He was shy, spoke rapidly, had a stiff sermon delivery and terrible eye contact — usually staring at the sounding board above his head, according to his biographers.
Yet Phillips Brooks drew tremendous crowds and became known as one of the great “princes of the pulpit” of the nineteenth century. What was the secret of this paradoxical preacher?
Phillips Brooks’ effectiveness resulted from several factors. One was his careful preparation and study of the text. He also spoke conversationally, with a sincerity and intensity that overcame his shyness. Still another element was his pastor’s heart; he visited his congregation regularly, and believed this personal contact was an essential part of his effectiveness in the pulpit.
Perhaps as significant as any factor of content or delivery was Brooks’ commitment to his calling as a proclaimer of the Word. He once described the ministry as “the noblest and most glorious calling to which a man can give himself.”
Born in Boston in 1835, Brooks graduated from Harvard at age 19 and taught school for a few months before entering the Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia. His first parish was the Church of the Advent in Philadelphia; during that two-year pastorate his preaching underwent remarkable improvement. He moved to the Church of the Holy Trinity in the same city, then in 1869 began a long and significant ministry as rector of Boston’s Trinity Church.
At the age of 42, Brooks delivered the Lyman Beecher Lectures in Preaching at Yale. His published Lectures on Preaching are probably the most widely read of the entire Yale series, and still offer tremendous insights and inspiration to the contemporary preacher. It was in those lectures that Brooks offered his now-famous definition of preaching as the “communication of truth through personality.”
Brooks was attacked as both a liberal and a conservative, depending on the opponent. He was committed to his denomination — in 1891 he accepted the post of bishop of Massachusetts for the Episcopal Church — but was cooperative with other groups. He supported Dwight L. Moody’s Boston revivals at a time when many other churchmen refused.
The great Boston preacher died in 1893 at the age of 57. More than 20,000 mourners gathered to lament the loss of one of the greatest orators of the American pulpit.
The selections that follow — taken from his Yale lectures and from several sermons — offer a glimpse into the pulpit ministry of Phillips Brooks, who in his own preaching provided an example of the “communication of truth through personality.”
From “Lectures on Preaching”
Definers and defenders of the faith are always needed, but it is bad for a church, when its ministers count it their true work to define and defend the faith father than to preach the Gospel. Beware of the tendency to preach about Christianity, and try to preach Christ. To discuss the relations of Christianity and Science, Christianity and Society, Christianity and Politics, is good. To set Christ forth to men so that they shall know Him, and in gratitude and love become His, that is far better. It is good to be a Herschel who describes the sun; but it is better to be a Prometheus who brings the sun’s fire to the earth.
You will see that I place very great value on this preparation, in which a man who is devout and earnest comes to that fitness for his work which St. Paul describes in a word that he uses twice to Timothy — “apt to teach,” the didactic man. It is not something to which one comes by accident or by any sudden burst of fiery zeal. No doubt there is a power in the untutored utterance of the new convert that the ripe utterances of the educated preacher often lack; but it is not so much a praise to the new convert that he has that power as it is a shame to the educated preacher that he does not have it all the more richly in proportion to his education. And whatever else he has, the man who has leaped directly from his own experience into the pulpit will almost certainly be wanting in that breadth of sympathy and understanding which comes in the studies of the waiting years. He will know that no other men are not made just like himself, but he will realize only himself, and preach to them as if they were. He will be like the man whom Archbishop Whately tells of, who was born blind and afterwards brought to sight. “The room he was in, he said, he knew must be part of the house, yet he could not conceive that the whole house looked bigger than that one room.” So our new Christian experience only slowly realizes that it is but one part of the universal Christian life. Only as our study carries us from room to room does the whole house grow real to us.
The Christian ministry is the largest field for the growth of a human soul that this world offers. In it he who is faithful must go on learning more and more forever. His growth in learning is all bound up with his growth in character. Nowhere else do the moral and intellectual so sympathize and lose or gain together. The minister must grow. His true growth is not necessarily a change of views. It is a change of view. It is not revolution. It is progress. It is a continual climbing which opens continually wider prospects. It repeats the experience of Christ’s disciples of whom their Lord was always making larger men and then giving them the larger truth of which their enlarged nature had become capable. Once more, I rejoice for you that this is the ministry in which you are to spend your lives.
