American Aristocracy: Gods of Copley Square – Centerpiece 4
“Truth is Catholic, but the search for it is Protestant.” That was poet W. H. Auden’s brilliant riposte to a skeptic about his struggle between Anglicanism – which seemed to him (alas, some may say) more Protestant than Catholic – and Roman Catholicism. Its purport was also the second foundational message of Copley Square, announced boldly by the creative trio of “Brooks, Richardson and LaFarge” in their design of Trinity Church.
It was an unusual companion to the first flag run up in the embryonic square, by William Barton Rogers of MIT and John Lowell II of the Lowell Institute in the 1860s, when they established MIT as the square’s cornerstone, Rogers proclaiming boldly that Darwin was absolutely right about his new theory of evolution. The two messages, MIT’s and Trinity’s, kept closer company than we might think likely today because Phillips Brooks, a member of MIT’s governing board as well as Trinity’s rector, conducted all the Sunday services of his parish in MIT’s Huntington Hall on Boylston Street for five years while Trinity Church was being built.
Complicating things, however, because of Trinity’s location in the Holy City – which Boston, historically, ever is as the New World Puritan capital – was what in the wake of Emerson had evolved into a Christian/non-Christian tug-of-war, more obviously controlling in Trinity’s case, between ‘the Boston religion,’ more or less agnostic Unitarianism – which I have argued elsewhere in this series was the first great American Modernism – and Brooks’s liberal but still more theologically orthodox and traditional Anglicanism. That Puritanism and Anglicanism were also venerable historical enemies from American Revolutionary days only made matters worse, a factor compounded by Irish Catholic immigration in the 19th century, which in Boston aroused Yankee prejudices, and reminded Yankee and Brahmin alike that whatever people such as Auden would come to think in a later era, Anglicanism was very much more Catholic than Protestant.
Meanwhile, this would all be played out in a very global arena, not only because Phillips Brooks enjoyed Queen Victoria’s imprimatur, something he profited from throughout the British Empire during his worldwide travels, but because, whether you thought he himself more Catholic than Protestant, or more Unitarian than Anglican, Brooks was really – despite his earnest Anglicanism – more than anything else a pre-Medieval Catholic whose sensibilities were in many ways more sympathetic to the Eastern than to the Western Church.
This emerged very dramatically when he visited Lourdes in 1882.
The grotto at Lourdes is not the sort of place one expects to hear of Phillips Brooks, any more than the Taj Mahal comes to mind on Richardsonian Clarendon Street with respect to Copley Square, with which somewhat bizarre image I began “Centerpiece.” Yet from both Lourdes and Taj we have something to learn here.
The Rector of Trinity arrived in the small pilgrimage town in the foothills of the Pyrenees only 25 years after the first of the Marian apparitions began there in 1858. Though he did not become a devotee of the miraculous spring – he wrote home to a household much concerned with sickness at the time “if I believed all the wonderful stories of what it does, I should send you a bottle of the miraculous water of Lourdes, and we would be grateful worshipers of the Virgin” – Brooks nonetheless did not disparage the controversial apparitions themselves; nor even the commercialism that by 1882, the year of his visit, was already a dominant aspect of the town. In a letter of July 29 that year, he wrote:
Last Wednesday morning we were at Lourdes, one of the strangest places in the world, and suggestive of all sorts of thoughts and questions. It was here that almost thirty years ago a little girl saw the Virgin Mary standing in a grotto, and a spring burst out which since that has been curing hosts of sick people, who have come from the ends of the earth. Now there is a gorgeous church there, crowds of worshipers, a hundred thousand pilgrims yearly and a heap of disused crutches and camp stools, which the cured have left behind them. The street through the town is one long market of crosses and pictures and rosaries and statues of Mary. The whole was wonderfully like the street which leads down to the Ganges at Benares, with its booths full of brass images of Vishnu, Siva, Ganesha, and Kali.
The first thing to say about these letters is that Brooks’s wit had not been dulled by the dramatic change of scene India presented to him, nor his sense of humor either. He described Benares as a place where you “stumble at any step on a temple with its hideous idol” and he singles out one “temple to their monkey god, where they keep 500 monkeys . . . running over everything . . . It reminded me,” Brooks writes home in the true spirit of the Back Bay, “of nothing so much as your drawing-room after dinner.”
