Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana Archives

Rev. William Naylor Webbe, rector of Trinity Fort Wayne

William Naylor Webbe was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 17 December 1848, the son of the Rev. William Thomas Webbe, an English immigrant from Stourport, Worcestershire, and his wife Jane (Naylor). For thirty years the father had served as an assistant minister at St. Michael's Church on High Street in Brooklyn. William graduated from Columbia in 1870 and married Caroline Putnam Main, descended from an old Connecticut family that included Gen. Israel Putnam. In 1873 he received a Master of Arts from Columbia, attended General Theological Seminary, and was ordained to the priesthood. He began his career in Missouri, serving parishes in the towns of Mexico and Louisiana before assuming the rectorship of Grace Church in St. Louis. Remaining there less than a year, he moved to Evansville to become rector of St. Paul's Church, where he earned a reputation as a strong evangelist.

Arriving in Fort Wayne in 1879, Webbe began a series of Sunday evening sermons on popular topics that quickly captured the attention of the local newspaper editors. He preached with fire and emotion, his topics supported the growing Social Gospel movement. Horrified at the degree of alcoholism that existed in society, he preached on the topic, "How to Keep Our Young Men Out of Saloons" and would organize the Young Men's Guild as a means of providing wholesome entertainment for teens. He preached on a gamut of other topics, including "How to Convert Jews," "Infant Damnation in the Light of Scripture and Christianity," "How to Combine Worship and Work in Our Sunday Assemblies," "A Spiritualistic Seance with a Genuine Materialization," and "The Fear of Death and How to Be Delivered from It." He questioned whether sectarianism was a source of weakness or strength, invited a deaf clergyman to preach in sign language, and attempted to organize women's groups in the parish for a more missionary, rather than social, purpose. He won respect for his moderate views, saying that dancing quadrilles and attending theater performances were harmless amusements, and he even visited a local race track. He spoke to the Medical College about the relationship of religion to healing. When President James Garfield was assassinated, he advocated for civil service reform. He also became an outspoken advocate for women's suffrage.

In 1883, Webbe launched himself into the local political scene by advocating for the closure of saloons on Sunday and prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors. Saloons had proliferated across the city as had public intoxication. He condemned the city and its mayor, Charles Zollinger, for failing to enforce the city's liquor laws. Zollinger had earned a reputation in some quarters for nepotism and also received many brides from local saloon owners, many of whom were fellow Germans. Joining forces with the Rev. David Moffat, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, the two demanded that Zollinger answer the charges that he had been intentionally lax in his duties. Receiving the strong endorsement of the Daily Gazette, Zollinger at length relented and fired his chief of police, Ferdinand Meyers. A group of the mayor's supporters wrote an article that criticized the membership of the church for its wealth: "How easy it is to worship God from softly-cushioned seats." It also characterized Webbe as a "sharp, shrewd calculating man of the world rather than a gentleman of the cloth. His manner of speaking is pleasing and his delivery smooth and graceful... High-toned churches must do business in princely style, and Trinity is bound that its end of the string shall be kept in an elevated position."

To be sure, Webbe was seen by some as overly ambitious. When Bishop Joseph Talbot died, some perceived Webbe to be actively campaigning to be chosen as his successor, a charge he vehemently denied. Disputes with two other clergyman in the diocese, the Rev. John Jacob Faude of Plymouth and Benjamin F. Hutchins of Logansport over the possibility of being named Bishop Coadjutor essentially quashed any hope of being elected, as campaigning for the office was considered unseemly.

By the middle of the 1880s, Trinity's efforts to support western Episcopal missionaries had gained considerable support and pleased the new bishop, David Buel Knickerbacker. Webbe also enlarged the choir, expanding it to eight men and twelve boys. The Sunday School flourished. In 1888, he submitted his resignation in order to accept a pastorate at St. John's Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh.

In his later years, Webbe moved to Rochester and Lyons, New York, and finally took leadership of a church on Long Island. He died at Warwick, New York, on 8 September 1924.


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