Parallel Frontiers: The Leadership of Thomas Coke

This post is an excerpt from my master’s thesis, “Parallel Frontiers: Looking to Early Methodist Circuits in America for Insights on Church Multiplication in a Post-Modern Culture.” I was particularly intrigued by the work of Thomas Coke, as I was researching and writing about his leadership. 

The leadership of Thomas Coke is probably the least recognized of the leaders of early Methodism. I find this unfortunate because I believe that the work of Thomas Coke is some of the most under-appreciated and yet very significant work of North American missiological history. Being appointed by John Wesley as one of the two first superintendents of the Methodist work in America, Coke brought significant leadership to the church. The success of his leadership was due to his passion for cross-cultural ministry, opposition to injustice, and ambitious strategies.

Passion for Cross-Cultural Ministry
Thomas Coke is often remembered for his significant contributions to cross-cultural ministry and is referred to as the father of Methodist overseas missions.1 His passion for understanding and sharing the gospel with unreached people groups is evident in his book, A History of the West Indies:

“…by contemplating the varied productions of the world, in different regions, he [the religious reader] may see fresh occasions to magnify the varied displays of omnipotent power; and, from every scene of wonder, he may ascribe glory to God.”2

In this statement, we recognize that Coke saw significant value in the people and culture of the West Indies. Unlike other missionary efforts that often sought to colonize people in new regions, Coke saw interactions with new people groups as “fresh occasions to magnify the varied displays of omnipotent power.

In this same sense, an integral part of post-modern church multiplication includes the same passion for cross-cultural ministry that Coke had. As North America has become increasingly culturally diverse, cross-cultural ministry happens in our very own neighborhood. Having grown up in a largely caucasian suburban community, I can now visit a café in this same town and see more persons of Asian and Middle-Eastern descent than caucasian ethnicity. The U.S. Census Bureau is projecting that single-race non-Hispanic white children will constitute about 32% of all children by 2060.3 North America’s cultural identity is changing rapidly and the church has an opportunity to embrace this reality with the same passion of Thomas Coke.

Opposition to Injustice
With a history of significant racial challenges in this nation, a post-modern model for multiplication must keep racial reconciliation as a central focus for ministry. This previous ideal relates to another significant leadership value of Thomas coke—his opposition to injustice. In an excerpt from Coke’s personal journal he wrote:

“The testimony I bore in this place against slave-holding, provoked many of the unawakened to retire out of the barn, and to combine together to flog met (so they expressed it) as soon as I came out.”4

Throughout many of his journal writings, he shares similar accounts where he feared the response of the people because of his message opposing slavery. Although Coke faced persecution for his position, especially as he preached in the Southern United States and other slave-holding areas, he remained resolute in his opposition to injustice. Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury even went so far as to address George Washington regarding their opposition to slavery, during a visit to the president’s home at Mount Vernon.5

The modern Church has a responsibility to seek and respond to contemporary injustices and maladies. This list may include a variety of global epidemics: displacement of refugees, genocide, human trafficking, militarism, starvation, and many others. The Millennial generation longs to make a difference in the world by engaging with causes.6 If a local church is going to engage post-modern society, it must include a significant focus on opposing and finding solutions to injustices. Church multiplication in a post-modern setting is not about founding an institution, it is about initiating a culture of transformation.

Ambitious Strategies
Thomas Coke was well known for his direct communication, with Wesley referring to him as a flea.7 This type of communication allowed for Coke to develop and implement ambitious strategies for missionary work throughout the world. In his earliest published tract, Coke petitions for the support of sending missionaries to: “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.”8 In this document, Coke lays out a strategic plan that intellectually and emotively explains the need for missionaries to be sent to these various regions. The objectives in this proposal were enthusiastic, but not unrealistic.

In a post-modern setting, we can learn a lot from the ambitious strategies of Thomas Coke. In 1786, Coke recognized the “fallen state of Christendom”and the need for ministers in every country.9 He continues to state:

“…some of the nations which are called Christian, are deeper sunk in ignorance and impiety than others; and even of the most enlightened, various parts still buried in the grossest darkness.”10

In a world that is in an era of post-Christendom even more than it was in 1786, we need to dream and strategically plan in ways we have never done before. This means reimagining what church multiplication looks like for the future. Much like the relational network of the Methodist Connexion, I believe that the future of multiplication relies on relational networks to support the work of evangelism and discipleship. These networks can be denominations, but may need to be even more elemental, such as church planting networks or multisite church families. Beyond the relational role of these networks, they must be able to financially support multiplication efforts, just as Coke and the Methodist Connexion were able to do.

[1] Thomas Coke: Man of Letters, p. 72.
[2] A History of the West Indies, p. 15.
[3] U.S. Census Press Release.
[4] Extracts of the Journal of the Late Rev. Thomas Coke, pp. 63-64.
[5] Thomas Coke: Apostle of Methodism, p. 98.
[6] 2014 Millennial Impact Report, p. 4.
[7] Thomas Coke: Man of Letters, p. 71.
[8] An Address to the Pious and Benevolent, p. 1.
[9] Ibid, p. 5.
[10] Ibid, pp. 5-6.

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