There is a reason, however, in Thomas A. Tweed’s new book, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1919. Phillips Brooks comes up so often in this timely text (“[he] was committed to tolerance,” notes Tweed). Thus his letter home quickly becomes more serious, for his tolerance extended as well to Hinduism and to Islam. “This is,” he continued, “the sacredest place in India. There are five thousand Hindoo temples in Benares,” he writes, and goes on to deal extensively with both “the bathers and the burners” that notoriously throng that river still today. “I went down to the Ganges,” Brooks recounts, “where hundreds of people were bathing in the sacred river. Pilgrims from all over India had come to wash their sins away . . . It is a beautiful religion, at least in this, that it keeps its disciples always washing themselves.”
He goes on to describe the funeral pyres and the human situations, variously of young and old, parents and children, and the commerce back and forth between priests and devotees and sellers of the straw needed for the pyres, doing so fully and respectfully, even movingly. The comparison with Lourdes is obvious. It was a not dissimilar experience of popular religious culture. Brooks, furthermore, was interested in, and rather enjoyed the commercial aspects as touching on what we would call today human interest.
A second letter from Benares dealing with Brooks’ response to India as a whole puts Benares in a much larger context: unbeliever that he was, Phillips Brooks was not only impressed, but intrigued.”I have seen the Taj Mahal,” he writes. “One almost feels that here the essence of pure religion which is lurking somewhere under all the degradation and superstitions of this land has broken forth in an exquisiteness which surpasses anything that even Christian architecture has achieved.” Continuing in that vein, Brooks takes a position with respect to both Hinduism and Islam – the Taj being a Mogul monument – that when you think of it is more than dramatic.
“India has interested me intensely . . . I long to see Christianity come here, not merely for what it will do for India, but for what India will do for it. Here [Christianity] must find again the lost oriental side of its brain and heart, and be no longer the occidental European religion which it has strangely become . . . At present the missionary efforts are burdened with Englishism and Americanism.”
John Macquarrie, in his day Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford and perhaps the leading Anglican theologian of our era, thought that “it is the combination of divine grace and human response [that] is so admirable in Mary,” a thesis in support of which in his Mary for all Christians, Macquarrie, my old teacher and mentor, cites Karl Barth: “If God conceived humanity as his covenant partner” he must have “purposed to do this by . . . bring[ing] the human race to that moment in history when . . . it would be ready . . . That moment in the history of mankind is Mary.”
Brooks, passionate enough on the necessity of divine action, and equally so on the need of human response to complete that action, naturally looked toward art and architecture – notice that the “gorgeous” church at Lourdes, like the “exquisite” Taj in India, validated both religious experiences for Brooks – and then something else. And that was the dramatic part: his assertion that Christianity had “strangely become” too Europeanized and needed to recover its “lost oriental style,” points us right back to where our discussion here of Trinity Church and its Madonna began: Venice.
Recall how Brooks, unlike Henry James, had responded so instinctively to Venice’s Eastern character, especially San Marco, Trinity’s inspiration. Yes, Brooks sought at Trinity to get behind Medieval Catholicism to the Early Church, but what needs to be better understood is that by Early Church Phillips Brooks very often meant Eastern, not Western, Byzantine more than Romanesque Christianity. Hence J. B. Bullen’s finding that Trinity’s interior is not Romanesque at all. It is, in fact, strongly Byzantine. So too, we are apt to forget today, was devotion to the image of the Madonna and Child. “The veneration of Mary . . . first developed in the Hellenistic-Byzantine sphere,” as Hans Kung points out in his Short History of the Catholic Church, enlarging on the matter in his On Being a Christian:
Marian devotion arose quite definitely in the East . . . It was in the East that Mary was first invoked in prayer (‘We fly to thy patronage,’ third-fourth century) and the memento of Mary introduced into the Liturgy . . . [A]bove all, it was in the East in the fifth century that Mary, regularly called ‘Mother of Jesus’ in Script, was defined ‘Mother of God’ . . . [I]n the West . . . only in the seventh century were the Eastern feasts of Mary . . . taken over . . . [T]he biblical Ave Maria – in its present form with the plea for her aid at the hour of death – [dates] only from 1500.
