Phillips Brooks: A Cautionary Tale
by Gillis J. Harp
As an Anglican Christian, I lay no claim to infallible interpretation of the past. Yet as a Christian who is also a practicing historian, I am often struck by how informed historical reflection can serve the Church.
Americans in general are especially prone to an unreflective presentism. Such a blinkered perspective has many shortcomings, including keeping us from a clear understanding of our contemporary predicament. In particular, it can serve to obscure how we as American Christians got here; that is, it can further veil the murky origins of the current rudderless state of mainline Protestantism. Never, I would argue, has faith-informed historical study been more needed.
For the last several years, I have been doing research in the intellectual history of the Gilded Age (roughly 1865–1900). Among other subjects, I have been studying the life and teaching of Episcopal preacher, hymn writer, and (briefly) bishop of Massachusetts, Phillips Brooks (1835–1893). Although remembered today chiefly for penning the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Brooks was in fact among the most celebrated preachers of his time. Indeed, in his day, Brooks may only have been eclipsed by the liberal Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher.
The sermons of Beecher and Brooks were widely reprinted, and many lesser preachers attempted to copy their pulpit oratory. From Boston’s fashionable Trinity Church, Copley Square, Brooks had an important ministry among Brahmin families. Though his own family roots were Evangelical, Brooks eventually became identified as a leader of the liberal Broad Church movement within Anglicanism.
What makes Brooks’s example all the more significant is that he lived during the years that witnessed the practical disappearance of the Evangelical party within the Episcopal Church.
The Evangelicals had their beginnings as a distinct movement in the eighteenth-century revival in England that saw the rise of preachers and pastors within the established church, such as George Whitefield, John Newton, William Grimshaw, and Henry Venn. These Evangelicals highlighted the Protestant face of Anglicanism and preached the great Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone with a zeal that had been absent since the expulsion of the Puritans in the seventeenth century. Their preaching eschewed the arid moralism of much eighteenth-century Anglican homiletics and stressed the need for personal conversion.
Their robust biblicism contrasted with the rationalism of the Latitudinarians. When Whitefield was challenged about this new teaching, he replied that he simply taught the doctrines of grace as set forth in the neglected Thirty-nine Articles. By the early nineteenth century, the Evangelical party was a significant player in English church affairs.
When Brooks entered Virginia Theological Seminary in 1856, despite some dark clouds on the horizon, Evangelicalism was alive and well within the American Episcopal Church. In dioceses such as Virginia and Massachusetts, Evangelicals had virtually saved the denomination from oblivion.
Although Evangelical clergy never constituted the majority within the Episcopal Church at large, they represented a significant minority; indeed, during the 1830s and 1840s they were probably the most dynamic group within American Anglicanism. Important bishops such as Charles P. McIlvaine were convinced Evangelicals; one, Alfred Lee, would serve as presiding bishop between 1884 and 1887.
Yet, by the close of the century, the ecclesiastical landscape was very different. As early as the mid-1870s, Brooks was writing to a friend that “now you can hardly find a representative of either [Evangelicals or old High Churchmen] among the younger men. . . .”1 By Brooks’s untimely death in 1893 (scarcely more than a single generation after he had entered seminary), it was difficult to find a solitary church leader who would have characterized himself as an Evangelical in the old sense.
It is hard to exaggerate just how completely extinct Evangelical Episcopalians became. By the 1950s, there was no longer a living memory of genuine Evangelical churchmanship within the Episcopal Church. Many official church histories compounded this institutional amnesia by often slighting the contribution to the denomination made by Evangelicals during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (most “in-house” histories grudgingly acknowledged the Reformed Episcopalians who seceded in 1873 but added that they were never real Episcopalians anyway!). Unlike in England and to some degree in Canada, there was no continuity with the old Evangelical party.
When a kind of Evangelical Episcopalianism emerged in the 1960s in the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA), it was largely a foreign import introduced by churchmen influenced by English Evangelicals such as John Stott and J. I. Packer. During the 1970s, their modest ranks were overrun by others who (though often labeled Evangelicals) had emerged from the charismatic renewal movement and whose eclectic churchmanship was not as self-consciously Protestant as that of the old party.
