The Turbulent Life of Canada’s First Methodist Missionary
At some point in the early 1750s, travelling preachers visited the small Irish village of Drummersnave (now Drumsna), in County Leitrim. They were affiliated with an organized religious movement called Methodism, which at that point was not a denomination but rather a society that primarily sought religious renewal within the Church of England. It was characterized by strong preaching, often carried out by itinerants; the encouragement of personal piety and surrender to God; and involvement in mid-week religious meetings. Among those who listened to these preachers in Drummersnave was a Roman Catholic named Laurence Coughlan. Evidently being moved by their message, he converted to Anglicanism and joined the Methodists. Starting in 1755, he himself worked as a Methodist travelling preacher in Ireland and England, operating in connection with Methodism’s primary leader, John Wesley. It appears that Coughlan emphasized the emotional side of religion more than Wesley did, and this later earned the Irish preacher the criticism of his superior. But even so, Wesley clearly valued Coughlan and in 1763 identified him as one of the few people who stood by Wesley during a tumultuous time.
During the early 1760s, Wesley wanted priests to help provide clerical leadership to the Methodist society and administer the sacraments as required, even though most Methodists still received the sacraments from their local parish priest. Since many Methodist preachers, Coughlan among them, were not properly educated, ordination in the Church of England was usually not an option. This situation became more dire when Methodist Anglican priest Thomas Maxfield came into conflict with Wesley and left the society, taking with him another priest. A bizarre and rather poor possible solution to Wesley’s shortage of clerics came in the person of Gerasimos Avlonites of Arcadia (or Arkadia), also known as Erasmus of Arcadia, a visitor in England claiming to be a Greek Orthodox bishop from Crete. His church had apostolic succession, as did the Church of England, so anyone he ordained would have valid orders and therefore be a true priest. If he could be persuaded to ordain a Methodist or two, Wesley would have some reliable clerics to assist him in his ministry. Methodist lay preacher John Jones, at Wesley’s request, contacted the Orthodox patriarch of Smyrna and received confirmation of Gerosimos’s legitimacy as a bishop, and in one of the more unusual moments of Methodist history, Gerosimos ordained Jones as a priest. When Wesley was out of town, Gerosimos also ordained Coughlan and then travelled to Amsterdam. This easy acquisition of ordination did not go unnoticed, and before the year was out Gerosimos returned to England twice to ordain as many as ten others, some of them belonging to Thomas Maxfield’s group. In at least some cases the bishop took money for his services.
The ordination of John Jones had unleashed chaos, and it led to great controversy and embarrassment. The Methodists wisely put a stop to the affair and removed six men who had been ordained by Gerasimos from their society. By that time Coughlan had registered an independent religious meetinghouse in Surrey and identified himself as a preacher, not a priest. His relationship with Wesley and the Methodists at this point is unclear, but it appears that his days of working closely with them were over.
In 1766, the course of Coughlan’s life was forever altered when a request for his ministerial services came from Newfoundland, a rocky island with a cold, harsh climate off the Atlantic coast of mainland North America. The appeal came, through a chain of advantageous personal connections, to the bishop of London, who agreed that Coughlan could be ordained; perhaps his previous ordination was unknown by the bishop or not accepted as certainly legitimate. In any case, within two days Coughlan had been made a priest of the Church of England, and before the month was out, he set sail, with his wife and daughter, for the isle across the Atlantic.
When Coughlan stepped foot on Newfoundland soil, he was entering a world that was jarringly different from the home they had known in England. The Newfoundland economy was based on cod fishing, with many ships coming each year from southwestern England and returning in the fall. As time went on, more and more people settled on the island and built a colonial society that was predominantly male and had only “rudimentary institutions of law, commerce, and administration.” In Harbour Grace, where Laurence Coughlan lived, he found many to be ignorant about Christianity. He later wrote of certain Newfoundlanders, “As to the Gospel, they had not the least Notion of it: Drinking, and Dancing, and Gaming, they were acquainted with; these, they were taught by the Europeans, who came annually to fish.”
He laboured among the people in the hopes of stirring up religious devotion but was frustrated by the meagre results. Two years after landing, he wanted to rejoin the ranks of Methodist preachers in the British Isles, but Wesley would not have him back. Coughlan continued his seemingly fruitless labours, and to his great pleasure, roughly a year later a boom in religious interest came at last. His preaching met with much success, especially among the common people, and many reformed their ways. To meet the demand for instruction and exhortation, Coughlan began travelling around and endured many hardships in so doing. He later wrote about lodging with others during his winter travels and, due to the poor weather proofing of the houses, waking up with his bedside blanketed in “a beautiful white Covering of Snow” and then having to thaw his shoes by the fire in order to get them on. Yet, as tiring as the labour was, Coughlan was determined to be a minister of revival, and he also took the opportunity to organize Methodist small groups among his followers. Though he was not officially welcome in the main Methodist circle, he had nevertheless brought a form of Methodism to Newfoundland.
This small Newfoundland revival was in many ways similar to evangelical revival moments of that era and beyond. The minister boldly preached from the Bible, and people turned from sin and became more responsible members of society. However, this movement was strikingly Anglican in its emphasis on the Eucharist. Coughlan himself referred to it with the reverential term “the blessed Sacrament,” and its pious and humble reception from his followers features prominently in a later account of his ministry there. Coughlan’s revival was not, as some North American Christian movements have been, a movement of non- or anti-institutional Christian piety; rather, it was a renewal movement within the Church of England that embraced the Church’s sacramental worship and spirituality.
Predictably, Coughlan’s ministry was not appreciated by all, and for years he faced harsh opposition, particularly from those who had originally agreed to pay his salary. According to Coughlan, at one point his opponents even tried to poison him. Eventually, he and his family returned to England, perhaps because of health issues as well as because of controversy, at which point Wesley once again chose not to welcome him back into the fold. Coughlan thereafter associated himself with the Calvinistic circle of Methodists led by the Countess of Huntingdon, and in 1776 he published an account of his ministry in Newfoundland and dedicated it to Huntingdon. He was likely still part of the “connexion” when it formally seceded from the Church of England and became a dissenting church. The known life of Coughlan ends with one final surprise: Wesley records that he saw Coughlan briefly before the latter’s death and found him sorrowful and repentant for his unfaithfulness, possibly indicating that Coughlan regretted the reasons for his rejection by Wesley.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Coughlan’s life is the frequency of change and dramatic events. Throughout his life he was a Roman Catholic, a Methodist Anglican lay preacher under Wesley, an ordinand of a Greek Orthodox bishop, a preacher at an independent meeting house, a missionary Anglican priest, and a minister in Huntingdon’s developing Methodist connexion. As varying as his life was, however, the religious organizations he contributed to were much more stable. Anglicanism remained strong in England and Ireland, of course, and it became further established in Newfoundland. The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, though small, still exists today. Methodism, the organization with which Coughlan’s legacy is most closely associated, took root and flourished in Newfoundland, eventually becoming distinct from Anglicanism, as it did elsewhere. It also became prominent and powerful in many parts of what became the nation of Canada, which Newfoundland joined in 1949. Coughlan bears the distinction of being the leader of the first Methodist mission to that country.