Lourdes, the Taj, Benares, Venice, Moscow, Constantinople; why should not the pyramids also arise? They were Brooks’ way of getting back to the Madonna, in this case, the Madonna di San Sisto: “if the pyramids are great in their way,” Brooks announced, “she is a thousand times greater in hers, as the grandest and most expressive monument of a religion in the world.” Brooks explained this section of his sermon on “The Influence of Jesus” by insisting, “the Virgin is a glorification of humanity.” A human response again.
It is Trinity’s other Madonna. Yes, we have two Madonnas to account for; nor should it surprise, once it registers that the LaFarge/Lathrop Virgin and Child Madonna presides by Brooks’s fiat over Trinity from its highest glory. That there was a second seems only to follow, this time presiding over the study where Brooks composed his sermons. Mark De Wolfe Howe does indeed recount in his biographical study of the saint-bishop that “[a] beautiful copy of the picture [of the Sistine Madonna, as it is often called more briefly] hung in front of [Brooks's] study desk throughout all the last years of his life.” Every time he looked up from his manuscript it was into the Madonna’s face, “face,” he wrote, “full of mystery we cannot fathom.” (Alas, this Madonna seems to be lost track of. It is no longer in the rectory. It may have been bequeathed to someone. But a photograph exists; I was shown by Father William Rich of the Madonna’s position in Brook’s day on the wall above a desk in the corner of the room.)
An altarpiece by Raphael, his last, the Sistine Madonna was commissioned by Pope Julius II for the Benedictine monks of San Sisto. It depicts the “Mater Gloriosa” with St. Sixtus and St. Barbara in what had long since become by Brooks’s day an iconic image of the Mother of God, an image, Hans Belting wrote, that “culminates in the quiet gaze the Virgin bestows on the beholder.” Indeed, the Sistine Madonna is exceptional in that Raphael conceived it, in Belting’s words, “as a vision as if experienced by the viewer.” And why not? “Out of all the maidens of Judah,” Brooks wrote, “she had been chosen to be the mother of the Lord . . . In everything her life must have been elevated by seeing how her Son would share it with her. That must have been the first power of the Incarnation [emphasis added].” He concluded: “Let your soul magnify the Lord with the same bounding and leaping sense of privilege that exalted hers.”
Surely this sort of thing was just what so irritated Harvard’s severely Unitarian president, whose attempted recruitment of Brooks, had it been successful, to Harvard would have validated Eliot’s suspicions that Brooks was really Unitarian, mouthing traditional creeds only because required to.
With Henry Adams’s flirtation with the Madonna the Brahmin establishment was more patient. For Brooks the cult of the Virgin was from the beginning an affair of the heart, not least its Eastern aspect. The sermon in which he used the Sistine Madonna as so powerful a theme was preached in Trinity two years after La Farge and he had enthroned the Madonna and Child in the tower and may well have been in answer to questions raised by more than one parishioner. Adams, however, cultivated his Marian passions more quietly – he did not put his name on Esther – and in any event his was a more Western devotion than Brooks’s, at least at first more cerebral, and therefore more acceptable to the Brahmin psyche.
LaFarge’s conception of Trinity’s Virgin as painted by Lathrop evidently sustained both perspectives. Indeed, to those alert to the need, Trinity’s interior seems ever since to have resonated like a struck bell to the Madonna’a presence just as LaFarge said it would, and as Henry Adams validated (so James Dobson assures us), writing of “the metaphor of silence found in the depiction of Trinity Church in . . . Esther, ‘the great church was silent with the echoing silence which is audible.’” Dobson, indeed, quotes Jacques Derrida, from his Memories for Paul de Man: “speaking is impossible, but so too would be silence.” As Saint Paul might have said – he who with Saint Peter guards the Trinity chancel’s arch just below the Brooks/LaFarge Madonna – anyone who breaks the silence had better catch the echo.
Of course, Adams’s narrative in his Prayer to the Virgin, wherein he travels back through time to ask her guidance – is a two-edged sword. I admire the way CUNY literary historian John Patrick Diggins explained this in New England Quarterly when he emphasizes how Adams dared to address the Virgin as she “who bore the Failure of the Light” – by contending that Adams was “the first scholar to study the past only to arrive at the conclusion that he had been disinherited from it.” Not for nothing have I called Boston Brahmin Unitarianism the first American Modernism.
