Thomas Coke and the secret meeting in Lichfield

Thomas Coke was born in Brecon in 1747. He became an Anglican curate but was dismissed in 1777 for his Methodist leanings. He joined John Wesley who recognized his many gifts and he became a trusted confidant of his. In 1784 he was ordained by Wesley as superintendent of the Methodist Church in the now independent United States to which he sailed and, at the inaugural conference in Baltimore that year, he ordained as joint superintendent Francis Asbury.

Following Wesley’s death in 1791, there was some uncertainty at all levels as to Methodism’s future direction. Coke, who had revisited the United States and seen how well the Methodist movement was working there drew up plans to remodel the Methodist constitution here. These included superintendents appointed by Conference and ordained elders and deacons. In 1794, he called a meeting of some of the senior preachers to fully discuss these plans. It was vital to him that the meeting be held in the utmost secrecy and Lichfield was an obvious venue since, as yet, there was no Methodist society there and thus no-one to recognise the participants. The meeting on 1st April at an unspecified inn in the city was attended by eight preachers in all who agreed, subject to Conference’s approval, to what would have been far reaching changes.

Coke was sadly mistaken in thinking that the meeting could be kept secret! Here were strangers, clearly highly intelligent, meeting behind closed doors in an era of great political unease who could only give rise to suspicion. This they duly did and the local magistrates gave orders for the proceedings to be watched. Further, it has been said that a commercial traveller who by reason of his occupation moved around the country recognised at least one of them. This could have been Coke himself. Standing only 5’ 1” high he was rather small even for the time and quite rotund. The traveller let it be known that those attending the meeting were no less than Methodist preachers. In Lichfield there was nothing more likely to cause anger than dissenters particularly Methodist ones! It is said that the revelation brought the meeting to a hasty conclusion!

When the plans came before Conference they found little support. The meeting had rather shot itself in the foot by suggesting the Connexion be divided into eight divisions with six of them having one of their number as superintendent!

Coke, of course,  is best remembered as the Father of Methodist Missions. He dedicated his later life to the missionary movement and established missions in the West Indies and Sierra Leone. He spent his own fortune on the work and thought nothing of going from door to door in London begging for funds. In 1814 he died while sailing to what was then known as Ceylon to establish the work there and was buried at sea.

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