May 22, 2006 by Joseph Krohn
The recently converted man in full military dress, unforgettable in the green patch over his sightless eye-socket, dramatically laid his sword alongside an open bible and announced to the small congregation that he was a soldier of the cross and a true spiritual descendant of John Wesley.
Born in either Bath or Salisbury in the west of England, Thomas planned on a career as a Redcoat and was commissioned a quartermaster in the 48th Regiment of Foot. One year later he was promoted to lieutenant. In 1758 he was transferred, together with his regiment, to North America where the French forces were gaining in the Seven Years’ War. In July of the same year Webb was serving with Amherst and Wolfe, famous British generals, when Louisburg was captured in Nova Scotia. It was a turning point in the war. Not even the French victory at Montmorency in July, 1759 (where Webb lost an eye to musket-fire) could stem the military disaster coming upon Montcalm one month later at Quebec.
In the momentous summer of 1759 Webb had published A Military Treatise on the Appointments of the Army, his reflections on the science of waging war. In it he indicated how warfare in the new world differed from that in the old, and why less cumbersome weapons were needed in terrain that demanded mobility. (Fifteen years later a soon-to-be-famous general, foreseeing a revolution, was to read and distribute the book and turn it tellingly against the British. George Washington’s copy of Webb’s treatise is currently housed in a Boston museum.)
Subsequently recommended for a captaincy, Webb declined the promotion, wanting neither to return to Britain nor to submit his new wife to the rootlessness of military life. When his wife died shortly, however, he crossed the Atlantic in order to sell his commission.
The winter of 1764 found Webb depressed, convinced that he was a sinner whose sinnership was irremediable and he himself hopeless. He was directed to a Moravian preacher whose Passion Sunday sermon (March 24, 1765) persuaded the forty year-old that the crucified had borne his guilt and shame and had borne them away. His hopelessness cancelled, Webb found the assurance of his salvation swelling as he testified for the rest of his life of his certainty of seeing his Lord in glory. The Moravian preacher introduced him to Rev. James Rouquet, who in turn had come to faith under Rev. George Whitefield. Immediately Webb found a spiritual home among the Methodists, enjoying a “fit” so fine that he always regarded them and him to be made for each other.
When the scheduled preacher failed to appear at Bath, one Sunday, Webb was asked to speak. Knowing nothing of sermon-technique, and lacking formal training in theology, he could only relate simply, unselfconsciously, the unvarnished account of his conversion. The Spirit-quickened story-telling of the battle-scarred veteran thawed frozen hearts and confirmed his vocation among the Methodists.
Having sold his commission in 1766, Webb returned to New York as a civilian. As befitted someone whose book on military science had enhanced the deployment of troops and materiel, he was soon to prove hugely fruitful in consolidating the diffuse personnel and resources of early American Methodism. In addition, his public utterances now included not only the retelling of his own awakening but also “the whole counsel of God.”(Acts 20:27), never neglecting the Wesleyan emphasis for which he was unapologetic because unashamed; namely, Christian perfection.
Possessed of immense patience, six months’ intense evangelistic work around greater New York City found him not complaining but rejoicing as twenty-four people newly declared their faith in Jesus Christ, half of them black and half white. A tireless worker on behalf of any Methodist concern, he didn’t consider it beneath him to peddle books in the metropolis in order to raise the purchase price of a church-site. Always keen, like the apostle Paul before him, to announce the gospel (of Methodism) where it had never been heard before, he inaugurated Methodist work in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and many areas of Pennsylvania. (In Philadelphia he fuelled the evangelical flame that had sprung from Whitefield’s fire.)
August, 1772 found Webb back in England, a delegate to the Methodist Conference at Leeds. Recognizing his administrative talents, John Wesley sent him to Ireland to remedy long-standing difficulties in the Methodist Societies of Limerick and Dublin.
In April, 1773 Webb returned to America, accompanied by his new wife, Grace. An American spy, Samuel Purviance, accused him of being a spy in the service of the British forces. (Although Webb was a civilian he had continued to draw a military pension.) Webb was arrested and confined to a Prisoner of War camp in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he ministered to the internees. In 1778 he was given a passport that allowed him to travel the few miles to Philadelphia. There he hoped to have himself exchanged for an American Prisoner of War. The authorities, however, disdained his passport and reinterned him. Undaunted, his wife pleaded with George Washington and was granted the sought-after exchange.
In Britain once more in 1778, Webb pursued his non-stop work on behalf of the Methodists, preaching and encouraging, always raising money for chapels to house the burgeoning crowds. He was singularly instrumental in securing funds for a second chapel in Bristol on Portland Heights. On Christmas Eve, 1796 his remains were buried there. When Portland Chapel was closed in 1972, one hundred and seventy-five years later, and his remains were disinterred, the identifying green patch was found almost intact. His remains, including those of his wife, were reburied at the New Room, Bristol, long the site of brave Methodist forays into the new world in Wesley’s era.
What the old soldier lacked in formal education and social sophistication he more than made up for in singlemindedness, always exemplifying the apostle’s reminder, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits….”(2 Tim. 2:3f) Certainly John Wesley had appreciated Webb’s undeflected resolve. When Charles Wesley had written from Bristol, “Webb has much life and zeal, though far from being a clear or good preacher”, John had replied from London, “He has been long enough with you; send him to us.”