Obviously part of the explanation of this disappearance is theological, and Brooks’s case provides a clear picture of what happened to Evangelical Episcopalians by showing the course liberalism took within the Episcopal Church and within American Protestantism at large.
Although some excellent studies of liberal Protestantism have appeared since the 1970s, what is often missing is a plain portrait of exactly how individual Evangelicals became theological liberals. Too often, we still labor under simplistic models of secularization that reduce every outcome to the inevitable march of progress. As thinking Evangelicals wisely accommodated themselves to modernity (or so many accounts render the tale), they left behind their archaic sixteenth-century dogmas. The revealing personal struggles of particular individuals too often get lost in this grand Whiggish narrative.
Under the five headings that follow, I suggest a few (often neglected) themes that merit consideration as important theological factors in this complex story and that still represent significant players today. All five, I would argue, continue to shape American Christianity negatively.
Submersed in Subjectivity
I have been struck in my research by how profound an impact romanticism had on nineteenth-century Christians. While historians have often highlighted the crises of faith produced by Darwinism and Higher Criticism, we may have neglected the enormous impact that romanticism in its various forms had on Anglo-American Protestantism.
Among other things, Phillips Brooks drew from romanticism its celebration of the subjective experience of the individual. Brooks absorbed the emphasis on “self-culture” typical of New England thought in the antebellum period. The Transcendentalists had shifted the source of religious truth to the intuition of the individual. Although Brooks was hardly a transcendentalist, he drank deeply from the works of Emerson and others while at seminary and, earlier, at Harvard, where the influence of this sort of idealism was pervasive.
Now subjectivism and individualism were far from unknown within American Evangelicalism. In fact, antebellum Evangelicalism’s pietist roots made it especially vulnerable to a romanticized Protestantism.
While confessional standards may have insulated eighteenth-century evangelists like George Whitefield from it somewhat, the revivalism of Charles G. Finney and others in the early nineteenth century represented an important shift in the direction of the freewheeling individual. Revivalism concentrated on the individual’s religious experience as perhaps the ultimate source of authority. Romanticism and revivalism were cousins in some respects. Evangelicals influenced by revivalism were consequently more susceptible to the focus on subjective experience and also to the stress upon sentiment in romantic literature and philosophy.
We encounter a descendant of this subjectivism today, though it comes from two rather different sources. Advanced theological liberals influenced by post-modernist approaches to truth invariably reduce the theological to the personal. Hence one cannot discuss, say, homosexual practice as a violation of New Testament teaching or of natural law; instead, the question is framed as the censure or exclusion of particular individuals. As Jean Bethke Elshtain has elucidated, the personal is always now the political.2 The subjective, interior experience of the individual is central here, not some external authority. Accordingly, sentiment must win out over an external standard.
We see this vividly in the application of the church’s traditional teaching regarding divorce and remarriage; a sort of serial monogamy has therefore been baptized in the Protestant mainline (or, alternatively, you have the farcical annulment industry within the Roman Catholic Church). When everything is brought to the bar of individual experience, the result is a predictable diminution of biblical authority. Of course, Brooks’s moralism would have made him shudder at such a development, but his generation nevertheless appears to have prepared the theological ground for it.
There is a very different (though still troubling) sort of subjectivism in some “renewal” circles today. Those who believe in a form of continuing revelation undermine the unique authority of Scripture and elevate their subjective experience. In some worship settings, claims to direct revelation undermine the proper public ministry of the Word. Designed to edify the faith community, corporate worship becomes instead a forum for individual spiritual self-indulgence.
Also, in the realm of worship, subjective experience is sometimes manipulated solely to evoke emotion. Instead of a balanced appeal to the whole person—including intellect, emotion, and will—congregations take shortcuts to engage the emotions in a quick and cheap way. The result is a shallow emotionalism that is rarely satisfying in the long run and obviously does not promote Christian maturity.
