American Aristocracy: Gods Of Copley Square – Centerpiece 2
Big ideas spark masterworks; not small ones. The question in an agora like Copley Square was what sort of a masterwork, and even more important, what sort of dialogue those ideas sparked.
In the early 2000s, a distinguished professor of theology, R. R. Reno of Creighton University, long an admirer of what he called the “plastic historical imagination” in architecture, visited Boston to see Trinity. It was also, he’d been told, “a vibrant urban parish with a flair for orthodoxy,” and as Reno was about to make some major life changes of a religious nature in 2004, he may have thought visiting Trinity would be somehow clarifying. He wrote: “I found an aroma of orthodoxy about the worship (solemn procession, conventional hymns, dignified liturgy), while the sermon seemed to be seeking the Brooksian goal: faith for modern modern men and women. The difference between our time and [Phillips] Brooks’, however, is that . . . our elite culture has been de-Christianized, and the notional faith I heard preached from the pulpit in Trinity that day amounted to pure concession, Unitarianism in vestments.”
Now the major religious decision Reno reached in 2004 was to leave the Episcopal Church and become a Roman Catholic, which on the liberal/conservative spectrum Reno seems to relate to is certainly to take a very conservative, perhaps even reactionary, turn. And it is only fair to say that as Trinity Church has evolved in the term of its rector of the 2000s, Samuel T. Lloyd III, the sermons heard there represent a Catholic – a liberal Catholic – rather than a Unitarian point of view. Reno, let us say, admits of “plastic historical imagination” more in architecture than theology.
Reno’s conclusions in the first decade of the 21st century strike a nerve with this historian nonetheless, because his view of Trinity in our time is some sort of strange historical flash back of a sort partisans may be prone to, whereby they make their own what is by their time a misunderstanding, but which was in some past period, in this case the late 19th-century and subsequently, absolutely key not only to shaping Trinity, but the nature of the dialogue it sparked.
The best evidence we have of that dialogue – some would say conflict – is what I like to call The Underground History of Trinity Church – a pretty wild ride written in 1884 by a very prudential historian; in fact the father of American academic history, Henry Adams, who was indeed prudent enough to write it under a nom de plume, only confessing his authorship a quarter century later. In this underground history, which took the form of a novel, the author proved a better historian than novelist, quick to fix on a key part of the tug-of-war going on under the surface at Trinity. No surprise there. Something like that ensues whenever big ideas are at stake.
First glimpsed in my mind when Rector Phillips Brooks – who became so admired a figure in American Christianity in his era he has subsequently been canonized – insisted to the chair of his building committee, Robert Treat Paine, that he wanted Trinity to be “the glory of America forever” artistically – whereas the building committee’s money-crunchers, according to historian Theodore Stebbins, “wanted to leave the interior bare, forgoing the frescoes” – this tug-of-war, calmed by the huge presence of Brooks himself, after his death flared into open warfare. It was his memorials that did it, when the players on both sides, however closeted, had no choice but to declare themselves..
The bloodiest battle was fought over the most conspicuous of these memorials, by Augustus St. Gaudens on the Boylston Street side of the church. A more complicated affair than it seems – the creation of this memorial actually yielded the sort of modernist miracle one would expect of a modernist saint like Brooks – the overall effect of this monument is also, however, quite false given Brooks’s histrionic upraised hand, he having been by all report quite sparing in gesture (though how else convey his oratorical power in bronze?).The high point came when a large sum was raised to commission Bella Pratt to sculpt another bronze figure of equal size to replace the St. Gaudens figure. The fight went all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, led by Harvard President Eliot, and it did not subside when the Eliot forces lost the court battle. Instead, stubborn as only Boston Brahmins can be, Eliot and company erected the Pratt statue diagonally across Boylston Street from the St. Gaudens memorial, on the grounds of what was then the Museum of Natural History. They even tried to erect it in Copley Square! (Eventually it was moved to suburban North Andover, where it remains.)
Daniel Chester French’s bust of Brooks also caused trouble. Superb in the face, otherwise of such solidity as to be off-putting, this work began life enthroned in Trinity’s chancel just behind the pulpit, so that the saint-bishop was seen as more or less forever keeping an eye on his successors, one of whom finally couldn’t stand it anymore and banished Brooks to an adjoining baptistry.
