On a trip to Boston a few years ago, I made a pilgrimage to one of America’s most famous Episcopal churches, Trinity Church, Copley Square. I went, in large part, for architectural reasons. I have always admired H.H. Richardson, the architect whose plastic historical imagination is so well represented in the design of Trinity Church. I had my own theological reasons as well. Trinity Church had been recommended to me as something of a Boston anomaly: a vibrant urban parish with a flair for orthodoxy.
Trinity Church’s good reputation stems directly from that of its first and best-known rector, Phillips Brooks, who oversaw the construction of the Richardson building and who preached there from its consecration in 1877 until his election as bishop of Massachusetts in 1891. One of the most famous preachers of the Gilded Age, Brooks (1835-1893) was the archetypical Episcopalian of his time: utterly derivative and extremely influential. He was a man who neither thought through any difficult theological issues nor broke any new intellectual ground. What Brooks did instead, as GillisJ. Harp’s Brahmin Prophet so effectively displays, was to embody and facilitate the changes in spiritual sensibility that would come to define the liberal Protestant establishment.
The first and most important change occurred in what we might call religious epistemology. As Harp’s fine study shows convincingly, Brooks was greatly influenced by nineteenth-century Romanticism. The effect was to turn him away from doctrinal systems and toward religious feelings. In his influential reflections on the task of preaching, Brooks argues against expository preaching that relies upon doctrine. Instead, for Brooks, the essence of good preaching is “truth through personality.” The authenticity, sincerity, and honesty of the preacher serve as the core of evangelism. The preacher does not just bear witness to some creed—he bears witness to the truths that live in his heart and, in so doing, communicates these living truths to the hearts of others.
This emphasis on feeling and personality naturally led Brooks to discount the fine doctrinal distinctions that had characterized Protestant theology since the Reformation. The consequence was a second change: from a sharply defined confessional faith to a vague and open communion of common sentiment. As Brooks put the matter, “The Church does not remember [Christ]. It feels him.” In his youth, Brooks shrank from the doctrinal controversies that became increasingly fierce in nineteenth-century Protestantism, controversies that seemed to him intellectual jousting that distracted from the essence of Christianity. As he warned in his widely read book on preaching, “Beware of the tendency to preach about Christianity, and try to preach Christ.”
With a serene confidence that reflected, perhaps, the dominance of his own social class both in New England and in America as a whole, Brooks saw himself as above faction, and he frequently criticized the “party spirit” that would demand doctrinal uniformity. In his middle age, Brooks was largely unbothered by the emerging results of critical study of the Bible. In matters of textual criticism as in matters of doctrine, he felt that anxiety was unwarranted, because what mattered was the singularity of Christ’s influence, not the diversity of man’s analyses. One whose sentiments were integrated by, and suffused with, the warm message of the gospel could be trusted to navigate by instinct the old theological debates and the new intellectual challenges.
Closely related to Brooks’ lack of interest in doctrine and inerrancy was his commitment to religious liberalism. His Broad Church convictions were supported by the belief that a truth sought exerts a more powerful influence than a truth taught. A preacher, in his role as a congregational leader, needs to be free to articulate genuine doubts and to respond to the troubling questions raised by modernity. Only thus can the answer of Christ find a place in the center of the hearts and minds of those who honestly seek the truth. “Narrowness” was one of Brooks’ curse words, and he made a point of defending his more adventurous friends from accusations of infidelity. Conscience, thought Brooks, needs elbow room.
In these features—the priority of feeling, insouciance about doctrine, nonchalance about historical-critical challenges to scriptural authority, and commitment to religious liberty—Brooks, as I say, embodied the emergent spirit of modern Protestantism. This spirit is reflected, of course, in his sermons, which are mined by Harp in order to display for us the outlines of Brooks’ liberal theology: an optimistic anthropology that downplays the fall, an Arminian soteriology that emphasizes good works, a general shift from the Cross to the Incarnation as the central message of the gospel, and a plastic, minimalist ecclesiology.
