Charles Henry Brent was born April 9, 1862 in Newcastle, Canada, a small village on Lake Ontario. His father, Henry, was rector of the Anglican church in Newcastle, a position he held for 42 years; his mother, Sophia, was the descendant of New England Loyalists, who had fled to Canada at the time of the American Revolution. Charles Henry was one of ten children.
By his own account, Brent's childhood in this small rural village was a happy and secure one. He attended the local public school there until 1880, when he left Newcastle for Trinity College School in Port Hope Ontario to prepare for university.
Founded in 1865, Trinity College School was one of the first attempts to recreate the classical Anglican “public school” in the New World. Its founder, the Rev. Charles Howard Badgely, an Englishman, had been deeply influenced by the reforms in the public school tradition, inspired by Thomas Arnold at Rugby, that had taken hold in England earlier in the century. James J. Halsema describes life at TCS as Brent must have experienced it 15 years after its founding: “Masters and boys followed a strenuous program that began at 6:30 a.m. and ended with an evening study hall from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. Study of the classics, the Bible and theology was emphasized. Sports were cricket and rugby rather than baseball, the candy store was called a “tuck shop” and the student military drill association members swore red coats, for this was very much a part of the British Empire.” (Halsema p. 4) Brent thrived in this atmosphere: he was an above-average, if not outstanding student, active in sports and the arts (he was quite an accomplished organist), and respected in the school community, where he became one of the six school prefects in charge of maintaining student discipline.
In 1882 Brent moved on to Trinity College at the University of Toronto, also an Anglican Institution, where he was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in classics in 1884, before going on to prepare for ordination to Holy Orders. Brent had decided to follow his father’s footsteps very early on. He later wrote” "I do not recall and instant of my life when I aspired to any vocation excepting that of the Ministry, but on one brief occasion when I faced the possibility of becoming a musician." (Things that Matter, 3)
After graduation from Trinity College, Brent returned to Trinity College School as a teacher in order to support himself while he prepared for ordination.
Brent was ordained to the diaconate in 1886, and to the priesthood the following year. Though ordained by the bishop of Toronto, there were at the time no vacancies in the diocese, and Brent ended up as a curate and organist in the diocese of Buffalo, New York - a momentous career move, as it turns out, though he did not realize it at the time.
His two years in the diocese of Buffalo were not easy ones: he and his bishop did not see eye to eye on several matters, and after two years, Brent decided to look elsewhere. During a retreat in 1887, he had met the Rev. A.C.A Hall, at that time Superior of the Boston House of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, (The Cowley Fathers) with whom he had quickly formed what was to prove to be a lifelong friendship. So, when, in 1888, Fr. Hall suggested that he move down to Boston to work at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which was served by the Cowley Fathers, and live at their Mission House, Brent gladly accepted.
The three years he spent with the Cowley Fathers (1888-1891) were crucial to Brent's spiritual formation as a priest. Under the direction of the monks, he learned the lessons of an ordered and disciplined spiritual life, which were to serve him well for what lay in the future. It is fairly certain that he would have continued with the Cowley Fathers and become a member of the Society, had not a rift occurred between the Superior of the order in England and the community in Boston. a disagreement, which had to do with the election of Phillips Brooks as Bishop of Massachusetts, led to several people leaving the order, including Brent and Hall.
On leaving Cowley, Brent was appointed by Bishop Brooks as assistant to the Rev. Henry Torbert (another “alumnus” of Cowley) at St. Stephen’s, a recently re-opened church in the south end of Boston, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Brent was to remain at St. Stephen's for the next ten years, and under his and Fr. Torbert's direction, the parish became a vibrant and thriving one.
If his experience with the Cowley Fathers gave him the foundations for an intensive spiritual life, Brent's ten years at St, Stephen's taught him how to be a priest. As Frederick Ward Kates puts it; "His humble work in a struggling parish in a crowded neighborhood of underprivileged people proved good schooling for his naturally aristocratic mind. These years deepened not only his ideas of religion but also his insight into human character. … He came to know people, all sorts of people." (Kates, p. 5)
Brent's natural enthusiasm - one is tempted to say "hyperactivity" - insured that he was eventually involved in much more than just his parish. He took full advantage of Boston as a cultural and academic center, and by the end of his ten years there, he was well known and respected in all quarters. He was liked and respected by his bishop, frequently asked to preach at the city’s more affluent churches and speak before many different audiences. Among the many friends he made at the time was Rev. Edict Peabody, founder of Groton School. From our perspective, this relationship is especially important since it was Groton, an Anglican school in the tradition of Brent’s own alma mater, which was later to provide Brent both with a model and with the first teachers for his new school in Baguio.