Yet since his prayer to the Madonna was found after his death, we also know Adams never lost his Marian vision – prayer – in which (as Diggins put it) Adams “likened true Christianity to the Virgin’s character rather than the Church’s doctrine, to love rather than reason.” The emphasis is my own.
It was La Farge’s heartfelt point all along, strongly seconded by Brooks. “You who remember all,” Adams prayed, “remember me.”
Trinity’s effulgent, Byzantine Revival silence remembers everything. When the powerful Taize liturgy was introduced into the life of Trinity Church by its then Precentor, Bruce Jenniker, about in the late 1990s, and the image of the Madonna, Child in hand, was suddenly not only to be discovered high above – too high out of sight, perhaps, for moderns? – but also on Trinity’s Broad Step at ground level, some were puzzled, including this historian, by reports of suddenly strong resonances, unexplained. With hundreds of votive candles dancing around the great icon of the Mother of our Lord, East and West – all the Holy Cities – Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, Benares, and, if not the Old World Puritan citadel of Geneva, certainly the New World Puritan capital of Boston – seemed suddenly, mysteriously, in touch, if not yet quite in communion, and Phillips Brooks’ dream of Christianity rediscovering its Eastern side, its oriental roots, seemed very alive.
What had happened? In some dimension long untapped at Trinity, had La Farge’s heartfelt intervention as to what the church needed – but once endowed with shied away from – been rediscovered? In fact, I wonder now if the theme Jenniker tapped of La Farge’s and Brooks’ provocation of the Madonna more than a century earlier, so long downplayed and then virtually forgotten, hidden behind its newly generic title, didn’t explain everything about Taize at Trinity, and in just the way, indeed, finding Henry Adams’s “Prayer to the Virgin” had, after his death, explained much when it had been found in his wallet.
It was not the first time Adams’s “metaphor of silence” seemed not only “audible,” as Dobson put it, but controlling. One imagines Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s “coloured mist” similarly. Even so strictly architectural a scholar as James O’Gorman has written that the “broad, serene, hushed [interior of Trinity] seems physically palpable” – another word, perhaps, for “audible.” Conceding that “the interior is of the essence of Trinity,” O’Gorman concludes “Trinity . . . [is] one of the calmest . . . sacred spaces in the country, if not the world.”
I think of another Harvard scholar two generations after Adams and as great a one as he, F. O. Matthiessen, of whom it may be fairly said he created the field of American literature as much as had Adams the field of academic history. Matthiessen too testified to the power of Trinity’s vibrant silence. Quoting from the scholar’s journal, editor Louis Hyde, in The Rat and the Devil (a seminal book in gay studies) records “on Easter Day  Matthiessen went to early communion in Trinity Church: ‘The great church was very peaceful in a world that is not,” Matthiessen wrote, and (of his life partner, painter Russell Cheney) ‘I felt very close to you’.”
“We live forwards,” William James famously declared, quoting from the then all but unknown (in America) Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, “but we understand backwards.”
So with Brooks’s Anglican-style canonization. Yes, it culminated in the formal vote of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops in the mid-20th-century. But as biographer Allen observed, the movement in this regard began as far back as in the 1880s after Trinity’s rector returned to Copley Square from the year away in which he had first seen Lourdes and Benares. Allen saw a great change in his manner and in his preaching. He sums it up this way: “It now slowly dawned upon him that what the people wanted was himself, not his eloquence or his gifts of any kind . . . This was the way in which saints had been recognized in the olden time, before the process had developed into the machine methods of late medieval-ism. The canonization of Phillips Brooks by the voice of a people’s sovereignty had now begun.”
The cult of Brooks had followed on the cult of the Virgin. The dangers of the situation were also clear to Allen:
[T]he devotion to Phillips Brooks . . . rested upon solid foundations at a very peculiar juncture in the history of religious faith. He had risen up as a deliverer from the causes that were shaking religious opinion and undermining or destroying religious belief. There was no illusion about it; it was most real. The people are not mistaken about such things. And yet there was danger of its being a fashion to worship him . . . It had reached such a point that the veriest commonplaces of religious thought or sentiment when uttered by [Brooks] were received on his authority as true, or as if they had never been spoken before.
