In this episode we meet Alexander Russell Webb, U.S. consul to Manila in the Philippines turned Muslim missionary to America.
We will wrestle with the tension in Webb's life between his identity as an American and as a new convert to Islam. This episode explores the ways in which Webb tried to balance his political and religious commitments until he began to suspect they might be pulling in opposite directions.
Abd-Allah, Umar. A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Charbonneau, Oliver. Civilizational Imperatives: Americans, Moros, and the Colonial World. Cornell University Press, 2020.
Ghaneabassiri, Kambiz. A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Howe, Justine. Suburban Islam. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. HarperOne, 2005.
Webb, Mohammed Alexander Russell and Brent Singleton. Yankee Muslim: The Asian Travels of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb. Wildside Press, 2006.
Producer: Abby Mullen and Kris Stinson
Fact-checking: Brenna Reilley
Voice actors: Caitie Gale and Paul Matzko
By the way, Paul has a new book that you should definitely check out—The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement, out now with Oxford University Press. Paul assures us that no consuls were harmed in the writing of the book.
We’d really appreciate it if you gave us a shout-out on your socials if you enjoyed this episode—and stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow.
ABBY MULLEN: It was 1893. Thousands of people had gathered in Chicago, Illinois, to attend the World’s Fair. Many of them were also attending another event happening at the same time in Chicago: the World Parliament of Religions. Dozens of religious luminaries took the stage that September in order to explain their religions—and not just Christian religions, but also religions that felt very foreign to the American crowd. Among all these religious figures, one man shone the brightest—at least for a day or two. The newspapers said of him:
“Mohammedanism was elucidated and defended by Mohammed Alexander Webb, the American disciple of Islam. For two days, Mohammed Webb was the central figure of the parliament, his bright red fez making his personality prominent.”Iowa County Democrat, October 6, 1893
MULLEN: So who is this guy with the fez—this “central figure”?
And how did he come to be on stage at the World Parliament of Religions?
These are the questions we’re going to try to answer in today’s episode of Consolation Prize, a podcast that explores the history of the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. I’m Abby Mullen, and today, in part 1 of our 2-part episode, I’m going to start to take you through the story of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb.
Now, Webb is most famous for this moment in 1893, but this moment wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t served as consul to Manila from 1888 to 1892. In his story, we’re going to see how politics and religion intersected in a country and a world where these ideas were in upheaval.
Before we do that, though, I want to make sure that you know that we have awesome show notes, where you can see a transcript of this episode, bios of our guests, images, and further reading. You can check that out at consolationprize.rrchnm.org.
Okay. In order to get to the World Parliament of Religions, we need to back up a few decades, and start where Webb started on his journey to this moment. His story starts not with religion, but with politics.
MULLEN: Alexander Russell Webb grew up around politics because his dad was a newspaperman. Brent Singleton, who edited a book of Webb’s writings, is going to help us set up his early life.
BRENT SINGLETON: He, you know, grew up at the foot of his father’s printing press at the Hudson, Hudson Daily Star. His older brother became a physician and so it should have fell to Webb to take on the family business, but he went and became an apprentice as a watchmaker and jewelry salesman.
MULLEN: Webb stayed in the jewelry business for a while, but eventually he found his way back to his family business: newspapers.
SINGLETON: His father-in-law enticed him to come to Unionville, Missouri, which is right on the border with Iowa, pretty much right up in northern Missouri. So it’s pretty rural. But the enticement was that he’d get to work on the newspaper there, the Unionville Republican. So, you know, obviously, he had the skills from as a, as a child, even though he hadn’t used them up to that point. Obviously, he had learned something, you know, for the first 20 years of his life. And then he got involved with politics. He was a staunch democrat working for a republican newspaper. It just didn’t work out and it got him in trouble.
He was pretty much forced out by his father-in-law, and his brother, who had come in to work with him, brought his whole family; his father was living in Unionville as well.
MULLEN: When he got forced out of the Unionville Republican, he left town altogether. But he did keep working in newspapers.