The life of Jesus Christ was radical. It went to the deep roots of things. It claimed men’s noblest and freest action. We, if we are his ministers, must bring the heroic into the unheroic life of men, demanding of them truth, breadth, bravery, self-sacrifice, the freedom from conventionalities and an elevation to high standards of thought and life. We must bring men’s life up to Him and not bring him down to men’s life. This is the Christian pastor’s privilege and duty.
Men who are looking for a law of life and an inspiration of life are met by a theory of life. Much of our preaching is like delivering lectures upon medicine to sick people. The lecture is true. The lecture is interesting. Nay, the truth of the lecture is important, and if the sick man could learn the truth of the lecture he would be a better patient; he would take his medicine more responsibly and regulate his diet more intelligently. But still the fact remains that the lecture is not medicine, and that to give the medicine, not to deliver the lecture, is the preacher’s duty.
Learn to study for the sake of truth, learn to think for the profit and the joy of thinking. Then your sermon shall be like the leaping of a fountain and not like the pumping of a pump.
The immediate preparation for a sermon is something that the people always feel. They know the difference between a sermon that has been crammed, and a sermon which has been thought long before, and of which only the form, and the illustrations and the special developments, and the application of the thought are new. Some preachers are always preaching the last book which they have read, and their congregations always find it out. The feeling of superficialness and thinness attaches to all they do. The exegesis of a passage which the man never thought of till he began to preach about it may be clever and suggestive, but it inspires no confidence.
From “Christian Charity”
Men try to convert their fellowmen to what they know is truth by arguments which they know just as well are lies. Men are captivated with the idea of self-denial, and then they invent ingenious ways to make self-denial comfortable and easy. The high impulse and the low self-indulgent method are both real, and this same confused and contradictory humanity of ours is able to contain them both. Men do not seem to know that, however bright and strong they frame the golden gallery of their ambition, the only chance of their getting up to it must be in the strength of the stairway which they build. They are always building steps of straw to climb to heights of gold.
From “The Purpose and Use of Comfort”
A stream may leave its deposits in the pool it flows through, but the stream itself hurries on to other pools in the thick woods; and so God’s gifts a soul may selfishly appropriate, but God Himself, the more truly a soul possesses Him, the more truly it will long and try to share Him.
For greatness after all, in spite of its name, appears to be not so much a certain size as a certain quality in human lives. It may be present in lives whose range is very small. There is greatness in a mother’s life whose utter unselfishness fills her household with the life and love of God, transmitted through her consecration. There is a greatness in a child’s life who is patient under a wrong and shows the world at some new point the dignity of self-restraint and the beauty of conquered passions … All through the range of human life, from lowest up to highest, any religious conception of human greatness must be ultimately reducible to this: a quality in any man by which he is capable first of taking into himself, and then distributing through himself to others, some part of the life of God.
From “Christmas Day”
Men tell us this and that about Jesus, this and that subtle thought about the mystery of His nature, this and that profound theory of the work by which He makes Himself our redeeming King. We do not doubt and we do not deny. It is as if, when we were turning with full heart aching for sympathy to find our dearest friend, some one should stop us and tell us deep things about the philosophy of friendship. We do not doubt and we do not deny. It may be true. No doubt it is true. But all is overswept and drowned for the time by a blind, eager, passionate longing of the heart that needs Christ to get to him. Men tell us why we need Him. We cannot listen, but our heart is full of one consciouness: “Where shall we find Him?”
From “The Conqueror From Edom”
Righteousness is at the bottom of all things. Righteousness is thorough. It is the very spirit of unsparing truth. Any reform or salvation of which the power is righteousness must go down to the very root of the trouble; must extentuate and cover over nothing; must expose and convict completely, in order that it may completely heal. And this is the power of the salvation of Christ. It makes no compromise between the good and the evil, between Judah and Edom. Edom must be destroyed, not parleyed with; sin must be beaten down and not conciliated; good must thrive by the defeat and not merely by the tolerance of evil.
From “The Food of Man”
In this world we must be either conquerors or slaves. We know what it is to be the world’s slaves, but what it is to be conquerors through Christ, that no man knows entirely. We come to know it more and more as the long struggle and fight go on. We shall know it perfectly only when the liberated spirit casts the flesh away and goes to live with the God by whom it has lived so long.

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