Friday, February 8, 2019

On F.R. Webber

“The violent revulsions of the Puritans are very much on the wane, and ”the Churches” are reaching a stage where it is once more possible to spell Bible with a Large B, and Heaven with an upper-case H without bringing upon one the charges of ritualism; when a true altar of ample architectural scale, a chancel of comfortable depth, even crosses, candle-sticks, clerical vestments, surpliced choirs, absolution, and the sign of the cross in the benediction are not looked upon as superstition.”  – F.R. Webber, “Church Symbolism,” July, 1927
Miniscule initials from a book plate of symbols.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Unless you are very familiar with the corners of Lutheran history, the name Frederick Roth Webber won’t jog your memory one bit. Chances are, however, you are familiar with some of his work.

F.R. Webber was ordained during the summer of 1914, and began serving mission congregations in Wisconsin. Four years later he accepted a call to Faith Lutheran Church, Cleveland, Ohio, after being colloquized into the Missouri Synod. He served in Cleveland until 1937.

While I am sure he was a faithful pastor and rightly administered the Sacraments, Webber became known for work outside of his pastoral duties. He had a strong interest in architecture, and sat on an Architectural Committee for the English District of the LCMS. Webber wrote regular articles on church architecture, urging congregations to turn away from boxy structures to embrace older, confessional designs. He became known, however, for yet another discipline.

F.R. Webber’s book, “Church Symbolism,” was to become the one literary work, among other books and publications he wrote, that became synonymous with his name. It is a tome filled with useful images and concise information, and is well-seasoned with pithy admonitions. The stuff his book contains is NOT peripheral piffle.

Reading his words sometimes even elicits a snicker. When addressing the Calvinists’ aversion to the title “Saint,” for example, he nearly chastises them for taking St. Patrick's Day off from work and for living in places like St. Louis and San Antonio.

On the other hand, he chastises fellow Lutherans for thoughtlessly putting a symbol of the Reformer next to symbols of the Holy Trinity. He is very keen that artwork and architecture and symbolism confess the Truths we hold dear, but he is just as adamant that we confess it clearly.

The other day I received my 1927 edition of “Church Symbolism,” along with another vintage book on symbolism. The generous gift will be a great help in researching and conceptualizing embroidery designs for Ecclesiastical Sewing.

Upon opening the book, I immediately recognized Webber’s drawings. While they are recreations of eons-old symbols, Webber consolidated them from various sources and applied his own talented hand to them.

Webber let his readers know that some ancient symbols were eliminated from the collection. In his preface to the book, he explained, “ We do not believe in dragons and salamanders, nor do we have the temerity to assert that the quaint explanations given in olden times to certain symbols will stand the test of strict Scriptual exegesis.”

Something in his tone feels very familiar. One could say that I grew up with F.R. Webber. Perhaps you can say the same. His drawings appear in the 1970 revised edition of “Catechetical Helps” (CPH) and in altered form in the 1965 revised “Luther’s Small Catechism” (CPH).

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