SINGLETON: He up and left his family and went to St. Joseph, Missouri. He was able to jump onto the paper, the Gazette there for a short while, which when, I believe is Eugene Field, moved to St. Louis. And, you know, enticed – I don’t know if enticed him, but gave him the idea “Yeah, maybe St. Louis is a better fit for me.” But when he got to St. Louis, he was in and out of newspapers, he didn’t get an established job. He was in low paid positions. So he of course, fell back on, on his watchmaking and jewelry sales.
MULLEN: Webb isn’t particularly successful at any of these ventures—he’s kinda in and out of a lot of different things—but he always comes back to newspapers.
SINGLETON: The St. Louis Republican was his final job, he got that in 1883. And he rose up to as high as the assistant city editor. So then he, but he worked there for, you know, until his consulship. So that was a good five years.
MULLEN: Webb wasn’t just in and out of jobs and politics—he was also undergoing a different kind of transformation. Historian Leigh Schmidt calls him a “religious wayfarer,” someone who’s always searching for some new kind of enlightenment. Webb’s family was Presbyterian, but Webb himself wasn’t so convinced. In a newspaper interview – granted, after he had fully repudiated his Christian upbringing – he described his church experience this way:
I was a pretty wild kind of a boy, and I used to go to church simply for the sake of seeing nice-looking girls and escorting them home. When I was a little older, I changed from the Presbyterian church to the Episcopal one, as there were equally nice young ladies to look at in the latter church.Alexander Russell Webb, Yankee Muslim: The Asian Travels of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, ed. Brent D Singleton (Maryland: Borgo Press/Wildside Press, 2007), 266.
MULLEN: As an adult, Webb completely turned away from his religious upbringing and moved on to other types of philosophy. Leigh tells us that
LEIGH SCHMIDT: In those years in the 1870s, and early 1880s, he drifts away from his Protestant background, and eventually finds the Theosophical Society which is a group that was founded in 1875 by Henry Olcott and Madame Blavatsky.
MULLEN: Theosophy is a worldview that emphasizes getting back to basics—understanding the universal human experience, and studying how universal truths have been formed into different religions and philosophies. Theosophists wanted to bridge divides amongst religion, class, sex, and caste; they didn’t have one particular religious practice that all Theosophists had to adhere to – they only had to recognize the universal elements in all religious practices.
SCHMIDT: It’s spiritualist broadly, it sees itself as a bridge between East and West, it’s open to studying the world religions. Really one of the primary ways American seekers at the end of the nineteenth century find themselves open to the wisdom of other traditions, let’s say.
MULLEN: Webb’s introduction to Theosophy transformed him: he changed nearly everything, including his religious beliefs and even his everyday life.
SINGLETON: In 1884 one of his, his friends basically described him as, you know, a high-liver, a skeptic, man about town. But soon after that, he became sort of an ascetic and he was getting into all these, you know, he was pulling back on his diet, his sexual life, even though he’s married and doing, you know, very different things.
MULLEN: Theosophy introduced Webb to a number of new religions that he found compelling. We talked to Justine Howe, a scholar of American religion, about how someone like Webb might go about finding the wisdom of other traditions through Theosophy.
JUSTINE HOWE: So he began to explore this, to essentially be on a path of religious experimentation, spiritual seeking, that brought him to explore quote, unquote, “Eastern religions,” which had become an area of interest for like-minded people who discovered faiths like Buddhism, or Hinduism, largely through texts that were being translated in large quantities brought back from India, other places that had been colonized by European nations in the late 19th century, and made their way back to places like Chicago and St. Louis, where Webb was living during this time.
MULLEN: And this is how Alexander Russell Webb found himself investigating Islam.
HOWE: While it might seem strange today, Islam was often folded into those Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. So while we might think about those faiths today as being distinct, and Islam either being part of Abrahamic traditions, or in many cases seen as being an entirely separate faith from any of those world, quote, unquote, “world religions,” for people interested in seeking a kind of more universal foundation of their faith, those, all of those traditions were sort of resources through which to recover this more primordial spirituality, philosophical truth. So that’s how he came to discover Islam originally was through this kind of interest in the esoteric, the occult, in spiritualism. So it was a very much a kind of romanticized view of these faiths and, and rooted in a colonial conception that one could simply extract what you needed or wanted, and then arrive at a discernable kind of truth.
