Theology in Action: Newcomb Thomson and Phillips Brooks

In 1885, Newcomb Butler Thompson, a young parishioner at The Advent and recent father[1], wrote a letter to Phillips Brooks, the most famous Episcopal churchman of the time[2]. We don’t have Thompson’s letter, but The Advent archives contains Brooks’ reply[3] which shows that Thompson had concerns about infant baptism for his baby. In the letter, Brooks briefly explained the theology surrounding the rite and urged Thompson to have his child baptized, which Thompson later did.[4]

Apart from the letter from Brooks, we don’t have any other record of this event in Thompson’s life. So many questions unanswered! Why did he write to Brooks? What were his theological scruples about infant baptism? Was it Brooks’ letter alone that changed his mind? We simply don’t know.

However, we do know something of Thompson’s subsequent work in the life of The Advent and the Diocese, as well as a little about his business career.[5] This glimpse into a turn-of-the-century businessman’s Christian activity gives us an example of The Advent’s moral training, expectations and encouragement during a period when it was becoming one of Cincinnati’s largest churches.

Theological Context

Phillips Brooks

The Christian Businessman

Baptismal Font at The Advent

Transcription of Letter

Theological Context
The interpretation of infant baptism that Brooks provided owes much to the emphasis on incarnational theology that he helped popularize. This interpretation was presented as an alternative to both Catholic and Evangelical (Calvinist) positions. [6]

Roman Catholics viewed the rite as being efficacious in itself: Before baptism the child was not a child of God; after, he/she was. Evangelical circles interpreted the rite as an action of God which implants the grace-filled seed needed for the moral regeneration of a Christian life. Under this view, adult baptism at least was preceded by a conversion experience which was “sealed” thru baptism. Brooks denied both these positions, especially that the rite itself changes the recipient thru an action of God.

The position of Brooks and many Broad Church Episcopalians was that baptism makes known and solemnizes – “announces” – that the person (adult or infant) is a Child of God. No transformation is occasioned by the rite itself; instead, the public, worshipful ceremony proclaims this status as central to human identity. This focus on a public, visible activity is of a piece with the understanding of the church as Christ’s body made visible, developed in incarnational theology.[7]

 

 

Phillips Brooks
In several ways, Brooks’ early life paralleled that of Peter Tinsley.[8] Brooks was born in 1835, two years after Tinsley. Both men were tall and dignified in appearance. Both attended Virginia Theological Seminary. Both served as chaplains during the battle of Gettysburg, although Brooks was a volunteer on the Union side. Both began their rectorships in the 1860’s.

Brooks pastored in Philadelphia until he became rector of Boston’s Trinity Church in 1869. He broke with long held Episcopal tradition avoiding any mention of politics from the pulpit, being outspoken in his opposition to slavery. Yet his sermon style was winsome rather than confrontational; he sought to appeal and uplift instead of dispute.[9] Drawing on 19th Century Romanticism, he avoided dogma and emphasized the simple truths of Christianity that would help his congregants make their faith visible thru their actions. “The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.” Just as a candle is a visible light, so the embodied spirit of the Christian – faith in action — makes God known to the world.[10]

Brooks wrote the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” after a trip to the Holy Lands. These words, too, reflect his incarnational theology:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord, Immanuel.

The Christian Businessman

Thompson attended Kenyon College, an institution supporting the evangelical side of the Episcopal Church during the ante-bellum period. The evangelical emphasis on moral regeneration manifested in a Christian life morphed into the Broad Church call for Christian devotion visible in one’s actions.[11]

The congregants in Brooks’ Trinity Church in Boston and Tinsley’s The Advent here in Cincinnati were, for the most part, educated, white middle-class. These professionals and business managers took a leading role not just in economic affairs but in community activities as well. Many of Cincinnati’s landmarks are the result of donations from this elite of this group. But in Thompson’s work, we see the same spirit of community engagement for common good informed by his Christian faith.

