On Easter Sunday in 1777, Thomas Coke was removed from his position as parish priest at South Petherton in Somerset, England. He had displeased the new Rector when he allied himself with the new Methodist movement and began holding small group meetings and open air services. When the Rector fired Coke, he insisted that the parishioners celebrate by ringing the church bells and opening a “hogshead of cider.” Born September 9, 1747 in Brecon, South Wales, Coke was just 29 when he was fired, but he had been a busy young man. He read law at Jesus College, Oxford and completed a Doctor of Civil Law in 1775. He also served as Mayor of Brecon in 1772, the same year he was ordained in the Church of England.
This active lifestyle continued as he grew older and more established in his Methodist faith. Thomas Coke was a man of missions. In fact, John Wesley nicknamed him “the flea” because he was always “hopping around on his missions.” One of his earliest trips was to America in 1784 for what would come to be called the Christmas Conference. Wesley had consecrated Coke as a Superintendent; Coke then traveled to the young United States and consecrated Francis Asbury as his co-Superintendent, a title that was replaced with Bishop in 1787.
As one of our first Bishops, Coke is very important to us here in the US, but this wasn’t the only place he was involved in establishing the church. In addition to eight trips to the US, he also traveled extensively in Great Britain and Ireland, even serving as the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland on several occasions. Beginning in 1786, he also made four voyages to the West Indies. Keep in mind that his trips weren’t the type where you hop on a plane and return the next week. These were often year long voyages which took him away from his friends and family.
It’s no surprise that Coke didn’t have time for a family of his own during his busy early life, but at the age of 58 he met a woman who had the same heart for missions. In April of 1805, he married Penelope Goulding Smith, a woman who traveled with him and spent her personal fortune furthering their mission efforts. This happiness was short-lived, however, Penelope died six years later. He had another short marriage which ended in the death of his second wife, Anne Loxdale, in December of 1812.
You also won’t be surprised that following the death of both wives within two years, he consoled himself by planning a new mission effort. On December 30, 1813, Coke set sail to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), hoping to establish Methodism in the East Indies. About four months into the voyage, he died at sea and was laid to rest in the Indian ocean. Francis Asbury said of Coke that he was “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.”
Originally published in the Wingate UMC newsletter for September 2015.
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