’s family had served as rectors of nearby Llanfrynach and so anticipated Thomas’s future career in the Church.
The Brecon in Coke’s day was a prosperous town and, until Telford diverted the traffic to what we now know as the ‘A5’, it lay on the main route to Holyhead and Ireland. That he was cherished, and perhaps indulged, as the only surviving child of middle-aged parents, we need hardly doubt; and we may surmise that this may have left a permanent mark on his personality.
We know very little more about his childhood, except that he was a pupil at Christ College during the headmastership of the Revd David Griffith. In 1764 he went up to Jesus College, Oxford. Thanks to the family prosperity, he went up as a Gentleman Commoner, and seems to have enjoyed the social life of the university. He graduated in 1768, became a Fellow Commoner the next day and his degree (MA) two years later. In 1775 he obtained his doctorate in Civil Law, with support from no less a person than Lord North, who was both Prime Minister and Chancellor of the University at that time.
Meanwhile, in line with his religious upbringing, he embarked on a clerical career. In 1770 he was ordained as deacon and in 1772 as priest. At a time when it was common practice for livings to be bought, it seems significant that his next step was to become a curate in the parish of South Petherton, in Somerset and to persist in that office from 1771 until driven out of the parish at Easter 1777 by parishioners who could take no more of his Methodist ways.
Thomas is introduced to John Wesley
Nine months before this debacle, a crucial meeting had taken place at Kingston St Mary, near Taunton. The vicar of that village brought together two of his friends, the young Coke and the veteran Methodist leader John Wesley. He can hardly have realised how significant a meeting it was destined to be. To Wesley it was an encouraging encounter. He was not, to coin a phrase, ‘getting any younger’.
Ever since his brother, Charles, had begun to withdraw from active involvement in the Methodist movement back in the 1750s, he had felt the need for someone to share with him the burden of leadership; but in vain. He was soon seeing in Thomas Coke not only a useful associate in the present state of Methodism, but a man young enough (Coke was still under 30 at the time), and with sufficient qualifications, to be groomed for future leadership. As for Coke, he had perhaps hoped that Wesley would summon him to his side and encourage him to leave his work in a parish that was becoming more and more uncongenial, and throw in his lot with the Methodists. Instead, perhaps to test his mettle, Wesley advised him to return to his parish, ‘doing all the good he could, visiting from house to house, omitting no part of his clerical duty’ — in a nutshell, turning it into a Methodist stronghold. But whatever disappointment he may have felt, Coke did just this. The result a few months later was the ringing out of the church bells to celebrate his being driven from the parish.
Over the next few years of his life, he was kept busy travelling on horseback around much of England, dealing with problems that arose as the Methodist movement began to drift from its Anglican moorings and develop an existence of its own. Some of the difficulties were over the management of the chapels that were springing up all over the place. The local trustees, who had largely paid for the buildings, resented the attempts of Wesley and his preachers to take control of them. Other problems were with the preachers themselves, who wanted to do more than preach — for example, to administer the sacraments among the Methodist people as though they were ordained clergymen.
Coke proved invaluable to Wesley in this period of ‘growing pains’. One thing in particular was of great significance for the future of Methodism. His legal training served Wesley’s purpose well in drawing up what is known as the ‘Deed of Declaration’ by which the annual Conference of Methodist preachers was given legal recognition and authority, once Wesley was no longer with them. When it came to choosing a successor to Wesley, Coke may well have expected to be the man; but the preachers pointedly kept him waiting seven years before they gave him his year in the Presidential chair.
Methodism in America
This brings us to the year 1784. Where the name of Thomas Coke is remembered, it is not for his role in drawing up the Deed of Declaration, but for two other things: first, for the part he played in establishing an independent Methodist Church in America, a church which was destined to outgrow by far the parent body in Britain. Second, for the initiative he took in launching Methodist overseas missions, beginning in the West Indies, but eventually worldwide. In America, the first Methodists to arrive in the British colonies were immigrants from Ireland in the 1760s. Wesley responded to their pleas by sending out preachers, the first of them in 1769. Hardly had the work begun before the War of Independence broke out and everything British became highly suspect and indeed subversive in American eyes. Most of the British-born preachers, and many of the Anglican clergy, fled the scene; and when the war was over and the colonists had gained their independence, the Methodists among them found themselves deprived not only of preaching but also of the sacraments. However, Wesley responded to their spiritual needs by sending out Thomas Coke and two other preachers to organise the Methodists into a separate denomination. More controversially, he ordained the two preachers as ‘presbyters’ and ordained (or ‘consecrated’) Coke as Superintendent of the new Church — a title which the American Methodists quite quickly translated into ‘Bishop’ (with the result that American Methodism has been ‘episcopal’ ever since).
