The Revd Thomas Coke (1747-1814) was in some respects the most important of John Wesley's recruits to Methodism from the ranks of the Anglican clergy. He was certainly the most dedicated and energetic of Wesley's clerical supporters. Unlike John Fletcher, he was prepared to abandon the parochial ministry and to associate himself fully with the Methodist itinerancy. Surviving Wesley by over two decades, he became a key figure in the crucial period of transition after 1791.
The son of a relatively affluent apothecary who served as both Common Councilman and Bailiff (i.e. mayor) of his native Brecon, Coke was educated at the local grammar school and went to Jesus College, Oxford as a gentleman commoner. This gave him influential acquaintances, if not close friendships [e.g. 21/6], which he was not slow to exploit in later years in the interests of Methodism. He took his degree in 1768 and later obtained a Doctorate in Civil Law. Meanwhile he had been ordained deacon in 1770 and priest in 1772 and became curate in the rural Somerset parish of South Petherton.
During his six years as a curate Coke came under Methodist influences, as a result of which in August 1776 he rode over to Kingston St Mary, near Taunton, to meet John Wesley. Somewhat to his surprise, Wesley encouraged him to return to his parochial duties; but less than a year later local opposition to his Methodistical enthusiasm came to a head and he was driven out of the parish. From then on he attached himself to the Methodists and became increasingly indispensable to Wesley in his closing years.
The range of Coke's involvement in the Methodist movement both before and after Wesley's death in 1791 is reflected in his correspondence, a large proportion of which, whether in the original manuscripts or in copies, is found in the Connexional Archives at the John Rylands University Library. (The other main collection, in the archives of the Methodist Church Overseas Division in London, is also represented here in the form of copies.)
Wesley made extensive use of Coke as an administrator and peacemaker in a Connexion troubled by dissension over the control of chapels (e.g. at Birstall and Dewsbury in Yorkshire), by pressure for the separation of Methodism from the Church of England, and, as Wesley's life drew to an end, by manoeuvres to gain control over the future Connexion. (Coke's own churchmanship, as noted below, remained equivocal.)
In 1784, Coke's sphere of activity was dramatically enlarged when Wesley 'ordained' him as Superintendent and sent him out to establish a separate Methodist Church in the newly independent American States. He, in turn, ordained Francis Asbury as deacon, presbyter and `Superintendent' (a title quickly replaced, to Wesley's dismay, by its more scriptural equivalent, 'Bishop'), and the Methodist Episcopal Church came into existence. In the course of exercising his 'episcopal' authority (within limits firmly laid down by Asbury [For hints of the unresolved tensions, see 14/1, 15/11, 16/9]) during the next two decades, Coke paid eight further visits to America, on four of which he also toured the Caribbean islands where missions were being established. Although he remained an outsider, resented and suspected in some American eyes as an embodiment of Wesley's desire to keep control of transatlantic developments, Coke had a role to play in the formative years of American Methodism, and after 1791 was the only effective link between the two Connexions.
1784 also saw Coke's first abortive attempt to launch foreign missions, [5/16] which foundered because he failed to get Wesley's approval in advance. Two years later, this time with Wesley's blessing and support, he issued a fresh appeal in An address to the pious and benevolentand Methodist overseas missions had their tentative beginnings. For the next twenty years Coke, almost single-handed, promoted and organized the missions, and supported them both by his fund-raising and his own personal giving. The support of a Conference beset by financial and other problems after 1791 was understandably hesitant and one or two attempts to set up a missionary committee had little practical effect. Finally, in 1804, a committee of London preachers was appointed to bring the missions and their finances under the effective control of the Conference; and some of the most interesting correspondence relates to the efforts of the new committee to find a modus vivendi with the ebullient 'Superintendent of the Missions'. [See the extensive series of letters to the Missionary Committee of Finance and Advice, beginning in the autumn of 1804, 12/23 etc.]
Coke's bifocal churchmanship vacillated between an evangelical impatience and a residual loyalty to the Church of England. Although his social and educational background set him apart from the rank and file of the itinerants, he became their champion against the hostility of Charles Wesley, who was increasingly distressed by Methodism's drift away from the Church. Yet it was Coke who, despite his key role in the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, attempted a reconciliation with the American Episcopalians in 1791 [7/22,16/4]. When this overture became more widely known, it earned him little except suspicion and censures. Towards the end of his life, zeal for world mission led him to make what in the eyes of more sober judgement seemed a naive and foolish (if not blatantly ambitious) indiscretion, when he offered himself as a candidate for the proposed Indian bishopric. [21/6]
This indiscretion was, unfortunately, characteristic of the impetuous enthusiasm which he never outgrew and which caused him frequently to leap before he looked. (Wesley likened himself and Coke to a louse and a flea: '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.') But the charge most commonly levelled against him, that of self-seeking ambition, hardly squares with the evidence of his unflagging service and undoubted missionary zeal, and probably stemmed from resentment of his prominence and his influence on Wesley as much as from any personal defects.
Although he never attained the position of Wesley's undisputed successor in the British Connexion to which (at least in the eyes of his detractors) he may have aspired, Coke was twice elected President of the Conference, in 1797 and 1805.
In the midst of an unusually busy and peripatetic life, Coke somehow found time for a fair amount of literary work, some of it directly related to his missionary activities, but also including more general works, painstaking rather than of a high literary or theological quality. Among his major publications, there are references in the correspondence to the Life of John Wesley which he compiled in association with Henry Moore (1792), to his six-volume Commentary on the Holy Bible (1801-07), to his three-volume History of the West Indies (1808-11) and to his revision of Samuel Wesley's poem on The life of Christ (1809). Neither as a biblical commentator nor as a preacher did he rival his younger contemporary Adam Clarke, and his theology did no more than reflect the orthodoxy of contemporary evangelicalism. [Including the outburst of millenarianism, the response of the pious to the Napoleonic threat at the turn of the century (16/7).]
His last venture, in fulfilment of a long-cherished vision, was to establish a mission in India and Ceylon, with a characteristic dedication of his own efforts and resources. At the age of sixty-six years he sailed from Portsmouth with six young companions, but died at sea on 2 May 1814 and was buried in the Indian Ocean.