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In the northwest corner of Harvard Yard stands a building as massive as the man whose name it bears. At 6 feet, 4 inches and nearly 300 pounds, Phillips Brooks, A.B. 1855, S.T.D. 1877, was an outstanding figure of Harvard's Victorian age.
Other clues suggest his influence, such as the enormous wooden pulpit in Memorial Church inscribed with his name and the William Belden Noble Lectures endowed for one who "sought to be a minister after the pattern of Phillips Brooks." He can even be seen, in the stained glass window given by his class, overlooking freshmen dining in Memorial Hall.
One of the most vital and beloved figures in the history of Harvard College, Brooks embodied his own belief that "the great hunger everywhere is for life….All living things are craving an increase in it." Ordained an Episcopal priest in 1860, Brooks became rector of a Philadelphia church during the Civil War, gaining recognition as a steadfast champion of emancipation and, later, of the right of former slaves to vote. After the war, he set out on the first of several trips abroad, visiting the Holy Land, where he wrote his most famous words, the lyrics to "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
Brooks returned to Boston in 1869 as rector of Trinity Church, then located on Summer Street. Under his ministry the church flourished, becoming known for its evangelical warmth, diversity of classes, and charitable activism. The congregation soon outgrew its original building, and in 1872 purchased land for a new church in Copley Square. Designed by Brooks and his friend the architect H.H. Richardson, A.B. 1859, Trinity Church still stands as a magnificent landmark of Back Bay Boston. Among Brooks's many parishioners was the young Helen Keller '04. After her interpreter translated one of his sermons for her, she said "she had always known there was a God, but now she knew his name." She and Brooks corresponded until the end of his life.
Although he declined Harvard president Charles William Eliot's offer of the Plummer professorship, primarily on grounds that he was Trinitarian rather than Unitarian, Brooks's heart was with the College and its students. A two-term Harvard Overseer, he was a popular campus speaker and served on the rotating Board of University Preachers, leading morning prayers and counseling students afterwards in Wadsworth House. He became a leader in the movement to abolish compulsory chapel in 1886, so that "men might be free to find the great Lord whom they ought to serve." To resulting charges of "Godless Harvard," he told the students: "The man whom the college ruins is not fit for the college. He should have gone elsewhere. But the one with true soul cannot be ruined here. Coming here humbly, bravely, he shall meet his Christ….and will know and love him more than ever."
As Brooks anticipated, this freedom fed a flourishing of religious activism, part of a larger Christian student movement sweeping the country. In an act of far-reaching significance, Brooks and the University Preachers called for "a new building within the college yard for the use of the various religious societies." They wrote:
Several of the larger universities have already felt this need. Dwight Hall at Yale, Barnes Hall at Cornell, Levering Hall at Johns Hopkins, have all been designed to meet it, and have immediately become centres of good influence in these institutions. We need a similar building and a fund to maintain it.
In 1891, Brooks was named Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, but soon died of diphtheria at age 57. The day of his funeral, the Boston Stock Exchange and shops closed in mourning. Harvard students were his pallbearers as the heavy casket journeyed from Trinity Church through Harvard Yard to Mount Auburn Cemetery.
That morning, the Harvard Crimson printed a letter from an alumnus suggesting the proposed house for religious societies as a fitting memorial to Brooks. Contributions flowed in from more than 550 donors in 29 countries. Upon completion, Phillips Brooks House held the five existing religious societies, a reading room, chapel, lecture hall, and the Social Services Committee.
What was the secret of this man's remarkable life and influence? To a young man who asked him this, Brooks wrote in 1891, "...These last years have had a peace and fullness which there did not use to be. I am sure that it is not indifference to anything I used to care for. I am sure that it is a deeper knowledge and truer love of Christ...I cannot tell you how personal this grows to me. He is here. He knows me and I know Him. It is no figure of speech. It is the realest thing in the world. And every day makes it realer."
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