Most dramatic of all, perhaps, was the protest mounted against the statue of Brooks on the entrance porch of the church, a protest not resolved for three decades. The figure was modeled by sculptor Hugh Cairns in 1897 when the porch was erected, but Brooks’s successor insisted, according to a 1919 article in The Boston Herald (it took that long for the story to surface) that “Phillips Brooks had not been canonized” and “was not recognized as a saint'” and accordingly must not be included. “The plaster cast,” the press reported, “was broken.” Not before the sculptor retrieved the head, however, and went on, presumably by way of protest, to exhibit it as a bust at the Paris World Exposition of 1900. It was not until long after New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and the National Cathedral in Washington had erected their own statues of Brooks (on the pulpit of the former and in the high altar reredos of the latter) that Trinity followed suit.
You can get a sense of who is tugging hardest if you pay attention to what Brooks is wearing! Is he vested in the billowing white surplice and priest’s black silk stole he always wore at the liturgy? Or is he depicted in his academic gown, in which he preferred to preach, especially at Harvard’s chapel? Today, however, there is a better clue in Brooks’s official biographical note in the Proper for the Lesser Feasts and Fasts of the Episcopal Church: “[Brooks] 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.” I have italicized the attack words, so to speak, between which Brooks;s first biographer, Alexander A. V Allen, tried to steer in offering a fuller explanation to the insistence of many, for instance, that Brooks, an Episcopal priest and later bishop, was really”Unitarian,” especially in “his assertion of mental freedom.” Allen objected to the implication that
“religious and intellectual freedom is only gained by the rejection of tradition and dogma . . . [Brooks] was cast in a very different mold. He had attained his freedom through dogma, not by its rejection, and dogma continued to minister to his freedom. This was one of the secrets of his power, of his superiority, of his universality. . . . [He} appropriat[ed] dogma by translating it into terms of life.”
(And if reason didn’t satisfy Allen was not above sarcasm: “Such power, such genius” Allen pronounced, “marked [Brooks]as of necessity one who, though he might not be aware of it, must be Unitarian.”)
If this all sounds more like politics than religion, it was – both. We are dealing here not, as is more often the case in this series, with the strengths of the Boston Brahmin, but – as the French say – with the weaknesses of their strengths. And no weakness was ever more prominent in the Brahmin arena of discourse than their virulent anti-Catholicism. Copley Square was much more likely to be thought of – improbable as it sounds – as a zone-of-emergence for Italian-American immigrants – Roman Catholics, to be sure, but so much more likely to be anti-clerical, as we saw last time – than for the Brahmin’s most ancient enemy, from which their ancestors had escaped England to the New Word in the first place to found “the city upon a hill,” later famously defending themselves to the extent of sparking the American Revolution. Yet as it turned out Copley Square would become, despite every Brahmin effort to the contrary, absolutely the zone of emergence of a resurgent Anglicanism, too Catholic by far for Puritans-become-Patriots-become-Brahmins.
That meant that Phillips Brooks, for whom in his first rectorate in Philadelphia slavery had been the big issue, in his Boston rectorate – Darwinism being neutralized by the fact that he accepted it – would be whether or not Brooks could defeat what Allen called “the deep prejudice against the Episcopal Church in the city of the Puritans,” a prejudice so far overcome today it is necessary to underline its virulence: “in Boston, where memories were long and traditions tenacious,” wrote Allen, “the Episcopal Church . . . seemed to [most Brahmins] like an alien church, whose spirit was hostile to liberty and to religious freedom.” It was a point of view that dogged Trinity’s rector relentlessly, sparking one provocation after another. One such is recounted by Allen:
[Brooks] is recalled as once entering his study, where friends were waiting for him, throwing his hat across the room indignantly, and refusing to talk. [When finally he had calmed down enough to speak, it emerged] that he had just come from a conversation on the street with a clergyman of another denomination, who quietly assumed that [Brooks] did not believe the creeds he was in the habit of reciting. [Brooks] had broken out in in moral wrath against the man and against his assumption, asking him if he realized the meaning of what he was saying . . . . .[On another occasion] he wrote an emphatic letter, stating plainly that the statement [that he did not believe ‘the tenets of his creed’] was untrue. This difficulty . . . might afford opportunity for a curious psychological study. People wanted [Brooks] to believe as they did. It shook their faith in their own position if it were shown he did not. Hence they assumed the agreement. They were unwilling to accept his denials.” [Emphasis added].
