Phillips Brooks

Whether or not this is a familiar name to you, somehow it could only be the name of an Episcopalian from Boston, don’t you agree?  It’s a noble name, two last names really, as these noble names often are (The Phillips part being from an ancestor who founded the Phillips Academy in Andover).  Until very recently, however, this august name to me was only associated with an overly sweet Christmas carol (to my judgmental mind anyway).  When I happened to glance a few days ago at the liturgical calendar next to my desk and noticed that today is the feast for this same Phillips Brooks I decided to learn more.  For any of you with Boston connections, or those who have studied the works of famous preachers, I’m probably not going to say anything new, but it was ALL new to me, and I spent several hours reading and wondering and feeling that this saint on the Episcopal calendar might have something to say to us today besides “O little town of Bethlehem”.

Briefly Bishop of Massachusetts until his death at 57 in 1893, Brooks is most clearly associated with Trinity Church, Boston, where he is immortalized with no less than five statues (including a particularly controversial one by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, known to Washingtonians for his “Grief” statue in Rock Creek Cemetery). O little town of Bethlehem was written a few years after a 31 year old Brooks had travelled to the Holy Land, where his faith apparently was jolted out of any complacency and his heart saw a place “where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door” (v. 4) and asked that the “holy Child of Bethlehem…be born in us today” (v. 5).  During his years of ministry Brooks was known for his opposition to slavery, he preached famously and eloquently upon the death of Abraham Lincoln, and he demonstrated a strong lifelong commitment to the cause of African-Americans, with anecdotal evidence of an underground ministry to Boston’s African-American population.  He was credited by one biographer of Martin Luther King with having a major impact on King’s oratory.

I know this all sounds like a sixth grade report on A Famous Person, but bear with me while I share some of the many things that spoke to me while I spent several happy hours reading about Brooks.

1. He inspired the architects and artists who built Trinity, Boston to create what one writer called “an American Hagia Sophia”, with a free-standing altar and no choir stalls to detract from the central altar (these things were changed not long after his death), and originally without a pulpit. The purity of the Early Church, real or imagined, was his ideal.

2. His travels informed not only his architectural ideas, but also his liturgical ones.  He championed congregational singing, together with “thrilling music” and “thrilling incense”.  He believed that worship was more than prayer and praise, and also included preaching, architecture and music.  His Puritanical roots were not long behind him and these were radical ideas in 19th century New England.  His first sermon at Trinity was on “the sacramental value of external beauty.”

3.  His thinking carried a sense of ecumenism that was emerging in late 19th century America.  He was open to the teachings of Catholics, Jews and Muslims, once pointing to similarities between Unitarians and Islam, and writing, “I should dishonor God if I did not believe that Islam has done good”.

4. His was a voice of reason in the discord between science and religion.  He said, “the Faith would not suffer, but gain, by every discovery of truth from every science”.  He believed that the “nature of a continually active, formative force is in line with Christianity.”

5.  He was a strong proponent of congregational involvement in liturgy, not to “deny the priesthood of the clergy, but to assert the priesthood of all”.

6.  Some quotes from Brooks that I particularly enjoyed:

“Skepticism offers no satisfactory substitute for what it disbelieves.”

Happiness is perfectly hollow unless there is a  meaning behind it, unless it tells of intention somewhere,unless it means love.  “Eat and  drink and be merry” is not the end of it all.

“I’m in a hurry.  God isn’t.”

7. Did you know that there is a statue of Brooks (one of 110) in the reredos behind the high altar at Washington National Cathedral?  That “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was sung as the cornerstone for this same cathedral (the beginning of the Cathedral’s Bethlehem Chapel) was laid in 1907?.

The question remains, why is this man considered a saint to be celebrated in the Episcopal lectionary?  Dozens of quotes easily found at are inspirational, words truly to live by, but saintly?  Perhaps the miracle of sainthood falls on him by the simple fact that more than 100 years after his death, without anything but written words to remind us of his thoughts,  someone like me spent hours reading and thinking about a 19th century preacher, and found a faithful witness to wisdom in his words.

And now, because you have read all the way to the bottom of my little report, and because someone on my community’s listserve  insists that Christmas decorations can reasonably stay up through February 2, the Feast of the Presentation, here is a little unseasonable treat for you:


This entry was posted in Sonya Subbayya Sutton and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Phillips Brooks

  1. bellalala17 says:

    Thank you for this! I go to church in Alexandria, Virginia, where Phillips Brooks attended seminary. He was a seminarian at my church, All Saints Sharon Chapel, and as the story goes, Brooks felt that he preached his first sermon at Sharon so badly that he opened the window located behind the pulpit in the first chapel, climbed out, and ran all the way back to the seminary. A “Phillips Brooks Door” has been included in every incarnation of the sanctuary since. Fun trivia…

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