Phillips Brooks was a descendent of the earliest Puritans of Massachusetts. He studied at Harvard, taught for a short time in Virginia, and was ordained in the Episcopal Church about five years before the American Civil War began. He was one of the most eloquent preachers of his time, and due to his great oratorical skills, he served in prominent churches in Philadelphia and Boston (Trinity Church). He was for many years an overseer and preacher of Harvard University. Brooks’ close ties with Harvard University led to the creation of Phillips Brooks House in Harvard Yard. On January 23, 1900, it was dedicated to serve “the ideal of piety, charity, and hospitality.”
In 1877 Brooks published a course of lectures on preaching, which he had delivered at the theological school of Yale University, and which are an expression of his own experience. In 1878 he published his first volume of sermons, and from time to time issued other volumes.
Phillips Brooks was introduced to Helen Keller, when she was young, by Anne Sullivan. Brooks has been given credit for introducing Helen to Christianity.
Toward the end of his life, Brooks was chosen bishop of the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts. His entire life, he had touched many lives by his preaching as well as his personal Christian walk. In addition to his moral stature, he was a man of great physical bearing as well, standing six feet four inches tall.
As a boy, Phillips’ parents had hymn-sings on Sunday evenings, and by the time Phillips went to college, he knew over two hundred hymns. Many of these would be included in his sermons, and Phillips wrote poems and hymns himself.
Today Phillips is best remembered as the writer of the great Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which was written in l868. His inspiration for writing the classic hymn?
It was a Christmas Eve he spent in Bethlehem some years before, which, as you could imagine, left a lasting impression on his mind. He was inspired by the view of Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine, especially at night. Brooks loved children, and wrote this song for the children in his Sunday School when he was rector of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Church.
Lewis Redner, who was the organist and Sunday School superintendent for the church, wrote the music.
Brooks loved children and would often write letters to them. That explains why, when Brooks died on January 23, 1893, a five year old was upset because she had not seen her preacher friend for several days. Her mother told her Bishop Brooks had gone to heaven, and the child exclaimed, “Oh, Mama, how happy the angels will be.”
These words are placed over his tomb: “A preacher of righteousness and hope, majestic in stature, impetuous in utterance, rejoicing in the truth, unhampered by the bonds of church or state, he brought by his life and doctrine fresh faith to a people, fresh meanings to ancient creeds.”