Thompson was involved in the church throughout his adult life. He served intermittently as vestryman and Jr. Warden at The Advent from 1893 to 1927.[12] He attended the annual conventions of the Diocese of Southern Ohio during at least the 1890’s and was on several committees, including the Missionary Committee.[13]

Thompson’s interest in missions led him to the position of President of the Board of Directors of St. Andrew’s Day Nursery.[14] St. Andrew’s was organized in 1895 as an Episcopal Mission for Black Episcopalians. By 1899, there was a permanent meeting place in the West End, and several outreach programs had been started. In the early 1900’s the mission offered a Day Nursery for children of working mothers.[15] It was this organization that Thompson supported. (Traditionally, one responsibility of a Board of Directors is financial contribution.)

We should remember that we first met Thompson thru his concern for his infant daughter; in his obituary he is remembered for his work on behalf of children of other families.

 

Baptismal Font at The Advent

The baptismal font at The Advent was part of the expansion in xxxx.[16] It is built into the church floor and is a visible break in the nave, apparent to everyone who enters the sanctuary from the main doors.

This architectural feature is meant to remind us of the central role of baptism in our lives every time we gather for worship. Just as Brooks taught Thompson, the prominent baptismal font declares:

the Essential Childship of the human Soul to God, an acknowledgement of a fact which is already true and an acceptance of that fact as the most important that concerns the life.[17]

The next time you enter our sanctuary, give thanks for your baptism and for the life of Newcomb Thompson!

 

Barbara Haven and JoAnn Morse
November, 2017

Transcription of Letter

233 Clarendon Street.

Boston.

November 21. 1885

My dear Sir,

Have you ever read Robertson’s sermon upon Baptism? I cannot help thinking that if you think over what he says you will be ready not merely to consent but to desire that your child should be baptized. Baptism for an Infant is neither the means for a mysterious change of nature, nor is it a mere dedication of the life to God. It is a declaration of the Essential Childship of the human Soul to God, an acknowledgement of a fact which is already true and an acceptance of that fact as the most important that concerns the life.

I hope sincerely that you will see the fitness of the Rite and give the child the benefit of it.

I am with all good wishes

Your most sincerely

Phillips Brooks

N. B. Thompson Esq.

[1] Obituary. Cincinnati Enquirer, June 30, 1934. In 1885, Thompson was 25.

[2] On Brooks, see especially Gillis Harp, Brahmin Prophet, and Sydney Ahlstrom, Religious History of the American People, 739-40.

[3] See above for transcription of the letter.

[4] Register at Church of the Advent archives shows Baptism of Ellis V. Thompson on June 17, 1886. On that same day, Wilson Cross was baptized with Thompson and his wife as witnesses.

[5] According to the Obituary, Thompson was a sugar broker in Cincinnati. He also served as sugar administrator for Kentucky during the First World War.

[6] In the letter, Brooks refers to “Robertson’s sermon upon Baptism,” a reference to one of two sermons by Frederick W. Robertson preached on March 10 and 17, 1850. These sermons are part of the collection published in 1971. Robertson was an English exemplar for Brooks (Brahmin Prophet, pp. 151-153). The presentation of the theology here relies on Robertson’s sermons.

[7]Harp, Brahmin Prophet, especially Chapter Five, “The Modern Christian.”

[8] For Peter Tinsley, see previous article in this series.

[9] Harp, Brahmin Prophet, especially Chapter Four, “A Prince of the Pulpit.”

[10] Brooks, Sermons, pp. 1-21. Brooks repeatedly returned to this proverb to illustrate how closely the God and man are connected – a central point in his incarnational theology. The opening of the famous sermon on this text reads: “ The essential connection between the life of God and life of man is the great truth of the world; and that is the truth which Solomon sets forth in the striking words which I have chosen for my text this morning.”

[11] Ahlstrom, History, pp. 624-25. Kenyon College fell under the Diocese of Southern Ohio after the split in 1877, and is a regular topic at the conventions during the 1880’s-09’s.

[12] History of the Advent 1953, pp. 79-85.

[13] Diocese of Southern Ohio Annual Convention 1899 lists Thompson as being elected to the Mission Committee. I did not do a systematic study of the journals but I did find Thompson’s name appearing in various years during the 1890’s thru 1920’s.

[14] Obituary.

[15] Giffin, Color Line in Ohio, p 146

[16] Find date & Red book?

[17]See letter above.