Unsung Methodist Personalities: Biographies from the history of New Zealand Methodism by Donald Phillipps

Faith Seeks Understanding

Thomas Coatsworth’s obituary in the 1953 Conference Minutes was notable for its brevity – just a dozen lines. It spoke of his humility and his sincerity, his pastoral attention, and his evangelism. Just this much space for a man who had served in the Primitive Methodist and Methodist ministry for 47 years!

Thomas had been appointed to 14 different Circuits, though he served in a couple on more than occasion. Seven times he, as a single man, or with his wife and family, moved between the North and South Islands. He never spent more than four years in any one appointment.

I suppose it’s possible he wasn’t the most inspiring of preachers, or not sufficiently so that his congregations wanted him to stay for longer. Maybe he believed in the itinerancy of the ministry more strictly than is the case nowadays. But he ‘served his Master to the utmost of his powers.’

Only once in his career was he in a city Circuit, so his name is not found on Connexional committees. He was never asked by his colleagues to assume District responsibilities.

I want to sing the praises of Thomas Coatsworth, and of a hundred ministers like him, who achieved no great eminence within the councils of the Church but without whose faithful service New Zealand Methodism would be infinitely the poorer.

Primitive Methodism didn’t set too much store by what we would call academic achievement. Even more than the Wesleyans they concentrated on John Wesley’s dictum that the only business of the preacher was to ‘save souls’.

Thomas had been a local preacher since he was 20, starting out from his home church at Kew in South Dunedin in 1897. He had received his education at Caversham School, and then worked for seven years as a grocer with JH Hancock & Co. on Cargill Rd.

Clearly, in Thomas’s view, that wasn’t sufficient preparation for someone who wanted become a minister of the Word. What he did to remedy that deficiency marks him off from many of his contemporaries.

There’s a handy word to describe people like him – he was an ‘autodidact’, self-taught. Thomas took advantage of Dunedin’s educational innovation, the Technical Classes Association. We might think of them as evening classes that were available to people who wanted to improve their skills but whose employment limited their ability to study to after-work hours.

Thomas received his Senior Diploma from the Association in 1900. He had studied for five years, during which he had achieved passes in Latin, Arithmetic, English and Bookkeeping.

The moment he received his diploma he was off to Denniston, the coal-mining town on the West Coast to begin his life-long commitment to the service of his Master.

But his thirst for knowledge and desire to stretch his mind didn’t end then. A longer obituary in the New Zealand Methodist Times states that he “was able to read the Scriptures in 16 languages. The learning of languages had been his hobby, and (he) demonstrated no small intellectual capacity.”

He wrote articles on English history, for example, and the Hawera Star which featured them, turned them into as small booklet of 78 pages which was published in 1934. It seems he remained a student throughout his long life.

We do our mothers and fathers in the faith a great disservice if we think of them as unlettered women and men. Jesus was remembered for the simple stories he told. That’s all it takes to leave an impression, and even change a life. Thomas Coatsworth was his faithful servant, and never stopped learning.