Writing about Phillips Brooks in 1930, William Lawrence, who as a young man had known him, began, “Phillips Brooks was a leader of youth…His was the spirit of adventure, in thought, life, and faith.” To many who know him only as the author of “O little town of Bethlehem,” this part of Brooks’ life and influence is little known.
Born in Boston in 1835, and educated at Boston Latin School, Harvard University and Virginia Theological Seminary, Brooks began his ministry in Philadelphia. His impressive personality and his eloquence immediately attracted attention. After ten years in Philadelphia, he returned to Boston as rector of Trinity Church, which was destroyed in the Boston fire three years later. It is a tribute to Brooks’ preaching, character, and leadership that in four years of worshiping in temporary and bare surroundings, the congregation grew and flourished. The new Trinity Church was a daring architectural enterprise for its day, with its altar placed in the center of the chancel, “a symbol of unity; God and man and all God’s creation,” and was symbol of Brooks’ vision – a fitting setting for a great preacher.
Brooks’ sermons have passages that still grasp the reader, though they do not convey the warmth and vitality which so impressed his hearers. James Bryce wrote, “There was no sign of art about his preaching, no touch of self-consciousness. He spoke to his audience as a man might speak to his friend, pouring forth with swift, yet quiet and seldom impassioned earnestness, the thoughts of his singularly pure and lofty spirit.”
Brooks ministered with tenderness, understanding, and warm friendliness. He inspired men to enter the ministry, and taught many of them the art of preaching. Conservative and orthodox in his theology, his generosity of heart led him to be regarded as a leader throughout the Church.
In 1891, he was elected Bishop of Massachusetts. The force of his personality and preaching, together with his deep devotion and loyalty, provided the spiritual leadership needed for the time. His constant concern was to turn his hearer’ thoughts to the revelations of God. “Whatever happens,” he wrote, “always remember the mysterious richness of human nature and the nearness of God to each one of us.
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
O everlasting God, you revealed truth to your servant Phillips Brooks, and so formed and molded his mind and heart that he was able to mediate that truth with grace and power: Grant, we pray, that all whom you call to preach the Gospel may steep themselves in your Word, and conform their lives to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Phillips Brooks, Bishop of Massachusetts, are published at the website of the Lectionary Page.