From the time he preached his first sermon at St. George’s in July 1859 until his premature death in 1893 at age 57, Phillips Brooks never stopped preaching. He became the most famous Episcopal minister of his time at a time when the measure of a minister was his preaching through the sermon. His counsel to students and preachers alike was simple – “Don’t preach that people ought to go to church. But make religion so great and attractive that they cannot keep away.”
Brooks was a descendant of Judge Phillips, the founder, and benefactor of Phillips Andover Academy and the Andover Theological Seminary, as well as Reverend John Cotton, the preeminent minister and theologian of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century. Brooks was raised as a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Tremont Street and continued his family legacy by entering the ministry.
Brooks was encouraged to attend Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) due to the influence of his family minister in Boston. While VTS matched his preference from “low church”, there were servants who were slaves. He wrote, “there is nothing of the brutality of slavery here, but the institution is degrading the country just as much.” Except for Dr. William Sparrow, he wasn’t impressed with the other professors. Brooks was widely read and had a firm grasp of the classics.
He had begun to write sermons the last year of seminary and preaching to a small congregation. He wrote to his brother William he couldn’t “recall many pleasanter hours” than writing these early sermons. Brooks graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary on June 30, 1859, and ordained the next day. (The picture above was taken in 1857). He was invited to preach at St. George’s by his friend, then rector, A. M. Randolph. Randolph provided this account of his visit
“He was ordinated a deacon in the seminary chapel on Friday the last week in June, 1859, and the next day I had the pleasure of welcoming in my home in Fredericksburg, Va. On Sunday, he preached for the first time in the morning, and again at night at St. George’s Church. The good people of Fredericksburg refer with pride to the fact that his first sermons were preached there, and some of the older members of the congregation who innocently regarded St. George’s as the centre of church influence in Virginia, and if of Virginia, necessarily so of the world, might have supposed that their enthusiastic verdict of him, that he was the best young preacher they have ever heard, was the foundation of his success and his wide reputation throughout America and England.”
Randolph wrote of the secrets of Brooks’ success …” a singular absence of self-consciousness, a spontaneity of beautiful thinking, clothed in pure English words, a joy in his own thoughts, and a victorious mastery of the truth he was telling, combined with humility and reverence and love for the congregation… “
Brooks is also famous for writing the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in 1868.