Such emotionalism and sentimentalism rooted in individual subjectivity are, of course, not unique features of the charismatic renewal; they have long been a key part of American revivalism. It was an aspect of revivalism that Brooks himself criticized (of course, he died before the emergence of Pentecostalism at the turn of the century). My point here is that the emphasis upon subjective experience characteristic of romanticism facilitated this important transition. As Ken Myers has noted with acuity:
Sentimentality is as rampant in the culture of evangelicalism as it is in popular culture outside the church. Perhaps this is one of the reasons evangelicalism adapted itself to popular culture so readily. The friendliness of it, its lack of ambiguity, its sense of familiarity, its celebrityism—add to these qualities sentimentalism, and one realizes how much the two cultures have in common.3
Indeed, I think this affinity is one reason Evangelicals and charismatics have often been so easily co-opted by theologically liberal denominational establishments. When, for example, the Book of Alternative Services was introduced in the Anglican Church of Canada during the 1980s, it was conservative high churchmen who defended the traditional Book of Common Prayer. (This, despite the fact that the new services had “catholic” features that Anglo-Catholics were supposed to like!) Many Evangelicals, meanwhile, readily accepted the official line that one really had to use the new liturgy to evaluate it properly; you didn’t need to assess it theologically first. But because doctrine remained important to some of the traditional high-church folk, they balked at the new services.
For liberals and many Evangelicals, experience trumped doctrine. I am reminded of an otherwise conservative bishop of the Episcopal Church who recently defended cooperating with Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold because, after all, he “loved Jesus,” the latter’s explicit repudiation of traditional Christian doctrinal and moral standards notwithstanding.
Such a romanticized Evangelicalism has had grave implications for doctrinal systems generally and Protestant confessionalism in particular. Here the influence of Congregationalist theologian Horace Bushnell (1802–1876) was substantial, though often forgotten today. In several works, Bushnell argued that imbedded within traditional theological systems there were great timeless truths, but that these old systems had become restrictive forms that held Christianity back. Moreover, the old formulas did not communicate the subtlety or the transcendent beauty of Christian truth.
Bushnell and his followers argued that Christians needed a different language to express these ancient truths, and they sought it not in the propositional statements of doctrinal systems but in the language of literature and art. The Christian message needed to be communicated in terms that were aesthetic and symbolic, not in forms that were abstract or mechanistic.
As I have argued elsewhere, it was this attitude toward doctrine that eventually prompted Brooks to distance himself publicly from the Evangelical party.4 After attending the favorite Evangelical seminary, Brooks was tagged a promising party leader while rector of two Evangelical parishes in Civil War era Philadelphia. The young New Englander moved in low-church circles in these early years and, because of his rhetorical skills, was a favorite speaker at gatherings of the major Evangelical societies.
Though he privately expressed his uneasiness with some traditional Evangelical positions, Brooks refrained from an open break until after he moved to take Boston’s Trinity Church in 1869. In 1870, Brooks became entangled in a public controversy with one of the major Evangelical societies. When the Evangelical Education Society (EES) sought to tighten doctrinal tests for the seminarians they supported, Brooks promptly resigned from the EES board.
Their conservative secretary, R. C. Matlack, was perplexed. Like many, he had heard Brooks’s earnest preaching and had naturally assumed that this rising star was one of theirs. Much of the traditional terminology remained, and the sentimental tone was not unlike that of many Evangelical preachers. Despite Matlack’s concerted efforts, Brooks refused to withdraw his resignation, explaining that the church should not be restricted by rigid doctrinal lines or traditional party shibboleths. So Brooks broke with his party, yet through his conservative style and emotive language, he retained the support of many Evangelicals inside and outside the Episcopal camp.
You can imagine what effect these assumptions about the limits of doctrinal systems could have on careful, systematic, expository preaching. If you have ever read any of Brooks’s printed sermons, you will recognize this characteristic fondness for the aesthetic, the symbolic, and the sentimental. Tone and mood became more important than doctrinal content; an appealing metaphor with literary resonance might be more sought after than sticking close to the original meaning of a particular text. Argument by analogy, rather than by logical reasoning, was the rule.
