Happy 259th birthday to Bishop Thomas Coke, born on this day in 1747.
Bishop Coke remains one of the unsung heroes of American Methodism. Sure, we all learn about him in seminary, and likely we purchase books or church supplies from Cokesbury (whose name comes from Coke and his episcopal partner), but we rarely speak of him in the honored tones we use when speaking of the Wesley brothers or Bishop Francis Asbury.
But Bishop Coke is the man through whom our ordination descends, since he was consecrated to the episcopacy by John Wesley, becoming America's first Methodist bishop. Bishop Coke later ordained Bishop Asbury, among others. It was primarily Bishop Coke who put together our first Book of Discipline, providing for order in the life of the Church.
While Bishop Asbury remained in America, becoming the most significant religious figure of the early republic (George Washington called him "America's Bishop"), Bishop Coke returned to Europe to preside over the Methodists in both Ireland and Great Britain. He also made occasional trips to America, where he was received warmly but rarely with the love and adulation that folks reserved for Bishop Asbury.
Perhaps most significantly, Bishop Coke, who was famous for his soft-spoken nature and overall kindness, as well as his love for the Lord and Wesley's approach to Christianity, is the "Father of Methodist Missions". He traveled to the Caribbean as a missionary and faithfully supported work in Africa and Canada, as well as in America. He passed away, in fact, in 1814, while making the journey to India to begin Methodist mission work in that nation.
The best work I've found on Bishop Coke is Thomas Coke: Apostle of Methodism, written by John Vickers in 1969 (ISBN 0716201283). Sadly, there hasn't been a great deal of historical research concerning our first bishop. I pray that this situation changes in years to come, as this great servant of Christ deserves a hallowed place in the hearts of not only Methodists, but Christians of every denomination and creed.
Thank God for Bishop Thomas Coke.