MULLEN: In 1886, Webb first learned of a Muslim teacher named Mirzā Ghulām Ahmad. After reading some of Ahmad’s work, Webb struck up a conversation with him – socially distanced, of course, since Ahmad was in India and Webb was in the United States. Here’s how he introduced himself to Ahmad:
I have recently read your letter in a newspaper which refers to your invitation to the Truth. I found myself interested in this movement. I have studied quite a bit about Buddhism, Brahmanism, and also about Confucianism and Zoroastrianism, but not as much about Prophet Muhammad.Webb, Yankee Muslim, 275.
MULLEN: Webb exchanged a number of letters with Ahmad over the next few years. But, despite this correspondence, Webb wasn’t quite ready to settle on a single way of doing religion. But he also wanted more than just reading. He wanted to learn from the teachers of Islam and other Eastern religions where they lived.
MULLEN: Problem number one for Webb: how to get to the East. And this is where his political connections come back into play. He struck upon the idea of having the United States pay for him to go to some port in East Asia, under the auspices of the U.S. Consular Service. He argued in his application to the State Department that the connections he had forged with various important people in the East, especially in India and Singapore, would help him establish trade connections – as a consul should.
Webb was extremely lucky in his timing: he needed a presidential appointment, and luckily for him, Grover Cleveland was the president in 1887. Cleveland was the first Democratic president in over 25 years, and he would lose the election in 1888 to a Republican. So Webb had a very narrow window in which he could take advantage of political patronage.
MULLEN: In order to get a consulship, Webb had to make his case, but more importantly, he had to call in all his connections. And so his work and his reputation as a Democratic newspaperman paid off. Who did he call on to write recommendations for him?
SINGLETON: People in the newspaper business, some businessmen, he even got, you know, people who didn’t really know him but because they, you know, had word that he was a, you know, a staunch Democrat, you know, so he would get a state senator, representative, those kind of people all wrote letters for him.
MULLEN: Webb’s lobbying campaign worked—he got a consular appointment in 1887. He had requested Calcutta or Singapore, which were really busy places with a lot of religious activities, but those posts weren’t available. So instead, he was posted to Manila in the Philippines, a Spanish colony in the Pacific.
MULLEN: Despite Webb’s disappointment about being posted to the Philippines, the United States did have a significant interest there. Oliver Charbonneau, who studies the history of US-Philippine relations, helps us to set the Philippines into context.
OLIVER CHARBONNEAU: We have American merchants in the Philippines from the early 1800s. Now at first, this is technically unofficially because non-Spanish Europeans and Americans by extension are not supposed to trade in the islands.
In 1834, you see the Philippines open up to, to free trade, so that the Spanish crown abolishes the the Royal Company of the Philippines, and Manila, the capital, in particular, becomes open to foreign commerce. And there’s an uptick of Americans in the Philippines at this point.
At the same time, you see American what we might call expeditionary diplomacy happening. So in the late 1830s and early 1840s, you have the US exploring expedition that circumnavigates the world. And so they stop in, in both Luzon and also in the southern Philippines, in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. And so there’s, there’s sort of an increasing American interest at this time. But really, it is this this merchant community that forms in Manila and other parts of Luzon, that becomes the key component of the American presence in the Philippines.
MULLEN: So a consul could have been really important in fostering these connections between the United States and the Philippines, though the Philippines wasn’t nearly the strategic priority that it would become just ten years later during the Spanish-American War.
CHARBONNEAU: There’s probably a couple considerations that the United States would have when it came to a consul in the Philippines in the 1880s. Of course, you know, I think it’s incorrect to say that a consul there would, you know, is trying to sort of figure out a way for the US to colonize the Philippines because that’s simply, you know, that wasn’t, that wasn’t what was going on. But nevertheless, I think that they would have, they would have served, in ideal form, a couple of functions. One is to sort of act as an official conduit between the United States and the, the US merchant community, in places like Manila.
But secondly, you know, it’s, it’s basically, you know, a human encapsulation of an outpost in Southeast Asia, and a Southeast Asia that is becoming increasingly colonized by European powers, where just north of the Philippines you have this massive China trade that’s going on and that the United States is interested in. And so, you know, the consul would be somebody who would stay in the loop geopolitically as well.
