When ‘fantastic nonsense’ became fantastic missions

Jun 2007    

The Rev Trevor Hancock, Methodist Missionary who served in Sarawak, gives us an eye-opening account of Thomas Coke, Methodism’s first bishop in America, whose zeal for preaching and missions was worthy of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.


‘… IN THE main street of the small Welsh town of Brecon there is a plaque on the wall of a house. It states that Thomas Coke was born there, and adds that he founded the “American Methodist Episcopal Church”. Across the road there is a church called simply “Dr Coke’s”.

Coke was a Welshman who became an Anglican priest, but was dismissed from the parish for showing too much “enthusiasm”. He had caught the infectious disease from John Wesley whose trusted adviser he was to become. In 1777 Thomas Coke lost his curacy because he preached the “new heretical Methodist doctrines”. Despite Coke’s supposed heresy his Church was packed during his short ministry and was probably never so full, either before or after.

In 1778 Coke’s name appeared for the first time in the “Minutes,” along with Wesley’s and several others, as stationed in London. From that time onwards he became the “Apostle of Missions.” For some years the missionary spirit had stirred within him, and as if reading his thoughts, Wesley said to him one day, “Brother, go out, go out and preach the Gospel to all the world.”

Coke’s first attempt at missionary enterprise was in 1784 when he drew up a plan of the “Society for the Establishment of Missions among the Heathen.”

So enthusiastic was he for the success of his project that he must have wearied his fellow preachers. He canvassed subscriptions whenever he could and was not rebuffed when he learned that many regarded his passionate pleading for “Missions to the Heathen” as “fantastic nonsense”.

Wesley sent Coke to America as General Superintendent with Francis Asbury as his junior partner. Until they arrived in America there was no organised church as such. There were no ordained ministers and no trained preachers of any kind. Large tracts of the country were still unexplored and the situation was truly a missionary one …

Coke was a great traveller. He jointly administered the American Church with Asbury. When he was not doing this, he was journeying back and forth to England and Ireland with stops in the West Indies where he preached almost as soon as he set foot on the shore.

During his spells in America he had a difficult time. The then young country had just shaken off colonial rule from Britain and had obtained her own “Merdeka”. Consequently an expatriate like Coke was regarded with suspicion for he represented British ecclesiastical authority. Coke prevailed, however, and won the respect of the Church, even if his own brand of “guided democracy” was not always approved and followed.

Coke travelled thousands of miles during his American visits and hardly rested at all. He travelled by every available kind of transport, preaching almost every day and presiding over countless Conferences. The following itinerary is typical. On Oct 30, 1792 he landed at Newcastle, Delaware, from England. At once he boarded a “one-horse chaise” and journeyed all day and most of the night to arrive in Baltimore in time for the opening of General Conference.

In his spare time he was busy writing a “Commentary on the Holy Scriptures” – it took him 15 years but he finished it. As if that was not enough, he took a French companion with him on one of his trips across the Atlantic to teach him French in order that he might be able to conduct a mission to France on his return. After Wesley’s death in 1791, Coke became even busier and his travelling increased. As well as being the Senior Superintendent in America, he was also Secretary of the British Conference and perpetual President of the Conference in Ireland. Almost as a sideline he was the Founder and Secretary of the British Methodist Missionary Society …

Coke’s death was as eventful as his life. On May 3, 1814 while on board ship sailing to establish new missions in Ceylon and Java, he was found dead on the floor of his cabin. The cause of death was apoplexy, brought on no doubt by trying to do in one lifetime the work usually reserved for three men. He died as he would have wished while embarking on a new missionary enterprise.

His body was buried in the sea upon which he had spent so much time. The legacy of pioneer Missionary work which he left behind is sufficient to mark him out as one of God’s great modern Apostles. Who today would agree with the man who told Coke, “Missions are fantastic nonsense”? It is obvious that God did not share that opinion.’ – MM, July 1964, p.15-16, slightly edited.

Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.


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