Thomas Coke Landed with Secret Orders
Thomas Coke was pleased. After a “very agreeable voyage” of almost seven weeks, he stood once again on firm soil. On this day, November 3, 1784 he landed in New York with secret orders from John Wesley that few Methodists even in England knew about.
Just two months earlier, Wesley had secretly ordained Coke as superintendent of the Methodist Church in the American colonies with power to ordain other superintendents in the new world. For several years, Wesley had tried to persuade the Church of England to ordain Methodist bishops. His requests met with rejection. Events in America forced his hand. The Anglican church had virtually collapsed in Virginia after the Revolutionary War, and the Methodists, who received the sacraments from Church of England ministers, had nowhere to go. Searching Scripture and historical precedent, Wesley concluded that presbyters like himself had authority to ordain bishops. With the aid of Rev. James Creighton and two newly ordained elders, he did just that.
Within a few days, Thomas Coke sailed. Shortly after arriving in New York, he headed to Philadelphia. On November 14th, he preached at Barrett’s Chapel, a few miles from Dover, Delaware. After the sermon, a plain, robust man came up to the pulpit and kissed him. It was Francis Asbury, the man who had ridden across America for thirteen years pouring his energy into the creation and supervision of the Methodist church.
When John Wesley ordained Thomas Coke, it was with the understanding that he would ordain Asbury to be a superintendent of the American church. Thomas confided his mission to Asbury and a few others, and all agreed that a conference should be held. A date in December at Baltimore was settled on and messengers rode out to advise the Methodist preachers. Meanwhile, Asbury encouraged Thomas to make a thousand mile circuit on horseback so that he might learn first-hand the condition of the United States.
During this time, Thomas Coke baptized hundreds of converts who had never enjoyed this rite because no bishop was available. He admired the Virginia countryside which reminded him of his native Wales.
Sixty Methodist ministers showed up for the Baltimore conference. Asbury refused appointment as supervisor unless the Methodist pastors voted for him. He knew how Americans thought. Coke and he were elected as co-bishops and shared power in America. Most of the work rested with Asbury, however, because Coke crossed and re crossed the Atlantic eighteen times in connection with missionary endeavors and became leader of the British church after Wesley died.
But Thomas Coke achieved the purpose for which he had come to the United States: to establish a legitimate authority to head the American Methodists. He was still working for Christ when he died years later, a smile on his lips, during a voyage to India where he hoped to set up a mission.
Dan Graves, MSL
- Cross, F. L., editor. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Glimpses #141. Worcester, Pennsylvania: Christian History Institute, 2000.
- Vickers, John. Thomas Coke, Apostle of Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.