This was all the harder for the Rector of Trinity because the Brooks were not one of the few old Anglican Brahmin families that had survived the American Revolution in Puritan Boston (as, indeed, had the parish of Trinity Church itself, an old Colonial foundation).The Brooks family were Puritans of old; It was Phillips Brooks’ mother who was the convert to Anglicanism, even to the extent of inquiring if her son needed to be re-baptized, an ambition she abandoned only when assured as the Trinitarian formula had been used Episcopal canon law accepted the validity of the sacrament.
The other side of the story is evident in the girlhood diaries kept by the future suffragist leader Alice Stone Blackwell, a Unitarian who was known to occasionally frequent Episcopal churches because in biographer Marlene Merrill’s words, Blackwell “observed and was probably influenced by the importance that religion played in the lives of the Irish Catholic and English Anglican domestics who worked in the household and attended church regularly,” such maids drawing her into attendance. But she did not like what she saw. Why Episcopalians insisted on making their clergy “so absurd by putting them into nightgowns [meaning billowing white surplices] with huge frills and flapping white wings” of the sort Brooks wore every Sunday, Blackwell could not fathom for the life of her, and doubtless that factored into her impression of why, although she thought he spoke well, Alice when she first heard Brooks pronounced him “an unctuous priest.”
“An unctuous priest,” so-called on the eve, in 1872, of the beginning of construction of Trinity Church in Copley Square, was not just the judgment of the 14-year old Alice: Not very different was Henry James’s comment: “the explanations of such as [Brooks] require more explanation than anything else in the world.”
Especially fixated on the new church were Henry Adams and his wife, Marion “Clover” Hooper Adams, whose Marlborough Street townhouse was only a block across Commonwealth Avenue on Clarendon Street from where Brooks’s rectory would be built. The Adams’s socialized regularly with Trinity’s rector, as well as with its architect, newly appointed in 1872, and also with Richardson’s’ choice in turn for Trinity’s muralist, John La Farge. Brooks was a big, jovial, good-looking and witty man, fast-moving in walk and speech, and they all got on very well.
However, when Brooks steadfastly maintained that “Christianity is supernatural, or it is nothing,” Adams surely only smiled. When the rector of Trinity added that the “Incarnation,” the dogma of the God-Man, was critical, the smile certainly became thinner. And doubtless disappeared entirely when Brooks insisted that “skepticism offers no satisfactory substitute for what it disbelieves.” Clover Adams surely made answer for her husband too: “I have heard him [Brooks] preach twice. But each time neither heart nor brain got any food.”
However, where Brooks failed as preacher he often succeeded as church builder. This heir to what was already America’s royal family, as great a scholar as the age produced, Adams was often seen in the midst of what Walter Whitehall called the “desert of dirt, dust, mud and wind” of emerging Copley Square in the early 1870s, drawn up Clarendon Street past Brattle tower time and time again, “often visit[ing] the work in progress [at Trinity].” He and Clover would observe “the stonemasons raising the walls,” in historian James O’Gorman’s words, studying finally the year before its completion “the team of painters under the direction of . . . La Farge” who were painting the frescoes we now so admire, including of course, what has been our focus here, that Madonna Phillips Brooks suggested against all the rules, as La Farge put it.