In fact, when a particular biblical text was chosen, it was used in the fashion rightly criticized by Old School Presbyterian R. L. Dabney. In his now sadly neglected study of preaching, Sacred Rhetoric (1870), Dabney rebukes “pastors [who] confine themselves . . . to texts of a single sentence, instead of explaining the Scriptures in their connection; where they wrest or accommodate the meaning to cover their human speculations; where they employ a fragment of the Word as a mere motto. . . .”5 Brooks was fond of this approach, often taking a single verse and using it as a springboard to make some emotive comments about a similar subject but without attempting the hard work of reconstructing the original context.
One sermon Brooks preached for evangelist Dwight Moody during the latter’s Boston crusade in 1877 illustrates this approach nicely. Brooks spoke on Acts 26:19: “Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.” As such, it referred to St. Paul’s account of his own conversion, but Brooks infused it with a romantic celebration of individual spiritual intuition and human ability. “Everything a man does,” Brooks explained in his sermon, “that is really worth the doing comes to him in the first place in some kind of vision. The vision comes before the action, if the man’s action is worth anything.” Brooks stressed at several points in his sermon that, despite the Fall, humans retained a natural yearning for God. Even with the “impious” individual, there is “something in his heart that would recognize God, and the Savior who is his brother by the very fact of his being a child of God.”6 Brooks contended that the way to preach the good news was to hold forth the heavenly vision, not first dwell on human fallenness or depravity. Repentance, he explained, would follow naturally upon conversion.7
Of course, the fact that Brooks would have been asked by Moody to fill in for him underlines the continued attraction of many believers to the pared-down Evangelicalism of the celebrated Episcopal preacher. Brooks’s catalogue of doctrinal essentials eventually became minimalist—and so, in time, did the standards of his denomination. Notably, greater latitude with regard to liturgical or ceremonial questions paralleled this development. More freedom was extended to some theological positions previously defined as central.
At about the same time that Brooks and others were beginning to redefine Anglican comprehensiveness (an effort that would later produce the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886–1888—the brainchild of Brooks’s friend, William Reed Huntington), the Ritualists were successfully introducing changes in worship that would undermine the plain teaching of the Articles and the historical understanding of the prayer book. The General Convention unequivocally defeated Protestant ritual canons, even though they were supported by leading bishops, in 1871 and again in 1874.8 In a sense, it was a two-pronged assault—with Anglo-Catholicism subtly undercutting the Reformation formularies and the Broad Church constructing a new, simpler, and more inclusive doctrinal basis.
In some respects, this process is analogous to the canonical and liturgical changes that have transformed the Episcopal Church since the 1960s. These changes culminated in the 1979 Prayer Book that set aside the Articles as merely one “historical document” among many—lest anyone mistake them for authoritative statements defining membership or binding Episcopal clergy. (They need not have bothered; they had been ignored by liberals and fancifully reinterpreted by partisan Anglo-Catholics for decades.)
Meanwhile, professional liturgists were able to do what some Anglo-Catholics had only dreamt of doing, i.e., set aside Cranmer and a good deal of Reformation theology and construct a eucharistic rite based upon a curious mismatch of patristic forms and 1960s theology. Certainly these latter-day revisionists went considerably farther than moderate Broad Churchmen like Brooks ever contemplated. Nevertheless, one is struck again by how the ground was prepared for these subsequent changes by allowing greater liturgical diversity within the church and, especially, by chipping away at its confessional identity during the late nineteenth century.
Softening the Fall
Brooks and his fellow travelers also articulated a definitely sunnier portrait of human ability. He appears to have reacted against the dour Calvinist preaching he had heard in Boston as an adolescent and its emphasis upon the profound and pervasive effects of the Fall.