To state these themes this way is helpful in locating Brooks on the theological spectrum but not so helpful in truly understanding him, for these are ideas, and Brooks’ influence was not as a man of ideas. Hazlitt once wrote of Wordsworth’s poetry that “it affects a system without having an intelligible clue to one.” Theologically, the same could be said of Brooks. It is easy to trace his leading ideas back to earlier, more systematic thinkers. The emphasis on feeling was much championed by English Romanticism. The turn away from Protestant scholasticism was given clear, systematic justification in the theology of Horace Bushnell. The presumptive liberty of conscience was championed by Emerson. Brooks neither formulated nor advanced any of these signal themes of Protestant liberalism; rather, he absorbed them. He was, to use his own terminology, a liberal Protestant personality (in our terminology, we might call him a cultural phenomenon), and his preaching and ministry testified to his generation that the new ideas that had captured the imaginations of many could, in fact, be lived.
Let us, then, leave the ideas behind for a moment and recognize, as Harp does, that to pursue the logic of Brooks’ leading themes will lead only to frustration. Brooks’ was a mind well stocked with theological thoughts, but he used them as his architect, Richardson, used the elements of Romanesque idiom in his Trinity Church—with a supple imaginative power that freely modified and arranged in order to achieve an effect. The effect that Brooks sought became the cliché of liberal Protestant seminary theology throughout the twentieth century: a faith for modern man. It is important for us to remember, however, that what is now a very tired cliché was, in Brooks’ time, an exciting and unexpected possibility.
The circumstances of Brooks’ birth and religious upbringing anticipate his central role in American Christianity. His parents were not particularly rich, but they were both from old New England families and were, by blood, part of elite Boston society. Contemporary readers are not likely to be able to imagine readily the smug self-confidence, the insular social attitudes, and the vast power wielded by the social class that was to earn the name Boston Brahmin, but Harp does an excellent job of inserting us into this exotic world. In the early nineteenth century the introduction of textile technology made eastern Massachusetts the Silicon Valley of its day. Vast fortunes were made and an already wealthy city became the ascendant center of power in the new United States.
This dominant social class was, however, marked by religious crisis, with that great Boston oddity, Unitarianism, constituting a rebellion against traditional Calvinist Congregationalism. It was in this context that Brooks’ mother, Mary Ann Phillips Brooks, became disenchanted with the Congregationalism of her ancestors and joined St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Moves like hers were part of a larger social transformation, not only of Boston society but of elite Northeastern culture as a whole, a transformation that her son would embody, articulate, and facilitate with remarkable effectiveness.
The transformation involved, for one thing, a striking change in the fortunes of the Episcopal Church. Never strong in New England prior to the American Revolution, Anglicanism in the decades following independence remained deeply compromised by its past Tory loyalties. But though it had been on the losing side in the Revolution, Anglicanism, reorganized as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, came to benefit from the social and religious ferment in pre–Civil War New England. The Congregational establishment had given birth to a radical, antidoctrinal movement, and it seemed locked in a fruitless war of attrition. The Episcopal Church flourished as the respectable, nonconflictual, seemingly orthodox alternative.
To a great extent, Phillips Brooks did little more than live out this social dynamic in his personal faith and ministry. His impact as a preacher and leader grew, as we can now see, out of his ability to soften the terms of the religious choices facing American elites. Brooks was greatly influenced by Horace Bushnell, and Harp provides numerous citations from Brooks’ correspondence that show him as antipathetic to the doctrinal systems of classical Calvinism. Yet, unlike Bushnell, Brooks did not lay out a systematic case against earlier forms of religiosity. Instead, he painted an alternative that allowed others to adopt Bushnell’s more experiential approach without clearly marking the break with the past. The same strategy can be seen in Brooks’ assessment of the historical-critical challenges that emerged in the final decades of his life. He affirmed the importance of modern historical inquiry, but he never seems to have allowed the results to pose a religious challenge to those who listened to his sermons.
