Learning to Preach from Phillips Brooks (Preachers of the Past, pt. 3)


This is part 3 of “Preachers of the Past,” a series where we discuss four distinct preachers from the past, ranging from 347 A.D. to 1945. 

We’ve included detailed preaching points for study and discussion towards the bottom of this post.


Some background on Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)

Phillips Brooks was an American Episcopal minister, and bishop of Massachusetts. The son of a merchant, Brooks was born in Boston, and in reaction to the growing Unitarianism in Congregational circles, his family joined the Protestant Episcopal Church when he was 12. His family’s rector was A. N. Vinton, a strongly evangelical preacher, whose good preaching early on positively affected Brooks.

In 1855, Brooks graduated from Harvard, and then went to an Episcopal seminary in Virginia at the advice of Vinton. While there, he encountered slavery and became an abolitionist. In 1859, Brooks was installed as a deacon at the Church of the Advent in Philadelphia, where his preaching drew wide attention. He then became rector of a socially prominent parish, Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, a position he held from 1862-69.

From the pulpit, Brooks gained national recognition for his preaching ability. He was also a very practical minister, promoting education of children in the parish, various outreach ministries to Philadelphia’s poor, and foreign missions. Brooks later accepted a call to Boston’s Holy Trinity Church in 1869. There, his ministry varied, from Sunday services attended by wealthy Bostonians to missions among the city laborers.

He spent much time with Harvard students, seeking to strengthen their beliefs. At one point he substituted for evangelist D.L. Moody during Moody’s Boston revival services in 1877. That same year, Brooks delivered a series of influential lectures on preaching at Yale Divinity School.

Frequently working himself to exhaustion, Brooks was refreshed by long vacations used for travel. He often vacationed in England, where he was greatly influenced by English theologians.

On a trip to Israel he wrote the words to the Christmas carol ”O Little Town of Bethlehem.” While visiting Jerusalem over the Christmas holidays in 1865, he was asked to assist in the midnight service at Bethlehem on Christmas eve night. Borrowing a horse, he made the six-mile journey to Bethlehem, and wrote of his experience later:

“I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.”

In 1891, he became the bishop of Massachusetts, and during this time preached an average of 12 times a week. Phillips Brooks gave the classic definition of preaching as “the presentation of truth through personality.”

The two essentials are “personality” and “truth” or preacher and gospel. This personal element has kept preaching a vital part of church life. The sermon becomes a person-to-person experience in its fullest sense only when there is the face-to-face contact and the eyeball-to-eyeball fellowship. Preaching is that aspect of worship in which a person is set apart for the purpose of proclamation, an awesome responsibility and task for any human being.

While many say the famous poem about Jesus is anonymous, others say there is evidence that Brooks wrote it.

“All of the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life…the life of Jesus Christ.”

Preaching Points

  • Phillips Brooks said, “The preacher needs to be a pastor, that he may preach to real men. The pastor must be a preacher, that he may keep the dignity of his work alive. The preacher who is not a pastor, grows remote. The pastor who is not a preacher, grows petty.”
  • Phillips Brooks said (the fuller quote), “Preaching is truth delivered through personality. Preaching is personal counseling on a group scale.”
  • In his lecture at Yale, he said that preparation for ministry is the making of a man. “It cannot be the mere training to certain tricks. It cannot be even the furnishing with abundant knowledge. It must be nothing less than the kneading and tempering of a man’s whole nature till it becomes of such a consistency and quality as to be capable of transmission. This is the largeness of the preacher’s culture.”
  • “Truth incarnate” was an idea that Brooks popularized. This was stated earlier, but he taught it forcefully and had many disciples.
  • One man, Doctor Brastow, described Brooks in this way: “His speech was typical of those mental, moral, and spiritual energies that were fused into unity and came forth in a stream of fiery intensity.”
  • Brooks was known for being an idealist who had great faith in humanity. “His view of the congregation as a microcosm of humanity adds balance and breadth to the parochialism of much preaching. He believed that just as the incarnation of Jesus showed us true humanity that preaching must elevate the audience to see and capitalize on their higher nature or possibilities.”
  • Some say he had too high a view of human nature, but he never minimized sin. He just saw humanity’s great worth through the eyes of God, and the sacredness of the individual soul.
  • Brooks added a personalized element to preaching which caused other preachers to remember the true worth of each person in the congregation.
  • At the end of one sermon on the pride of life, he said, “If there is one soul in my church today who is weary and dissatisfied with his self-slavery, I offer him Jesus for Savior, the Master…. If any man thirsts let him come unto Him and drink. Turn unto Him and be saved. You can, you must! Outside of His gospel and His service there is the pride of life, and the pride of life is death.”
  • Brooks also said that pastors should not move around too much, so that they can come to know their congregation, which seems paradoxical to his other statements, but makes sense (to balance both ideas—general humanity and individual care).
  • He also believed that in each congregation you had a sample of humanity—of all its flaws, gifts, idiosyncrasies, etc.—which was a perfect place to preach all the Word that all people need.
  • Brooks didn’t like how pastors called the church “my congregation,” but rather wanted them to realize that they are called to minister to all humanity, even sheep from another flock, if the pastor of that flock needs help.
  • He said, “These three rules seem to have in them practical sum of the whole matter. I beg you to remember them and apply them with all the wisdom God gives you.
    • First, have as few congregations as you can.
    • Second, know your congregation as thoroughly as you can.
    • Third, know your congregation so largely and deeply that in knowing it you shall know humanity” (from Lectures on Preaching).

“Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger people. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle.”

~ Phillips Brooks

Key Takeaway

The key to Phillips Brooks:

  1. Truth must be incarnate in the preacher. The sermon must be lived before it can be preached.
  2. The preacher’s personality will be used by God, which means the preacher must yield to God and pray that God will make him more like Christ and use his personality for ministry.
  3. The three rules:
    1. “Have as few congregations as you can.
    2. “Know your congregation as thoroughly as you can.
    3. “Know your congregation so largely and deeply that in knowing it you shall know humanity.”
  4. A passion for the lost, social and spiritual outreach, and discipleship.

Preachers of the Past” is a four-part series written by The Rev. Canon David Roseberry and his study assistant. 

Canon Roseberry is the President of LeaderWorks and, along with Phil Ashey of the American Anglican Council hosts RSVP (Rectors’ Summit for Vision and Planning), a four-day intensive retreat for Rectors of Anglican Churches. Information about RSVP’s annual retreat in December can be found at RectorsSummit.com.

Stay tuned for our final post on G. Campbell Morgan.

Published on

April 1, 2019


David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

View more from David Roseberry


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