The Rev W. E. Horley, after 35 years of missionary service in Malaya, visited a historic Methodist church in Bristol and was reminded of Captain Thomas Webb, who probably preached the first Methodist sermon in America and was instrumental in establishing the first Methodist church in Philadelphia.
Capt Thomas Webb soldiered fully for Methodism after leaving the British Army
‘IRECENTLY spent part of my furlough in the ancient city of Bristol in England.
One Sunday I conducted a service in a fine old Methodist sanctuary called Portland Street Chapel. It is surrounded by an ancient graveyard and under the building is an old crypt where the bodies of many early Methodist saints are buried but I had no idea that Captain Thomas Webb, the man who probably preached the first Methodist sermon in America, was buried there.
In the chapel there is a stained glass window to his memory. There he stands with his scarlet soldier’s coat and the shade over his blind eye.
Upon one of the mural tablets that crowded the walls of the chapel, I read the following:
“Sacred to the memory of Thomas Webb, Esq, Captain in the 45th Regiment of Foot, who died 20th December 1796, aged 79 and whose remains are interred in the recess. As a soldier, he was brave – active – courageous, and lost an eye at the siege of Louisbourg – 1758. When afterwards enlisted under the banner of Christ as a Christian he was exemplary for simplicity and godly sincerity. As a Preacher he was faithful – jealous – successful – both in Great Britain and America. In the latter he founded the first Methodist Churches and was the principal instrument in erecting this Chapel.”
I went down into the crypt under the chancel and I thanked God for the world-wide service and influence of the Methodist Episcopal Church which this good soldier of Jesus Christ had helped by his life and preaching to found.
He had first gone to America an unconverted, unawakened officer in the British Army and in 1758, when he was only 24 years of age; he lost an eye at the taking of the strongest fortress in America, Louisbourg. In the year 1765 having returned to England he found Christ at Bristol and rejoiced in the consciousness of personal salvation and joined the Wesleys.
One day the preacher did not turn up to take the service and so this young lieutenant, now in his 31st year, preached the sermon.
Wesley made him a local preacher and soon afterwards he was sent out again by the military authorities in America. He was appointed the master of the barracks at Albany (NY) and commenced services in his house and also in the surrounding district. Twenty-four persons were converted, half of them being white and the rest Negroes.
Soon afterwards he was preaching in New York and Thames Taylor, writing from New York on April 11th, 1768 to Wesley said, “Capt Webb, who was converted three years ago at Bristol, found out Mr Embury and his helpers and preached in his regimentals. The novelty of a man preaching in a scarlet coat soon brought greater numbers to hear than the room could contain. This obliged the little Society to look out for a larger house to hold services in. They soon found a place that had been built for a rigging house 60 ft in length and 18 ft in breadth.”
Soon afterwards Capt Webb was busy with Philip Embury (who founded Methodism in New York) and others in purchasing a bit of land and collecting money to erect the first Methodist chapel in America, the old John Street Chapel, and became one of the trustees.
Retiring from the Army he became an evangelist settling on Long Island preaching in his own house, then on to Philadelphia and Baltimore.
As I stood in that old Bristol chapel which he too had erected, I thanked God for Capt Webb and prayed that I too might be “a faithful solder of Jesus Christ in Malaya”.’ – MM, October 1929, pages 7 – 8, slightly edited.
Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.