One of the great strengths of Brahmin Prophet is that Harp restrains the altogether understandable impulse to criticize Brooks as a muddle-headed temporizing preacher who was either unaware of, or unwilling to recognize, the erosive consequences of his rhetoric. We can recognize that the emphasis on feeling has produced a remarkable spiritual self-indulgence in institutions such as the contemporary Episcopal Church. We can see how Brooks’ vision of preaching as an expression of “personality” leads to the arrogant posturing of “prophetic” preachers who parade their unreflective progressive sensibilities as oracles of the divine. We can trace the present doctrinal amnesia of now-superannuated Protestant “sideline” churches to Brooks’ easy slogan: Preach Christ, not Christianity. Richard John Neuhaus’ observation that where orthodoxy becomes optional it will eventually be proscribed is a shrewd diagnosis of the dangers that were present in Brooks’ seemingly unrestricted affirmation of the “rights of conscience.”
These observations, however, concern the path from liberal Protestantism to the post-Christian spiritual ideologies of the present. Phillips Brooks lived in the second half of the nineteenth century, and he helped to light, as Harp’s subtitle suggests, the path to liberal Protestantism. In that context Brooks, like the Episcopal Church in New England, might be seen, more positively, as a great delayer of the de-Christianization of American elite culture. By smoothing the hard edges of controversy he made avoidable in his generation and the next a choice that was looming for many who shared his education and social status: either the demanding Calvinism of their ancestors or the equally harsh rationalism of post-Christian secular thought. The blurring of alternatives and postponement of decision made possible what sociologists came to call the Protestant Establishment, that now-vanished but once powerful social consensus among ruling elites in America. In truth, the emergent Protestant liberalism that Brooks did so much to nurture may never have had any real future before it, if we may judge by its subsequent career. In our day, the artful, emotive reinterpretations of doctrine in liberal Protestantism that Brooks so effectively pioneered have metastasized into a positive animus against apostolic Christianity.
On the visit to Trinity Church that I mentioned above, I found an aroma of orthodoxy about the worship (solemn procession, conventional hymns, dignified liturgy), while the sermon seemed to be seeking the classic Brooksian goal: faith for modern men and women. The difference between our time and Brooks’, however, is that the strategy of delay has run it course. Our elite culture has been de-Christianized, and the notional faith that I heard preached from the pulpit in Trinity that day amounted to pure concession, Unitarianism in vestments.
How, then, should we balance the accounts? For all my bitterness over the contemporary betrayals committed by his deformed spiritual children, I am inclined to look kindly on Brooks. He made a signal contribution to a form of American Christianity that kept the ugliest forms of modernism at bay in our culture: Emerson’s latent Nietzschean mysticism of the will, social Darwinism, raw utilitarianism, Marxism, and more. The public square was even then, perhaps, ill-clothed, but it was not yet naked. A pallid Christian humanism, but Christian humanism nonetheless, was a real possibility. I am convinced that one might reasonably conclude that the influence of Phillips Brooks made it possible for Reinhold Niebuhr to reach such a broad audience in the perilous middle decades of the twentieth century.
Now we are at a turning point. We can look for no figure such as Niebuhr to put backbone into liberal Protestantism. It is dead and cannot be revived, because it loves its own death. Nonetheless, the choices we make will determine our future views of that great temporizing, muddled religious phenomenon called liberal Protestantism. If we should decide to hearken to John PaulII’s vision of the relationship between personality and truth, and to the Christian humanism outlined in his encyclicals, then we might one day look back and judge the hapless errings of liberal Protestantism to have been more quixotic than demonic. In that event, Brooks and his strategy of delay could be seen as having at least preserved a Christian possibility for other, more confident and vital voices of the gospel to inhabit.
R. R. Reno teaches theology at Creighton University and is the author of In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Brazos).