Methodism shares a vibrant history of taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to the un-reached people groups of the world. Great Moments in Methodist Missions is a series designed to inspire Christ-followers in local and global disciple making and to rekindle the flame of a white-hot passion for the un-reached people groups of the world. This month’s feature tells the story of the father of Methodist Missions, Thomas Coke.
Cholera broke out in a village in northeast India. With almost all the village dwellers infected, death and desperation abound.
As bodies were weakened and decimated, something oddly stood out. Two western missionaries living in the village were untouched by the outbreak. While the native villagers suffered immensely, the two westerners remained vibrant and healthy.
As the contrast became blatantly obvious, the villagers began to complain, “Look at them! They are not like us! There is something wrong with them!” In the midst of sickness, there was confusion. In the midst of widespread infection, what was normal was being characterized as abnormal. And what was abnormal was being falsely characterized as normal.
His name was Bishop Thomas Coke. Maybe you’ve never heard of him. Maybe you have heard of him but know little about him. Coke was one of the founding Bishops of the Methodist church in North America. While this is a noble accomplishment, it does not convey the glorious depth of the heart of Thomas Coke. Thomas Coke is the father of Methodist Missions.
Coke set a tone for early Methodism and the thousands of Methodist missionaries that would fan out around the globe in the decades to come. John Wesley nicknamed Thomas Coke “the flea” because he was always hopping around on missions.
Coke was rightly called Father of the Methodist Missions. His pamphlet An Address to the Pious and Benevolent Proposing an Annual Subscription for the Support of Missionaries (1786) was the first Methodist missionary tract. He intended to establish missionaries in Nova Scotia in 1786, but a gale forced his landing in Antigua, West Indies, instead. Thrilled with the opportunities there, mission in the British West Indies and other British colonies became his dominant passion for the remainder of his life. At the last conference attended by John Wesley at Bristol in 1790, Coke was named to head the first Methodist missionary committee (he later was made its president, upon the organization’s revision in 1804). “I beg from door to door,” he told his friends without embarrassment, and he donated his family’s wealth to the missionary effort. Beginning in 1792, he led in sending pioneer missionaries to most islands in the West Indies, as well as to new missions in Sierra Leone, Nova Scotia, Ireland, and France. During the Napoleonic Wars he organized work among the 70,000 French prisoners of war held in England. He died in 1814 on board a ship en route to India, leading a missionary band of preachers for India and South Africa. Wesleyan Methodist missions advanced spectacularly following Coke’s death, building on the visionary foundations he had laid. i
Bishop Coke was possessed by a passion to share Christ with all people. Coke once said, as he was pleading with Methodist Christ-followers to share the gospel with the un-reached peoples of the world, “Oceans are nothing to God, and they should be no obstruction to his people in respect to the love they should bear towards one another.” ii Coke made this statement in the era of traveling by ship. One cannot help but reflect on his words in the modern era of access to the peoples of every “tribe and tongue” through the comfort of air travel.
Coke was willing to pay a price for this devotion. He was defrocked as an Anglican priest in response to how he channeled his passion for people to know Jesus Christ. What seemed normal to Thomas Coke seemed abnormal to the Anglican Church.
As Methodism entered its early formative years, many fail to realize how “going to the nations” to “offer them Christ” was central in our originating impulses. And yet, what was once so normal to early Methodists seems abnormal among many Methodists today.
The village in southern India eventually returned to normal. They regained their clear mindedness regarding what was truly normal and what was truly abnormal.
In a world where almost three billion people have yet to hear the “good news” of Jesus Christ, perhaps a people called Methodist will rediscover their true normal for world missions as we remember the Father of Methodist Missions, Bishop Thomas Coke.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” iii
— Jesus Christ
Paul Lawler is the Lead-Pastor of Christ Church UMC, and founder of The Immersion School, a discipleship training center in Birmingham, Alabama. He and his wife, MJ, have four children and one daughter-in-law. In addition to serving as a pastor, Paul and his brother, Dallas area businessman, Patrick Lawler, founded the Patricia B. Hammonds Girl’s Home for 60 orphans at high risk for human trafficking in Thailand. The home is operated through the international ministry of the Compassionate Hope Foundation. Paul also serves on the North Alabama Conference Discipleship Team. He often tweets Kingdom thoughts at @plawler111
ii Thomas Coke; Religious Tract titled, Address to the pious and benevolent, proposing an annual subscription for the support of missionaries in the Highlands and adjacent islands of Scotland, the isles of Jersey, Guernsey, and Newfoundland, the West Indies, and the provinces of Nova Scotia and Quebec.
iii Matthew 28:19-20, New International Version