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WEBSTER, THOMAS, Methodist clergyman, editor, and author; b. 24 Oct. 1809 in Glendalough (Republic of Ireland), son of Robert Webster and Elizabeth——; m. 11 April 1833 Mary Bailey in London, Upper Canada, and they had one daughter; d. 2 May 1901 in Newbury, Ont.

Thomas Webster’s family migrated to New York in 1812 in order to escape from the sectarian strife in Ireland. They refused to become American citizens during the War of 1812 and decided to move to London Township, Upper Canada, in 1819. Thomas was, as he recounts in his memoirs, “brought up to reverence the Lord’s day, while other boys were allowed to fish and hunt on the sacred Sabbath.” In his youth he could not avoid alcohol for it was customary at the numerous bees and raisings he attended. After experiencing a religious conversion in 1828, however, he took the pledge. Before he joined the local temperance society, he began reading the Bible and noting every passage that mentioned wine and strong drink, “but before I reached Isaiah’s prophecy, I concluded that to abstain from all intoxicating drinks . . . would be right in the strictest sense of the word.”

In 1830 Webster started to teach Sunday school and organize temperance meetings in the local Methodist church. His own education had been a mixture of formal and informal schooling; his wife was instrumental in his literary education. During the cholera outbreak of 1832 Webster had a slight attack and also began to suffer from bouts of rheumatism, which prevented him from working on his recently purchased farm in London Township. In 1834 he and his wife established a well-attended Sunday school in their house, and the following year he began to teach in a day school. In 1838 he became an itinerant preacher on the Nelson circuit for the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada, founded four years earlier by Episcopals who rejected union with the British Wesleyan Conference. He was ordained in 1840 and became an elder of the church in 1842.

Webster was dedicated to the principle of “equal rights” for all denominations. He became embroiled in the controversies between the continuing Methodist Episcopal Church and the more conservative Wesleyan Methodist Church. In an extensively documented pamphlet, he argued that the local preachers and laity had not been consulted during the 1833 union negotiations. As a result, the office of bishop and the order of deacon had been abandoned. Moreover, the Episcopals’ voluntarist principles had been compromised, since the Wesleyans had accepted state assistance for educational and missionary endeavours. To advance the principles and the unique polity of the Episcopal Methodists, Webster and Joseph H. Leonard founded a denominational paper, the Canada Christian Advocate (Cobourg, [Ont.]), in January 1845. Webster was its editor for the first five years, writing on a broad range of religious themes and church concerns. He also continued to play an important role in national and local temperance organizations, such as the Sons of Temperance.

Webster was vigorous in advocating equal rights for women. In Woman mans equal (Cincinnati, Ohio, and New York, 1873), he concluded from his analysis of Scripture and history that neither inferiority nor superiority was “ordained,” and that any distinctions which did exist between the sexes were “man’s invention.” The Victorian notion of women as “gentle . . . ministering angels sent by the wisdom of God to be the comforters of mankind . . . and the beloved of our hearths and homes” struck him as fanciful. He advocated full participation of women in society and pointed out the fundamental injustice of the church’s position that “in the choir, women may sing of salvation; but it is fearful presumption for her to speak of it in the . . . Church.”

As one of the signatories to an 1866 petition which opposed a broader Methodist union, Webster became a leading defender of Episcopal principles. The church was prospering and its success was reason enough to conclude that it was “a highly favoured child of Providence.” Discussions of union encouraged him to review the disruptive events of the 1830s. His History of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada (Hamilton, Ont., 1870) and Life of Bishop Richardson . . . (Toronto, 1876) were controversial but thoroughly researched. These books established the Episcopal version of Canadian Methodist history which challenged the Wesleyan interpretation in the works of John Saltkill Carroll* and Alexander Sutherland. He charged that the Wesleyans had caused “dissension and strife, and a corresponding declension in the progress of the Gospel.”

By the 1880s the Episcopals’ resistance to the pressures for union was faltering. As a result of extensive building and missionary work in the northwest, the church had become heavily debt-ridden. Webster proposed a number of reforms to secure its financial position so that union would not be necessary. For example, he called for the stricter application of the rule that two-thirds of the subscription had to be taken up before construction of a church might be undertaken. He was “very much pained” when Bishop Albert Carman* led his church into the Methodist union of 1884, for he thought the terms would “destroy every essential feature of . . . the church . . . and render futile all the toil and sacrifice which, for the last fifty years have been made for its preservation.” With this defeat Webster withdrew from public life. He spent his last years as a superannuated minister in Newbury, Ont.

David B. Marshall

Thomas Webster’s papers at UCC-C, 3162, consist of a typescript copy of “My memoirs: a story of the early pioneer life in Canada West” (1871) and a collection of clippings from reformist newspapers. Webster’s opposition to union can be traced in two other collections in the UCC-C: the General Conference records of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada (6/1), vols.17 and 20, and the Albert Carman papers (3022), file 8.

In addition to the works mentioned in the biography, Webster’s publications include: The union considered, and the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada defended (Belleville, [Ont.], 1842); “Early scenes in Canadian life,” New Dominion Monthly (Montreal), 2 (1868): 283–87, 348–54; and An essay on Methodist church polity ([Hamilton, Ont.], 1871). He is also the compiler of The book of laws . . . (Toronto, 1874) of the Sons of Temperance, National Div. of North America.

J. W. Caldwell, “The unification of Methodism in Canada, 1865–1884,” UCC, Committee on Arch., Bull. (Toronto), no.19 (1967). Elizabeth Cooper, “Religion, politics and money: the Methodist union of 1832–1833,” OH, 81 (1989): 89–108. G. [S.] French, Pat-sons & politics: the rôle of the Wesleyan Methodists in Upper Canada and the Maritimes from 1780 to 1855 (Toronto, 1962). Methodist Church (Canada, Newfoundland, Bermuda), London Conference, Minutes, 1901: 78–79. David Mills, The idea of loyalty in Upper Canada, 1784–1850 (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1988). Neil Semple, “Ontario’s religious hegemony: the creation of the national Methodist Church,” OH, 77 (1985): 19–12.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David B. Marshall, “WEBSTER, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/webster_thomas_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/webster_thomas_13E.html
Author of Article: David B. Marshall
Title of Article: WEBSTER, THOMAS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: September 22, 2014