Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 13. Phillips Brooks

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVI. Later Theology

§ 13. Phillips Brooks

The one man who, in our period, best demonstrated this thesis of Washington Gladden is Phillips Brooks (1835–93). He was most fortunately constituted and placed to be a great preacher. Just about the time of his birth in Boston, his family gave up its pew in the Unitarian meeting-house and, as a compromise between its Unitarian and Congregational strands, took one in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, its freedom and strength becoming tinged with mystery and wrapped about in dignified historicity. And when Phillips Brooks, after an unsuccessful experiment in teaching in the Boston Latin School, hesitatingly determined to be a minister, his mind seemed to rest in the solidarity of humanity, in the perpetual and abiding emotions, conceptions, and satisfactions which underlie all change. The strong conservatism, so often noted in college students, seemed to remain with him long after the undergraduate years and to be a constitutive element of his character.

With the great controversies of his times he was not unacquainted. He took the gradually prevailing view with regard to them all. He believed the great the great books of other religions to be “younger brothers” of the Bible. He travelled with sympathetic interest in India and Japan. “No mischief,” he thought, “can begin to equal the mischief which must come from the obstinate dishonesty of men who refuse to recognize any of the new light which has been thrown upon the Bible.” When Heber Newton was threatened with a trial for heresy because of his belief in the methods and some of the more radical conclusions of the higher criticism, Brooks invited him to preach in his pulpit. He says remarkably little regarding the Darwinian controversy. He had but a superficial acquaintance with science. He finds his comfort in believing that “the orderliness of nature must make more certain the existence of an orderer,” and suggests that “Christ’s truth of the Father Life of God has the most intimate connection with Darwin’s doctrine of development, which is simply the continual indwelling and action of creative power.” He added, however, but little to the controversies. Save where, as in the problem of comparative religion, they came into close contact with his own gospel of the universal sonship of man to God, he was not fundamentally interested in them. His sympathetic sermon on Gamaliel, who left the upshot of controversies to God, is characteristic. In the Theological Seminary at Alexandria he wrote in his student’s notebook:

  • Truth has laid her strong piers in the past Eternity and the Eternity to come and now she is bridging the interval with this life of ours.…Controversies grow tame and tiresome to the mind which has looked on Truth.…We walk the bridge of life. Can we not trust its safety on the two great resting-places of God’s wisdom?
  • Phillips Brooks was habitually more aware of the background than of the foreground. Occasionally, indeed, it was otherwise. In his Philadelphia ministry he spoke out boldly, at the conclusion of the War, for negro suffrage. In his later life the radical in him showed itself more conspicuously. He rose in his place in the Church Congress to plead for the use of the Revised Version of the Bible in public worship, and in the Convention of 1886 he protested vigorously against the proposal to strike the words “Protestant Episcopal” from the title of his Church. On his return from the Convention to Boston, he even went so far as to declare from the pulpit that if the name were changed, he did not see how any one could remain in the Church who, like himself, disbelieved in the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. But in the main he lived above controversy. He believed neither in “insisting on full requirements of doctrine nor on paring them down.…The duty of such times as these is to go deeper into the spirituality of our truths.…Jesus let the shell stand as he found it, until the new life within could burst it for itself.” His rare biographer, A. V. G. Allen, makes this significant comment upon a Thanksgiving sermon of his:

  • He offers no solution of the conflict between religion and science. But it means something that in the disorder of thought and feeling, so many men are fleeing to the study of orderly nature. He urges his hearers to make much of the experiences of life which are perpetual, joy, sorrow, friendship, work, charity, relation with one’s brethren, for these are eternal.
  • For Brooks this was no evasion. It was digging below the questions of the day to the eternal, unquestioned, proven truths of human experience. It was losing one’s self in humanity. He occasionally looked forward, and increasingly, but he loved best to look from the present backward and upward. Just after his graduation from Harvard, we find this in his notebook:

  • A spark of original thought … strengthens a man’s feeling of individuality, but weakens his sense of race. It is an inspiring, ennobling, elevating, but not a social thing. But what a kindly power, what a warm human family feeling clusters around the thought which we find common to our mind and to some old mind which was thinking away back in the twilight of time.… So when we recognize a common impulse or rule of life … we must feel humanity in its spirit, bearing witness with our spirits, that it is the offspring of a common divinity.
  • His native conservatism lived through the awakening years of the Seminary. We find these musings in his notebook:

  • Originality is a fine thing, but first have you the head to bear it?… Our best and strongest thoughts, like men’s earliest and ruder homes, are found or hollowed in the old primæval rock.… Not till our pride rebels against the architecture of these first homes and we go out and build more stately houses of theory and speculation and discovery and science, do we begin to feel the feebleness that is in us.
  • As his biographer keenly says: “Nowhere in these notebooks does Brooks regard himself as a pioneer in search of new thought.… He does not test truth by individual experiences but by the larger experiences of humanity.” He told the Yale theological students in his middle life that a part of the Christian assurance lies in the fact that the Christian message is “the identical message which has come down from the beginning.” Part of his satisfaction in preaching lay in his confidence that he was in his proper communion. He rejoiced “in her strong historic spirit, her sense of union with the ages which have passed out of sight.” The insignia of spiritual truth to him were largely antiquity and catholicity. He had profound faith in the people. He believed in prophets when they had been accepted by the people; that is, usually some ages after they have lived and died. Few prominent men have let their friends and the public decide in their crises more than Brooks—and in nearly every case against his own original instinct. He relied on the heart of humanity as the supreme judge. Out of this primitive conviction of his grew his one essential message, that every man who has ever lived is a son of God. Consequently when a great doctrine came before him which had the ages of experience behind it or upon it, the question he asked was not “Is it true?” but “Why is it true?” or “Wherein resides its truth?” So it was with the great pivotal doctrine of the divinity of Christ, or, as he preferred to call it, the Incarnation. He found its truth to reside in the fact that Christ had lived out the secret yearnings and possibilities of humanity; Christ was the prophecy of the Christ that was everywhere to be. On the great question of the miracles he was orthodox. He lived in a time when Biblical criticism in this country was in its earlier stages. He could honestly write to a German inquirer: “There is nothing in the results of modern scholarship which conflicts with the statements in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds concerning the birth of Jesus.” As Allen remarks, Brooks was in the habit of “sheathing his critical faculties where the people’s faith was concerned.” He used the Bible, therefore, pretty much as he found it, or rather he used what he found beneath it.

    It was toward middle life, about the time that a fresh study of the Gospels found expression in the Influence of Jesus (1880), that his emphasis seemed to shift from historic Christianity to the personal Christ. Over and over he insisted on the centrality of Christ. “Not Christianity but Christ! Not a doctrine but a person! Christianity only for Christ!… Our religion is—Christ. To believe in Him is what? To say a Creed? To join a church? No, but to have a great, strong, divine Master, whom we perfectly love.” And how perfectly he loved him and how Christ responded to the embraces of this man’s love, a letter on the eve of his consecration to the bishopric shows:

  • These last years have a peace and fulness which there did not use to be. I do not think it is the mere quietness of advancing age. I am sure it is not indifference to anything which I used to care for. I am sure that it is a deeper knowledge and truer love of Christ.… I cannot tell you how personal this grows to me. He is here. He knows me and I know Him. It is no figure of speech. It is the reallest thing in the world. And every day makes it realler. And one wonders with delight what it will grow to as the years go on.
  • And yet, notwithstanding his anchorage in the past, he believed in a port ahead, for each individual primarily, but also for the race. Even his ecstatic and unreserved loyalty to the incarnate Christ did not serve as an iron door let down athwart the highway of progress. He intimated that his teaching regarding divorce was determined by temporary circumstances and that his scheme of punishments is not an essential factor of his religion. It is true, naturally, with his strong belief in immortality and in the individual’s sonship to God, that he held that society is here for the sake of the individual and not the individual for the sake of society. But in the later years we find almost a new not in his writings. “Life may become too strong for literature,” he says. “It may be the former methods and standards are not sufficient for the expression of the growing life, its new activities, its unexpected energies, its feverish problems.… A man must believe in the future more than he reverences the past.” In a speech before the Boston Chamber of Commerce he is reported as having said that “the world was bound to press onward and find an escape from the things that terrified it, not by retreat but by a perpetual progress into the large calm that lay beyond.” In the sermon which gives the title to his volume The Light of the World (1890),—wherein is succinctly set forth his gospel, “the essential possibility and richness of humanity and its essential belonging to divinity,”— we have these majestic words:

  • It is so hard for us to believe in the mystery of man. “Behold man is this,” we say, shutting down some near gate which falls only just beyond, quite in sight of, what human nature already has attained. If man would go beyond that, he must be something else than man. And just then something breaks the gate away, and, 10 far out beyond where we can see, stretches the mystery of man, the beautiful, the awful mystery of man. To him, to man, all lower lives have climbed, and, having come to him, have found a field where evolution may go on for ever.
  • Such passages are rare in his writings, for usually his gaze takes in the past with Christ resplendent in it and does not lose itself in the future; then gratitude gets the upper hand of struggle. He rarely preaches an entirely “social” sermon. In The Christian City, wherein he departs from his custom, he beseeches Londoners to take heart because the modern city is so Christian, though unconsciously. The Giant with the Wounded Heel is one of the finest and most characteristic of his sermons. He believes the giant, man, is constantly crushing the serpent, and he is content to see a pretty large wound in his heel.

    This largeness and poise of view is the most distinctive characteristic of Phillips Brooks. It stamps him with the mark of intellect. Occasionally he seems to value the mind for itself and to ascribe to it standards of its own. “The ink of the learned is as precious as the blood of the martyrs.” Once he admits, without catching himself, that the mind is “the noblest part of us.” In the sermon where this admission is made, The Mind’s Love for God, he declares: “You cannot know that one idea is necessarily true because it seems to help you, nor that another idea is false because it wounds and seems to hinder you. Your mind is your faculty for judging what is true.” But these are isolated sayings. Ordinarily he refuses to think of the intellect as a thing apart from the entire man, and he finds truth, as did his Master, inherent in life, a personal quality, discovered, determined, and determinable by personal ends. When he first began to think, Socrates was almost the ideal figure. But later, Socrates seemed thin in comparison with Christ. “Socrates brings an argument to meet an objection. Jesus always brings a nature to meet a nature; a whole being which the truth has filled with strength to meet another whole being, which error has filled with feebleness.” In his sermon on the death of Lincoln he discloses his inner thought:

  • A great many people have discussed very crudely whether Abraham Lincoln was an intellectual man or not, as if intellect were a thing, always of the same sort, which you could precipitate from the other constituents of a man’s nature and weigh by itself.… The fact is that in all the simplest characters, the line between the mental and moral nature is always vague and indistinct. They run together, and in their best combination you are unable to discriminate, in the wisdom which is their result, how much is moral and how much is intellectual.
  • In his student days he confides to his notebook: “A fresh thought may be spoiled by sheer admiration. It was given us to work in and to live by.… It will give its blessing to us only on its knees. From this point of view, thought is as holy a thing as prayer, for both are worship.” The best description, perhaps, of his own mind is to be found in his enumeration of the “intellectual characteristics which Christ’s disciples gathered from their Master,” namely: “A poetic conception of the world we live in, a willing acceptance of mystery, an expectation of progress by development, an absence of fastidiousness that comes from a sense of the possibilities of all humanity, and a perpetual enlargement of thought from the arbitrary into the essential.”

    These peculiar intellectual characteristics, rooted in their passionate reverence for humanity, for its ideals and its achievements, determine the place of Brooks among the great preachers of the world. He is at his best when he preaches by indirection. Enlargement is his effect. A man sees his own time in relation to all time, discovers his greatness by the greatness of which he is a part. Brooks’s mission was not to advance the frontiers of knowledge, not even of spiritual knowledge, but rather to annex the cleared areas to the old domains. His abiding preoccupation—fatal to the scientist, detrimental to the sociologist, fortunate for the fame and immediate influence of the preacher—was to hold the present, changing into the future, loyal to the past. He was not the stuff of which martyrs are made, but his soul was of that vastness which kept the public from making martyrs of the truthful. He seems to watch and bless rather than to urge forward. His great service to his age was that of a mediator. Standing himself as a trinitarian and a supernaturalist, rejoicing in the greenness of the historic pastures, he discovered at the base of his doctrines the same essential spiritual food which others sought on freer uplands and less confined stretches. He ministered to orthodox and unorthodox alike beneath their differences. He did much to keep spiritual evolution free from the bitterness and contempt of revolution.