The full story of Coke’s American adventures can be found in the Journals he kept on most of his visits to the United States of America, which at this early point in its history as a nation consisted of no more than the line of states bordering on the Atlantic Ocean. Exploration and settlement of the vast plains beyond them was only just beginning, and the countryside between the ocean and the Appalachians was still sparsely populated. There were few towns isolated by vast expanses of forest through which Coke needed a guide to help him find his way. And there were wide rivers to be crossed, sometimes at considerable risk when they were in spate. Let his journal speak for itself at this point:
Monday 16th May 1785 I now was met by our dear valuable friend Dr Hopkins. He brought me that evening to his house, though it was dark before we reached it. Here I found myself locked up in the midst of mountains. So romantic a scene I think I never beheld. I have been a considerable time climbing up and descending the mountains. I prefer this country to any other part of America; it is so like Wales, my native country.
The most important event during this first of Coke’s visits to America was the ‘Christmas Conference’ in Baltimore. The American preachers rode in from all directions to debate and agree on a new constitution for their newly formed Church. With the backing of Wesley’s authority, Coke ‘ordained’ their acknowledged leader, Francis Asbury, as ‘Superintendent’ (or ‘Bishop’) and a number of the other preachers were ordained as ‘elders.’ Thus, a Church was brought into being, with a potential for growth beyond any of their wildest imaginings.
An issue that arose immediately was that of slavery. The plantations in the Southern States, were run on slave labour and many Methodists were slave owners. Coke lost no time in publicly opposing this evil, sometimes at risk of being horsewhipped for his pains. The preachers who met in Conference at Baltimore passed anti-slavery resolutions, but it was many years before American slavery was abolished.
Before sailing for home at the beginning of June 1785, a final highlight of his visit was an invitation to visit George Washington at his Mount Vernon home overlooking the Potomac river. Together with his fellow-bishop, Francis Asbury, he dined with the future President. Afterwards they took the opportunity of a private audience to raise the contentious issue of slavery. Washington, a slave owner himself, judiciously avoided committing himself. On a later occasion, Coke was to pay a second visit to the man who was by then the first President of the United States and controversially — because of his British citizenship — to join Bishop Asbury in presenting a ‘loyal address’ on behalf of the American Methodists.
This was just the first of nine visits Coke made. Let your attention focus on what a voyage to America was like for someone in the late eighteenth century. It meant many days — and sometimes months — at sea in the small, wooden sailing ships of that time, and with all the ferocity of mid-Atlantic gales to contend with. This cannot be illustrated better than from Coke’s own account of his second voyage across the Atlantic in 1786.
Monday 8th December This night was most dreadful. The sailors were just like the messengers of Job, coming one after another with dismal tidings, that now one rope was broke and now another. All the hatches were closed, and now the ship began to ooze at every joint. The next morning we had a little council. The captain being convinced of the impossibility of reaching Halifax, Nova Scotia, this winter, it was the unanimous opinion of all that no other refuge was left us, under God, but to sail with all possible expedition to the West Indies.
Methodism in the West Indies
Driven far to the south, their ship, or what was left of it, at last made land on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Two quite remarkable coincidences occurred here. First, Antigua was the first of the Caribbean Islands into which Methodism had been introduced, around 1760. This was thanks to a planter and leading citizen, Nathaniel Gilbert, who had met John Wesley during a visit to London. Back in Antigua, he began to preach to his household, including his slaves, so Coke was not slow to see their arrival in Antigua as providential. Second, he met there John Baxter who had been a naval shipwright but was also a lay preacher. Baxter had been ordained by Coke during his first American visit and had already built up a flourishing Methodist society on the island. Their meeting on that Christmas morning must have been as joyful as it was unexpected! This is how Coke writes on his arrival.
Monday 25th December This day we landed in Antigua. And in going to the town of St John’s we met brother Baxter in his band, going to perform divine service. After a little refreshment, I went to our chapel and read prayers, preached and administered the sacrament. I had one of the cleanest audiences I ever saw. All the negro women were dressed in white linen gowns, petticoats, handkerchiefs and caps, and I did not see the least spot on any of them. The men were dressed as neatly. In the afternoon and evening, I had very large congregations.
This was the beginning of a period of rapid expansion of Methodist witness in the West Indies. Coke, himself was to pay three more visits to these ‘islands in the sun’. By the time of his last visit, in 1793, there were twelve missionaries, working in ten of the islands, with a total of nearly 7,000 members, most of them among the slave population.
