Coke, Thomas (1747-1814) (DNB00)

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COKE, THOMAS, D.C.L. (1747–1814), methodist bishop, was born at Brecon on 9 Sept. and baptised on 5 Oct. 1747 (Drew; his tombstone says, born 9 Oct.) His father, who first spelled the family name Coke, was Bartholomew, son of Edward Cooke, rector of Llanfyrnach, near Brecon. His mother was Anne (d. 17 May 1783, aged 70), daughter of Thomas Phillips of Trosdre. Bartholomew Coke (d. 7 May 1773, aged 71) was an apothecary and medical practitioner, who made money and filled the chief municipal offices at Brecon (he was J.P. in 1768). Thomas, the third son (two others died in infancy), received his early education under Griffiths at the 'college of the church of Christ,' transferred by Bishop William Barlow from Abergwilli to Brecon, among his classfellows being Walter Churchey [q. v.] On 11 April 1764 he matriculated at Jesus College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner. In his early undergraduate days his tutor encouraged him in scepticism regarding revelation; but by help of Sherlock's 'Trial of the Witnesses' he had got over his doubts before he took his B.A. degree on 4 Feb. 1768. Returning to Brecon, he became bailiff and alderman of the borough, and J.P. in 1771. He took deacon's orders at Oxford on 10 June 1770, proceeding M.A. on 13 June, and entered priest's orders at Abergwilli on 23 Aug. 1772. His first curacy was at Road, Somersetshire (1770), whence he was transferred to South Petherton in the same county. He ascribes his conversion (after 1772) to a visit paid to South Petherton by Thomas Maxfield [q. v.], one of Wesley's evangelists. This event gave new fervour to his preaching, and to accommodate an increased congregation he erected at his own expense a gallery in South Petherton church. On 17 June 1775 he was created D.C.L., and had considerable prospects of church preferment. At this time he was a rather stiff high churchman; being desirous of meeting Hull, a dissenting minister of South Petherton, he scrupled at going to his house or admitting him to his own, so they were brought together under the roof of a friend. His prejudices were softened by further intercourse with methodists. At his own request he was introduced to Wesley on 13 Aug. 1776 by Brown, a clergyman at Kingston, near Taunton, who had already lent him some of the writings of Wesley and Fletcher of Madeley. Wesley counselled him to stick to the duties of his parish, 'doing all the good he could' there. Osborn, following Hill, reckons him a methodist from 1776. He began open-air preaching and cottage services, a proceeding unpalatable to influential parishioners. His bishop reproved, but declined to remove him; his rector dismissed him. Hereupon he threw himself into the arms of the methodists, and attended the conference at Bristol in 1777. Coke's methodist ministry began in London. His name first appears on the conference minutes in 1778 as a preacher of the London circuit. Wesley employed his hand in conducting some of his enormous correspondence, and sent him to Bath to compose a difference in the methodist society there. It is rather characteristic of Coke that in 1780 he thought it his duty to bring a hasty charge of Arianism against two distinguished methodist preachers, Samuel Bradburn [q. v.] and Joseph Benson [q. v.] Bradburn at once set the imputation at rest, and after the investigation of Benson's case by a committee of conference (he held, after Isaac Watts, the pre-existence of our Lord's human soul), Coke publicly asked his pardon. In 1782 Coke visited Ireland and was the first president of the Irish conference, an office which, with few intermissions, he held for the rest of his life. Coke in 1783 had a good deal to do with the drawing up of Wesley's ' deed of declaration ' (attested 28 Feb. 1784), and was accused of having influenced Wesley in the choice of the number and names of the 'legal hundred.' Wesley cleared him of the charge in the emphatic words ' Non vult, non potuit,' adding,' in naming these preachers had no adviser. Coke was in fact opposed

