A mission to Asia was the long-cherished vision of Thomas Coke, who was consulting with Charles Grant about it as early as 1784. The renewal of the East India Company's charter in 1813 proved to be the eventual opportunity. Coke sailed with six young missionaries at the beginning of 1814 and the first missionaries landed at Galle on 29 June, following Coke's death at sea. Welcomed and aided in government circles, three of them began work among the Tamils - James Lynch and Thomas Squance in Jaffna and William Ault in Batticaloa, where he died within months. Meanwhile Benjamin Clough at Galle and George Erskine at Matara began a Sinhalese mission in the south. Back in London, when they learned of Coke's death, in 1816 the Missionary Committee designated Lynch, the senior member among the missionaries, as Superintendent of the Ceylon Mission 'until a person be appointed from England to take the superintendence of the Eastern Mission'. W.M. Harvard's arrival in Colombo in 1815 marked the beginning of the work there and the Dam Street Church in the Pettah survives as the first Methodist church built in Asia. A mission in Kandy led by Robert S. Hardy in 1836 came to nothing. But a fresh start was made there in 1867 and an Extension Fund, set up in 1874, supported pioneer work in the central highlands and the remoter parts of the east and south.
From as early as 1817 the opening of village schools was a vital part of the missionary strategy, despite financial constraints imposed by the WMMS. The missionaries were champions of education in the vernacular, which brought them at times into conflict with the colonial authorities. The earlier high schools set up in Colombo and Galle in the early days of the mission, were included in the 1840s among those receiving government grants, although still superintended by the missionaries . Later in the century several secondary schools were opened, including two in Colombo: these became Methodist College (1866) for girls and Wesley College (1874) for boys.
The first Sinhalese minister was appointed in 1819 and the first Tamil in 1825. Among the missionaries were notable Tamil scholars (e.g. Peter Percival and John Kilner) and students of Pali and Buddhism (D.J. Gogerly; R.S. Hardy and later C.H.S. Ward). Missionaries were involved in the debates with Buddhism at the time of the Buddhist Revival in the latter part of the 19th century. The main Christian protagonist in the famous Panadura Debate in 1873 was the Sri Lankan WM minister David de Silva (1817-74; e.m. 1841), a pupil of Gogerley. More recently, dialogue has replaced confrontation. With this in view, the Study Centre (now the Ecumenical Study Institute for Study and Dialogue) in Colombo was established by Methodists in 1951. The Rev. G. Basil Jackson was its first secretary and its most outstanding Director (from 1962 until his death in 1982) was the Sri Lankan Methodist minister, Lynn A. de Silva (1919-1982; e.m. 1947), a remarkable scholar of Buddhism. Ministers are trained at the ecumenical Theological College at Pilimatalawa near Kandy. With other Churches Methodism has been actively involved in reconciliation of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities and in caring for the victims of violence.
The Methodist Church in Sri Lanka became autonomous in 1964. In 1956 the membership was reported as 13,278, with a community role of 25,000. By 2002 the reported membership was 15,500 with a total community of 28,000.