By the time of Coke’s death in 1814 there were twelve West Indian circuits with a total membership of 17,000 and this growth was to continue. But what may well be more significant is the missionaries’ championship of the slaves and their witness against slavery itself. Slavery in the Caribbean was much more vicious than that on the American mainland. Savage cruelty was all too common a feature, inspired probably by fear — the proportion of slaves to whites in the islands was far higher than in America. The missionaries found themselves in a dilemma. Their sympathy with, and concern for, the slaves was unmistakable. On the other hand, they were dependent on the good will of the plantation owners for their access to the slaves whom they hoped to convert as well as champion.
‘Father of the Missions’
Here in the West Indies we are witnessing the birth of what would become a worldwide expansion of Methodism, with Coke as the key figure in its initial stages. He fully deserves his unofficial title of ‘Father of the Missions’ — without his combination of enthusiasm and dedication, it may safely be said, Methodist foreign missions would not have got ‘off the ground’ for many years to come. For very good reasons both Wesley and the Conference were very hesitant about responding to calls from overseas. It needed the comparatively youthful enthusiasm of Thomas Coke to goad them into a more positive, though still hesitant, response. This was basically the situation right up to the eve of Coke’s death.
Coke himself never served as a missionary. His role was the more fundamental one of initiating, organising and (most importantly) financing the earliest overseas missions: first and foremost in the West Indies. The rest of his life, in addition to his continuing role as a leading figure in both British and America Methodism, plus various literary ventures of his own, was spent, almost single-handedly, in recruiting and equipping more and more volunteers for the work overseas, and supporting them once they were in place. This support took several main forms. The first was the goading of the leading Methodist preachers, and indeed, Wesley himself, into action. But second, the raising of funds by begging from all and sundry — not just from the ‘people called Methodists’. His very first appeal, at the end of 1783, was addressed ‘to all the real lovers of mankind’. Coke was never loathe to trudge the streets of any town he happened to be staying in, begging from door to door for the missionary cause.
There was his own giving, dipping into his substantial, but not unlimited, resources whenever there was a shortfall in the available funds. This is corroborated in some of his surviving correspondence with Thomas Williams, a Brecon attorney who handled his financial affairs for him. Here, for example, is a letter to Williams on ‘bread-and-butter’ matters, written from Dublin on 8 April 1795:
A particular circumstance renders it expedient for me to intreat the favour of you to pay me the year’s interest on the Coity (this is Coity Mawr near Talybont on Usk) Mortgage, due last February, now. A Bill of £150 is just come from the West Indies on account of our Mission in those islands. Those Missions have but £80 at present in the Bank, and therefore I must lend £70 to make up the bill.
But this personal giving was not quite the end of the story. By the spring of 1804 Coke was 56 and still a bachelor. He was in Bristol, promoting the cause as always, and in one of his audiences was a lady from Bradford-on-Avon, Penelope Goulding Smith, the daughter of a well-to-do solicitor from whom she had inherited a substantial fortune. She was clearly taken with Coke, and more than just with his eloquence. She promised him a hundred guineas if he would call on her at Bradford, and when he did so his heart was quickly mortgaged to her. They were married the following year. She gave up her home to share in his peripatetic life and gave her inheritance to boost the mission funds. Sadly, she survived this drastic change of lifestyle for only five years, leaving Coke devastated by his loss of a partner. But not so devastated that he did not find a successor in another maiden lady, Ann Loxdale, whose modest fortune followed the same path as its predecessor. It would be inappropriate to leave you with the impression that Thomas Coke was the equivalent of a ‘gold digger’. His devotion to both wives and his devastating grief at losing them are plainly revealed by the records of this last phase of his life.
(to read “Memoir of Mrs. Penelope Goulding Coke by Her Husband” click here https://archive.org/details/memoirofmrspenel00coke) Ed.
Thomas Coke – the man
It is time to attempt a portrait of this world citizen from Brecon whose name is known — to so many Methodists at least — around the world. Although the Coke Memorial Church in Brecon is sadly no more, replaced by the Co-operative Company, there are still churches named in his memory, not only in South Petherton, but in places as far away as Jamaica and Sri Lanka. So far as his appearance is concerned, Coke was short — little more than five feet tall, with attractive features that remained youthful even after his figure had filled out later in life. William Wilberforce, who knew him well, famously described him thus: ‘He looked a mere boy when he was turned fifty, with such a smooth apple face, and little round mouth, that if it had been forgotten you might have made as good a one by thrusting in your thumb.’
