Dr Thomas Coke & Methodists in Ceylon
Thomas Coke (9 September 1747 – 2 May 1814) was the first Methodist Bishop and is known as the Father of Methodist Missions. Born in Brecon, South Wales, his father was a well-to-do apothecary. Coke, who was only 5 foot and 1 inch tall and prone to being overweight, read Jurisprudence at Jesus College, Oxford, which has a strong Welsh tradition, graduating Bachelor of Arts, then Master of Arts in 1770, and Doctor of Civil Law in 1775. On returning to Brecon he served as Mayor in 1772. He had a large private income – unlike most Methodists – and many influential friends. In 1805, at the age of 58, Coke married Penelope Smith, a wealthy lady who happily spent her personal fortune furthering the missions. She travelled with him until her death. In 1811 he married for a second time and his wife died the following year.
In 1809 when William Wilberforce referred Sir Alexander Johnstone to the Wesleyan Methodists, it became clear to Coke that “the first grand outpost of our Mission to India” must be Ceylon. Dr. Thomas Coke who was in his sixties began planning to go to Ceylon with a party of 12 missionaries. The Irish Methodist Conference of June 1813 enthusiastically supported him, and offered him three men out of many who volunteered – James Lynch, (although the other members of Mr. Lynch’s family were Roman Catholics), George Erskine and John McKenny. The party went to London to begin the intensive preparations for departure. The young missionaries were ordained in the Methodist way and took Portuguese lessons from Portuguese Roman Catholic priests.
Dr. Thomas Coke at the age of 66, left London on 31 December 1813 with Reverands Benjamin Clough, William Martin Harvard, William Ault, James Lynch, George Erskine and Thomas Hall Squance. Clough and Harvard embarked on the ‘Cabvava,’ captained by John Birch, while others were on the ‘Lady Melville.’ Dr Thomas Coke was the man chiefly responsible for the establishment of Methodist missions, and in particular the mission to Ceylon. On his way to India Dr Thomas Coke died on 2 May 1814 and buried at sea. His colleagues continued their voyage to India and Ceylon, with Rev James Lynch, an Irishman, as leader. Now that Dr. Coke had passed on the remaining missionaries faced a huge problem. The funds for the journey and other matters connected were in the name of Dr. Coke and now he was no more and his mortal Remains
were interred at sea in lat. 2° 29′ South, and long.
59° 29′ East.
Captain John Birch, was the first of many true friends who helped the young missionaries both before and after they landed in Ceylon. When the ship at last reached Bombay on 21 May, after a voyage of twenty weeks, Captain Birch described their situation to Mr. Thomas Money, a British merchant. Harvard and the others were not hopeful, but they were overcome with gratitude when Mr. Money said he would be very happy to advance them money – without securities – to the credit of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in London. He assured them that he was a firm friend to the cause of Christianity in Asia.
Captain Birch also introduced them to Sir Evan Nepean, the Governor of Bombay, who wrote a special letter about them to the Governor of Ceylon, General Brownrigg. Meanwhile, Mr. Money was arranging for their voyage to Ceylon. Harvard was advised to remain in Bombay because of his wife’s approaching confinement, and did not eventually leave Bombay till the following January. On June 20, James Lynch, William Ault, George Erskine, Thomas Squance and Benjamin Clough set sail in the “Earl Spencer”, a ship bound for China. It was a speedy voyage. In fact the gales were so strong that it might have been impossible to go ashore at Galle. At eight o’clock they became very uneasy, for Ault and Erskine had failed to appear, but Lord Molesworth affirmed that there was no need for alarm. The strong winds and tides often carried boats away from Galle towards Weligama Bay, sixteen miles further east.
Wednesday 29 June 1814 was “a remarkably clear day”. The master attendant of Galle harbour, Mr. W C Gibson had received a letter from Mr. Money and was looking out for the arrival of the ship. The first was for Mr. & Mrs Harvard, who were to stay at his own country-house outside the town. As the Harvards had remained behind in Bombay, Lynch, Squance and Clough decided to go ahead at once in the small boat, leaving Ault and Erskine to follow. When the three of them stepped ashore in the evening twilight, they were received by the Master Attendant of the Galle Harbour, Mr W C Gibson and escorted to the ‘Kings House’ where the Commandant of the Galle Garrison, Rt. Hon Molesworth, welcomed them with the words – “This is all in answer to prayer”. This ‘pious nobleman’ was a firm supporter of the Mission from its beginning. The Rev George Bisset, the Governor’s private secretary was sent from Colombo to bid them welcome to the island and assure them that every facility would be rendered to assist them in their important undertaking.
On Sunday, 3 July 1814, at the Commandant, Lord Molesworth’s requested the missionaries to hold their first Service in the Dutch Church, Galle, at which the garrison and nearly all the resident Europeans were present. James Lynch read the liturgy, and Thomas Squance preached on 2 Corinthians 10:14. Under the preaching of Rev Thomas Squance, a young Burgher physician, William Alexander Lalmon, offered himself for the Methodist Ministry. He became the first recruit and served faithfully for forty eight years.
Lord Molesworth indeed, until his death, proved to be one of their wisest guides and most constant supporters. Dr Coke’s vision was now realised. After six hazardous and eventful months and a voyage which brought much illness and the deaths of Mrs. Ault and Dr Coke, METHODISTS were at last preaching the Gospel in Ceylon, and the MISSION TO ASIA had begun.
On Monday, 11 July, the first District Meeting was held at Galle, called by its members ‘a conference’. They deliberated as to whether it was advisable to separate so widely from each other as would be required if the Governor’s recommendation was acceded to. But after consideration due to so important a matter, they agreed that Mr. Lynch and Mr. Squance should go to Jaffna; Mr. Ault to Batticaloa; Mr. Erskine to Matara and that Mr. Clough should remain at Galle. The first ministers of the mission who visited Colombo were Messrs Lynch and Squance.
The missionaries set to work with courage, zeal and faith, living with the people, learning their language and seeking to understand their needs and problems. Poverty, ignorance, disease, vice, prejudice and defiance had confronted them on all sides. Methodism began in the South. The work was spearheaded with the village evangelism and education. Schools and Mission Stations were opened out in the villages.
Ceylon was recognized as a District in the Mission Field by the Conference of 1815 and James Lynch became the first Chairman. Six more missionaries arrived and shortly afterwards, Daniel John Gogerly the greatest man that Methodism ever gave to Ceylon arrived in 1818. He came as a layman to take up work as printer and press manager. He was ordained in 1823 and became an outstanding scholar. He was Chairman of the South Ceylon District for twenty four years and died in Ceylon, never once having gone to England on furlough.
In Negombo, two Roman Catholics, Don Daniel Pereira and his son Daniel Henry, by 1815 had established a Sunday school for the Catholic children. Eleven years later with their conversion in 1826 the two Roman Catholics, Don Daniel Pereira and his son Daniel Henry opened the door for Methodism in this Roman Catholic stronghold. Meanwhile another missionary Rev. Samuel Langdon broke new ground in Uva, taking to the people education, social reform and medical work, along with the gospel. Our story moves on from the predominantly Sinhala and Buddhist areas to the Hindu areas in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Strong Hindu forces and the iniquitous caste system were the chief opponents to the Christian gospel. In 1883 in the island of Mannar, the Methodist Missionary work was started by Rev E Middleton Weaver and the Rev I. S. Adams. It was a strongly Roman Catholic area and in 1908, but some of the Roman Catholic people became Methodists. Today, there is in Mannar-Murunkan, a strong Methodist community.