Phillips Brooks vs. Simeon

And...we're back for another week of hard-hitting, halo-busting Lent Madness action! Today we have a battle between a renowned 19th century preacher and an aged Biblical figure who held the newborn Jesus in his arms. It's "O Little Town of Bethlehem" vs. the Nunc Dimittis as can only happen in Lent Madness.

This week we'll see the conclusion of the Round of 32 and on Thursday we'll commence with the Round of the Saintly Sixteen. To paraphrase Scripture, "Many (well, okay, 32) are called, but only one will receive the Golden Halo." Onward Christian Voters!

phillipsbrooksPhillips Brooks

While in our day Phillips Brooks is best-known as the man who wrote the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”—and the prayer on the back of Forward Day by Day issues—in the mid-to late-nineteenth century, he was so renowned as a preacher that he was invited by Queen Victoria to preach at her private chapel at Windsor Castle.

Born into a distinguished, devout family in Boston in 1835, Brooks was one of six brothers, four of whom became Episcopal priests. Educated at Boston Latin, Harvard, and Virginia Episcopal Seminary, he was ordained in 1860 and served the first ten years of his ministry in Philadelphia. He was known there for his support of emancipation and, after the Civil War, full voting rights. The sermon he preached after Lincoln’s death is still highly regarded for its eloquence.

However, his home in Boston called to him, and in 1869 he became rector of Trinity Church. Three years later, the building on Summer Street was destroyed by fire, but as a testament to his leadership and gifts as a pastor, the church continued to thrive. According to Harvard Magazine, the congregation was known for its “evangelical warmth, diversity of classes, and charitable activism.”

After land was purchased at Copley Square in 1872, Brooks and his friend, the architect H.H. Richardson, designed the new Trinity, a church that became one of Boston’s most magnificent landmarks. The uncommon placement of the altar in the center of the chancel embodied Brooks’s vision, which he called “a symbol of unity; God and man and all God’s creation.” Unlike most preachers of his day, he didn’t preach from a pulpit. He was also a supporter of congregational singing.

After serving as rector of Trinity for twenty-two years, Brooks was elected Bishop of Massachusetts. He served for only fifteen months before dying of diphtheria at age fifty-seven. Harvard students carried his coffin, and the people of Boston of all religious stripes mourned the passing of a great figure.

At six feet, four inches tall and nearly 300 pounds, he was both a big person and a huge personality who was regarded as a faithful pastor along with his fame as preacher and leader of a large parish. Throughout his ministry, he devoted a great deal of care to the nurture of young people. When one young man wrote to him asking the secret of life, Brooks replied, “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.”

Collect for Phillips Brooks
O everlasting God, you revealed truth to your servant Phillips Brooks, and so formed and molded his mind and heart that he was able to mediate that truth with grace and power: Grant, we pray, that all whom you call to preach the Gospel may steep themselves in your Word, and conform their lives to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Heidi Shott


Simeon, we read in the Gospel of Luke, was a righteous and devout man living in Jerusalem. His name is the same as Simeon (Hebrew Shimon), the second son of the patriarch Jacob and his wife Leah and namesake of the Israelite tribe of Simeon. One translation of the name is “he has heard my suffering;” this meaning echoes scripture that tells how Jacob favored his other wife, Rachel, over Leah, Simeon’s mother.

An ancient legend tells that the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy II called seventy scholars together to translate the Holy Scriptures into Greek for the library at Alexandria (this translation would become known as the Septuagint). Simeon was one of the seventy, and while he was translating the book of Isaiah, he read, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a Son” (Isaiah 7:14). Thinking the word virgin should read woman, Simeon began to make the correction. An angel appeared to him, saying, “You shall see these words fulfilled. You shall not die until you behold Christ the Lord born of a pure and spotless Virgin.”

According to Luke, the Holy Spirit guided Simeon into the Temple when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus there for customary Jewish rites. Simeon took the infant Jesus into his arms and prayed what has become known as the Song of Simeon, or Nunc Dimittis, traditionally used as a canticle at Evensong in The Episcopal Church:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

— The Book of Common Prayer, p. 66

When Simeon holds the infant Jesus, the ancient tribes of Israel meet the new incarnation of God. The laments of Israel are heard; the Messiah has been born and is presented in the Temple, held in the arms of the namesake of a tribe of Israel.