Yet as the Brooks cult began to wax, the cult of the Virgin there only seemed to wane; in fact, it thrived, though less obviously. To see this it is only necessary to remember that what may seem as between Brooks’s Madonna and Adams’s, two Madonnas are in fact one.
“High overall,” at Chartres, Adams’s Old World Marian focus finally, high over “the agitation of prayer,” he wrote, “the passion of politics, the anguish of suffering, the terrors of sin, only the figure of the Virgin”; while high over Trinity, as high as you could get, a hundred feet high in the crossing tower’s central topmost tympanum, over “the open cathedral,” as Allen called it, “the vast confessional for human souls, souls whose spiritual directorship was bringing strength and consolation, faith and hope, to the thousands no man could number,” the religious guide who was doing the directing being the same who had enthroned the Virgin as well at Trinity, and had specifically pointed out in his sermon notes that the power of her presence did not depend on her being seen – either at Trinity or, presumably, throughout the New World prairie, more Brooks’s focus.
Remember Brooks poem about how “in the old church that fronts the square” there was this picture of “the Virgin Mother of the radiant smile,” a Madonna it would seem no one could see. Brooks’s addendum – for a sermon, of course, it must have been – was striking. “Then describe the same picture standing there still, even in the dark, with no one to see, but the same beauty in it all the while. The blessing of knowing it is there. So of God’s unseen grace.”
All of which underlines the effect on Brooks himself, and therefore on his ministry, of his decision to give the Blessed Virgin her first platform, so to speak, in what La Farge called “American Protestantism.” That decision of 1877 was reinforced five years later, for during his 1882 trip Brooks did not just visit Lourdes, and Benares too, he reconnected with the Madonna di San Sisto, writing home: “after seventeen years I come back to the Sistine Madonna and find it greater . . . There is such a stillness in it that it hushes the room in which it hangs, but yet it is all alive. The virgin is moving in the clouds.”
Whatever that may or may not have had to do with the fact that Brooks’ preaching after the 1882 trip seemed, to Allen, more emotional and extemporaneous, Brooks gave evidence of how much he had Raphael on his mind in “A Whitsunday Sermon.” “Raphael,” he recounted, – and though he mentioned no specific picture, the one before which he composed his sermons cannot help but come to mind – “If Raphael could enter into you as you stand before this picture, would you not see deeper than you do now? Would not the Raphael in the picture come out from depths which you have never fathomed?”
Trinity’s priest-poet was talking about how the Holy Spirit works in the individual, and giving an excellent indication of how the cult of the Madonna played into the Brooks cult itself in its most significant manifestation: what Allen called “those wonderful afternoon sermons in Trinity Church, which all cherish and remember”; sermons aimed at a much wider public than Trinity’s parishioners; indeed, at people who might have been uncomfortable at the official Sunday morning liturgy; sermons which drew “visitors to Boston from all parts of the country and abroad . . . bringing pilgrims as to some sacred shrine.”
Copley Square as transatlantic religious mecca never let up in Phillips Brooks’s time, and no one better explained how it worked than Robert Treat Paine, the chair of Trinity’s Building Committee, and one of Brooks’s closest friends. For Paine the main event every week was always the experience of hearing Brooks on Sunday afternoon in a church always filled to standing room only. Remembered Paine,
These were the times when the glory of [Phillips Brooks's] preaching culminated. In words blazing with fire or melted in exquisite tenderness, or radiant with hope, and changing quickly from one emotion to another, often with his head thrown back and eyes on high as piercing through the veil, his great figure would rise and dilate to its utmost majesty as he threw his arms wide with that mighty gesture of loving invitation.
That is what Augustus Saint-Gaudens sought to capture in his huge standing bronze of Brooks, arm upraised compellingly, in Copley Square facing Boylston Street. Saved from pomposity by the nobly modeled figure of the Christus behind the preacher, but not from absurdity on the part of those who doubtless thought they saw Christ too on Sunday afternoon at Trinity – and who is to say in some sense they didn’t? – the Brooks figure seems finally more commanding than loving, however, so , finally, a failure. Moreover, what the tourist now cannot know that the pilgrim then did, is that Brooks’s admirers were of at least two minds about his pulpit style, something perhaps somewhat explained by the preacher’s more emotional delivery after his 1882 year abroad.
