Monday, January 23, 2017

Phillips Brooks

The Reverend Phillips Brooks, priest and briefly Bishop of Massachusetts, is remembered today in the Episcopal liturgical calendar on the day of his death in 1894. He was born in Boston on December 13, 1835, where he lived most of his life.  After graduating from Harvard in 1855 he maintained a lifelong connection to the university, often preaching at Appleton Chapel and acting as an overseer (though he turned down the invitation to serve as a professor of Christian ethics). He would take Harvard students to Europe when he travelled there, and students also served as pallbearers at his funeral.

In 1869 Brooks became the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston, and over the next several years a grand new church building was raised, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and completed in 1877. It has been named as one of the Ten Buildings that Changed America in a PBS documentary. The novelist and historian Henry Adams, a second cousin of Brooks, wrote the novel Esther, about a young atheist who falls in love with Stephen Hazard, a clergyman involved in building a grand church. Hazard is assumed to be based on Brooks, and he and Esther become involved in an unfortunate relationship which ends when she refuses to marry him because marriage to an atheist would ruin his career. (Brooks himself never married either, though apparently there was no such affecting incident in his life).

Today, Brooks is most remembered as the author of O little town of Bethlehem, though in his own time it was his sermons which made him famous, published widely in periodicals and collected editions. His preaching reportedly brought thousands of people of all denominations to Trinity Church, and he is credited for inspiring the conversion of many, among them Helen Keller and the hymnwriter Eliza Scudder.

Several of Brooks' other hymns were written for special liturgical occasions, collected in Christmas Songs and Easter Carols (1910), though other verse by him has been included in hymnals over the years. Today's text was reportedly written on his last Sunday as rector of Trinity Church in 1891 before taking his seat as Bishop of Massachusetts. 

As once I listened came a word,
I knew not whence, I could not see;
But when my waiting spirit heard,
I cried, God, here am I, send me!

I turned, I went; along the way
That word was food and air and light;
I feasted on it all the day,
And rested on it all the night.

I wondered: but when soon I came
To where the word complete must be,
I called the wonder by its name:
for lo! the word I sought was thee.

Phillips Brooks, 1891; alt.
Traditional Swiss melody;
arr. The English Hymnal, 1906

The statue of Phillips Brooks pictured above (you can click to see it larger), by sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens, stands outside Trinity Church in Boston's Copley Square. A service of dedication for the memorial was held in February 1910, at which this hymn was sung. The statue is glowingly described in contemporaneous written accounts, many calling it a "characteristic" pose, "majestic," "heroic," and other such adjectives. Anecdotal accounts, however, suggest that not everyone agreed, and that many people present could not recall Brooks ever raising his hand like that while preaching, while others did not understand that the cowled figure behind him was supposed to be Jesus, and found it rather ominous and threatening.

Eight Years Ago: Phillips Brooks

Another Brooks Hymn: God will send the angels

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