THE WORK TAKES ROOT
Early Growth and Development of Methodism in Antigua
The period following Mr Gilbert’s death was a very trying time for the Methodist Society. The membership fell, but thanks be to the faithful witness of Bessie, Mary and Sophia, the chief instruments in its continuance, the flame of Caribbean Methodism was kept ablaze. It would be through other acts of God’s providence that help would later come to strengthen the work of Methodism in Antigua. Here are the accounts.
God’s providence in causing John Baxter to be sent to Antigua
John Baxter, born in 1739 and a shipwright from Chatham England came to work at Nelson’s Dockyard, here in Antigua on April 2, 1778. Baxter was a local preacher and his coming met the Society’s need for a leader to replace Nathaniel Gilbert. The commissioning of John Baxter to work in Antigua was not just a coincidence but rather another outworking of God. Of all the persons who could have been sent to Antigua to work, John Baxter, a Methodist Local Preacher was the one to have been chosen. John Baxter came against the advice of many and his coming gave impetus to the work in Antigua. Baxter would have been the first official Methodist representative after Nathaniel Gilbert to come to Antigua. Few years after his arrival in Antigua, Baxter met and married a lady of some property who proved a fit helpmate in his religious work.
Baxter can be numbered among the most devoted and effective Methodist lay pioneers. Baxter was a shipwright by day and a preacher by night. He commuted by horseback between English Harbour and St John’s. He is described as “a man of warm heart and rich evangelical experience, a plain powerful preacher, endowed with good commonsense and practical shrewdness.” Baxter soon won the hearts of the slaves who affectionately referred to him as “Daddy Baxter.” Another legend associated with Baxter, relates to May 28, 1779 that he declared to be a day of prayer. It is claimed that on that day it rained throughout the entire day breaking a drought that lasted for several months. As a result of his leadership, the group of Methodists grew from thirty on his arrival to six hundred. Such rapid growth meant a greater need for pastoral oversight. As a result of the needs of the young societies, Mr Baxter resigned his job in 1784 and devoted himself fulltime to the work. This was the same year that he was appointed (ordained) “Elder” (Presbyter) by the 1784 Christmas Conference at Baltimore (USA), making him the first Methodist Minister in the West Indies. Dr Thomas Coke presided over the Baltimore Conference, whose actions were confirmed by the British Conference that listed Baxter as a Minister in 1785.
The growing membership also meant the need for larger meeting quarters. In English Harbour, Baxter preached at Porter’s Row in Nelson’s Dockyard which was the name given to the house in which Baxter lived, and which today is still called “Baxter’s House” bearing the plaque which reads, “Baxter lived in this house from 1778-1784.” It is claimed that the roof of the house was so low that members had to stoop to go in and hear Baxter preach and that Baxter’s head would touch the roof when he stood up to preach. It is further claimed that at nights Baxter would sleep on a large table in the middle of the room surrounded by his chicken coops. When Porter’s Row became too small, Baxter moved his meetings to the home of Charles Thwaites. In St John’s a similar need was felt for a larger meeting place to accommodate the growing congregation. Since no private home was large enough, a meeting place had to be built. The year 1783 saw the building and dedication of the first chapel to be built in the West Indies. This was located on the corner of Temple and Tanner Streets in St John’s.
The membership continued to flourish and the need for the administration of the sacraments became very obvious. Baxter actually wrote to John Wesley and received his endorsement for the work in Antigua. Baxter appealed for an ordained minister to be sent to Antigua. A response to this appeal did not come until 1786 with the historic and providential meeting with Dr Thomas Coke.
God’s providence in causing Dr Thomas Coke to land in Antigua on December 25, 1786
Dr Thomas Coke, born at Brecon, Wales on 28th September 1747 to one Bartholomew Coke, entered Oxford University in 1764 where he gained his B.A. and M.A. degrees, and subsequently a Doctorate in Civil Law. On his return to Brecon, he became a member of the Common Council, and in 1770 was elected Bailiff, at the age of 23. At about this same time Coke became interested in religious matters as a member of the Church of England. He sought to enter Holy Orders and was accepted by the Bishop of St David’s who ordained him a Deacon. In July 1771 he was appointed as assistant Curate at the village of South Petherton in Somerset. It was while in this appointment that Coke came under the influence of the Methodist Revival Movement. He began to read the writings of John Wesley and of Wesley’s co-worker, the Rev John Fletcher. On 13th August 1776, Thomas Coke met John Wesley himself. The effects of this meeting were so remarkable that thereafter there were those who accused Coke of being a Methodist. On account of his Methodist tendencies, Coke was publicly dismissed from his Anglican post on Easter Sunday 1777. When Coke later complained to John Wesley that: “I have no parish no church,” Wesley responded, “Go preach the gospel to the whole world.” This advice Coke took literally and was eventually ordained by John Wesley in 1784. Before very long Coke became Wesley’s right hand man.
