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Phillips Brooks: A Sermon Preached in Trinity Church in the City of Boston on Sunday, December 11, 1927

By Henry Bradford Washburn.

Boston: Trinity Church, 1927.

Introductory Remarks by the Rev. Henry Knox Sherrill, Rector of Trinity Church.

Once again we hold our annual service in memory of Phillips Brooks whose spirit lives in this place as one of our great heritages. Dean Washburn, born and brought up in the Diocese of Massachusetts, was a student at Harvard during four of the great years of Phillips Brooks’ Rectorship. Later he was a Candidate for Holy orders at the Seminary in Cambridge, under the direction of Bishop Brooks; so he comes to preach to us as one who knew Phillips Brooks and came under the sway of his influence. I should like to add a more personal welcome. Dean Washburn taught Church History to many of us graduates of the Episcopal Theological School. It is no reflection upon his great ability as a teacher of history to state that he taught us far more by the example of his own life. Today, when problems arise, there are many of us who take our way to the Deanery in Cambridge, always certain of his sympathetic and helpful friendship. In the name of every parishioner of Trinity Church we give him an affectionate welcome.


Whenever one listened to Phillips Brooks he knew that the words came from a man of conviction and enthusiasm. One was sure that his whole nature accepted, believed and lived on the truths of which he spoke. One was easily persuaded that he reveled in the Gospel he preached. Listen to his own words,—"I can not tell you how personal this grows to me. Christ is here. He knows me and I know Him. It is no figure of speech. It is the reallest thing in the world and every day makes it realler. And one wonders with delight what it will grow to as the years go on." Those of us who remember him will gladly bear witness to the vividness of his faith and knowledge. And we can bear witness that herein lay his power over us. Mere theories of life never helped any one. Men aglow with truth real to them have done so again and again. Phillips Brooks was one of these.

If it were possible to go back to those days when Sunday after Sunday and year after year, with ever-increasing power, Phillips Brooks went from house to house in this parish, prayed the prayers and preached in this church; and if it were possible to ask those to whom, on the street or in their own [5/6] homes, he spoke a word of encouragement, and to ask those who listened to him here and elsewhere, what it was that caught and held their attention, that compelled their assent to the thought expressed in the quickly spoken words, that kindled within a warmth of emotion that brought permanent satisfaction, that sent them on their way ready to believe in the best and ready to do their best,—they would say it is the man in the contagious reality of his life. He masters us, they would say, because he has been mastered. Like St. Paul, he has caught hold of the life that has caught hold of him. Because he believes we can not help believing. Because he has found a service of perfect freedom we want to be servants of Christ; we can not resist his conviction; we are not ashamed, we are proud, to lean upon his experience, to borrow his faith. There is a grace within his bearing as he goes about among us, there is a ring to his words as he speaks to us, persuading us that there have been moments in his life when he has been caught up into heaven and when he has heard things of which he hardly dares to speak. He knows what is within man. He speaks with authority. He has the mind of Christ.

These, at any rate, were thoughts dawning upon many of us, who, as boys and young men, knew him. Before going to [6/7] college I had seen Phillips Brooks once a year when on Ash Wednesday evening he preached for his friend William R. Huntington at All Saints', Worcester. He left with us a joyous memory—a packed church, a stirring sermon, the sight of a magnificent specimen of human nature. And then, as if to make the visit perfect to those not quite old enough to understand all that he said, after his sermon he would return to the north side of the Communion Table, where, apparently unknown to him, there was a register. Over this which he would stand and the warm would inflate his surplice until he looked a veritable giant. He would be the last man to grudge us youngsters that happy moment in the serious programme of a Lenten service.

I saw him also frequently at morning prayers in Harvard College. The attendance was good when Phillips Brooks was there. We young Episcopalians never missed the Prayer Book when he prayed. To use President Eliot's words,—"He often began his morning prayer in Appleton Chapel with some familiar collect of his church which he recited rapidly and monotonously; then, with a characteristic backward movement of the head and shoulders, he would burst into extemporaneous prayer like a strong stream which had broken through a barrier."

[8] In June, 1892, I heard him preach in mid-ocean on the good ship "Majestic." There was a fine sea running. The vessel was rolling heavily. Standing firmly with feet well apart he made an address to match the invigorating weather.