Trinity, for whatever reason, fascinated Adams; and it became central to the discourse of rather a high-powered cohort of influential American intellectuals and over a long a period of time, not only in Boston, to which in the early 1870s Richardson now moved from New York, but in Washington, to which Adams moved just nine months after Trinity’s consecration in 1877, and in La Farge’s New York too. In his biography of Adams, Ernest Samuels notes that five years after Trinity opened its doors,
When Adams became intimate with Richardson . . . [he] was full of great projects for the further improvement of Trinity – the addition of a front porch, a chapter house, and a daring scheme of mosaics to cover the great piers. After a lively summer with Phillips Brooks touring France and Italy in quest of architectural ideas, he returned in the fall of 1882 to become an even more frequent dinner guest at the Adamses. Much as Adams relished Richardson’s convivial gaiety, Adams drew out his serious side . . . Richardson . . . opened Adams’s eyes to the simple grandeur of the twelfth century . . . Adams said later, ‘I caught the disease from dear old Richardson.'”
It is not a discourse one would have expected. Adams, though he was as culturally Unitarian as La Farge was Roman Catholic, was equally ‘lapsed’. It was all so curious. That’s where the keenest enthusiasm for Brooks’s church building came from, much more so than from his parishioners. Both Weinberg and Stebins, without suggesting economics was the only factor, note the lack of enthusiasm for La Farge’s work on the part of the building committee. One author in the 1979 Trinity guide went so far as to as to assert that it was only “amidst some secrecy [that Richardson] directed La Farge to present [to the committee] very complete plans” for his entire schema.
There is also abundant evidence that Brooks wanted La Farge to finish his frescoes (some of which instead ended up – significantly – at Brooks’s brother’s church in New York City) and favored Richardson’s dreams for mosaics. But there was to be no chapter house, there were to be no mosaics either (not in Brooks’s or Richardson’s lifetimes), nor would there be a front porch until in his will Brooks left a bequest to build it.
The truth was that many members of the parish – congregation they would have said, being so much more congregational than episcopal! – were more interested in the preacher than in the church builder. Meanwhile, though, such were Adams’s enthusiasms they prompted from Henry James, by then established as an American expatriate in Europe and more drawn to Adams than to Brooks, this reply: “Your picture of Boston” – the embryonic Copley Square really – “with its gorgeous Turner [a painting by that British master that Adams’s in-laws, the Hoopers, had just given to the art museum] and its fresco-ed churches [Trinity] is really glowing, and I feel like hurrying home to become the Vasari of such a Florence.”
Actually, there was no need. Trinity not only found the nation’s foremost intellectual historian, which Adams certainly was, right on its doorstep, but also its own Vasari in Bernard Berenson, who on November 22, 1885 was baptized by Phillips Brooks. The fact that Berenson was a Jew was just exhibit two in the saga we began here two essays ago with the Brattle Towers Italian stone-cutters and the Sunday throngs of Italian- Americans at the art museum, and notice how quickly things were moving on the immigrant front: it was Berenson’s own dream of Boston as an Italian art center as much as Isabella Stewart Gardner’s larger goals that according to Ernest Samuels established that first great American art collection..
Adams, meanwhile, was a tougher sell: he was not baptized by Phillips Brooks, thank you! But he began at Trinity a journey, and in view of Berenson’s later religious ups and downs, one of more long-lasting effect, that would certainly end in a sort of conversion, the first chapter of which was an detailed in that novel about the erection of Trinity Church! Moreover, although T. S. Eliot, another Boston Brahmin Unitarian on the pilgrimage road (in his case to Canterbury) should have written the second volume – and Robert Lowell (who went back and forth) the third? – it would fall on Adams uniquely to plumb the depths in Copley Square.
“An unctuous priest” is exactly how Phillips Brooks is depicted in Esther, a central theme of which is the love that grows up between the Brooks character and one of the artists decorating his church, Esther Dudley.
Esther is “a love story with religion as a hopeless obstacle and a religious story in which the God of love turns out to be inapproachable,” so literary historian Charles Vandersee opines in the best chapter of Makers of Trinity Church. No wonder Henry Adams confessed to his best friend he wrote the book “in his heart’s blood.” Yet for all its fraught circumstances – Adams’s wife Clover is never far from her husband’s mind in the novel and some years later committed suicide – Adams is indeed more historian than novelist and it shows. In fact, Adams, when he finally confessed authorship, also confessed that not only had he “taken the building of Trinity Church as the inspiration for his theme [the novel is actually laid in New York]” but into Esther he’d “incorporated great sections of real conversations that went on with real characters”, including for instance La Farge, who in turn recounted in a 1911 newspaper article that he was “very intimate with Mr Richardson in the building of that church . . . spend[ing] whole days and nights with him on that subject.”