Such was his reputation as a preacher, pastor and organizer, that only Brent himself was surprised by the telegram he received October 8, 1901 from Bishop Potter of New York, asking whether he would, if elected, accept the newly formed bishopric of the Philippines.
After consulting with friends and spending the better part of two days in prayer and reflection, he replied that he would be willing, and on the 11th, word of his election by the House of Bishops arrived in Boston.
Brent formally accepted the election on November 15, 1901, and was consecrated in Boston at Emmanuel Church on December 19 of the same year. He did not, however, leave for Manila until the following summer. Brent was well aware that previous missionary efforts on the part of the Episcopal Church in Latin America had foundered for lack of proper support, and he was determined to insure that that would not happen in the case of the Philippines. He spent much of t his time travelling around the country raising funds and otherwise preparing for his new position. Among other things, he traveled to Washington where he met with President Theodore Roosevelt and other government officials, most important among them, William Howard Taft who was to be Governor General of the Philippines. In May he sailed for the Orient in company with Governor Taft, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. They traveled via Europe with a stopover in Italy where Governor Taft held talks with Vatican authorities regarding Church lands in the Philippines. They arrived in Manila on the morning of August 25, 1902.
True to his character, Brent immediately flung himself into his new job. He approached his task differently from other American missionaries in several respects. In the first place, he had no intention of proselytizing among the Roman Catholic population, hence he directed the church's missionary effort to areas that had not been evangelized during the Spanish era: the pagan North and the Moslem South. In these areas, too, his approach was distinct. He relied much more on the slow, disciplined approach through service and education rather than on aggressive proselytizing. He writes: "The purpose of Christianity is to create and sustain an abiding, worthy purpose. Emotional religion can create but not sustain. What is needed is something that will fill life - intellectual, moral, spiritual." (Zabriskie, p. 53). This explains his interest in establishing schools and hospitals throughout the Islands. Finally, he considered his main pastoral concern to be the local expatriate population. There is no doubt that Brent supported the U.S. colonial enterprise, but he saw it as entailing an overriding moral responsibility towards those who were colonized. His main concern was to keep the colonial government and the resident Americans focused on this responsibility, to ensure that when they finally left the Philippines, which he believed they eventually would, the country would be better off for their having been there.
The fifteen-odd years Brent spent as Bishop in the Philippines were extremely active ones. To provide for the spiritual and social needs of the American and British communities he got to work building a Cathedral and organizing clubs and other activities for the community. By 1903 he had established a small medical dispensary, which later became known as St. Luke's hospital, today one of the Philippines' premier medical institutions. Concerned for the welfare of families as he was, it is not surprising that he soon began to think in terms of education, and by 1909 he had established his school for boys in Baguio, the forerunner of today's Brent schools in Baguio, Subic and Manila .
In Manila, too, Brent took an active interest in the Chinese community and with the help of a priest under him, Howard E. Studley, formed a congregation to which he gave the name of his old Boston parish: St. Stephens.
Outside Manila, Brent traveled far and wide, and given the primitive conditions for travel, his athletic background certainly came in handy. He founded the permanent missions in Bontoc and Sagada which were to become the nucleus of a truly Filipino Anglican church. He traveled extensively in the South and found himself fascinated by Moro culture. Everywhere he went he oversaw the establishment of schools and hospitals, many of which, such as the Easter School in Baguio and Brent Hospital in Zamboanga, survive to this day.
It was during his years in Manila that Brent began to emerge as a figure of national and international prominence. His involvement in the two areas for which he became widely known - the regulation of drugs and Christian unity - began as a result of his experience in the Philippines.
It became evident to the new colonial rulers soon after they arrived, that perhaps the greatest evil in Filipino society at the time was opium. Brent was appointed to the commission summoned to examine the problem. The commission met from 1903 to 1904, when it issued its report recommending that the government establish a monopoly over the opium trade and that this become total prohibition except for medical use after three years. Brent's role in this was significant enough for him to be asked to preside over the International Opium Conference in Shanghai in 1909, and later to head up the American delegations to the international opium conferences held in the Hague in 1911 and 1912.
But the cause that eventually became closest to Brent's heart was that of Christian Unity. Working in the missionary field convinced him that the greatest impediment to evangelization was disunity. He was at a loss as to what to do about the situation until he attended the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910. The experience was an extremely positive one, and he became convinced that such gatherings of Christians to deal with common themes was a path that could lead to eventual union. As we shall see, it is for his work in this area during the last decade of his life that he is best known today.