As one of his few candidates for ordination in the short episcopate of fifteen months, I frequently saw him at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. It was a rather awe-inspiring experience to sit alone with him in the Gray Memorial Room two or three times a year and to talk over with him the work of preparation for the ministry. But what he said, the simple and direct way in which he said it, the way he looked at one as he spoke or as he listened, have sunk into my soul. To have him tell us men out there that prompt reply to letters and prompt reports to him on the expected day were primary virtues, and to hear him say that careless and illegible handwriting are a kind of robbery because they steal the reader's time, were sufficient from that day to this to make us more prompt in meeting our engagements, and to make us look to our penmanship. And to have him say, "Never live down to men; make them live up to you," was sufficient to make us shun the cheap method of appeal and to encourage us to trust in refinement of thought and language. I also saw and heard him [8/9] frequently in our chapel. One occasion I vividly recall. He was to make an address. He stood behind the lectern. He appeared disturbed, impatient, ill at ease. His words came with hesitation. He seemed almost unready to speak. Apparently he was feeling about for the proper way to express his thought, possibly even for the subject on which to speak. In the meantime he would seize a handful of the leaves of the Old Testament and hurl them over on the New, and then he would hurl them back again; this a number of times. But this was not for long. Quickly he thought his way into the heart of what he had on his mind. The clear, rapid flow of thought began; we forgot him and listened to what he had to say, and before he had finished we students knew that Phillips Brooks was in some very special way the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. We knew that inspiration is not so much a theory in regard to a book as it is a fact in regard to a man.

I speak of these things as if to you and me they were recollections—memories of a companionship in days long gone by. And, in the common use of language, so they are. Phillips Brooks was born on December 13, 1835. He died on January 23, 1893. If he were living he would be ninety-two years of age. His ministry began in 1859; it lasted for thirty-four years. The years of our memories are equal to those of his [9/10] ministry. I shall never forget the morning, nearly thirty-five years ago, when a man came into a downtown hair-cutter's shop where I was sitting, and without a word to prepare us for his announcement, said, "Phillips Brooks is dead." It was a shocking thing to say without a syllable of warning. Although only one of us knew Phillips Brooks personally he seemed to belong to us all. It was as if we had been told of the death of an elder brother. Everybody knew him. The daily life of Boston was the more buoyant because he lived here. In a very real sense he was the spiritual life of those unknown to him as well as of those he knew.

At that moment the days of recollection, of memory, began. Boston, Cambridge, the whole country, stopped and reviewed what Phillips Brooks had said, what he had done, and how he looked to thousands of friends, acquaintances and strangers during the many years of his ministry. England was little behind this country in the desire to record its debt to the man who had from time to time kindled its religious life. As the years passed by these memories seemed in some strange way to retain their freshness, their vividness and power. It is extraordinary how vital that memory is today, and how even those too young to remember have created from the things they have heard and read, and from the impression made on them [10/11] by portrait and statue, a living influence. As an outward sign of his continued sway over our daily thinking, you will be glad to hear that a copy of his life, written by Dr. Allen, is given to each student at the Episcopal Theological School at Cambridge as he begins his preparation for the ministry. In consequence of this stimulating gift and for reasons that elude the intellect and the imagination our hearts and minds out there are possessed with his spirit.

But I am now speaking of these memories and the thoughts issuing from them as if they were more. than recollection, as if they were a friendship. And I ask myself whether they may not be. Although I answer that my own spiritual nature is not mature enough to make these memories glow with unmistakable personal companionship I am persuaded that they are more than mere memory, that they are more than the momentum of the acts, the words, the character of a child of God. In the inner nature of the spiritual life memory may, one of these days, be found to be vastly more than mere recollection. In the minds of some it has become such at present. Last summer at the Lausanne Conference about twenty-five men of all types of Christian faith were discussing the nature of the Lord's Supper. Professor Peake, an English Methodist, said that he did not like the expression [11/12] "Mere Memorial" as describing the nature of the sacrament. Every man present seemed to share his feeling. We meant that even though we looked upon the Holy Communion as a memorial of Christ there was within the word "memory" a vitality of singular nature, that thoughts of Christ stimulated by this form of communion were a companionship, a fellowship, between Christ and men. And, some of us continued, it may be that truths which seem so probable of our Lord may be of significance to the spiritually mature among men. The time may come when we shall perceive and know that God has constituted the services of angels and men in a wonderful order. The day may dawn when we shall understand the experience of the Transfiguration, when we shall share the consciousness of Christ that those whom He needed at the crises of life were very near at hand. Memory is a precious word. It directs and rules our hearts. It has power to make us think and do great things. It may be a living spirit.

The content of Phillips Brooks' appeal to us is very rich. Sometimes I think we forget how rich it is in its breadth and depth. And, if I am right in my reading of Christian History, it is because of this richness that his influence bears the mark of permanence, that his memory still urges us on toward righteousness and peace. Like all leaders of [12/13] men Phillips Brooks had a profoundly thoughtful religion. Christ had mastered him entirely—mind as well as heart. If you will look back into the Church's past you will notice that in the moments of profound religious feeling there was profound religious thinking as well.