We don’t encounter Simeon again in Holy Scripture. Tradition says he died at a very old age. Simeon is called the God-receiver in the Orthodox Church. In the Western Church, Simeon is predominant in the Feast of the Presentation (also called Candlemas) on February 2, where the Church commemorates the dedication of Jesus in the Temple by his parents.

Collect for Simeon
Almighty God, you gave to your servant Simeon the hope and consolation of seeing your salvation in the baby Jesus at the temple. Like Simeon, give us eyes to see your salvation, that when our day comes, we too may depart this world in peace. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

(Collect written by Nancy Hopkins-Greene.)

 -- Laurie Brock


Phillips Brooks vs. Simeon

  • Phillips Brooks (52%, 2,774 Votes)
  • Simeon (48%, 2,585 Votes)

Total Voters: 5,359

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154 comments on “Phillips Brooks vs. Simeon”

    1. I love the Christmas carol but I love the image of Simeon living long enough to hold the infant Messiah more.

    1. Oh, you got my day off to a wonderful start, Mark! Never heard this one, but it is a new favorite now! Thanks for providing the music, too, so I could sing with them. My old and dear favorite is from Gibbons short service, I sang this one glorious summer at Wells Cathedral. Pure bliss.

    2. What a beautiful setting, thank you for posting this. It adds to my ever-growing list of music for my celebration of life service.

      1. I sang the Gibbons piece not long after my father died, and especially given that he was a singer also, it had a special meaning for me, but I love the Eccard also and have sung it.

    3. very nice - thanks! would love to get my choir to sing it next candlemas day!

    4. Absolutely beautiful, and lovely to have the score, so I can follow the alto line.
      In fact, it pushed me over the edge for Simeon.

  1. I have to go with Phillips Brooks. I met my husband at the Phillips Brooks club at Trinity Church, Copley Square, in 1977. 32 years of marriage and 2 kids later, I'll always have a place in my heart for his ministry.

    1. The story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, touched me at a very tender age. In fact their inspiring work led me to a career in special education. I appreciate Anne Fontaine's reference to Barbara Crafton's piece on Phillips Brooks and Ms Keller.

  2. Brooks, a pastor who led a church that was known for evangelical warmth, diversity of classes, and charitable activism is an inspiration to every church leader, both lay and ordained. And he encouraged congregational singing! What more could you want??

    1. The description of Brooks' church, "known for evangelical warmth, diversity of classes, and charitable activism" and that he encouraged congregational singing win my vote today. All this sounds like my "home church" Christ Church United Methodist, at 60th St. & Park Ave. in New York City, to which my husband and I gratefully returned when I retired from active ministry as a hospital chaplain.

  3. I voted for Phillips Brooks, although I am glad to see it's a little close. We worshipped at Trinity when we were in law school; married 36 years in May 2014.

  4. For me, the deciding factor was the example of patience on Simeon's part, which I am in dire need of.

  5. I dearly love the Nunc Dimittis, I hope they're my dying words. But Phillip -- what a man! I think perhaps his witness will move the people of today even more than Simeon's. Oh, what a hard choice!

    1. It's Phillips--an example (I believe) of a last name used as a first name. But maybe it was just a typo...

  6. Simeon, born of the less favored Leah and representative of the laments of Israel; Simeon, favored by God to live to see and hold in his arms God's own son, one born to save all humankind. The Nunc Dimittis has no parallel. What could ever parallel being allowed to live to see the dedication of Jesus in the Temple by his parents?

    1. Simeon is not the only one born of the less favored Leah. So was the Messiah Himself (Of course I'm not telling you anything you don't know, Aleathia). Jesus was of the tribe of Judah. Leah was the wife who gave birth to Judah, not the beloved Rachel.
      Isn't that just like God to do something like that?