As to Coke’s personality, ‘volatile’ and ‘impulsive’ are two adjectives that readily come to mind; but to them we need to add ‘warm-hearted’ and ‘candid’. However, although he may have said and done things he quickly regretted, Coke was never slow to admit a fault and to apologise for it; and he never harboured a grudge at being rebuked. John Wesley summed this up in a thoroughly eighteenth-century way. The occasion of this was at the 1788 Conference, where Coke had been passionately advocating that it was time for the Methodists to separate from the Church of England. Wesley commented:
Dr Coke and I are like the French and the Dutch. The French have been compared to a flea, and the Dutch to a louse. I creep like a louse, and the ground I get I keep; but the Doctor leaps like a flea, and is sometimes obliged to leap back again.
How far any of this is to be attributed to Coke’s Welsh temperament is not for speculation! In any case, over and above all else, we cannot ignore his enthusiasm and determination in pursuing the causes he had espoused.
The final journey
Thomas Coke died, as he had lived so long, in harness. At the Conference of 1813, following the death of his second wife, he pleaded eloquently for a new missionary venture to India. Conference eventually gave its consent and on New Year’s day 1814 he and the six young preachers he had recruited and equipped, sailed from Portsmouth. Coke was realising a vision he had cherished for thirty years. Trans-Atlantic and other commitments had merely delayed its fulfilment. The East Indiamen in which the party sailed were much larger ships than Coke had hitherto encountered; and because the war with France was at its height they sailed in convoy. There was, of course, no short cut through the Suez Canal; the voyage was a long one and weather conditions prevented them from putting in at Madeira or the Canary Islands, so they rounded the Cape and entered the Indian Ocean, still without putting into any port. On Tuesday 3 May, just four months after sailing from Portsmouth, Coke was found dead on the floor of his cabin. He was buried at sea later that day. He had expressed a clear wish to be buried next to his wives in the Priory Church at Brecon, but it was not to be. For someone who had chosen to be so long homeless it seems fitting that he should lie in an unmarked grave beneath the waters of the Indian Ocean. His lasting memorial is not in any church buildings named in his honour, but in the continuing causes to which he had given himself so unstintingly.
Thank you to Dr John Vickers, and the Dean & Chapter of Brecon Cathedral, for allowing this reproduction of part of a talk given by him.
Memorial in Brecon Cathedral
Sacred to the memory of The Revd. Thomas Coke, L.L.D. of Jesus College, Oxford, who was born in this Borough the 9th day of September A.D. 1747. Was one of the Common Council and in 1770 filled the office of Chief Magistrate with honour to himself and equal benefit to the public.
After a zealous ministry of several years in the Established Church, in 1776 he united himself to the Revd. John Wesley, M.A. and preached the Gospel with success in various parts of Great Britain and Ireland. To him were confided the Foreign Missions of the Methodists, in support of which he expended a large part of his fortune, and with unremitting vigour encountered toils and self-denial, which the Christian world beheld with admiration.
By the Blessing of God on the Missions to the Negroes in the West Indies commenced by him in 1786, a foundation was laid for the civilization and salvation of that degraded class of human beings. To the Negro race upon their native continent, as well as in the island of their bondage his compassions were extended; and he set the first example, in modern days of efforts for the spiritual emancipation of Western Africa.
After crossing the Atlantic eighteen times on his visits to the American Continent and the West Indian Colonies in the service of the souls of men, his unwearied spirit was stirred within him to take part in the noble enterprise of evangelizing British India. He sailed in 1813 as the leader of the first Wesleyan Missionaries to Ceylon, but this “burning and shining light” which in the Western World had guided thousands into the paths of peace, had now fulfilled its course, and suddenly, yet rich in evening splendour, sunk into the shadows of mortality.
He died on the voyage the 3rd of May 1814 and his remains, were committed to the great deep, until the sea shall give up her dead.
His days were past, but his purposes were not broken off, for the Mission which he had planned was made abundantly to prosper. The same love of Christ which made him long the advocate and the pattern of exertions in behalf of foreign lands, constrained him also to works of pious charity at home into many neglected districts of England, Wales and Ireland.
The means of grace were carried by his private bounty, or through his public influence and his praise is in the Gospel throughout all the Churches.
This monument was erected A.D. 1829, at the expense of the ministers and missionaries with whom he was united, as a record of their respectful gratitude for the disinterested services, the eminent usefulness, and the long tried and faithful attachment of their now glorified friend, by their appointment, and under the direction of the Revd. T. Roberts, M.A. and the Revd. J. Buckley.
Thomas Coke Memorial Celebrations – Brecon May 2014