St. Paul, for example, brought Christianity out into the Roman Empire. He had had a searching religious experience on the Damascus highway, after which he acknowledged that Christ was his master. He felt as if he himself had died and that the crucified Christ were living within him. He had been caught up into the third heaven and had seen things of which it was not lawful for him to speak. His enthusiasm and his conviction were poured into his appeal to men. And yet how this Christ enlisted his entire self—his mind as well as his heart, and how that life takes its place as the goal of history, as the revelation of the possibilities of human nature and as the proof that men may enter into the plans of God! In Paul Christ had taken captive a mind as well as a heart.

A few centuries later, after the decadent Roman civilization had ceased to influence the west and when the young, energetic, childlike and crude Barbarians had spread abroad and had laid the simple foundation of the nations now maturing in Europe and [13/14] in the British Isles, Augustine of Hippo appeared. Few men have sought after God more honestly and earnestly than he. Finally, after exhausting the meaning of pagan religion he found God through the reading of the Bible, the preaching of Ambrose, years of thought. And then, when the meaning of Christ's life had laid hold on him he puts in one perfect sentence the origin and the goal of life. "O God, Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." It is to him we owe that matchless expression in our Prayer Book—"whose service is perfect freedom." And yet there was a mind as well as a heart at the centre of his religion. For him Christ solved the problems of human life and for him Christ's religion was to be the secret of personal and political success. Upon his religious experience our distant forefathers built their systems of thought, their Church, their State.

About four hundred years ago our own Church and others broke away from Rome and emphasized what they thought was a religion closer to the Bible and to Christian experience. Our Prayer Book is the result of the revolution that then took place. It is the product of rich traditions in Christian history. It expresses the heart and intelligence of a nation. Its language is pure, simple and permanent. Thomas Cranmer's [14/15] heart and mind are the secret of its appeal. He was a man of simple piety. He prayed many hours every day; he lived in an atmosphere of devotion. And yet Cranmer's mind might never be separated from his emotions. He was a master of the classic literature of the West; he was learned in the language of devotion; "his books were the furniture of his mind"; he had the power of clear, constructive thinking; King Henry could count on his scholarly advice.

These men stand, as it were, each at the opening of a new era within the history of Christian religion. Without question they are religious geniuses. But just for this reason they represent the men of their day and of other days as well. The average man is never representative. As Phillips Brooks' biographer was fond of saying,—"You can not understand the nature of a movement unless you take it at its best." And may not one add?—The people find their representatives only in the great. In statecraft and religion this principle holds. Washington and Lincoln were political geniuses; they were our country at its best. Far below them though we may confess ourselves to be we know that they are we as we ought to be and as we would like to be. And they are so not because they glowed with emotion and burned with patriotic fervor, but rather because they were men whose entire natures [15/16] were enlisted in their causes. Their feeling commends itself to us, their thought commends itself to us. The unity of their thought and feeling,—their intellect and their emotions,—calls for our admiration and surrender. Their towering convictions expressed in heart, mind, soul and strength command us to think as they thought and do as they did.

Phillips Brooks was a genius of this order. He is of that honorable, tradition within which the marks of Christian leadership are found in a thoughtful religion. He is of that noble line of men whose Christian faith has a fine fibre of Christian thinking. He is our representative not only because of his religious conviction and enthusiasm, but because these were supported and enriched by his imaginative sympathy and by his wide and thorough knowledge of mankind.

We seldom think of him in this way. We rest contented with remembering him as the comforter and inspirer. We have not quite realized that he could help men because he knew what was in man, because the soul of man past and present was his possession and that it was of absorbing interest to him.

An outward sign of this intelligent faith of his was the fact that he was wanted as a religious leader at points where the faith is put to severe tests of thought and where [16/17] mere emotion counts for very little. In reviewing his life I was surprised to discover how many schools and colleges asked him to be one of their number. The Philadelphia Divinity School asked him to be its Professor of Church History. The Episcopal Theological School at Cambridge elected him its first Dean. Kenyon College invited him to become its President and the University of Pennsylvania its Provost. Harvard called him to be Preacher and Professor • of Christian Ethics. They asked him to come to them because they respected and needed the leadership of his rich and intelligent faith. He stood bewildered between the promises of ministry in Parish and in School. He wrote home that he had decided to accept the Philadelphia offer, for he wanted to influence young men as they were getting ready for the ministry and he craved close companionship with books. And, as if with a yearning for the study, he added, "I find myself needing a quieter and more studious life." And yet, after all, he elected to remain in his parish. Ten days before he declined the Harvard call he wrote to Dr. Percy Browne that he thought he was going to Cambridge. President Eliot said that when Phillips Brooks came to decline the offer "he was very pale and grave, and that he spoke like a man who had seen a beatific vision which he could not pursue." And when he told the [17/18] story to his trusted friend, Dr. Vinton, he wrote, in the playful manner in which he frequently dealt with serious subjects, "It was the quietest death of the pretty little project that you can conceive of, and the pretty little project never looked so pretty as it does now in death. Just at this moment I feel as if I would rather be Preacher at Cambridge than Rector of Fifty Trinities."