Speaking to a Boston meeting of no less than the Evangelical Alliance in 1889, Brooks addressed “The Need of Enthusiasm for Humanity.” Brooks’s zeal for mankind was not founded on Enlightenment optimism but, as he explained in his lecture, was “based upon the conviction which Christ implanted, that every man is the child of God.” Brooks pressed his central point by quoting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lines: “This age shows, to my thinking, still more infidels to Adam / Than directly, by profession, simple infidels to God.”9
Old-fashioned Evangelicals who held to fallen mankind’s total depravity and understood Christ’s death as satisfying divine wrath were less inclined to accept this happier view of human potential. Similarly, these traditional emphases also discouraged confessional Evangelicals from moving in the direction of an easy moralism. As many commentators have noted, the rise of moralism was a central development in the intellectual life of nineteenth-century Protestantism, and it was an important thread running through much of Brooks’s message.10
From Cross to Crèche
This upbeat portrait of human nature and the related accent upon creation in the divine image was rooted in a fundamental difference between the new theology and that of classical Evangelicalism. As many commentators have noted, Brooks’s theology was incarnational, but it was also not notably “crucicentric” (to use David Bebbington’s apt terminology).11 Of course, such categories need not be mutually exclusive; obviously all Trinitarian Christians are in some sense incarnational. But Brooks’s focus on the person of Christ came with a relative neglect of traditional Evangelical themes such as Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross as a satisfaction of divine wrath justly provoked by human sin.
This shift away from the Cross and away from the idea of penal substitution, had been evident in Evangelical circles for some time. Horace Bushnell’s reworking of the atonement in his The Vicarious Sacrifice (1866) was perhaps the most notorious example of this larger trend. And Brooks drew upon more than just Bushnell’s controversial theology of the cross.12 Indeed, several themes characteristic of Bushnell surface constantly in Brooks’s preaching.
Historian William G. McLoughlin highlights “three essential features” of the “Romantic Evangelicalism” of mid-century as “emphases upon the intuitive perception of truth through the feelings . . . upon a Christocentric theology in which the ‘personality of Jesus’ became more important than the moral order of God, and upon a concomitant sentimental idealization of women, children, and parenthood. . . .”13 By contrast, the crucicentrist approach so characteristic of Evangelicals in the past had always assumed the seriousness of sin and thus underscored the divine moral order.
Peace over Principle
Finally, there is the complex question of participation in the institutional life of the church. Despite his movement away from the old Evangelical party within the Episcopal Church, Brooks was no fan of Tractarianism, or of the Ritualist movement that followed it. He favored a modest amount of prayer book revision, mostly rubrical changes that would have mollified the consciences of some Evangelicals.
What Brooks viewed as the narrowness of some high-church teaching disturbed him, but he never advocated strong punitive measures to deal with it. Brooks was a keen believer in open Communion, yet when Bishop George David Cummins was vilified for officiating at an open Communion service during a meeting of the interdenominational Evangelical Alliance in New York in October 1873, Brooks notably did not rise to defend him publicly.14
Notwithstanding his sympathy for some of the concerns of the Evangelicals, Brooks chose the institutional path of least resistance. While I’m not arguing that Brooks had to side with Cummins’s group (there were many Evangelicals who stayed to fight on within the denomination), Brooks’s silence at this critical juncture is revealing, I think. Brooks was popular and influential; he was reluctant to jeopardize his future within the Episcopal Church. Or, as he wrote to a friend at about this time: “Let us be thankful that we belong to the party of the future.”15 In short, in this instance Brooks chose denominational peace over principle.
Perhaps in the 1870s his approach was justifiable. What about 130 years later? Certainly the contested issues today cannot be dismissed as niceties of churchmanship but strike at the foundational question of whether the Christian faith is grounded upon an authoritative revelation.
