F. R. Webber: Forgotten apostle of Lutheran aesthetics

F. R. Webber - large

One of a small number whom Fr. Charles refers to as “the great men of our Synod,” Frederick Roth Webber nevertheless seems very little known in today’s LCMS. My curiosity was first piqued about nine months ago when my pastor and summer vicarage supervisor, the Rev’d Charles L. McClean, recommended that I purchase The Small Church: How To Build and Furnish It, a book by F. R. Webber on church architecture (it’s in the name, really). What lay therein I can only describe as astonishing. Not only is the quality of scholarship impressive, the prose style is crisp and erudite, the layout is tasteful, and the photographs are superb. It’s a marvelous book. Sure enough, just as Fr. Charles said, on page 206 of The Small Church one finds this splendid picture of Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Baltimore— then called “The Lutheran Church of Our Saviour”:

OSLC-5

There are several other pictures of Our Saviour in the book, and Webber refers to it in writing in numerous places throughout. It was evidently one of his favorite churches.

As wonderful as this book is, it is not thought of as Webber’s greatest work. That would be his Church Symbolism: An Explanation of the More Important Symbols of the Old and New Testament. He wrote others, too, among them A History of Preaching in Britain and America (a three-volume set) and Studies in the Liturgy. Webber also published a periodical, Lutheran Church Art (later called The Church Builder— see below), and was an editor for Pro Ecclesia Luterana, the journal of the Lutheran Liturgical Society of St. James (the complete archive of which can be found here), of which society he was a member. By all accounts, Webber was a gentleman, a scholar, and an unshakably orthodox Lutheran.

And yet Frederick Roth Webber seems virtually unknown in the LCMS today. (It took me about an hour to find even one picture of the man via a Google image-search. You try it; see how you fare.) This is puzzling…or perhaps it’s not, depending on how cynical you wish to be.

Webber made no pretense about being undiscriminating in matters of beauty. He was not a democratist in matters of form, good order, and aesthetic quality. He, along with the other members of the Liturgical Society of Saint James, was convinced that the ravages of rationalism and pietism had over time despoiled the Lutheran Church of her rightful, historic tradition in worship, architecture, and church life, and that the recovery of this heritage would necessarily entail a recovery of beautiful and reverent worship of the Triune God.

Suffice it to say, F. R. Webber’s churchmanship, liturgical scholarship, and stupendous architectural knowledge could stand to be better known, especially by my generation of Missouri Synod Lutherans. To that end I’ve compiled the following information. It’s not much, but it’s a start. Enjoy.


From the Concordia Historical Institute:

Born 26 January 1887, Decatur, Illinois, [Webber] graduated from the Lutheran School of Theology (Maywood, Illinois) in 1914 and was ordained in Racine, Wisconsin, in June of that year, accepting a call from the First Lutheran Church (Beloit, Wisconsin). From 1915 to 1917 he was a missionary to stations and congregations in Wisconsin and Chicago. In 1918 he accepted a call from Faith Lutheran Church (Cleveland, Ohio) and remained there until 1937. He served on the Architectural Committee of the English District of the Missouri Synod, writing articles for various periodicals. In 1927 he published his magnum opus, Church Symbolism. He also wrote the three-volume History of Preaching in Britain and America. He spent much of his time with archeological research in England.

[NOTE: To my knowledge, Webber was baptized, confirmed, and ordained in the General Council. He was received into the ministerium of the Missouri Synod by colloquy in 1918. The congregation he served prior to his colloquy, First English Lutheran Church in Platteville, WI, is now in the ELCA. — TDD]

From Clifford E. Nelson’s The Lutherans in North America:

In the twenties Luther D. Reed of the United Lutheran Church and Frederick R. Webber of the Missouri Synod led a movement for liturgical and architectural appreciation. As the prosperity of the decade made possible more expensive buildings in better locations, a number of synods appointed committees which recommended architects, made building suggestions, reviewed plans, and emphasized both honesty and quality in materials and craftsmanship. Webber, as head of the architectural committee of Missouri’s English District, became the champion of the English Gothic style, which soon became a status symbol even though some congregations continued to prefer the more functional Akron Plan and others had to settle for the less expensive rectangular box. Through the monthly bulletin Lutheran Church Art and then through his Church Symbolism, Webber exerted a significant influence in behalf of architectural beauty and form far beyond his own synod. Inevitably, in the flush of enthusiasm of the mid-twenties many congregations built beyond their means, a folly for which they would pay dearly in the early thirties after the economic bubble burst.

