Phillips Brooks: The man and his Master

The Master behind the man who wrote the Christmas carol.

Roger W. Coon, Ph.D., former associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate, is retired and lives in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

For more than a century Christians around the world have marked the miracle of the Bethlehem manger by singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem," one of the best-known Christmas carols of all time. How little we know about the man behind that song! His life was almost crushed by two early tragedies, but for the intervention of the Man from Bethlehem. That's what Christmas is all about: the story of divine grace that enables triumph over tragedy in a person's life.

But first, to the famous carol. Phillips Brooks wrote "O Little Town of Bethlehem" in 1868, while serving in his second pastorate, as rector of Philadelphia's Church of the Holy Trinity a post he filled admirably and most successfully for eight years (1861-1869). In 1865, Brooks toured the Holy Land, and on Christmas Eve he reportedly went to the spot where, according to tradition, Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity, in Manger Square, has graced the spot since 346 A.D. While there, Brooks attended a six-hour service, lasting from 10 p.m. Christmas Eve until 3 a.m.

"The music and the scenes so impressed him, that a new carol was faintly formed in his mind."1

Brooks, however, did not commit it to paper until some three years later when he wrote the carol especially for the children of his Sunday School in Philadelphia. He then gave his poem to Lewis Henry Redner, Holy Trinity's organist, who had previously asked his pastor to write a text, for which he would supply the tune.

The organist went to bed on Christmas Eve 1868, awakening several hours later with the tune ("St. Louis") of the carol ringing in his ears. Redner quickly jotted it down, fleshing out the harmony when he got up in the morning. It was sung a couple of days later (Dec. 27) in the Sunday School. The carol was published in 1874. From then on it marched its way into the minds and hearts of Christians every where.2

Somewhat less well-known, however, are several significant factors in the early personal background of its author. And even still less well-known is the amazing story of a double failure in Phillips Brooks's earlier professional life, which almost doomed the future career of this 20-year-old Harvard graduate.

Early life

Phillips Brooks was born December 13, 1835, in Boston. His later career in the ministry, after a brief stint at teaching, would ultimately be considered near meteoric. He was even asked to preach before Britain's Queen Victoria.3

Beginning his pastoral career at age 23, Brooks first became rector of the rather obscure Episcopal Church of the Advent in Philadelphia, remaining there two years (1859-61). Then he became minister of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in the same city, for eight years. It was here that he wrote his famous carol.

In 1869, at 33, he became rector of Trinity Church in his hometown, Boston, where he became increasingly well-known during his final 22-year tenure as preacher in this nation ally significant pulpit. Yet his illustrious career almost never happened, because of two unfortunate failures at its very beginning, that today remain largely unknown.

First failure

Upon graduation from Harvard, 19-year-old Brooks was given a teaching post at his alma mater, Boston's Latin School. Things started out well enough in that autumn of 1855, but by the beginning of winter, things began to turn sour. Brooks found himself incapable of controlling the 35 lively boys under his charge, and he wrote plaintively to a friend: "I believe that [the boys] consider me as a sort of dragon with his claws cut, a gigantic ogre who would like to eat them. I am teaching them French which they don't, Greek which they won't, and Virgil which they can't understand or appreciate."4

Scarcely a month later his career collapsed and lay in tatters. Brooks lasted as a teacher for five months. According to one biographer, he resigned.5 But according to another (which may be closer to the truth), he was dismissed.6 One cannot help wondering whether anyone had warned the young Brooks at the time of his employment that two of his predecessors had been run off by a similar cause.

After Brooks's departure, his head master remarked ungraciously to an acquaintance that any change no matter what could hardly fail to be for the better!7 And to Brooks himself, the headmaster, in an incredibly insensitive thrust, observed that he had never known of anyone who had failed as a schoolmaster to succeed later at any other calling!8

Charles Francis Adams, a friend of the young teacher, says that Brooks was "humiliated, discouraged, utterly broken down, indeed, by his complete failure at the threshold of life." And Alexander V. G. Alien characterized this episode as "a catastrophe complete, final, and humiliating."9

But there was worse to come!

Second failure

Licking his wounds, Brooks, in 1856, traveled to Alexandria, Virginia, to enter the Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church. There he intended to study for the ministry. While there, he preached his first student practice sermon, which another biographer characterized as "almost as much a failure as were his first efforts in teaching!"10 To homiletician Clyde Fant, this presentation was "an unqualified disaster."11

For one thing, the preacher spoke much too rapidly. Most preachers, then as now, spoke at a rate of some 120 words per minute. But Brooks sped along at between 190 and 215 words per minute!12

He showed neither the arts nor the polish needed for the pulpits of his time. Dr. Charles Parkhurst, editor of Boston's Zion's Herald and a contemporary of Brooks's said: "[His] voice is not resonant, enunciation is not clear, his speech had the rapidity of the mountain torrent. He frequently misses the word wanted, and some times flounders in his rhetoric, he seldom looks his audience in the eye, but most of the time turns his gaze toward the sounding board above his head.... [His] gestures are infrequent and usually awkward."13

Incidentally, this "sounding board above his head" was a carpenter's creative attempt to amplify the preacher's voice by reflecting the sound waves toward the congregation in those times when there were no electronic sound systems. So Brooks generally preached the largest portion of his sermon to the ceiling directly above his head, instead of looking his congregation in the eye!