The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 was of great concern to Brent, and started him thinking about whether it might not be time to leave the Philippines. Three times during the previous decade he had been offered a diocese back in the United States, but he had refused. Now, however, his doctors were telling him that his health was suffering in the tropics, and he was having doubts about his effectiveness in Manila after fifteen years. So in 1917, soon after the United States entered the War, when he received notice of his election as bishop of Western New York, he accepted, and in October or that year, with much regret sailed from Manila for the last time.
As usual, however, his journey was hardly a straight one. On his arrival in the United States, he was asked by General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe and an old friend whom he had confirmed in Manila many years ago, to become Senior Headquarters Chaplain of the A.E.F. After making arrangements to postpone his taking over his duties in his new diocese, Brent accepted, was soon sailing for France to join the troops.
Brent devoted himself to his new task with his usual fervor, and spent the remainder of the war close to the front, and laying down the foundations for what was to become a permanent chaplains' corps. The war made a great impression on him: he was horrified by it. He emerged from the experience committed to the cause of world peace, for which he struggled for the rest of his life.
In May 1919 Brent finally set up shop in the diocese of Western New York, where remained based for the final decade of his life. He is remembered as an effective and inspired leader, although he spent most of his time, it seems, out of the diocese. For in the years that followed World War I, Bishop Brent was in great demand at home and abroad. He was very busy. Frederick Ward Kates tells us: "Among the many calls that came to him during the years of residence in Buffalo, New York, were serving as Chancellor of Hobart College, Geneva, New York, serving as a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University; in the spring of 1921 delivering the Duff Lectures at the Universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Glasgow; in the summer of 1923, on President Harding's appointment, acting on the Advisory Committee on Narcotics of the league of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland; in 1924 attending the International Opium Conference at Geneva …; in 1925, opening the public sessions of the Conference on Life and Work at Stockholm…; during 1926 to 1928 functioning as Bishop-in-Charge of the American Episcopal Churches in Europe; and, finally, presiding over the first World Conference on Faith and Order in Lausanne in 1927." (p. 12)
It is this last achievement which was the crown of all his efforts. The World Conference on Faith and Order, the organization from which eventually emerged the World Council of Churches, was something that Brent worked long and hard for, and for whose success he was largely responsible. And it is for this achievement, perhaps, that he is most remembered today.
But the all this activity was taking its toll on Brent. In 1928 he was forced to take time out from his job. In the fall of that year he represented the American Church at the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and did not return to the U.S. on the advice of his physician, who suggested that he rest. He was apparently somewhat recovered the following March when he set out with friends for what was to be a leisurely cruise on the Mediterranean. He arrived in Paris on March 21 where he visited with friends, then continued on his way. He stopped in Lausanne, the scene of his greatest moment, to break his trip, and there, suddenly, on 27 March 1929, he died. According to his wish to be buried where he died, his funeral and interment took place at Christ Church, Lausanne on April 12. His death was widely mourned.
In recognition of his services to the Church and society at large, Charles Henry Brent’s name was added to the list of those commemorated in the Episcopal Church’s Liturgical Calendar. His ‘feast day’ is March 27. The collect for his commemoration is as follows:
Heavenly Father, whose Son prayed that we all might be one: deliver us from arrogance andprejudice, and give us wisdom and forbearance, t hat, following your servant Charles Henry Brent, we may be united in one family with all who confess the Name of your Son Jesus Christ: who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
- Halsema, James J. Bishop Brent’s Baguio School: The first 75 Years. 1988, Brent School Inc. Kates, Frederick Ward. Things that Matter: The Best Writings of Bishop Brent. 1949, Harper & Brothers Zabriskie, Alexander C. Bishop Brent: Crusader for Christian Unity. 1948, Westminster Press.March
Halsema, James J. Bishop Brent’s Baguio School: The first 75 Years. 1988, Brent School Inc.
Kates, Frederick Ward. Things that Matter: The Best Writings of Bishop Brent. 1949, Harper & Brothers
Zabriskie, Alexander C. Bishop Brent: Crusader for Christian Unity. 1948, Westminster Press.
- Works by Charles Brent at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Charles Brent at Internet Archive
- Documents by and about Brent from Project Canterbury
- Charles Henry Brent profile
- “Career of the Rev. C. H. Brent” in the New York Times
- ""Filipinos Do Not Like Americans” says Bishop Brent" in the New York Times