Summary: The life of the man who wrote the carol
While visiting Copley Square in Boston’s Back Bay, you can’t miss Trinity Church, regarded as one of the most impressive buildings in America. On the Boylston Street side of the church is a statue of Phillips Brooks, one of the most highly regarded ministers of his day. He was born in Boston in 1835 of a long line of Puritan ancestors, and was named after Dr. John Phillips, the founder of Phillips Academy in Andover.
His parents were devout Episcopalians who began and ended every day with family prayers and Scripture readings, placing special emphasis on the memorization of hymns. Their Pastor/Rector, Doctor Vinton was a major influence in Phillips’ life, one he turned often to for advice.
Brooks attended Boston Latin School, where he later briefly taught. It was here that he began to write poetry and essays, contributing to the school paper. From there he attended Harvard. A popular student, he was elected to the Hasty Pudding Club and Phi Beta Kappa. He read widely beyond his prescribed courses. Harvard’s President encouraged him to enter the ministry. Brooks was solidly grounded in his faith, and entered Virginia Theological Seminary, where he was shocked to find that many of the seminarians owned slaves. These were the conflict-filled days leading up to the Civil War. Brooks began to tutor slaves to read and write, and later championed the right of African-Americans to vote.
After ordination Brooks briefly remained at the seminary as an instructor, but found his true gift in preaching. An Episcopal church in Philadelphia asked him to serve as their minister. These were the days when sermons were reported in the newspaper, and the publicity caused attendance to soar. Brooks was a powerful preacher. He explained his success in the pulpit by saying, “Take a good earnest subject. Treat it earnestly without preaching and pleasantly without trifling.” He was known for his rapid, breathless delivery and quiet sense of urgency. He said, “I preach the gospel, nothing else.” Brooks was known to state his major idea, then develop it with directness and simplicity. He strove to relate Christianity to daily life. He stated, “I am a preacher to the end.”
He continued his strong views on slavery by assisting John Brown, and as an avid supporter of Abraham Lincoln, whom he met. He wrote, “The war is inevitable, so let it come.” He seriously considered serving as a chaplain for the Army of the Potomac but influential members of his church dissuaded the military from offering him a commission. This didn’t stop him from giving patriotic speeches, or from ministering to the casualties of Gettysburg, both north & south. When Lincoln was assassinated, Brooks was part of an honor guard to receive the President’s body at Independence Hall, and gave a stirring memorial address that was widely published.
He was much in demand as a speaker, and soon other churches clamored to get him to serve as their pastor. When his nearby mentor Dr. Vinton retired, his church (also in Philadelphia) urged Brooks to replace him. With his Bishop’s approval, Brooks resigned and took on the larger church. He was quickly becoming one of the best known citizens of Philadelphia. Under his leadership the church started Bible studies, a lecture series, and work among the city’s poor.
On an eventful visit to the Holy Land, Brooks visited Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, on horseback with a few friends. They rode through the town’s dark streets and into the nearby shepherds’ fields. Inspired by the moment, Brooks took out his pen and wrote the hymn that has become the beloved carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The music came later, composed by his church organist Lewis Redner, who said he was roused from his sleep with the melody whispering in his ear.
Brooks received a call from Trinity Church in Boston to serve as their pastor, a return to his hometown, and near his parents. The church was an off-shoot of the old Anglican King’s Chapel on Tremont Street. Brooks’ success in the new parish was immediate. People sensed that their concerns were on the top of their Pastor’s mind, and they were. His door was always open for people.
The congregation desired to expand, and purchased property in the Back Bay to build a new sanctuary. What “sealed the deal” was a devastating fire that destroyed the old church and surrounding neighborhood. Brooks entered the burning building and sadly sat in the back as the fire slowly burned through the structure. The congregation rented space at MIT while their new church was being built. The new Trinity Church was a marvel of Romanesque architecture.
Brooks never married; a young woman who might have become his wife died suddenly of an illness. He admitted his loneliness and desire for a family, but it was not to be.