A possible third failure?

Brooks must have struggled with what he and others could well have seen as a third failure. He never married and did not have any close relatives to call his family. Brooks himself once reportedly said that, upon reflection, he personally felt that it was a great mistake not to have married.14

So, with none of the graces that his time admired (and demanded!), and with a delivery that was awkward, a gaze fixed upon the ceiling, a collection of clumsy gestures, and a personality that was essentially lonely and shy, how did this lifelong bachelor succeed in his ministerial career and become the preaching sensation of the age, leading some recent biographers to revise the scorn heaped on him earlier?

Charles H. Lippy, for example, has characterized Brooks as "well known for his eloquence, dynamic preaching, charming personality, and tolerant views."15 And another remarked upon his "compelling personality" and "great eloquence ... by far the most attractive and widely loved preacher of his day."16

Wherein lay his astonishing turn about?

Secrets of success

Biographers have offered varied opinions about this question. Powel Mills Dawley, of the General Theo logical Seminary, New York, suggests that Brooks became great, at least in part, because of six significant factors: (1) his "wide human sympathies" (perhaps the loneliness of an undesired bachelorhood contributed to his awareness); (2) his "passionate yet undogmatic style of preaching"; (3) his "power and clarity" in presenting "the verities of the Christian gospel"; (4) his "integrity of mind"; (5) his "tolerant spirit"; and (6) his "compelling personality, [which] won the confidence and affection of all who came into contact with him."17

His Encyclopedia Britannica biographer adds that Phillips Brooks's "natural vigor," "innate gentleness and cheerfulness," and "a quality of winsomeness and serenity" appealed greatly to the large congregations that gathered to hear him speak.

Finally, in a most striking and historic irony, biographer John T. Paris concludes his narrative with these words: "What a blessing it was that Phillips Brooks was not permitted to be successful in the Latin School! If he had been able to manage the boys in his class, the brilliant, soul-winning, character-building minister might have been lost to the world. But the failure, spurring him on to new effort, was the training needed to turn that strong-willed man to the road where God wanted him to travel."18

Yet, in my judgment, there is some thing more about Brooks's success. The most significant explanation of Brooks's greatness ultimately the denning personal characteristic is to be found not in his improved personality, not in his well-known 1877 Lectureship on Preaching at Yale University. It is not even to be found in his world-famous Christmas carol, "O Little Town of Bethlehem," but rather... in statuary!

The world-renowned sculptor, Augustus St. Gaudens, gave to the citizens of Boston in 1810 a remarkable statue of Phillips Brooks. Today it stands in a portico within a garden setting, outside Trinity Church, whose pulpit he so distinguished for 22 years. In this statue Brooks stands behind (and somewhat to the right of) his lectern, his left hand casually draped over its leading edge. His right hand is raised, upwardly, outwardly, invitingly beckoning his hearers to come to Jesus at once!

Yet the most impressive indeed, majestic aspect of this work of art is not the statue of Phillips Brooks, but, rather, a second statue. Standing immediately behind this powerful preacher is the figure of Phillips Brooks's Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose right hand reaches forward and rests gently in affirmation on the right shoulder of the speaker a graphically moving symbolism!

I visited Boston some 40 years ago and saw this dual statuary up close. I was touched so deeply that the whole scene was forever indelibly imprinted upon my mind. I, like many other ministers, was reassured once again that Jesus stands behind me when I preach to give wings to my words and persuasion to my utterance.

Phillips Brooks not only wrote of the little town of Bethlehem, but he personally knew the Man and the Miracle of Bethlehem. He knew the Man who stood, ever and always beside him. It is this reality above every other that turned what could have been a mediocre ministry into a permanent, inspiring triumph.

1 Wayne Hooper and Edward E. White, Companion to the Seventh-day Adventut Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md. Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1988), 188, 189.

2 Ibid.

3 Clyde E. Fant, Jr., and William M. Pinson, Jr, 20 Centimes of Great Preaching (Waco, Texas. Word Books, 1971), 6:117

4 Cited in John T Paris, D.D., The Book of God's Providence (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1913), 116, 117.

5 Ibid.

6 Fant and Pinson, 114.

7 Paris, 117

8 Ibid., 118.

9 Ibid., 117.

10 Fant and Pinson, 115.

11 Ibid., 122.

12 Ibid., 113, 114.

13 Ibid., 121

14 Fant and Pinson, 119.

15 "Phillips Brooks," The World Book Encyclopedia (1993), 2:651.

16 "Phillips Brooks," The New Encyclopedia Britannica (1988), 2:552.

17 "Phillips Brooks," The Encyclopedia Americana (1991), 4:619.

18 Fans, 120.


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Roger W. Coon, Ph.D., former associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate, is retired and lives in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

December 2002

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