How vexing a subject Trinity could be, and was to Esther Dudley, Adams’s protagonist, any visitor may somewhat enter into by picking up in any pew a Book of Common Prayer. Turn to page 864-865:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things , it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith . . . /And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity in Unity,/neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance . . . /The Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal . . . . /The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. . . .
That’s the Athanasian Creed, and it’s all incomprehensible, except to a theologian, and perhaps a Boston Brahmin! No wonder there then ensues “one of those spiritual struggles in the age of Darwin” – Vandersee’s words – in which this creed’s “prickly concept assaults poor Esther” repeatedly. And that’s the easy part: finally there comes the hard part: “on these walls are figures of saints and symbols of teachings. Do they work?” To which the real-life Brooks was at pains to urge they did before he did anything else, as biographer Raymond Allbright recounts:
The imaginative preacher in Trinity Church found the erection of the church building an appropriate time for a sermon on beauty . . . He developed his theme from the sacramental value of external beauty since it is representative and expressive of something internal and spiritual and concluded that God ‘would rather tempt us with his beauty than bind us with his bands. It is better to be urged on by the inspiration’s than driven by the compulsions of holiness’.
The church builder has left us glorious inspirations, more tempting perhaps than those of the preacher, though Martin Luther King’s biographer does suggest King mined Brooks’s sermons in seminary. At Trinity the rewards were immediate: within two years of of the church’s opening, Burne-Jones himself was at work on a magnificent stained glass extravaganza for Trinity’s North Transept, glass I’m sure Oscar Wilde while in Boston in 1882 walked over to see, Wilde being a close friend of Burne-Jones, whose letter of introduction to Brooks’s friend, Charles Eliot Norton, Ruskin’s best friend, Wilde brought with him to Boston. All of which documents what a transatlantic event Trinity was becoming artistically as well as religiously.
How much such things excited Brooks, who would himself meet Burne-Jones and William Morris in London that same year. Brooks’s eager response to the experience of what he saw as the beautiful in art, of which his love of Venice and his devotion to San Marco and to the image of the Virgin and Child was more and more pointed evidence, accounts surely for how keenly the rector of Trinity felt the “sacramental value,” as biographer Allbright put it, of art and architecture, rightly considered.
Rightly considered meant there was as Brooks saw it a right order in such matters, something Allen particularly picks up on time and time again. For instance, Brooks always insisted – it was, wrote Allen, “the principle of conversion as he himself had experienced it” – that for all Christians, “The vision must come first, to be followed by obedience, when the sense of sin would inevitably ensue, but with the assurance of forgiveness. [Brooks] condemned not only by implication, but in express language, the opposite method, which sought first to produce the sense of sin, and only after the conviction of forgiveness . . . [the] vision.”
Vision? The vision is everywhere at Trinity, glorious above all in the great crossing, where to look up the 100 feet and more into La Farge’s frescoed tower is to be very quickly caught up in it: Moses, David, Peter, Paul – the Madonna, of course – it is a splendid “aerial gallery,” as the Boston Transcript put it. Even so hard-bitten a scholar a Henry-Russell Hitchcock in the 1930s saw enough that he wrote “it was not unworthy of comparison with St Mark’s in Venice”; that it “fill[ed] the interior, not with a glow like the windows, but with a colored mist.”
All of which puts me in mind of how Brooks’s thinking has by one scholar been held to be akin – quite unknown to him (Either/Or was not translated into English for decades after Brooks’s death) – to that of the great mid-19th century Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard. His contribution to “the debate about what most effectively or fully takes one to God,” this scholar urges, was that “the aesthetic gives way to the ethical, which gives way to the religious.”