But it was not merely our own Schools and Colleges that sought him and within which he loved to be. The English Universities were proud to reckon him among their fellowship. When Oxford gave him the degree of Doctor of Divinity an undergraduate who was present said, "More than any man I have ever known, Phillips Brooks possessed that which commanded instant trust, complete confidence—a power not only the outcome of a splendid physique, eloquent of strength and protection, of a broad, quick and ever sympathetic mind, but of a great heart filled with love of all his fellow beings, a love blind to all differences of class and race, and which, shining ever from his kindly eyes, lit up his face with a sunny smile and made him godlike. . . . The praise was not that of the scholar, the artist, the athlete, but of those who felt instinctively when they saw him that he was a man as God intended man to be." Of the sermon preached at Cambridge, [18/19] England, Dr. Hort, a rare scholar, wrote, The simplicity, reality and earnestness could hardly have been surpassed . . . the matter was admirable. . . . There was no rhetoric, but abundance of vivid illustrations, never irreverent, and never worked up for effect, but full of point and humor."

Such is what university men thought of Phillips Brooks. They liked to have him near by, among themselves, among their students, on their governing boards. And they knew that in seeking this association they were seeking the companionship of a man who knew God with his entire nature. They knew that another great Christian had come among them to whom Christ was peace of mind and heart.

The man would undoubtedly have been great with lesser training for his ministry, for he was endowed with an imagination of rare sensitiveness and with powers of sympathy singularly rich and deep. His common sense was a conspicuous quality. Without more than the normal amount of learning and mental discipline he would have been among the helpful ministers of his day. But he was scholarly by temperament; he was a scholar by attainment. Before he left the Theological School at Alexandria he had taken his place as a master of spoken and written English. He went to the School already a scholar in the Greek [19/20] and Latin classics. When he began his ministry he had read in the original languages the sources of Church history and of Christian thought. Quite as early he was widely read in the best literature of France and Germany again in the native tongues as well as in that of England and this country—novels, essays, verse, history. His letters are full of allusions to his reading. Once I saw him in a railway car lost in a novel which he held only a few inches from his eyes. His power of concentration was intense. His intimate friend, Dr. Richards of Providence, told me that he and Phillips Brooks had corresponded in Browning's metre about a difficult passage in one of Browning's poems. The man loved books. He knew books. A day or two before he died his bed was covered with books. He lived in the stimulating companionship of men of older days and of today. He drew on their experience. By their help he refined and chastened his thinking and the form into which he put his thought. And, although he seldom quoted, there was in his delicacy of expression, in the richness of his ideas and in the strength of his appeal, the mind of the ages, the cumulative wisdom of men.: In remarkable measure he was the world's experience. In a most literal sense he knew what was in men. Hence, he spoke to us with power. Hence, being dead he yet speaketh.

[21] But, again, like the great, again, like those who have created the honorable Christian tradition, he was never pedantic; he was never merely academic; his theories never smelled of the lamp. Men of learning might find in what he said meanings unperceived by the average listener. But the simplest mind could easily find satisfaction in his companionship and in his thought. Although his conversations, sermons and lectures were profound and wise they were almost in words of one syllable and their meaning was brightened with expressive imagery. They had that clarity that always accompanies the high purpose to help. His point was always made. With native courtesy and genius for fellowship he would sit as an Overseer of Harvard and "support all changes which enlarged the freedom of the students, simplified regulations, and tended to develop in the young men the capacity of self-control." With equal ease and grace and profit the huge man would sit on a diminutive chair at a diminutive table and take tea with very little children and engage them in lively conversation. I have seen him do it. He won the hearts and minds of a thoughtful audience when he gave his series of lectures on The Influence of Jesus. He convinced the world when in another way he told them how simply he thought of Christ:

[21] "O little town of Bethlehem!
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight."

What a heart! What a mind! What a man! What a child of God!

And shall we say that he is a mere memory? Shall we not rather borrow the consciousness of Phillips Brooks' Master and find in the mystery of the influences that make toward righteousness and peace a life within our own lives, the voice of a companion, the helpful words of a friend?

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