MULLEN: So that’s what an ideal consul might look like. But that’s not really what Webb looked like. He went through the motions of keeping up with the trade and doing consular stuff. His duties as consul looked pretty typical: he dealt with seamen who were in trouble, or shipwrecks, and he monitored American commerce in the port. He only got involved in controversy one time when he harbored a British fugitive and helped him escape capture.
Webb did write letters home about the people he saw in Manila, and some of these betray a bit of disdain for the inhabitants of the city.
Here’s one story about cock fighting:
I have been told that a native will sell his shirt at any time for a rooster, and I am rather inclined to believe that there are more game roosters than shirts on the island. Walk two or three blocks, and you’ll encounter at least a dozen natives, each with a rooster under his arm. Every bird has a piece of twine about a yard long tied to one of its legs, while at the other end is a wooden peg about three inches long. When the owner wants to enter a house or has any special work that requires his temporary absence from his pet, he sticks the peg in the ground and the fowl is securely picketed. One can see roosters thus anchored at almost every turn when walking about the town. Natives meet on the street, and, forgetting the business they may have on hand, set their birds down and immediately there is a contest.“Roosters of the Philippines,” Mineral Point Tribune, May 10, 1888.
MULLEN: But mostly, the consular duties were just boring.
However, the lack of things to do was no problem for Webb, because he had a very different agenda for his consulship. In fact, he hoped
SINGLETON: It would give him time to do the reading and studying he wanted to do. He was doing four to five hours of reading and studying in St. Louis, and he felt it wasn’t enough. He wanted to do more. I don’t know how he felt that a consulship would give him that time necessarily, especially in the places he really wanted to be. I’m not sure that he would have had, you know, ten hours a day to do it, but in his mind, it would have been a way to, you know, be sponsored essentially to take up his interests which were, you know, Asian religions.
MULLEN: When Webb left for the Philippines, he still thought of himself as a religious seeker. He was interested in several different religions, but he had begun to move toward one in particular: Islam.
SINGLETON: One of his friends, when he left, said he was more of a Buddhist than a Muslim when he left for Manila, yet, you know, within a year or two, based upon what people have been able to gather, he was, he had converted, at least in his own mind, to Islam.
MULLEN: The Islam that Webb was attracted to had some specific characteristics that went well with his Theosophical beliefs. Theosophy had a large following in India, and the Muslim scholars Webb corresponded with were in India as well.
HOWE: He discovered a couple different strains of Islam that were really important. And one of them was modernist forms of Islam that were, became popular in the late 19th century. And the form that he became aware of was was rooted in South Asian, the South Asian experience. And so this, these were ideas that Islam was compatible with rationality, with progress with moderation. And it had a particular kind of valence in the Indian context, when India was part of Britain. But for Webb, it really sparked this idea that not only was Islam compatible with Western liberal democracy or society, but in fact, it was this perfect culmination of all of those things.
MULLEN: This kind of Islam felt very American for Webb—not really that foreign—and the second strain of Islam that he adopted felt just as familiar.
HOWE: Then the other thing is that Webb got exposed to missionary kinds of strands of Islam, and so he had this long correspondence with Mirzā Ahmad who was the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement in India. And when when Webb corresponded with him, the movement had not yet become a source of immense controversy in India, which it eventually would become, but it did give Webb, I think, this sense that, of this kind of activist impulse, this idea of spreading the message of Islam, the potential of it to kind of cross borders, to reach across different sections of society. And I think for him, that became an enduring kind of possibility, it sort of sparked that idea of, of the possibility of Islam being this universal faith that could appeal very broadly.
MULLEN: During the whole time Webb was corresponding with Ahmad and other Indian Muslims, he wanted to leave the Philippines and get closer to the Islamic scholars he was learning from. There were Muslims in the Philippines, but not in Manila, so he was still only learning through reading. And practicing Islam in Manila put him in the minority.
So, throughout his time as consul, he was regularly requesting to be transferred, but over time, the locations he wanted to go changed. His early requests show he wanted to go anywhere in the East, but as time went on, his requests became more and more targeted toward Islamic centers such as Calcutta, Constantinople, and Tangier. However, his political fortunes had changed: Cleveland was out and the Republican Benjamin Harrison was in, so his requests were denied.
