This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.
Part 7: Alexander Russell Webb
Until the rise of homegrown Black Islam in the early 20th century, very, very few Americans converted to Islam. I find this quite surprising, given that the 19th century was a time of incredible religious innovation in the United States. The 1800s gave rise to new movements like Mormonism, spiritualism, and transcendentalism—even atheism and agnosticism—not to mention the countless schisms and reorganizations that occurred within mainstream American Christianity.
But the only white Islamic convert of any note is a man named Alexander Russell Webb.
Born in Massachusetts in 1846, a newspaper publisher by trade, he was appointed as a consular representative in the Philippines in 1887 by President Grover Cleveland. It was while in the Philippines that Webb was first introduced to Islam, and by 1888 he publicly declared himself a convert. His immediate family converted as well.
In 1893 he returned to the United States and started a pro-Islam newspaper called Moslem World. That same year, Webb was the sole representative for Islam at the first World Parliament of Religions, a noble attempt to create a dialogue of faiths, at the world’s fair in Chicago. Webb also founded a short-lived mosque–on Broadway, of all places.
Webb died in 1916 and in the end, his influence was fleeting. The last of several Islamic study groups he started around the country shut down during World War II.