Phillips Brooks & America’s Soul

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Phillips Brooks at age 22 (Photo Credit: Nancy Ruegg)

The name Phillips Brooks does not ring a bell for most Americans, but many of us know at least a few of his words by heart. During the Christmas season, his poetry rings in our ears and rises from our voices, for Brooks wrote the lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Though little remembered today, he achieved transatlantic fame in the 19th century for his wisdom and eloquence. Born on December 13, 1835, Brooks became one of the leading Christian intellectuals of his time. His homilies— reprinted in newspapers and books — reached a wide audience. Late in life, he mentored Helen Keller.

Brooks first gained widespread notice for his eulogy of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. After the president’s assassination, his funeral train carried his coffin from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois — making stops in several cities along the way, including Philadelphia. There, Lincoln’s body lay in Independence Hall, the cradle of our country, where the Founders signed the Declaration and the Framers drafted the U.S. Constitution.

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Lincoln’s coffin came to Philadelphia on April 22, 1865 (Photo Credit: History 1800s)

Given the plethora of politicians and clergymen who hoped to eulogize the fallen president during his coffin’s brief visit to the City of Brotherly Love, it is remarkable that the Rev. Brooks — a relative newcomer to the city and the clergy —made the program in any capacity.

Not yet 30 years old, Brooks hailed from Boston. After attending the Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, he came to Philadelphia in 1859 and quickly established a reputation as a thoughtful and eloquent orator, first at the Church of the Advent and later at Holy Trinity.

However, Brooks’ frank support for the abolition of slavery initially alarmed many in his city and denomination. Before the Civil War, most northerners rejected slavery for economic reasons, but disdained abolitionists as religious fanatics who supported racial equality, antagonized the South, and thereby threatened the Union.

Moreover, in the antebellum era, the Episcopal Church stubbornly defined slavery as a political issue. By consistently refusing to consider its moral or religions ramifications, American Anglicans hoped to avoid the schisms then splitting the Baptists, the Methodists and other sects into northern and southern factions.

Subsequent events vindicated the sagacity of Brooks’ abolitionist stand. Despite the historic moderation of the national Episcopal Church, schismatic southerners organized a separate church after secession. After Confederate aggression at Ft. Sumter plunged the country into Civil War, northern antislavery opinion grew and solidified, and the abolitionist position started to lose its stigma.

When his turn came to speak at the funeral, Brooks declared “that there is an essential connection between Mr. Lincoln’s character and his violent and bloody death. It is no accident, no arbitrary decree of Providence. He lived as he did, and he died as he did, because he was what he was. The more we see of events, the less we come to believe in any fate or destiny except the destiny of character. It will be our duty, then, to see what there was in the character of our great President that created the history of his life, and at last produced the catastrophe of his cruel death.”

Brooks contended that Lincoln’s reverence for free labor reflected his pioneer heritage and the character of the North, which he contrasted with the “false and effete” culture of the South, which “depreciated and despised” labor, “full of sophistries and self-excuses.” While the North “was ready to state broad principles, of the brotherhood of man, the universal fatherhood and justice of God, however imperfectly it might realize them in practice; the [South] denied even the principles, and so dug deep and laid below its special sins the broad foundation of a consistent, acknowledged sinfulness.”

Next, the priest challenged his audience by reminding them of the North’s complicity in slavery, and escalated the challenge by championing the rectitude of abolition: “Men debate and quarrel even now about the rise of Northern Abolitionism, about whether the Northern Abolitionists were right or wrong, whether they did harm or good. How vain the quarrel is! It was inevitable… that two such natures living here together should be set violently against each other. It is inevitable, till man be far more unfeeling and untrue to his convictions than he has always been, that a great wrong asserting itself vehemently should arouse to no less vehement assertion the opposing right. The only wonder is that there was not more of it. The only wonder is that so few were swept away to take by an impulse they could not resist their stand of hatred to the wicked institution.”