Here, of course, the tug-of-war comes into sharper focus. Brooks, because he knew that to take up this position in the Holy City, which Boston ever is, historically, as the Puritan capital – not just in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s era but in John Updike’s too – was to sign on for an uphill battle, a battle where the ethical was often seen as ennobling the aesthetic, both of which stubbornly resisted the religious. Brooks surely knew too that such people will often find the compulsions of holiness more attractive than the temptations. I wonder if Brooks might be better understood as of Reinhold Niebuhr’s school of thought.
Certainly theological scholars like Reno have asserted that “the influence of Brooks made it possible for Niebuhr to reach a broad audience in the middle decades of the 20th century” with his thesis that the American intelligentsia – for Brooks it would have been “the Boston religion,”, wherever found – must be warned off and won over from what Niebuhr called the “Promethean illusion.”
That illusion was that for the “law of love to prevail in the world, it requires only resolute action by good men.” Yet the Boston Unitarian seemed unable to accept the injunction, or the fact that, as Niebuhr would put it, that “goodness armed with power is corrupted, and pure love without power is destroyed” and that while “the contradictions of human experience” must indeed be overcome, that can happen only “by divine action. No human action,” Niebuhr argued in Beyond Tragedy, because of these contradictions, “is equal to it.”
It is, Anglican theological (and mystery!) writer Dorothy Sayers declared in The Mind of the Maker, “the hopeless dilemma that confronts every attempt to establish a kingdom of God on earth.” Dare one add, even in John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill.” Even seen from Copley Square.
Divine action? Brooks, in his careful way trying to nudge his fellow Brahmins forward, was heard to say in one sermon of the technically still Anglican 17th-century founders of Boston that it was “because God was so intimately real to them” that “the puritan made little, too little, [emphasis added] of sacraments and priests.”
But that was the preacher. “Divine action” for the church builder meant blazoning the only Madonna and Child in what La Farge called Protestant America on Trinity’s key East wall in the topmost central tympanum. (What Brooks said of something else – “it’s hidden but unlost meaning” – is as apt too for this image to which he was devoted as only one so keen on the Incarnation and the God-Man. would be.
Thus the question here becomes less Vandersee’s – do these “figures of saints and symbols of teachings” actually “work – and more Jackson Lears’s query in No Place of Grace, where he felt “the central question posed by the heroine of Esther [to be]:. . . ‘was the moral equal to the aesthetic effect, or was the former paralyzed or overshadowed by the latter.’”
Again there was a right order. The two great commandments were “like unto [each other]” to be sure, but one – the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind” – came first. The other part – the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” – how you loved God – was hardly less important, but it came second. The order mattered. Recall Mother Teresa’s blunt admission to Harriet Heyman in “Teresa of the Slums”: “I wouldn’t touch a leper for a thousand pounds . . . Yet I will willingly care for him for the love of God.”
Closing the circle, so to speak, when sacramental worship is not primary, but secondary, more supportive than motivating, the reversing of right order leaves the liturgy stranded, dysfunctional, only a cover, a front, an aesthetic sham. The church becomes more opera house than church.
The early 20th-century Spanish Roman Catholic philosopher and rector of Salamanca, Miguel Unamuno, who was much influenced by Brooks’s published sermons, in his great work, The Tragic Side of Life, comes as close to identifying where Brooks stood in this matter as anyone, this being a very subtle tug-of-war, always in everyone’s interest to downplay the significance of. Unamuno quotes Brooks about “mystics” on the one hand, and on the other “hard-headed men of facts.” Declared the rector of Trinity: “they divide the world between them.” Calling them “the two great dispositions,” he admitted that “each misunderstands, distrusts and in large measure despises the other” – Phillips Brooks could be very direct – “but insisted that each needed to learn that “the two hemispheres together, and not either one by itself, make up the total world.”
Brooks, as much as Richardson and La Farge, was doing a new thing. Historian Gillis Harp explains:
The erection of a new structure on Copley Square provided Brooks an opportunity to express his new vision of the Church . . . Brooks did not opt for the Greek Revival style popular among Evangelicals . . . Brooks also chose an architectural idiom that avoided Anglo-Catholic excess (that’s High Gothic) while it bespoke a certain catholicity.
