The 'father of overseas missions' and Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church was born in Brecon on 28 September 1747 (O.S.), the son of a prosperous apothecary, who was twice bailiff (or mayor) of Brecon. Educated at Jesus College, Oxford, he was ordained deacon in 1770 and priest in 1772. Since 1771 he had been serving as a curate at South Petherton, Som. He obtained his DCL in 1775, but at Easter 1777 was forced out of his curacy because of his increasingly Methodistical leanings. He had met John Wesley at Kingston St. Mary the previous August, and been sent back to turn his parish into a Methodist stronghold. He now joined the Methodists and became Wesley's right-hand man during his remaining years. In Wesley's words, he 'bid adieu to his honourable name and determined to cast in his lot with us'.
Wesley used him as a trouble-shooter, especially in the disputes over the chapel deeds at Birstall, Dewsbury and North Shields; in 1782 he presided for the first time over the Irish Conference in place of Wesley, and in 1784 helped to draft the Deed of Declaration. Despite his championing the aspirations of the itinerants, his social and educational superiority made him suspect to many of them. Charles Wesley deeply resented his enjoyment of his brother's confidence and accused him of self-seeking ambition, especially when he learned of Coke's 'ordination' as 'Superintendent' for America.
In 1784 Wesley set Coke apart by imposition of hands and sent him out to America to establish what became the autonomous Methodist Episcopal Church. At the 'Christmas Conference' in Baltimore, Francis Asbury was ordained as fellow-Superintendent (soon changed to 'Bishop' despite Wesley's disapproval). Coke paid eight further visits to America, but was marginalized by his lengthy absences and British citizenship, and by Asbury's determination to retain control of the American connexion. He did not return after his first marriage in 1805.
During this period, support for the growing overseas missions, through both personal giving and begging, made enormous demands on his time and energies. His first missionary proposal in 1783/4 foundered for lack of Wesley's approval, but in 1786 his 'Address to the Pious and Benevolent' led to the first Methodist overseas missions in the West Indies, as well as in British North America, the Channel Islands and the Orkney and Shetland Islands. The establishment of the earliest missions was due to his virtually single-handed efforts in raising funds, recruiting missionaries and superintending their work, until the very eve of his departure for Asia at the end of 1813. This was due partly to his reluctance to relinquish control of what he had established, and partly to the reluctance of others to undertake the responsibility for an expanding field of outreach.
Coke was short in stature, with boyish features and, in later years, increasingly rotund. His undoubted naivety was the obverse of his sincerity and dedication. He had a a volatile and impulsive nature which sometimes led him to hot-headed indiscretions, even in the pulpit. Wesley once contrasted himself with Coke as being like a louse and a flea: 'I creep like a louse, and what I have I keep. Dr. Coke leaps like a flea and is often obliged to leap back again.' Examples of this are scattered throughout his career. He remained single until within a few years of his death; then in 1805 married Penelope Goulding Smith, whose father had left her with a modest fortune (much of which, like Coke's own inheritance, went to support the missions). Within a year of her her death in 1811 he married Ann Loxdale, the pious daughter of a Methodist family, only to be bereaved a second time before he left for Asia.
Although Coke may have seen himself as Wesley's natural successor, the determination of the itinerants not to have another 'King in Israel' meant that he was not elected President until 1797 (and again in 1805, in response to the possibility that he might settle in America), though for some years he had alternated with Wesley in presiding over the Irish Conference. Among his publications were a six-volume Commentary on the Bible (1801-7), a History of the West Indies (1808-11) and (with Henry Moore) a life of Wesley (1792) and several 'extracts' from the Journal he kept while travelling in America and the Caribbean. In his closing years he enlisted the collaboration of the Cornish Samuel Drew in his literary work.Indian mission during the night of 2-3 May 1814 and was buried in the Indian Ocean. There are memorials to him on the north wall of Brecon cathedral and in the apse at Wesley's Chapel. The former Coke Memorial church at Brecon was opened in 1835. It became redundant in the late 20th century and the site is now occupied by a supermarket.
'Dr. Coke and I are like the French and the Dutch. The French have been compared to a flea, and the Dutch to a louse. I creep like a louse and the ground I get I keep; but the Doctor leaps like a flea and is sometimes obliged to leap back again.'
'In the morning at six o'clock (for this was the Doctor's time of rising) the servant went into his cabin to clean his shoes, but on entering he saw him lying on the floor. He ran immediately to the Captain and informed him that Dr. Coke was dead. The Captain went into the cabin directly and found him in the same posture. He at first thought he saw some signs of life in him, but on lifting him up found him to be quite stiff.'
Thomas Squance's diary
[Coke's death at sea] 'was indeed a great shock to us; as we had not entertained the least idea of such an event. He had been a few days rather unwell: but from this we appehended nothing serious; as the health of most persons suffers a little while they are seasoning for a change of climate. The night before he was in our cabin. He usually came in to singing and prayer. That night he excused himself from remaining with us, saying that, being rather poorly, he wished to retire earlier… He very cheerfully took leave of us; and told W[illiam] to thank God he had obtained so good a wife! Poor dear man! To lose him was like the stroke of losing a beloved father.'
Elizabeth Harvard, in her husband's Memoir (3rd edition, 1833, p.41)