Dr Thomas Coke was in route to Halifax, Nova Scotia with three other missionaries – William Hammet and John Clarke to be stationed in Nova Scotia and William Warrener, the first missionary to non-English people to be stationed in Antigua, when gale winds blew them off course and forced them to land in Antigua on December 25, 1786. God’s providence was further at work, when Coke set out in search of Baxter, and on enquiring of the first person he met on the street about Baxter, was told by John Baxter himself: I AM HE- I AM JOHN BAXTER. Baxter with his lantern and a party of persons were in route to conduct Christmas morning service at Tanner Street, the location of the first Methodist Chapel in the West Indies and built by Baxter. The group made its way to the chapel which was packed to capacity and where Dr Coke, read prayers, preached and administered the sacrament. Thrice he preached that day and twice in the town every day for the ten days following. To this day, Methodists throughout the West Indies continue to hold Christmas Morning worship service at 5am in commemoration of this historic Christmas morning encounter; and also as a reminder that our forefathers on the slave plantations were only free to hold religious meetings between sunset and sunrise, except on Sundays.
Coke was delighted with what he saw in Antigua – it was a society of nearly 2,000 souls. Coke described his Christmas morning audience as “One of the cleanest audiences I ever saw.” Unlike Baxter the shipwright, Coke was a distinguished clergyman and Oxford Doctor of Law, an “eloquent and fascinating little man.” He received the most flattering attentions from the elite of the Antiguan society. Coke was so impressed with what he heard and saw in Antigua that he tore up Wesley’s station order and stationed all three men in the Caribbean, leaving Warrener in Antigua, where he remained until 1797.
In referring to Dr Thomas Coke, Cyril Davey makes the point that “next to John Wesley himself, who called Methodism into being, the most significant and formative figure in Methodism’s first hundred years is unquestionably Dr Thomas Coke. Coke has been variously referred to as “The Father of Missions,” “The Columbus of Methodism,” “The Wesley of the West Indies” or simply the “Apostle of Methodism” – names that are testimonies to his work in the propagation of Methodism throughout the Caribbean and other parts of the world. Coke is credited for officially establishing Methodism in the Caribbean in 1786. Coke died on 3rd May 1814 in route to Ceylon.
To mark the spot believed to be Coke’s landing point , the Methodist Church under the leadership of the Reverend Neville D Brodie, then Superintendent Minister, erected a plaque in December 1986, marking the bicentenary of Coke’s landing in Antigua.
God’s providence in causing Mrs Francis Gilbert to return to Antigua
Mrs Francis Gilbert, a woman of superior intelligence and force of character, is widely accepted as the main ally who worked alongside John Baxter during the formative years, though reference is made to an Irish man who, on account of a storm that caused him to land in Antigua, also assisted with the work. Mrs Gilbert, who corresponded with John Wesley, had returned to Antigua 1781 after the death of her husband and remained there for the next ten years. Her presence in Antigua was more a case of providence than of choice. After the death of her husband Francis, it was expedient that Mrs Gilbert return to Antigua with the hope of settling his affairs. Her letter to John Wesley written from Antigua speaks not only of her misfortune, but of God’s providence in directing the course of her life. She writes:
Had the estate regularly paid my annuity, I should have rested in my native clime, and quietly enjoy the means of grace which I greatly prize. But God hath His way in the whirlwind. I did not know that He had anything for me to do in His vineyard ……… but my work was provided. Immediately on my arrival I was called upon to supply those deficiencies which the secular affairs of Mr Baxter render unavoidable.”
Mrs Gilbert undertook the meeting of the women’s classes, and became the general instructor of the black people. She ably assisted Baxter in the care and education of the Blacks, she also influenced a stratum of white society that was beyond Baxter’s reach. She along with the slave women also assisted Baxter in raising resources and keeping accounts of the funds collected for the building of the first chapel. Later Mrs Gilbert wrote to John Wesley: “My house is open for all that will attend at family prayers every day. I have one evening in every week for the public reading of scripture. These evenings I have large congregations both of Whites and Blacks.” Wesley encouraged Mrs Gilbert’s timely efforts.
The work in Antigua flourished under the Superintendency of John Baxter who also greatly assisted with the spread of Methodism to the neighbouring islands and would have accompanied Coke on several of his journeys. Baxter died on November 13, 1805 at the age of 66 years. At the time of his death, Baxter would have completed 22 years of service and the membership of the church in Antigua stood at 2,900.
Accounts differ as to the exact location of Baxter’s grave. According to Lanaghan in the work Antigua and the Antiguans, he was interred in the churchyard of St John’s [St John’s Cathedral]. Regrettably like Nathaniel Gilbert, a head stone was never put to mark Baxter’s grave. Lanaghan bemoans the fact that,
The Wesleyans of Antigua have never erected monuments to the memories of Mr Gilbert and Mr Baxter. I am sure that there are members enough to do this; and it would be but paying a proper tribute of respect to the memories of those excellent men, and founders of that sect in this island. Perhaps they may take the hint and allow the walls of their handsome chapel to be graced with two neat marble tablets devoted to that purpose.”
It is worthy of note that Zion Hill and English Harbour chapels and congregations were renamed Gilbert Memorial and Baxter Memorial respectively in honour of lives and works of Nathaniel Gilbert and John Baxter respectively. Also installed in the Gilbert Memorial Chapel is a plaque to the honour of Nathaniel Gilbert. Another plaque at the Gilbert Memorial pays tribute to Mary Alley, Sophia Campbell and Bessie.