Brooks conceded that Lincoln came late to emancipation. “We are told that he did not come to the Presidential chair pledged to the abolition of Slavery. When will we learn that with all true men it is not what they intend to do, but it is what the qualities of their natures bind them to do, that determines their career! The President came to his power full of the blood, strong in the strength of Freedom. He came there free, and hating slavery. He came there, leaving on record words like these spoken three years before and never contradicted. He had said, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this Government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.’ When the question came, he knew which thing he meant that it should be. His whole nature settled that question for him…. And with a reverent and clear mind,… he bent over… the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863…, giving manhood and freedom as he wrote it to hundreds of thousands of his fellow-men. Here was a work in which his whole nature could rejoice. Here was an act that crowned the whole culture of his life. All the past, the free boyhood in the woods, the free youth upon the farm, the free manhood in the honorable citizen’s employments — all his freedom gathered and completed itself in this.”

The clergyman reminded his audience of the immoral brutality of slavery and the southern war effort. “I do not count up the terrible catalogue because I like to, nor because I wish to stir your hearts to passion. Even now, you and I have no right to indulge in personal hatred to the men who did these things….”

“Solemnly, in the sight of God, I charge this murder where it belongs, on Slavery,” Brooks thundered. “I dare not stand here in His sight, and before Him or you speak doubtful and double-meaning words of vague repentance, as if we had killed our President. We have sins enough, but we have not done this sin, save as by weak concessions and timid compromises we have let the spirit of Slavery grow strong and ripe for such a deed.”

“Is there the man alive who thinks that Abraham Lincoln was shot just for himself…?” asked Brooks. “It was not he, but what he stood for. It was Law and Liberty, it was Government and Freedom, against which the hate gathered and the treacherous shot was fired.”

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“Slavery must die, because out of it, and it alone, came forth the treason of the traitor,” the priest continued. “Do not say that it is dead. It is not, while its essential spirit lives.”

Here, Brooks issued the greatest challenge to his audience, in defining what America must do to eliminate slavery entirely: “While one man counts another man his born inferior for the color of his skin, while both in North and South prejudices and practices, which the law cannot touch, but which God hates, keep alive in our people’s hearts the spirit of the old iniquity, [slavery] is not dead. The new American nature must supplant the old. We must grow like our President, in his truth, his independence, his religion, and his wide humanity. Then the character by which he died shall be in us, and by it we shall live. Then peace shall come that knows no war, and law that knows no treason; and full of his spirit a grateful land shall gather round his grave, and in the daily psalm of prosperous and righteous living, thank God forever for his life and death.”

The priest likened Lincoln to David, the shepherd of his people. He quoted from the Gettysburg Address, and finished with the exhortation: “May God make us worthy of the memory of Abraham Lincoln!”

The next year, Brooks traveled to the Holy Land, a trip that later inspired the lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He later returned to his native Boston, first as rector of Trinity Church and later as Bishop of Massachusetts.

His widely published homilies made him a leading Christian intellectual in the U.S. and Britain. He championed religious freedom, social justice and modernist theology, seeing no contradiction between Darwin’s discoveries and Christ’s message.

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Late in life, Brooks befriended a young Helen Keller. She wrote him letters and visited him in Boston, peppering him with questions about God. Keller and her family appreciated his simple, direct and comforting answers, so much that her parents named her little brother after the bishop.

After his death in 1893, Keller wrote, “I have lost my loving friend, Bishop Brooks. Oh, it is very hard to bear this great sorrow; hard to believe that I shall never more hold his gentle hand while he tells me about love and God and goodness! Oh, his beautiful words! they come back to me with sweet, new meanings. He once said to me, ‘Helen, dear child,’ that is what he always called me, ‘we must trust our Heavenly Father always and look beyond our present pain and disappointment with a hopeful smile.’ And in the midst of my sorrow I seem to hear his glad voice say, ‘Helen, you shall see me again in that beautiful world we used to talk about in my study. Let not your heart be troubled.’ Then Heaven seems very near since a tender, loving friend awaits us there.”

Written by

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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