Nor is Harp a century and more later the first to call Brooks, not a High Churchman or an Anglo-Catholic certainly, but a Broad Churchman orthodox enough in his teaching that his teaching, whether as church builder or preacher, “bespoke a certain catholicity.” A contemporary judgement from High Church Oxford, after all, was to award Brooks an honorary doctorate, as “an eloquent exponent of the true Catholic faith.” What “true” may mean, moreover, is clear today when one reads The Catholic Church: A Short History by Hans Kung. A controversial theologian as well as an eminent one, named a theological consultant to the Second Vatican Council by Pope John Paul XXIII, Kung, though his authority to teach Roman Catholic doctrine has been withdrawn, continues to teach and write and still remains “a Catholic priest in good standing,” in his own words. Reading Kung’s history, I was struck with how in virtually all the areas Anglo-Catholics faulted Brooks as not orthodox he turns out to be, indeed, prophetic. Today Hans Kung stands is in agreement with Phillips Brooks about almost everything.
Harp goes on to detail Trinity Church’s role in Brooks’s thinking:.
. . . The interior would feature warm murals and evocative stained glass. Yet Brooks was also concerned to retain what he viewed as the essential thrust of the Reformation and to give no place to Ritualist sacerdotal-ism. A commentator in the Boston Transcript understood the subtle balancing act at work in the interior design by noting ‘the superb beauty . . . magnificent splendors, yet noble and dignified, artistic yet religious. [It was all part of] a new understanding of Anglican comprehensiveness that excluded the fiercely Protestant Evangelicalism [those Brooks had cut his ties to] while it winked at the doctrine and ceremonial innovations of the Ritualists.
Brooks did more than wink. One of his most devoted proteges, according to Allbright, was his friend Arthur Hall’s novice at the very High Church, Cowley Fathers, Charles Brent, and in one of his first acts as bishop in 1891 Brooks, who now enjoyed a much greater freedom of action, appointed Brent co-pastor with Henry M. Torbet of St Stephen’s Church in the South End slum. John Woolverton’s 2005 study, Robert H. Gardiner and the Reunification of Worldwide Christianity in the Progressive Era, details the global influence of St Stephen’s through Gardiner, who like Brent ( later made a bishop, of the Philippines and later still of Western New York) left as their chief legacy today’s World Council of Churches.
This “brainchild of Bishop Phillips Brooks, St Stephen’s Church,” in Woolverton’s words, became celebrated under Torbet and Brent’s leadership, but not perhaps for reasons many admirers of Broad Church Brooks and High Church Brent might have expected. St Stephen’s much-admired social work was centered on “a service of intercessory prayer” – much like today’s Taize Liturgy, not unknown now at Trinity Church – which drew huge congregations and opened “the floodgates . . . releas[ing[ a torrential flow of imagination and organization.” Indeed, St Stephen’s represented a “combination of evangelical zeal with high church sacramentalism” in this universe of discourse, Woolverton believes to have been unprecedented.
At its heart was “daily prayer and regular attendance at the Holy Eucharist.” Brooks, still in Copley Square in his rectory become episcopal residence, was more than vindicated in his first policy initiative, the more so as St Stephens became a primary arena for one of his own longtime Trinity parishioners, Vida Dutton Scudder, a founder of Denison House in the South End, one of the country’s first settlement houses.
Going much further than anyone else, “Scudder tried to wed Catholicism and Marxism in [Anglican] sacramental union,” wrote Jackson Lears, and she left little doubt who had launched her on this astonishing trajectory: it was, she wrote, “the gracious teaching of Phillips Brooks and the thought of [Brook’s English mentor] F. D. Maurice.” An example of Brooks’s part in the formation this woman, who was “on the cutting edge of her era’s social tought and action” is cited by Scudder in her Socialism and Christianity, where the Smith College- and Oxford-educated Wellesley College professor observed how influenced she was by Brook’s triumphant teaching about the Trinity as “the social thought of God.” [Emphasis added].
No wonder Lears allowed, “Scudder’s . . .stoical faith undercuts reductionist interpretations of High Church Anglicanism . . . Energized by a serious search for faith, [Scudder’s religion] . . . could be seen as an effort to overcome doubt by encountering the mystery of faith, in the daily miracle of the Eucharist.” A eucharist-centric do-gooder had got the order right. No wonder that not only Brooks, and Brent too was later canonized. So finally would Scudder herself be.
