From Brecon to the World
Thomas Coke was one of the founders of Methodism and a major contributor to the globalisation of the movement. Born in Brecon, is travelled widely and initiated the sending of missions to many countries.
Brecon in the 18th Century
When Coke was born, Brecon was one of the most important towns in Wales. It was on the route to Ireland and the final stop for the first regular coach service into Wales from London. It held one of the four Welsh Courts of Great Sessions of a prominent market town and administrative centre. It was also an important social centre for the local gentry and landowners who built many fine houses in the town.
Born close to St Mary’s Church in Brecon, where was baptised, Coke was the son of a well-to-do apothecary (early pharmacist), Bartholomew Coke, and his wife, Anne. He was educated at Christ College in Brecon and at Jesus College, Oxford and he graduated from University in 1768. In 1775 he became a doctor of Civil Law. In Brecon he was deeply involved in town life, serving first as a councillor and then as the Bailiff in 1770.
The Methodist movement began in the 18th century with the teachings of John Wesley, who believed in bringing faith back into people’s everyday lives and that salvation was available to all. He was a charismatic speaker and often preached in the open air. Methodism became popular amongst the working class, although members of all social classes at the time became involved.
In 1771 Coke was ordained as a priest and became curated in the parish of South Petherton, in Somerset. He first met John Wesley in 1776 and later became an important assistant to him, beginning his lifelong commitment to the newly developing Methodist Church. On Easter Sunday in 1777, to the sound of church bells, Coke was driven from his parish because the local Rector disapproved of his Methodist ways.
Profile and Personality
At only 5’1”, Coke was a short man but he had a youthful appearance that stayed with him throughout his life. He was described as volatile and impulsive but also quick to admit when he was at fault, warm-hearted and honest. John Wesley said of Coke in 1788: ’I creep like Laos and the ground I get I keep; but the doctor (Coke) leaps like a flea and is sometimes obliged to leap back again.’
In 1784, Coke was ordained Superintendent and sailed for the newly formed United States with orders to organise an independent American Methodist Church. In Baltimore, Coke met with Methodist preachers and ordained their chosen leader, Francis Asbury, as a fellow Superintendent; though they were both later styled ‘Bishop’ by the Americans, much to John Wesley’s displeasure. Coke made nine journeys across the Atlantic Ocean, meeting with the President, George Washington, speaking out against slavery and addressing the US Congress.
Father of the Methodist Missions
In 1786, Coke landed on Antigua in the Caribbean. Impressed by the devotion and quiet endurance of the slaves he found there, he was inspired to organise and encourage Methodist missions throughout the West Indies and elsewhere. The costs were high and Coke often financed them from his own pocket. His marriages, late in life, to Penelope Goulding Smith, from Bradford-on-Avon, in 1805, and Anne Loxdale, of Liverpool, in 1811, she died less than a year later, helped fund his work: both women were strong supporters of their husband’s ideals, before their untimely deaths.
Death and Commemoration
Coke made his final voyage in 1814, at the age of 67, leading a team of missionaries to the Indian sub-continent. On Tuesday May 3rd, he was found dead in his cabin and was buried at sea. His loss was greatly felt by the Methodist Church and many memorials were created to commemorate his life’s achievements. In Brecon, a memorial chapel was built in 1835, to which school was later added. Churches bearing his name can be found in the United States, Jamaica, Sri Lanka and even South Petherton, his first parish.
Methodism in the World Today
Since Coke’s day, Methodism has continued to spread across the globe and today claims over 70 million members. Modern day Methodists, such as the late Nelson Mandela, continue Coke’s legacy of ’a life of faith in God lived in service to others.’ In December 2013, the Methodist Church of South Africa said: ’Mandela’s life demonstrated the finest characteristics of the Methodist faith: integrity tempered with graciousness; a strong ethic of industriousness; and honesty with reconciliation.’
With many peaceful blessings