Bishop Brent in the Philippines and beyond

In the fall of 1901, the Episcopal Church named Charles Brent as its founding bishop in the Philippines, charged with organizing a new diocese in the archipelago.

A protégé of Phillips Brooks, Brent had already done impressive work in the slums of Boston, first with a black congregation in the West End and then in Irish and Jewish neighborhoods in the South End. Like many contemporaries, he preached the Social Gospel, the idea that the Church must save lives before it can save souls, that Christians must live their faith first by feeding, housing, educating and employing the poor.

Before going to the islands, Brent spent eight months touring the United States to raise funds for the enterprise, recruit help, and meet with federal officials to improve his understanding of the colony. He befriended the newly-appointed governor, William Howard Taft, and traveled with him to the Philippines.

When the bishop finally arrived in the summer of 1902, he ministered effectively to Americans in the colonial government and armed forces. He founded educational institutions (now called Brent Schools) and hospitals (like St. Luke’s Medical Center) that continue to serve Filipinos and expatriates today.

Brent took seriously his responsibility to evangelize the natives, but he did it the hard way. While other Protestant churches sought converts among the Catholic majority, Brent focused his missionary efforts on the archipelago’s non-Christian populations. That meant venturing into the most dangerous parts of the islands to work among rebellious Muslims in the south and headhunting pagans in the north. The Moros refused to abandon Islam, but many Igorots embraced the Episcopal Church; they continue to account for most of its Filipino members and clergy today.

Three times during his tenure in the Philippines, he turned down attractive opportunities to return to the United States. He declined an invitation to become the Bishop of New Jersey and two offers to become the Bishop of Washington, D.C.

His 15 years in the islands convinced Brent that many of the problems facing the Church defied local solutions. Seeing the terrible toll opium addiction inflicted on the Philippines and other parts of Asia, the bishop led and supported international efforts to control the drug trade. Noting that interdenominational conflict undermined evangelization efforts, Brent worked to promote cooperation among Christian churches in the Philippines and the world. He wrote, “The unity of Christendom is not a luxury, but a necessity. The world will go limping until Christ’s prayer that all may be one is answered. We must have unity, not at all costs, but at all risks. A unified Church is the only offering we dare present to the coming Christ, for in it alone will He find room to dwell.”

Brent finally left the Philippines in the fall of 1917. He served under General John Pershing as the Senior Headquarters Chaplain for the American Expeditionary Force in France during the Great War, and then finished his life as the Bishop of Western New York. He continued to work in the ecumenical (Christian unity) movement and helped found the World Council of Churches.

He died today in 1929.

“Pray with your intelligence. Bring things to God that you have thought out and think them out again with Him. That is the secret of good judgment.”

“Repeatedly place your pet opinions and prejudices before God. He will surprise you by showing you that the best of them need refining and some the purification of destruction.”

“It makes a great difference in our feeling towards others if their needs and their joys are on our lips in prayer; as also it makes a vast difference in their feelings towards us if they know that we are in the habit of praying for them.”

“The happy sequence culminating in fellowship with God is penitence, pardon, and peace — the first we offer, the second we accept, and the third we inherit.”

“It seems to me, as time goes on, that the only thing that is worth seeking for is to know and to be known by Christ — a privilege open alone to the childlike, who, with receptivity, guilelessness, and humility, move Godward.”

“Pray hardest when it is hardest to pray.”

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