to any arbitrary limitation of the legal conference to a selected number of preachers. In January 1784 Coke issued the first methodist 'plan of the society for the establishment of missions among the heathen.' On 2 Sept. 1784 Wesley, assisted by Coke and James Creighton [q. v.], in a private room at Bristol, and without the knowledge of his brother Charles, who was in Bristol at the time, ordained Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as presbyters for America ; and then, in conjunction with the other three, set apart Coke as ' a superintendent ' to discharge episcopal functions in the American methodist societies. For this step, which was entirely Wesley's own idea, Coke was not at first prepared ; he took two months to examine patristic precedents before consenting to receive this new character ; but having made up his mind he urged Wesley (in a letter dated 9 Aug.) to complete his scheme in due form, and he thoroughly entered into the spirit of the office after accepting it. Leaving England on 18 Sept. 1784, he arrived at Baltimore in time to meet the conference on Christmas day, when he ordained Francis Asbury [q. v.] as deacon, next day as elder, and on 27 Dec. as superintendent. Coke, in 1787, got the American conference to alter the title from 'superintendent' to 'bishop,' and to strengthen the powers attached to the office. The change of style was severely rebuked by Wesley, who wrote to Asbury (20 Sept. 1788) : ' Men may call me a knave or a fool, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content ; but they shall never, by my consent, call me bishop.' Yet the American conference in 1789 assigned to Wesley ' the episcopal office in the methodist church in Europe.' The confirmation of the episcopal powers of Coke and Asbury by the conference at Baltimore in 1792 led to the secession of James O'Kelly, with a following of about a thousand. The seceders called themselves at first ' Radical Methodists,' but in 1804, on the suggestion of Rice Haggard, adopted the designation of ' the Christian Church ' (the name is usually pronounced Christ-ian). Coke made nine voyages to America, the last being in 1803. Asbury, as being constantly on the spot, had more of the actual work of the churches, but Coke was the more energetic and effective organiser. His name was given to Cokesbury College, founded not far from Baltimore on 5 June 1785. From the first Coke, greatly to the credit of his courage as well as of his humanity, took a firm stand against slave-holding, and met with no little opposition in consequence. He gave great offence in England by signing, on 29 May 1789, an address of congratulation from ' the bishops of the methodist episcopal church' to George Washington, a measure which the next English conference strongly condemned. In the same year the first methodist ' missionary committee ' was formed, with Coke at the head of it, and henceforth he was the recognised director of the wide-spreading operations of methodist enterprise beyond the British isles. On the news of Wesley's death (2 March 1791), which reached him in Virginia, Coke at once made his way homeward. It was supposed, and with some reason, that he aspired to the vacant dictatorship. He first attended the Irish conference, contrary to the advice of his friends ; he was disappointed in his expectation of being again elected president, but bore the rebuff with equanimity. The English conference (1791) in electing its president passed over both Coke and Alexander Mather (ordained by Wesley in 1788 as a 'superintendent' for England) ; but Coke was elected the first secretary of conference, and continued in this office for many years. He was elected president in 1797 and again in 1805. Wesley had bequeathed his manuscripts to Coke, Henry Moore, and John Whitehead, M.D. The three arranged that Whitehead, as a man of leisure, should prepare the biography of Wesley. But there soon arose disagreements, and in 1792 Coke and Moore forestalled Whitehead's labours by publishing a life of Wesley, with the disadvantage of not having access to his papers. Moore did most of the work ; Coke was partly disabled through having scalded his right hand. It seems clear that after Wesley's death Coke would have been glad to repeat his American policy in England. Already in 1788 he had ventured upon the innovation (at once prohibited by Wesley) of directing that methodist services should be held at Dublin during church hours, giving as his reason that he wished to keep the methodists from attending dissenting chapels. He advocated the concessions of the Leeds conference in 1793, permitting the administration of the sacraments in methodist societies ; and in 1794 he got together at Lichfield a meeting of methodist preachers who resolved to urge the conference to appoint an order of bishops. The scheme fell flat, and Coke, changing his policy, endeavoured to place the methodist system in organic connection with the church of England. He addressed Bishop Porteus of London on 29 March 1799 with a proposal that a number of the leading methodist preachers should be admitted to Anglican orders with a travelling commission. He had previously (1792) tried without success to effect a junction between the methodist and episcopalian churches in America. Porteus consulted John Moore, archbishop of Canterbury, who rejected the proposal, construing it as involving 'a presumption that all the regularly ordained clergy of the church of England are immoral.' It is impossible to follow the record of Coke's cosmopolitan labours in the mission field. In this department neither zeal nor resource ever failed him. By the conference of 1804 the committee for the management of foreign missions was reorganised, with Coke, 'the general superintendent of all the missions,' as its president. He never surrendered his own direct control of the work of the missionaries, who, on their part, were devoted to him. His last enterprise was a voyage undertaken with a view to promote the evangelisation of India. Early in 1813 he had unsuccessfully applied to the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, for the appointment of bishop in India, offering 'to return most fully into the bosom of the established church.' He set sail from Portsmouth in the Cabalva on 30 Dec. 1813. On the voyage his health failed; six days after passing the island of Galega, in the Indian Ocean, he was found dead of apoplexy in his cabin on 3 May 1814. His body was committed to the deep. In 1828 a monument was erected to his memory in the Priory church of Brecon. He married, first, in April 1805, Penelope Goulding (d. 25 Jan. 1811, aged 48), daughter of Joseph Smith, an attorney at Bradford, Wiltshire; secondly, at Liverpool in December 1811, Ann (d. 5 Dec. 1812, aged 56), daughter of Joseph Loxdale of Shrewsbury. There was no issue by either marriage. Coke was a man of short stature and bright winning countenance. His nature was impulsive (Southey says 'his Welsh blood was soon up') and not unambitious, but he was an unselfish worker of generous spirit. He had a private fortune of some 1,200l. a year. He did much to bridge the interval in methodism between the period of Wesley and that of Jabez Bunting [q. v.], and to him, more than to any other, the creation of the vast network of the methodist foreign missions is due.