In a very real sense what Brooks began at Trinity – the balance he sought – but achieved more as church builder than preacher – before his resignation to become Bishop in 1891 and then his very early death in 1893 – because, I suspect, there were more of his parishioners tugging at the other end of the rope than his end – he achieved at St Stephen’s on a much smaller scale and with more emphasis on social work, through Brent and Scudder, who saw clearly Brooks’s new vision of the Church. Certainly, the author of the mission’s history in the 1984 Massachusetts Diocesan History makes a point of recounting that at St Stephen’s “community outreach was understood not as social work in a clerical collar. The devotional core” – eucharistic worship and intercessory prayer – “of the South End program was the recognized key to its effectiveness.”
Nor is there any other way, given Brooks’s love for Trinity, to explain his resignation as rector and his acceptance of election to the episcopate than that, much as he had achieved at Trinity, he felt he was by 1890 accomplishing less as rector of Trinity for the Church then he could in another sphere as bishop, St Stephen’s being the first great example.
I think of what Johanna Gillispe, in her essay on Scudder on her website, Undiscovered Voices, wrote so simply in one of her footnotes: “I think an anonymous reader for John Andrew Dorn’s Harvard PhD dissertation . . . [for] naming St Stephen’s Church, Boston, ‘a cathedral for Social Workers . . . a place of worship [nurturing] those [in] social service.” St Stephen’s got the order right.
It is John La Farge who tells the truth about the tug-of-war and its effect – twice; that’s the most interesting thing about Esther, written after all by an agnostic only just beginning at Trinity what would be a lifelong pilgrimage, culminating of course, in one of the most remarkable books ever written, Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres. The La Farge character, Wharton, for whom Esther is painting her mural, watches her closely. Writes John Gatta in his American Madonna: Images of the Divine Woman in Literary Culture:
Esther Dudley presents herself from the first as a spirited, artistic, independent-minded woman, not unlike Marion Hooper Adams . . . / Yet personal independence is not the only ideal Esther’s nature drives her to fulfill . . . Significantly, she ends up painting in St. John’s [ie.,Trinity] Church because even here in a New World Episcopal edifice . . . no image of the Madonna has survived the Reformation.” Wharton/La Farge it is who significantly tells Esther that he would like to “put a Madonna in the heart of their church.
When one reads this part of the novel in the light of the real-life La Farge’s discussion of Trinity’s Protestant Madonna in the New York Herald, it seems so very clear that here is a case of Adams’s text directly reflecting contemporaneous conversations with his artist friend as he always said Esther did.
The La Farge character’s reason, furthermore, is fairly devastating: without the Madonna, Wharton/La Farge declares of Trinity Church, – “the place has no heart.”
Yet the mater dolorosa Wharton has in mind – he seeing “religion as a struggle rather than a joy” – the wrong order, note, for Brooks – will not do. Not at all. And one is allowed to feel Esther convinces him, as perhaps did Brooks convince La Farge in real life. Writes Millicent Bell in her still brilliant article in New England Quarterly half a century ago, “Adams’ Esther, The Morality of Taste – it was “not Esther’s way . . . as it was not the way Adams saw the Virgin of Chartres.” Esther agreed with her model, who goes so far in Adams’s text as to imagine herself, as perhaps did Brooks and La Farge of Trinity’s own Madonna, as ” a new Madonna of the prairie.”
Declare’s Bell: “Esther Dudley anticipates Adams’ portrait of Mary, the Mother of God.” And Trinity’s Madonna, meanwhile, betokened Copley Square’s widening perspective, whether across the ocean to Chartres or across the American continent to the prairie.
Of La Farge’s second truth, more next time.
Douglass Shand-Tucci is an historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His most recent book is the second volume of his study of the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (Univ.of Massachusetts Press, 2005) and he also teaches at the Boston Architectural College in the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation. He is the founder of the innovative new history site, Back Bay Historical | Boston CentricGlobal Studies, where his monthly longform blogs have become his principal publishing outlet.