American Protestantism's most respected figure in the last half of the 19th century, Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) derived his stature from his personal qualities rather than from his position as scholar, saint, or ecclesiastical statesman.
Phillips Brooks was born on Dec. 13, 1835, in Boston, the second of six sons of a family of affluence, respectability, piety, and learning. After graduation from Harvard and a brief, wretched teaching experience, he prepared himself for the Episcopal ministry at the Alexander, Va., seminary. Ordained a deacon in 1859, he served with growing distinction in two churches in Philadelphia, a city he loved. In 1869 he was called to Boston's Church of the Holy Trinity.
Brooks quickly became Boston's first citizen, knowing the sheer adulation of the worshipers who regularly packed Trinity to hear his compelling sermons and to view his serene yet radiant presence. His fame spread. In the entire annals of the Episcopal Church the power of his preaching is unmatched. Invitation after invitation to preach came his way, as did honorary degrees from the nation's leading universities and England's Oxford. Greatly admired abroad (he was an inveterate world traveler), he was the first American to preach in the Royal Chapel at Windsor. In 1891 he was elected bishop of Massachusetts, the culmination of a life of nobility. His unexpected death in 1893 caused Lord Bryce to observe that not since Lincoln's assassination had America so widely mourned the loss of a leader.
Brooks's mind was poetic rather than analytical. It is revealing that his pen produced the carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem" rather than enduring theological works. Although learned, Brooks was not an academician. He neither anguished over the shattering new findings of science and scholarship nor argued the case for Christianity philosophically. Rather, luminously and passionately, he presented to his people the full and joyous life open to all who accepted Christ as the revelation of what God is and man may be.
Brooks was not a narrow sectarian, however. One of his great services to the Protestant Episcopal Church was in moderating High Church tendencies and also in helping to prevent a change of name to "The American Church."
Standing an imposing six feet four inches and weighing 300 pounds, quite without effort on his own part Brooks commanded respect. He was also loved, for his manner was sunny and nonchalant, never pompous. Brooks never married, a decision he regretted in his last years; despite a legion of friends, he remained lonly without a wife or children.
Born to social and economic security and preaching primarily to "proper Bostonians," Brooks had little to say about the problems challenging post-Civil War America. He probably had little comprehension of the exploitation, bitterness, and injustice at work in urban, industrial America. He was not a reactionary, but his conception of reform was of the most limited, patrician variety. Indeed in the year of his death, a year of desperate economic depression, both the manner of the man and the message of his preaching already seemed outmoded.
The most illuminating of Brooks's own writings is Lectures on Preaching, Delivered before the Divinity School of Yale College (1877). Alexander V. G. Allen, Life and Letters of Phillips Brooks (2 vols., 1900), is massive, splendidly written, and totally admiring. Two briefer but equally uncritical biographies are William Lawrence, Phillips Brooks: A Study (1903), and Raymond W. Albright, Focus on Infinity (1961). Albright's A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church (1964) is the standard study of that denomination.