Consider, for instance, this eyewitness account in Harvard Alumni Bulletin: “[There was] scarcely a gesture except the lifting of the eyes and the grasp of the hand on the gown. Nothing could be more remote from [Brooks's] pulpit style than the statue which represents him with uplifted arm in an attitude of exhortation. Restraint, passion in control” were what struck this author chiefly, who conceded nonetheless: “yet the speed and rush of thought swept over us like a great wave, and lifted us on its crest.”
Not only sculptors took their place at either end of the tug-of-war. No doubt about it, “Do-gooders” and “True-believers” saw things very differently, never mind that Brooks himself was very much his own man, and not like either stereotype.
The great liberal modernist, for instance, was very orthodox. “The Bible, God, Christ, the Sacraments, the Church, these great realities cannot exist without finding men’s hearts, and winning them,” he insisted. “I will not hear men claim that the doctrine of the Trinity has no help or inspiration to give . . . The decrying of dogma in the interest of life, of creed in the interest of conduct, is very natural, but very superficial . . . Let us not join in it.” Above all he was dedicated to preaching “the Incarnation, the life of the God-Man,” and he had no difficulty at all reconciling Emersonian individuality – think St. Paul, he said, not Robinson Crusoe – with Catholic Faith: “Thankful to priest and church and dogma, the soul will always live in the truth of its direct, immediate relationship to God, and make them [priest, church, dogma] minister to that.”
He also posed problems for moralists of all religious persuasions. For instance, he was not a teetotaler. In May of 1882 The Boston Globe under the headline “Phillips Brooks’s Bombshell,” reported that “in an open and sensible manner, much to the disgust of the narrow-minded fanatics,” Brooks told a Temperance group to their face that “the great mistake you have made in your insistence upon total abstinence everywhere is the confounding in one class of the man who gives himself up to the influence of strong drink and the man who can use it moderately.”
Very much what Victorians liked to call a man’s man, he liked joviality, a good cigar. “He loved speed . . . burned up energy rapidly . . . walked rapidly, ate rapidly,” was known to “like fast horses,” as well as fast sermons. And for that reason he did not excel in group work. He always stood out. Physically, too. Standing six feet four inches, weighing in his prime three hundred pounds, broad shouldered, well proportioned, with luminous brown eyes, Brooks was, Supreme Court Justice Harlan once averred, “the most beautiful man I ever saw. . . . I sat opposite to him at dinner once and could not take my eyes off him.” Neither could any of the thousands who flocked to Trinity Church. In that respect, perhaps only one hearer, a journalist, Atlantic Monthly editor Horace Scudder, seems to me to have most truly caught the essence of the experience of hearing Brooks:
The solitary pulpit light became the sole illumination of the church. Its whole flame was cast upon the red cushion and the side of Mr. Brooks’s half figure and face. There was a glow of color upon the speaker’s en-kindled visage. All the church was dark. I could see a head here and there in the murkiness, but that intense light glowed more and more intensely. The darkness deepened the stillness, and the voice of the preacher, growing more fervid and passionate, came full and strong from that central figure in the gloom.
Notice that voice, not gesture, is remembered; yet in the end the report is as much about what one saw those Sunday afternoons in Trinity Church as what one heard. Above all there are those very quiet but very intense images of “the central figure in the gloom,” of the “solitary pulpit light.” Trinity, it would seem, was not only about a hidden Madonna. Indeed, the Harvard Alumni Bulletin called Phillips Brooks “a hidden man, which emerged to share the experience of others, but revealed to few, perhaps to none, the whole of its emotional life. One could go a long way with Phillips Brooks in affectionate banter or frank discussion; but would forfeit all claim to friendship if intimacy became inquisitive . . . Those who knew him best knew there was much in him which they did not know.”