  7. Phillips Brooks is a bright spot in the 19th century American church. We also lived in Boston for a year

  8. Two composers of beloved songs of praise that congregations have embraced for generations. One saint attested to by scripture and legend, and one whose life and faith has modern historical documentation. Always a tough call, but the nightly remembrance of Simeon and his wonder and joy of fulfillment have nourished me far too long for me to abandon him now.

  9. Priested on Bp. Brooks' feast day. Didn't know it about him, but I don't preach from the pulpit either. "O little town of Bethlehem" is not one of my favorite hymns, however.

  10. I love both of these men but I have to go with Simeon because of my love for the Song of Simeon in Compline. Having recited that every day during Lent in the past and also having recited it on all mission trips with C.O.A.P. I have a deep devotion and love for that personal 'prayer'.

  11. Bp. Brooks, aside from being a great orator and a fresh voice of his time for the church, comes from Boston. I love Trinity Church, Copley Square, and will think of him when I visit there again. As an homage to my great friend and mentor, The Very Rev. Harry Krauss, who also was schooled at VTS, and served as a priest in Philadelphia, my vote is excitedly cast for Bp. Brooks!

  12. While I admire Phillips Brooks and particularly like his emphasis on congregational singing, I have to go with Simeon on this one. We have a lot more information (including a photo!) on Brooks, but the archetypal view of Simeon as God-bearer, ancient Israel meeting the new dispensation is even stronger to me. (I know the Orthodox call him God-receiver, but as one who recognizes and accepts the Messiah, I think his title of God-bearer is only appropriate: he holds the child in his arms as he recognizes him.) Then, too, I also say the Nunc Dimittis daily, and prayed it through the night as my father was dying. Yep---gotta go with Simeon!

  13. I am so moved by Phillip Brooks personal story and his friendship with Helen Keller. thank you so much for sharing it. I love the Nunc but must vote for Brooks.

  14. "O Lord, I do not pray for tasks equal to my strength: I ask for strength equal to my tasks."--Phillips Brooks. Love Simeon, but I am casting my vote for Brooks. Anyone who encourages congregational singing deserves my vote!

  15. "Now let thy servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen the proper place for the table."

  16. As an active member of Philadelphia's Church of the Holy Trinity, where Brooks served in Pennsylvania, and a lusty congregational singer, I vote for the man who sought to show his congregation God in the world and God in the people. Our current priest also preaches from the aisle -- so his legacy lives on!

  17. I've always loved Simeon, perhaps the sweet memory of singing his song at the end of compline.. A beautiful way to end the day. Yes, I did work at Trinity Copley Square in Children's ministries, however, Simeon edges Phillips Brooks out a bit....

  18. Phillips Brooks for me today. Altar in the center, diverse classes worshipping together, congregational singing, inspirational sermons NOT from the pulpit, and so much more.

  19. I have a soft spot in my heart for Simeon, because I was given his devastating monologue in a readers' theater presentation of W H Auden's "For The Time Being," at my former church several years ago. What a wonderful place that was!

    1. Scott,
      Is there a way for us to talk off list about "For The Time Being"? I have long wanted to have our church drama group perform that, but have many questions & concerns.

      1. "Now we must dismantle the tree..."
        Brilliant. Love Auden. Simeon's poetry too, in both Auden and Luke's versions.
        Won't be sad at all if Brooks wins today, though, because I'd love the chance to vote for him too.

  20. Bp Brooks' definition of preaching is what got my vote,"Preaching is truth mediated through personality."

  21. I love "O Little Town Of Bethlehem," and I am amazed by the things I learned about Phillip Brooks. Love the proper placement of the table, and the congregational singing, his work for abolition, etc. etc. etc.! But my heart is with Simeon. Laurie, that bio was a sermon in itself--beautifully done! I have sung the Nunc in too many evensongs (yesterday, as a matter of fact!) not to go with Simeon. The image of this elderly man welcoming the Baby in his arms is, in fact, the image I have of my own very small parish. We are aging, but there are children among us, too, and there is such equality and love among all the ages--hard to describe, but it is a very good place to be. I, too, hope to leave this life with the words of Simeon--if not from my mouth, then, please, at my funeral!