Somewhat surprisingly, Webb made no bones about the reasons he wanted to get out of the Philippines when he made his final transfer request in 1891:
My original purpose in coming to the East was to pursue, during my leisure time, the study of the Oriental religions, but am in a post where the Catholic church is supreme and where no other form of religion is allowed a representation. For this purpose, therefore, I could not be more unfavorably situated.Webb, Yankee Muslim, 27
MULLEN: It was clear to Webb by 1891 that the consul gig was no longer going to get him what he wanted religiously. Nevertheless, his consular connections in Manila had given him new opportunities that he may not have fully appreciated at the time.
SCHMIDT: It’s clearly a really important episode in his life, I mean, this is, this is where he, he makes the contacts with Muslim writers and thinkers that reshape his commitment, so that the period is crucial. Is it, was it absolutely crucial that he be in the Philippines to do that? I mean, you can imagine that correspondence and those connections being forged, you know, in, in New York, and then through travel. You could see it happening in other ways, it’s clearly crucial, I mean, and he’s primed for it, but it’s also true that, you know, being in this different cultural milieu facilitates the, the conversion. So, you know, hard to know, would he’ve become a Muslim without being in the Philippines? You know, it’s certainly conceivable, but it’s, um, it is the vehicle, that, that being, you know, being able to get himself out of the American context into a different context that opens up the possibilities for these relationships developing.
MULLEN: In Part 2 of this episode, we’ll investigate the results of these relationships that Webb forged during his consulship in the Philippines, and though he’ll leave the US consular service in 1892, we’re going to keep the story going. We’ll bring it back round to consuls in the end.
Consolation Prize is a product of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. It was produced by Abby Mullen and me, Kris Stinson. Fact checking is by Brenna Reilley.
Special thanks to our guests, Brent Singleton, Leigh Eric Schmidt, Justine Howe, and Oliver Charbonneau. You can find out more about them in our show notes at consolationprize.rrchnm.org.
Our voice actors this time are Caitie Gale and Paul Matzko. By the way, Paul has a new book that you should definitely check out—The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement, out now with Oxford University Press. Paul assures us that no consuls were harmed in the writing of the book.
We’d really appreciate it if you gave us a shout-out on your socials if you enjoyed this episode—and stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow.
Brent Singleton is a faculty member and Coordinator for Reference Services in the John M. Pfau Library at California State University, San Bernardino. He is the editor of the book Yankee Muslim: The Asian Travels of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb (Borgo, 2007) as well as the author of many journal articles and chapters relating to Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, Abdullah Quilliam and the Liverpool Moslem Institute, West African Islam, and Muslim slaves in the Americas.
Leigh Eric Schmidt is the Edward C. Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis where he is on the faculty of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. His previous books have ranged widely across American religious and cultural history, including Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman, and Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation. His latest book, The Church of St. Thomas Paine: A Religious History of American Secularism, is due out next year from Princeton University Press.
Justine Howe is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Co-Director of the Program of Women’s and Gender Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. She specializes in contemporary Islam with an ethnographic focus on Muslim communities in the United States. Professor Howe is the author of Suburban Islam (Oxford 2018), which explores the role of third spaces in shaping Muslim American community and identity after 9/11. The book’s primary case study is the Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb Foundation, one such third space community in Chicago. She is also the editor of the Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender (2020). Professor Howe’s work has received numerous grants and fellowships, including from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Academy of Religion, and the American Association of University Women, among others.
Oliver Charbonneau is Lecturer in American History at the University of Glasgow. His first book, Civilizational Imperatives: Americans, Moros, and the Colonial World, is a transimperial history of US power in the Philippines’ Muslim South. It was published by Cornell University Press in September 2020. Articles and chapters from this project have appeared in Diplomatic History, The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and the collection Crossing Empires: Taking US History into Transimperial Terrain (Duke University Press, 2020). His specialist interests include colonial empire, transimperial and transnational exchanges, global histories of violence, and the cultivation and management of race in U.S. territories. He is presently working on a collaborative project about the global history of industrial education and a book exploring the role of transnational conferencing in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century ideas about “race management.”