Coke's publications were numerous, the earliest being a sermon on education, 1773; the folio wing are the most important:

  1. 'The substance of a Sermon preached at Baltimore … before the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church on 27 Dec. 1784, at the ordination of the Rev. Francis Asbury to the office of Superintendent,' 1784, 12mo (text Rev. iii. 7, 8). Charles Wesley published 'Strictures ' on this sermon.
  2. 'The Doctrines and discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church of America,' 1787, 12mo; revised 1798, 12mo (this was drawn up in conjunction with Asbury).
  3. 'The State of Dewsbury House,' 1788.
  4. 'Address to the Methodist Society in Great Britain and Ireland, on the settlement of the Preaching Houses,' 1790.
  5. 'Extracts of the Journals of the Rev. Dr. Coke's Five Visits to America,' 1790, 8vo (dedicated to Wesley as his 'first publication of any magnitude;' preface, 25 Jan. 1790, says the journal of his first visit was then first printed, the others being reprints).
  6. 'The Life of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M.,' 1792, 8vo (portrait); often reprinted (see above).
  7. 'A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments,' 1803-8, 4to, 6 vols. (a compilation largely from Dodd, and partly from manuscripts of the father-in-law of Maclaine, the translator of Mosheim).
  8. 'A History of the West Indies,' &c., Liverpool, 1808-11, 8vo, 3 vols.
  9. Revised edition of Samuel Wesley's 'Life of Christ,' 1809, 12mo, 2 vols. (the original poem was published in 1693, fol.)
  10. 'Six Letters … to the Methodist Societies,' 1810 (defending Wesley's doctrine of justification from the attack of Melville Home).
  11. 'History of the Bible,' 1812 (partly printed, but never finished).
  12. 'The Cottager's Bible' (left unfinished, but since completed and issued by the Methodist Book Committee).

In some he was greatly helped by Samuel Drew [q. v.] Coke published also funeral and other sermons.

[The Life of Coke was written by Jonathan Crowther, and more briefly by Joseph Sutcliffe; then, at the request of his executors, by Samuel Drew, 1817 (portrait); next, by J. W. Etheridge, 1860 (portrait), on the whole the best, though it contains much superfluous writing; lastly, by W. Moister, 1871, a popular sketch. Harvard's Narrative of … the Mission to Ceylon, &c., 1823, gives an account of Coke's last voyage and death. See also Osborn's Alphabetical Arrangement of Wesleyan Methodist Ministers, 1869, p. 208; Tyerman's Life and Times of Rev. John Wesley, 1871, vol. iii.; Humphreys's Memoirs of Deceased Christian Ministers, 1880, pp. 151, 257; Cat. of Oxford Graduates, 1851, p. 138.]

A. G.