January 23: Phillips Brooks, Bishop of Massachusetts, 1893

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.


About this Commemoration

Writing about Phillips Brooks in 1930, William Lawrence, who as a young man had known him, began, “Phillips Brooks was a leader of youth …. His was the spirit of adventure, in thought, life, and faith. ”To many who know him only as the author of “O little town of Bethlehem,” this part of Brooks’ life and influence is little known.

Born in Boston in 1835, Phillips Brooks began his ministry in Philadelphia. His impressive personality and his eloquence immediately attracted attention. After ten years in Philadelphia, here turned to Boston as rector of Trinity Church, which was destroyed in the Boston fire three years later. It is a tribute to Brooks’ preaching, character, and leadership that in four years of worshiping in temporary and bare surroundings, the congregation grew and flourished. The new Trinity Church was a daring architectural enterprise for its day,with its altar placed in the center of the chancel, “a symbol of unity; God and man and all God’s creation,” and was a symbol of Brooks’ vision—a fitting setting for the greatest preacher of the century.

This reputation has never been challenged. His sermons have passages that still grasp the reader, though they do not convey the warmth and vitality which so impressed his hearers.  James Bryce wrote, “There was no sign of art about his preaching, no touch of self-consciousness.  He spoke to his audience as a man might speak to his friend, pouring forth with swift, yet quiet and seldom impassioned earnestness, the thoughts of his singularly pure and lofty spirit.”

Brooks ministered with tenderness, understanding, and warm friendliness. He inspired men to enter the ministry, and taught many of them the art of preaching. He was conservative and orthodox in his theology; but his generosity of heart led him to be regarded as the leader of the liberal circles of the Church.

In 1891, he was elected Bishop of Massachusetts. The force of his personality and preaching, together with his deep devotion and loyalty, provided the spiritual leadership needed for the time. His constant concern was to turn his hearers’ thoughts to the revelations of God. “Whatever happens,” he wrote, “always remember the mysterious richness of human nature and the nearness of God to each one of us.”


i O everlasting God, who didst reveal truth to thy servant Phillips Brooks, and didst so form and mold his mind and heart that he was able to mediate that truth with grace and power: Grant, we pray, that all whom thou dost call to preach the Gospel may steep themselves in thy Word, and conform their lives to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

ii O everlasting God, you revealed truth to your servant Phillips Brooks, and so formed and molded his mind and heart that he was able to mediate that truth with grace and power: Grant, we pray, that all whom you call to preach the Gospel may steep themselves in your Word, and conform their lives to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Jonah 3:1–10

Ephesians 3:14–21

Matthew 24:24–27



Preface of  a Saint (1)

Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.


We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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7 thoughts on “January 23: Phillips Brooks, Bishop of Massachusetts, 1893

  1. This came in my inbox after 6:30pm today – it would help if you could get these out the day or two before, so we could refer to them. Thanks!

    • No complaints from me. I am grateful to Andrea for getting them posted at all. Bishop Brooks has been in Lesser Feasts and Fasts for years. Thanks for your hard work Andrea.

  2. Bio. A ‘who he is’ and ‘why he is important’ statement; and ‘He died in 1893.’ statement would be helpful.

    William Lawrence is not identified. I know who he is, but it might help to identify him as a successor Bishop of Massachusetts (and though not in any way relevant to the bio … instrumental in the formation of the Church Pension Fund for which all ordained Episcopal clergy are very grateful. :))

  3. Brooks is not in the calendar merely because he became a bishop. (His episcopate lasted only fifteen months.) I suggest “Preacher, Author, and Spiritual Leader” would be a more appropriate subtitle. His election to the episcopate will appear in the text.

    Add a sixth paragraph: “Brooks died in Boston on January 23, 1893.”

  4. The collect seems to miss the contemporary importance of Phillips Brooks. The prayer begins with
    God revealing truth to the man. Is this because his orthodoxy is more important to the Commission than his great preaching? It seems to me the collect should name him as a preacher of singular power and evangelical
    fervor and summon the Episcopal Church to a greater emphasis on the pulpit as the underlying force for its mission to change hearts and minds.

    The discussion of his life mentions the belobved carol but not the event that led to its creation, which has meaning for today. Having witnessed during the day the commercialization of Bethlehem (150 years ago!) Phillips stayed awake while his companions slept under the stars. Seeing the town still and quiet without the huckstering going on, Brooks wrote the carol while his companions slept. That is a powerful message with which to confront the crass materialism of America today.

  5. The commemoration is an important one, and I found it satisfactory in all regards as I used it. Other people’s input did send me back to look at the title and the collect, and I agree the mere fact of being elected bishop doesn’t seem to be a major feature of the “Phillips Brooks Story.” I agree with the suggestion that, “Preacher, Author, and Spiritual Leader” would be a more appropriate title, indeed.

    The scripture selections seemed good, although I couldn’t see the reason for the gospel selection. A warning about “false messiahs and false prophets” isn’t what occurs to me when I think of Phillips Brooks.

    24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.
    25 Take note, I have told you beforehand.
    26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.
    27 For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

    Fred Fenton’s observations about the collect sent me back there, and my own reaction was to two things, the first of which is what I hear as an over-emphasis on what intimates God’s personal epiphany and revelation to Brooks (“O everlasting God, you revealed truth to your servant Phillips Brooks, and so formed and molded his mind and heart that he was able to mediate that truth with grace and power….”) Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t present Moses coming down with the 10 Commandments any more individualistically.

    Secondly, the remainder prays, overtly and exclusively, about preachers’ immersing themselves in scripture and conforming their lives to God’s will, both of which are certainly warranted in the context. However, there seems to be a missed opportunity. ALL the baptized should be doing those two things, not just preachers! Plus, since emphasis is put on preachers couldn’t that be stretched by just a word or two to include BOTH those who preach AND those who hear the Word? The collect is for the whole church to pray so, ideally, the collect should be a means by which the whole church may seek God’s grace and empowerment, in response, for themselves and for the whole, in living the baptismal life and covenant — not just an occasion to project the one commemorated onto other possible subjects who might do similar things (in this case, preachers only).

    In the light of this, an afterthought about the gospel lesson selected. Since the point seems to be about depth of hearing as well as eloquence in preaching, this is a good day to use the parable of the seed sewn on various soils and surfaces.

    All in all, the commemoration seems excellent, and I too offer my personal appreciation to Andrea for letting this blog appear, for getting us out of the new year doldrums, and (I’m guessing) going above and beyond the monthly time frame for posting commemorations.

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