Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) was born in Boston into an old Brahmin family. His parents had been Unitarian but became Episcopalian. Brooks, baptized a Unitarian, was educated at the Boston Latin School (where he later taught without success), Harvard University and the Virginia Theological Seminary in Richmond. He did not feel at home in seminary, scorned “the anti-intellectualism of the Evangelicals,” and drank deeply out of Schleiermacher (John V. Wolverton, The Education of Phillips Brooks, University of Illinois, 1995).
An impressive specimen of six foot four and three hundred pounds, he had a kind of pulpit magnetism which quickly catapulted him to highly visible national ministries in Philadelphia and Boston and then briefly as the Bishop of Boston in the very difficult post-civil war years of reconstruction. People felt Brooks was speaking directly to them personally.
Brooks’ voice was not strong. The first time he preached in London’s Westminster Abbey he could not be heard beyond the first row. Serious voice lessons helped him.
With the sermons of Phillips Brooks virtually unavailable to us for many years except in ancient mildewy collections buried in remote libraries, students of American preaching recently welcomed The Consolations of God (Eerdmans, 2003), an attractive selection of twelve sermons, edited by Ellen Wilbur, a member of Trinity Church in Boston where Brooks preached to eager audiences. His sermons preached at the death of President Lincoln and at the commemoration at Harvard of the end of the Civil War are classic addresses to civic occasions of enormous challenge. (These sermons are not included in Wilbur’s collection.)
In delivering one of the early Beecher Lecture series on preaching at Yale, Brooks articulated one of the most famous definitions of preaching ever offered. Preaching as he said is “Truth through Personality” or “Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men.” Aptly formulated but quite horizontal. Here is a great preacher who subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles, who urged his listeners at Yale to preach Christ and who insisted that preaching must be doctrinal, but the twelve sermons in this collection are virtually devoid of the doctrine of salvation and anything of theological substance. Are they typical? How shall we understand this?
Brooks would be well-known if only for his lovely Christian hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (which he wrote a few years after spending Christmas Eve in Bethlehem) but it is virtually devoid of serious theology (cf Charles Wesley’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”). The thinkers who shaped Brooks were Schleiermacher, Maurice, Coleridge, Carlyle and Ruskin. These are not friends of the historic gospel. His finely honed Bohlen Lectures on “The Influence of Jesus” omit treatment of the redemptive sacrifice of our Lord.
His mother warned him of a certain volume early on in his education: “They tear the view of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice all to pieces. I hope you do not own the book, but if you do, I want you to burn it … My dear child, remember you have promised to preach Christ and him crucified in the true meaning of the words, and I charge you to stand firm” (William Lawrence, Life of Phillips Brooks, 1930). Brooks ultimately offered brilliant, creative preaching but without the Cross.
The sermons are without exegesis and show no concern for authorial intent or the original meaning of the text. He openly disdains expository preaching. Yet his first sermon on “The Secret of the Lord” makes a moving case for respect and reverence for God (Psalm 25:14). In an imaginative survey of the great events in the life of Christ for Advent, he horizontalizes the atonement, preferring to emphasize “the great human life” that Christ lived (18). Exodus 14:30 (“And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore”) is used as an optimistic plea to move beyond past negatives. His sermon on “The Need for Self?Respect” does not wrestle with the problem of sin. He preaches on Christ’s transfiguration as epitomizing our ecstatic spiritual experiences.
George Marsden has warned us of this “Believe in man” emphasis. He links Henry Ward Beecher and Brooks as precursors of the “positive thinking” preachers. He shows how Brooks tries to reconcile evolution, competitive individualism and the ethics of Jesus. Marsden rejects the adequacy of a “Go and be moral – go and be good” approach” (Fundamentalism and American Culture, Oxford, 1980, 26). In his recent anthology, Richard Lischer sees Brooks’ homiletical theory as exemplifying “the liberal tradition in America” (The Company of Preachers, Eerdmans, 2002, 389). His liberal view of human nature and Christ’s Incarnation are deeply defective. Roger Lundin of Wheaton argues that “his romanticism emasculated his Christianity” and he laments, “if only Brooks had sided more with Edwards than with Channing (the Unitarian)” (in The Education of Phillips Brooks, 112-113).
At the time when England relished the strong Biblical preaching of Spurgeon, Maclaren, Parker and H.P. Liddon, America’s great pulpiteers were Beecher, Brooks and Horace Bushnell, not one of whom held to a substitutionary atonement. This “feel-good theology” – which has been such a plague in the American pulpit – is characteristic of what Harold Bloom has called, “the American religion.” At bottom line it is a merging of Emersonian gnosticism (“Self-reliance”), Harvard pragmatism and the doctrine of American “Manifest Destiny.” It has made serious inroads into evangelical preaching in our time as we have seen the move from text-derived and text-driven preaching to audience centered, need-driven, problem-solving preaching. Brooks needs to be read if only to detect these formative roots still promoted by many as a very viable recipe for preaching in our time. Bad mistake.
Still like many preachers in this tradition, Brooks can launch some exceedingly imaginative and beautiful rhetorical masterpieces. While dodging the issue of historicity in preaching on “The Tree of Life,” he takes Genesis 3 as parabolic and the tree of life as signifying “the fulness of human existence.” The best sermons in the collection are “The Man of Macedonia” (Acts 16:9) in which he brilliantly develops the thesis that “before every well-done work the vision comes” and his sermon for Pentecost on Acts 19:2. His sermon “The Seriousness of Life” is a rather bizarre use of Exodus 20:19, “Let not God speak to us, lest we die.” along the lines of our great danger in stepping back from what we really need to do.
Brooks as a low-church Episcopalian at this time should have been sounder than his sermons suggest. Is he a case of a very gifted pulpit presence who sold out his preaching and theological birth-right for what he perceived as a more intellectually respectable and crowd-pleasing communication? That issue is what we all face now. Curiously we have never had, in my judgment, the definitive biography of Brooks which really wrestles with what must have been some considerable inner conflict as he charts a course in his faith and in his preaching so different from what we had expected or from what we had hoped.