Again, a voice from the past can shed light on current dilemmas. The Reverend John S. Stone was a friend of Phillips Brooks. He wrote about a perceived crisis in his denomination in 1853. His words speak eloquently to the current crisis not only within the Episcopal Church but within the Protestant mainline at large:
[I]n loving unity, and dreading schism, she [i.e. the Episcopal Church] certainly has, thus far, the mind of Christ and his apostles. And yet, it reveals what may prove one of her greatest dangers: for, if, upon this ecclesiastical sentiment, this strong love of unity, this sacred dread of schism, she does not hang its proper counterpoise, a still stronger love of truth, a still more sacred dread of error, she will lack the one thing needful, under God, to keep any church steady and safe in a world of sin and falsehood. On this point, ecclesiastical history furnishes abundant testimony. When love of unity overmasters the love of truth, the hope of a safe church is gone. The first step from this fatal disturbance of the scriptural balance is, to confound the true idea of Christian unity with that of merely outward, visible, secular consolidation: and then, for the sake of maintaining this kind of unity at all hazards, comes the gradual result of making the Church one vast compound;—a mixture of truth and error, superstition and corruption; . . . mak[ing] the whole mass unsavoury to God and unsaving to man.16
Some denominational conservatives (aptly labelled latitudinarian conservatives or “latcons” by David Mills in this publication for their remarkable flexibility) have spent a good deal of time and energy defending this “secular consolidation” in recent years, confounding a bureaucratic organization with what the prayer book calls “the blessed company of all faithful people.” The result has bordered on a kind of institutional idolatry that would have puzzled both the eighteenth-century Evangelicals and the sixteenth-century Reformers despite their deep commitment to the visible unity of the Church on earth.
All of these factors appear to have played important parts in the theological transition that killed the old Evangelical party and gave birth to the modern Episcopal Church. As I have argued, I think all five have also been at work in different ways in the recent history of mainline Protestantism in North America.
We would do well to understand their role in the past and recognize their continuing baleful influence today. Without such a historical perspective, those who seek to remain biblically faithful will go down the same dead ends as their forefathers, and history will repeat itself. But this time (as Marx quipped), not as tragedy but as farce.
1. Brooks quoted in A. V. G. Allen, ed., Life and Letters of Phillips Brooks (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1901), 2:81.
2. See, for instance: Elshtain, Democracy on Trial, CBC Massey Lectures series, 1993.
3. Kenneth Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1989), pp. 84–85.
4. Gillis J. Harp, “‘We cannot spare you’: Phillips Brooks’s Break with the Evangelical Party, 1859–1873,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 68 (1999): 930–953.
5. R. L. Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), p. 75. I am indebted to my colleague T. David Gordon for pointing me to Dabney’s work here.
6. Boston Daily Advertiser, 20 March 1877, p. 1.
7. Ibid. See also Allen 2:149.
8. E. C. Chorley, Men and Movements in the American Episcopal Church (New York: Scribner’s, 1946), pp. 376–392. Of course, conservative Anglo-Catholics were no friends of Brooks (some later opposed his election to the episcopacy), but their undermining of the Protestant Episcopal Church’s doctrinal self-understanding ironically aided the cause of Broad Churchmen like Brooks.
9. Brooks quoted in Allen, 2:726–727.
10. See C. Fitsimmons Allison’s superb The Rise of Moralism: The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter (New York: Seabury Press, 1966); James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Rise of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).
11. Cf. C. G. Brown, “Christocentric Liberalism in the Episcopal Church,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 37 (1968): 5–38. Also, see David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), pp. 14–17.
12. See Gillis J. Harp, “The Young Phillips Brooks: A Reassessment,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 49 (1998): 652–667.
13. William G. McLoughlin, ed., American Evangelicals, 1800–1900 (New York: Harper, 1968), p. 14.
14. Brooks privately ridiculed the negative reaction of Anglo-Catholics but did not defend Cummins publicly. See Allen Guelzo, For the Union of Evangelical Christendom: The Irony of the Reformed Episcopalians (University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 1994), pp. 130–131.
15. Allen, 2:81
16. John S. Stone, The Contrast (New York: Society for the Promotion of Evangelical Knowledge, 1853), pp. 210–211.
An earlier version of this article was delivered as an address at the 2000 Evangelical Episcopal Assembly at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.
Gillis J. Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College in Pennsylvania and the author of Brahmin Prophet: Phillips Brooks & the Path of Liberal Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). He and his family worship at Grace Anglican Church in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.
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