From Temples for a Modern God: Religious Architecture in Postwar America (horrible title; useful book):

While the Methodist architectural program was among the largest and best known among Protestants, other groups, such as the Lutherans, created their own architectural bodies. With the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), for example, the movement began as a local effort. The Synod’s “English” District (which encompassed the southern Great Lakes, not England) created a Committee on Church Architecture in 1 922. The experiment proved so successful that in 1923, the Synod established a denomination-wide body. As the Methodist Bureau had for Conover, the Missouri Synod’s efforts launched the career of Frederick Roth Webber. Born in Wisconsin, Webber was ordained in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and by the early 1920s, he was the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Cleveland, Ohio, also serving on the local district’s architectural committee. In time, he became active with the LCMS’s Commission on Architecture, serving as its secretary from the 1920s until the 1950s. While serving as secretary for the newly created synod-wide Committee on Architecture, he made several trips to England to study Saxon and Norman churches, where he developed and honed his passion for the symbolism and liturgy of the medieval English church. This interest in medieval architecture brought him into close contact with the noted Ralph Adams Cram, with whom Webber corresponded frequently.

 

Webber’s first book, Church Symbolism, established his reputation as an informed voice of proper church design and decoration, a knowledge that allowed him to become one of the LCMS’s leading church consultants. He also began publishing a journal initially called Lutheran Church Art, until 1940, when his journal became The Church Builder. In contrast to other journals that came out during this era that featured a wide range of authors and opinions, Lutheran Church Art was essentially a quarterly monologue that allowed Webber to comment on nearly every aspect of church design and construction. Like Conover, Webber believed that an appreciation of good medieval building techniques went together with the liturgical spirituality of the Eucharist. Sometimes his crusade for better architecture caused him some awkward moments with his own denomination. When Webber wrote in an article in The Lutheran about the “impressive ugliness of the Missouri Synod Churches,” he drew the ire of the Concordia Publishing House, which had just released a book on church architecture. (29-30)

 

[…]

 

Liturgically minded consultants like Conover and Webber emphasized the importance for Protestants to move away from the meetinghouse or auditorium to a worship space suited to Eucharistic liturgy. As Frederick Roth Webber observed:

 

One’s spiritual nature cannot be touched in a room whose every detail suggests competitive bargaining, cheapness or pretence; nor yet in a brilliantly lighted “auditorium” whose stage-like platform suggests the lyceum. Such rooms are purely intellectual. Wide, short, low of ceiling and lacking a true chancel and a dignified altar, they are mere meetinghouses and not churches; and he who comes to worship is by the very atmosphere of the room itself, compelled to settle back comfortably in a cushioned pew and assume the critical attitude of a listener in the lecture hall. (33)

 

[…]

 

The Lutherans were among the most active and organized Protestant groups when it came to denominational support for construction. In 1948, the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) completely redesigned its former Commission on Church Architecture into the Department of Church Architecture, with a full-time, paid director; a department architect; and an eight-member governing consulting committee made up largely of clergy representatives from other boards in the denomination. In 1951, the committee met for the first time and proceeded to hire the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church of Lemoyne, Pennsylvania, the Reverend Edward S. Frey, as the executive director. From the office on the fourth floor of the Lutheran Church House in New York City, Frey beamed in his first quarterly report that “these nine weeks or so of the Department’s existence have been the happiest, if not the most significant, in my life.”

 

The Missouri Synod, meanwhile, relied on volunteer board members to shoulder the work, primarily responding to questions congregations had about the design of liturgical spaces and the appearance of chancel furnishings. Initially, the board’s main energy came from F. R. Webber, who consulted with congregations and presented his ideas through a journal, initially Lutheran Church Art and after 1945 The Church Builder. In 1953, however, the synod took a different approach, completely reforming the committee and installing a new set of members. For thirty years, the committee had been the extension of Frederick Webber’s tireless efforts to promote what he felt was good design and sound liturgy, with The Church Builder its main organ. Now Webber was off the committee and The Church Builder ceased publication that same year. (87-88)


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