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Phillip Brooks and True Liberty

I love books. I love bookstores. Little worlds of wonder waiting to be explored, by an arm chair adventurer and sometimes real world adventurer like myself. Big bookstores, small bookstores. Doesn’t matter the size. Independent bookstores and glimmering chain bookstores, too. As a traveler, my opinion of a city can sometimes be swayed by the bookstores lining its’ streets. The Strand and Books of Wonder in New York City, The Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, and in Michigan, Horizon Books in Traverse City and Black River Books in South Haven are a few of my favorites.

Old books hold a special place in my heart. Reading a first-hand account or novel written about and during events from hundreds of years ago is intriguing. Akin to receiving a hand-written letter from a friend giving a glimpse of their world from times past. The comparison of those accounts versus how those events have been etched into history is particularly interesting to me. I’ve been wooed by many an old book that has found new residence in my home. On a trip to Italy, I’d have come home with suitcases filled with antique books from the market stalls lining Rome’s Largo della Fontanella di Borghese, if only I could speak and read Italian fluently. But alas, I digress.

Phillip Brooks’ Addresses

On my third trip in as many days to Black River Books recently, I found a gem of a book. Phillip Brooks’ Addresses is a small collection of sermons preached by the Reverend Phillip Brooks. I didn’t know much about Brooks until after I purchased the book. He served as the Bishop of Massachusetts for the Episcopal Church from 1891 – 1893. He began his ministry in 1859 and became the rector of Trinity Church in Boston in 1869. During his time in Boston, he also acted as an overseer and preacher at Harvard University. Today he is perhaps best known for penning the Christmas carol, O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.

Reading Brooks’ sermons, I can understand why he became a celebrated figure in Massachusetts, so celebrated that an observer of his funeral in 1893 remarked, “They buried him like a king. Harvard students carried his body on their shoulders. All barriers of denomination were down. Roman Catholics and Unitarians felt that a great man had fallen in Israel.” (Mrs. Edward S. Drown, in The Witness, March 21, 1940).

I was initially drawn to the book after reading the last address, titled Abraham Lincoln. The sermon was given April 23, 1865 at The Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, shortly after President Lincoln’s death. A memorial for President Lincoln, given by someone greatly influenced by the man, his character and the decisions he made for the nation. Of him Brooks’ says, “In him was vindicated the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness. The twain were one flesh.” The sermon was given while the President’s body lay on display for viewing, during a stop on Lincoln’s Funeral Train. A telling statement on the times, Brooks gives a passionate and inspiring speech to a cathedral full of mourners. Compelling to read, chilling even today.

True Liberty and Freedom

In another of Brooks’ sermons, True Liberty, he persuades listeners that true liberty is not found in seeking after pleasure or independence. The common thought was and still is that freedom is found in things we are at liberty to enjoy in a life outside of faith. And that in beginning a life of faith, we are hindered, kept in some way from freedom.

Brooks makes the case we are only truly set free through a life hid with Christ, in which we realize our unique and specific calling. Once we discover our calling and take it upon ourselves, we are able to do what we’ve been uniquely created to do. It is there that true liberty – freedom – is found. He defines liberty as,    “…the fullest opportunity for man to be and do the very best that is possible for him.” I’d loved to have heard Brooks speak; he is poetic and quite eloquent. Particularly heartfelt, given that he was speaking to an audience of people intimately acquainted with the cost of freedom and the necessity of ending slavery.

He goes on to describe the independent man and the nature of true freedom,

“He is like a bit of iron or steel that lies upon the ground. It lies neglected and perfectly free. You see it is made by the adjustment of the end of it so that it can be set into a great machine and become part of a great working system. But there it lies. Will you call it free? It is bound to be nothing there. It is absolutely separate, and with its own personality distinct and individual and all alone.

What is to make that bit of iron a free bit of iron, to let it go forth and do the thing it was meant to do, but the taking of it and the binding of it at both ends into the structure of which it was made to be a part?

It seems to me that the binding of a man, – it seems to me that the binding of the iron is not the yielding of its freedom. Is it not merely after finding its place within the system that it first achieves its freedom and so joins in the music and partakes of the courses with which the whole enginery is filled. Is not it, then, for the first time a free bit of iron, having accomplished all that it was made to do when it came forth from the forge of the master, who had this purpose in mind?

This, then, is freedom; everything is part of the enfranchisement of a man which helps to put him into the place where he can live his best. Therefore every duty, every will of God, every commandment of Christ, every self-surrender that a man is called upon to obey or to make – do not think of it as if it were simply a restraint to liberty, but think of it as the very means of freedom, by which we realize the very purpose of God and the fulfillment of our life.”

Read more of Phillip Brooks’ Addresses at Project Gutenberg.



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