What all that meant is not yet settled history; it may never be. Brooks never married, and his sexual orientation has been the subject of much conjecture, including by me, in both volumes of my biographical study of Ralph Adams Cram. Even his religious views, as we’ve seen, were a constant puzzle and in that respect, despite his protests, cannot be entirely attributed to his beholders. And, finally, about the relative importance of Brooks’s preaching ministry and its role in the life of Trinity Church and Copley Square, though not about its frequently life-transforming effect on many, there remains considerable controversy. Certainly a devoted protege of the saint-bishop – so much so he accompanies him in a striking stained glass window by Willet – contrary to most opinion, Charles Brent, himself later a bishop, thought Brooks greater as a pastor than a preacher.
This last issue particularly has significantly distorted our understanding of Trinity Church as architecture. Conventional wisdom, backed up by considerable scholarship, tells us that Trinity was designed to be a setting for such as Phillips Brooks’s Sunday afternoon preaching. And that is true enough as far as it goes – which is not very far at all. In fact, that is a very simplistic analysis. It explains only one dimension of Copley Square’s centerpiece, and not the critical dimension as Brooks himself saw it.
The issue is whether or not it is correct to assert, as David Chesebrough has most recently in his Phillips Brooks: Pulpit Eloquence, that “the sermon for Brooks was the focal point of worship, not the liturgy or the sacraments.” The tug-of-war never ceases.
Let us put Chesebrough’s thesis to the only test that counts – Brooks’s own published views in the subject – best made in a terrific ordination sermon of 1879 he preached in Trinity Church, where one can certainly see how Chesebrough would find ample support for his view. Quoth Trinity’s rector: “Preaching is the characteristic function of the Christian ministry . . . No sacramental act done at the font or at the communion-table is superior in dignity to the work of the Christian pulpit, preaching the gospel of Christ.”
Yet there is much subtlety to his words. Although Brooks declares that to baptize or to celebrate the Eucharist was not superior in importance to preaching, he does not suggest preaching is superior to the sacraments either, a view he enlarges upon in another homily in which he frankly discussed as he seldom did the four reasons he was happy to be Anglican:
When we ask ourselves in colder and more deliberate consideration why it is that we believe in our Episcopal Church and rejoice to commend her . . . the answer which I find myself giving is that our Church seems to me to be truly trying to realize . . . the great truth of active Christianity. I find the signs of such an effort in the very things for which some people fear or blame our Church. I find it in the importance she gives to Baptism and in the breadth of her conception of that rite . . . I find it in her simplicity of doctrine. I find it in the value she sets on worship; her constant summons to all men not merely to be preached to, but to pray. I find it in her historic spirit, her sense of union with the ages.
“The value she sets on worship; her constant summons to all men not merely to be preached to . . . !One wonder how that was received in certain circles. Nothing could be clearer that that Phillips Brooks did not privilege preaching the way his fans did, nor many of his scholarly admirers in subsequent eras. Nor is this the only evidence in support of that view. He turned down the coveted position of “Preacher to the University” at his beloved Harvard because, according to his first biographer, “he would have to suppress his own convictions and would not be as free as at Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity, the liturgical worship of the Prayer Book, the method of the church year, he could not keep these colours flying.”
The absolute inability of either side in the tug-of-war do other than talk past each other is so clear in the remark of the late Peter Gomes, an old friend and colleague of mine and a celebrity preacher in his own time, that “Brooks could make the Christian Faith understandable, even within the liturgically inhibiting confines of Episcopal Prayer Book worship” – this from a collection of Brooks’s sermons published in the 2000s under the auspices of Trinity Church!
An entirely different picture emerges, one much more in accord with Brooks’s own pronouncements, in the standard work on the subject, Hughes Oliphant Old’s classic and definitive six-volume The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. Professor Olds, though he admits his own Presbyterian preference for defining “preaching and the hearing of a solid sermon [as] more of the essence of worship,” takes up, after reading Brooks’s famous Yale Lectures on preaching, a totally contrary position to Chesebrough’s and Gomes’s.
“A most striking thing about these lectures on preaching,” Professor Old writes, “is that nothing particularly is said about preaching as worship. A few phrases about preaching to the glory of God must have passed his lips here and there, but what interests Brooks is preaching for the edification or, perhaps better, the salvation of the human soul. The driving force behind the preacher is his concern for souls.”
