by Hans Rollmann



Laurence Coughlan, formerly a Roman Catholic, was converted to Methodism at Drummersnave, today's Drumsna, a town near Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim, Ireland, by Methodist itinerants in the early 1750s. Tradition has it that he became instrumental in the conversion of Robert Strawbridge, the first Methodist preacher in America. Coughlan entered a trial period as lay preacher in Ireland in 1755, and in 1757, together with John Murlin, left for England, where the London Conference records appointments for him and three other Irish preachers. In the late 1750s he served Methodist congregations in Colchester and Whitehaven10, but in September of 1760, Coughlan together with two other Methodist preachers entered upon a missionary tour in Ireland. Coughlan proceeded to Waterford, one of the contemporary source areas for Newfoundland labour and emigration and the place where in 1763 his future co-worker in Harbour Grace, John Stretton, was to be converted by Mrs. Eliza Bennis. 1762 saw him back in England. Two letters to Wesley that survive from this period show us a pious evangelical, whose religious experience vacillated between awe and bliss and who was in constant need of experiential verification of his own call and ministry.

The next time Coughlan appears in Wesley's letters, it is a passing reference to three preachers in the North West Round of England and as a stalwart supporter of Wesley. Wesley's positive mention of Coughlan in March of 1763, at a time when he had "scarce one hearty helper but Laurence Coughlan," contrasts with the internal dissent plaguing the Methodist movement at the time. The perceived enthusiasm and "realized perfectionism" of Thomas Maxfield and a group of London Methodists had caused Wesley, the "reasonable enthusiast," much grief, as had the lack of control over independent associates such as the calvinistic Methodist circle around Lady Huntingdon.

It would seem, however, that Wesley's appreciation of Coughlan cannot have lasted for long. From two letters of Coughlan in 1762; his 1776 book AN ACCOUNT OF THE WORK OF GOD IN NEWFOUNDLAND,; and the correspondence with Lady Huntingdon while he served as a preacher in her "Connexion", it appears that Coughlan's religious appeal emphasized the subjective element in religion. His enthusiasm --not unlike that of Maxfield's-- appears to have been a major reason for the widening gulf between him and Wesley. Direct evidence links Coughlan not only with Maxfield but also, in 1762, with other heterodox Wesleyans like Benjamin Colley, John Oliver, and John Owen. Coughlan's Methodist orthodoxy has traditionally been defended with the following quote from his 1772 letter to Wesley: "I am, and do confess myself, a Methodist. The name I love, and hope I ever shall. The plan which you first taught me, I have followed, as to doctrine and discipline." While it is true that Coughlan did follow Methodist organizational forms, his doctrine was called into question by Wesley himself, who in one of his letters accused him of an emotional misunderstanding of holiness and perfection and linked him directly with his arch-foe Maxfield. Wesley's last mention of Coughlan in a letter to Stretton shortly after Coughlan's death also hints at doctrinal heterodoxy when he speaks of Coughlan's "contrition for his past unfaithfulness." John Hoskins, the Methodist school master and lay preacher at Old Perlican, Newfoundland, seemed also agreed upon the doctrinal unsoundness of Coughlan and extends this predicate to his followers in Harbour Grace and Carbonear when he writes to Wesley that "in Harbourgrace and Carbonear, where Mr. Coughlan laboured, it is dwindled almost to nothing, chiefly by means of Calvinism and Antinomianism." In fact, if we inquire further what Coughlan meant by following a "Methodist plan", a letter to the Countess of Huntingdon of 13 January 1774 identifies it simply as a feeling-based enthusiastic religion. He writes: "I hope my Lady I shall always abide in the good old Methodist plan which was to Insist upon a present FEELING[.] " And in a further letter of 15 March 1776 to the countess, which had as its background the religious situation in Norwich, he again emphasizes "the Feeling part" as a main element of his understanding of faith and ministry.

If the theological estrangement with Wesley took place over an excessive subjectivism on Coughlan's part, the break was finalized only after the contentious Erasmus ordinations in 1764. These ordinations by the supposed Greek Bishop Erasmus are still a dark chapter in Methodist history. I cannot add at this point to the evidence summarized by A Barrett Sackett in his article "John Wesley and the Greek Orthodox Bishop." During Wesley's absence from London in 1764, several Methodist lay preachers were ordained by the Greek emigr‚ from Amsterdam. Laurence Coughlan was one of them. In response to pressure from Charles Wesley and others as well as the public scandal caused by the ordinations, John Wesley distanced himself from those whom Erasmus had ordained, although he seems to have been responsible for the ordination of his associate Dr. John Jones and thus probably had given hopes to others to follow suit. The so ordained presumably sought ordination at the hands of an alleged Greek bishop because they were refused or expected to be refused ordination by Anglican bishops. In the case of Coughlan we have no statement by him about the incident, but Wesley defended himself on 10 February 1765 in a letter in the ST. JAMES CHRONICLE with these words about his former "hearty helper": "When I was gone out of town, Bishop Erasmus was prevailed upon to ordain Laurence Coughlan, a person who had no learning at all." Ironically, fifteen years later, when Bishop Lowth would refuse the Newfoundland school teacher John Hoskins of Old Perlican ordination for a similar lack of formal learning, Wesley protested vociferously against making learning and not piety the supreme criterion for the ordained ministry. With the exception of John Jones, all those ordained by Bishop Erasmus left the Wesleyan fold. There is also a connection between Bishop Erasmus and Maxfield, who had four ministers ordained by the Greek bishop following Coughlan's ordination.

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