John A. Vickers, ed. The Letters of Dr. Thomas Coke (Nashville: Kingswood, 2013). 787 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4267-5771-6
Dr. Vic Reasoner
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2014. Volume 32.
Date Posted May 28, 2014
Although John Wesley ministered in the Georgia colony in 1735, he returned home two years later and never returned. He was unaware of any Methodists in America until 1768, but Methodist laymen had planted Methodism in America at least as early as 1766. In 1769 Wesley sent his first "missionaries" to America and send a total of eight men prior to the Revolutionary War. All of them returned to England except Francis Asbury.
After the war, in September 1784, John Wesley ordained Dr. Thomas Coke as a "superintendent" and sent him to the new world. As Wesley saw Coke off near Bristol, along with Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey, his final words were "Offer them Christ."
"Superintendent" was Wesley's translation of the Greek word episcopos. Coke was then authorized to also set apart Francis Asbury as the other American superintendent at the Christmas Conference of 1784 where the Methodist Episcopal Church in America was organized independent from the Church of England. Wesley was appalled, however, when Coke and Asbury took the title of bishop. Almost four years later Wesley wrote to Asbury, "How can you allow yourself to be called Bishop?" However, Wesley acted in the capacity of a bishop himself. The American church did not recognize his authority to ordain a bishop and elected Coke and Asbury as bishops.
But regardless of the title, for twenty years after Wesley's death Coke single-handedly supervised overseas missions using his own private funds and raising funds from non-Methodist sources. In all Coke made nine trips to North America between 1784-1805. He traveled extensively between New England and Georgia by horseback. He presided over many conferences and edited several editions of the Book of Discipline. Along with Asbury, he paid two visits to our first president, George Washington and although he retained his British citizenship, was invited to preach before Congress.
In 1786 Dr. Coke published his appeal for international missions entitled Plan of the Society for the Establishment of Missions among the Heathens. This appeal predates William Carey's more famous manifesto, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens which was published eight years later.
In 1786, Coke also sailed for Nova Scotia but he never made it. Instead his ship was blown off course and landed in Antigua. To his surprise he discovered 1500 Methodists already on the island. So the two missionaries designated for Canada were re-commissioned to St. Vincent and St. Kitts. After his return to London, Coke saw to it that more missionaries were sent to Dominica, Barbados, Nevis, Tortola, and Jamaica.
Although Coke planned to settle in the new world, he was elected president of the British Conference and did not leave the British Isles until 1814 when he departed for Sri Lanka and instead landed in heaven. This year marks the 200th anniversary of his death and burial at sea.
Although the dedication and vision of Dr. Coke is not well known, we can thank a modern scholar, John A. Vickers who has devoted a lifetime to the research of Dr. Coke. In 1969 Vickers published the authoritative biography, in 2005 he reprinted the critical journal, and in 2013 published the critical letters of Thomas Coke.