There, of course, was the explanation for those wondrous Sunday afternoon sermons of Brooks in Trinity Church, as well as, to refer back to a comparison that has arisen before here and on which I continue to insist, another attitude Philips Brooks and John Henry Newman had in common. “One gets the impression with Newman that preaching is not really worship,” Professor Old writes, “but instruction. To be sure, in the course of the liturgy the inspired Scriptures are read and in the sermon explained, but while that may lead up to the serious business of worship in prayer, praise and sacrament, apparently it is not worship itself, at least in the most profound sense of the word. The sermon is [thus] concluded with an exhortation to worship . . . Such worship . . . takes baptism and Holy Communion very seriously.”
One example would be this from “A Whitsunday Sermon” :
Let us come to Christ’s Communion Table and celebrate our union with him and with another, putting all fear and selfishness aside, and praying Him to show us there how rich a thing it is to believe in Him and how sweet a thing it is to serve Him in His Holy Spirit.
A beautiful example of this hortatory device which does indeed give the clue that a preacher thinks worship the larger context to which the sermon points, this happens, by the way, not to be by Cardinal Newman, but by Phillips Brooks.
Brooks did make a point of saying in his Yale lectures on the Teaching of Religion that “preaching and architecture and music have their important relation as the outcome of feeling.” Indeed, he dwells there on what he calls “the mystery of feeling.” And in thus treating preaching like music and architecture Phillips Brooks brings into proper proportion both means to an end for which he is now famous: preacher and church-builder.
A final piece of this puzzle about preaching is that there was no pulpit.
Trinity Church for its first decade or more, at the height of Brooks’s reign as the greatest American preacher of his time, had no pulpit. Nor did Brooks want one. He was only persuaded into the first iteration of Trinity’s present huge pulpit – and equally huge sounding board – by arguments about poor acoustics.
The meaning of this is open to several interpretations. As Professor Old point’s out, “speaking from a platform rather than a pulpit” was not unknown among 19th century American preachers. “When a man preaches in a pulpit, much of his body is hidden and this does not allow him to express himself with his full body. The pulpit, ” Old notes, “limits gestures to facial expression and the movements of the hands.” It is also true that William Lawrence, as close to Brooks as anyone, argued in his short 1903 biographical study of Brooks that the pulpit finally built in Trinity, of a size and scale to reflect the church’s tremendous interior volume, and therefore as much platform, indeed, as pulpit – very much enabled a “full-bodied” preaching style.
Standing in just that pulpit ten years after Brooks’s death, Lawrence recalled “[Brooks's] majestic figure in this pulpit, the action of his body, the tones of his voice, the animation of his face.” That Brooks was so formidable of stature is obviously relevant.
Brooks, however, eludes even this resolution of the matter, for to the “full-bodied” aspect there is also another, as Raymond Allbright readily acknowledged: “those who knew Brooks best over the years often felt that great as his sermons were his really greatest utterances came in . . . discussion groups and in the informal addresses he gave in preparation for Confirmation or Holy Communion. His sermons at the later services were delivered briefly and freely from the chancel steps rather than from the pulpit.”
That deference to the Eucharist spoke volumes about Brooks’s idea of the role of the sermon vis-a-vis “the great Christian sacrament,” and, indeed, preaching finally was a secondary aspect of the architectural program of Trinity Church, believe it or not.
Behold, next time, the finale of our consideration of Copley Square’s centerpiece, and the beginning of our transition to Boston’s new Museum of Fine Arts, which debuted in the new square in the same decade as Trinity.
It is a finale already hinted at here, in which we shall explore the thesis that Trinity Church’s interior was designed – more by Brooks than by Richardson – who in at least one respect he overruled – as really two churches.
One ‘church,’ detailed here, was for Brooks’s ongoing Sunday afternoon preaching mission for non-Episcopalians mostly, those who would have been uncomfortable at the Sunday morning liturgy, consisted of the great crossing and the transepts with their galleries. The other ‘church’ was for that Sunday morning liturgy, mostly for parishioners, indeed, proprietors who still owned pews. That ‘church’ centered on the huge apse-chancel, with the crossing and nave and all else as secondary. The great frescoed tower gave the unity.
Do I exaggerate? Brooks himself, according to Allen, “would occasionally make a remark in conversation which told more about himself than most people could tell. Thus he said to his friend, Mr. Deland, who treasured the words in his memory as full of meaning,‘I say many things in the afternoon which I would never think of saying in the morning.’”
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.