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Who was Philip Britts?

Jennifer Harries

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This article is taken from the introduction to a collection of Philip Britts's writings, Water at the Roots: Poems and Insights of a Visionary Farmer.

Let this be the way that I go,
And the life that I try,
My feet being firm in the field,
And my heart in the sky.

Who was Philip Britts? His life was short, and his biographical details are easily summed up: He was a farmer and pastor, a husband and father. Born in 1917 in Devon, England, he became a pacifist and joined the Bruderhof, a Christian community. During the Second World War he moved to South America, where, in 1949, he died of a tropical illness at the age of thirty-one, leaving a widow with three young children and a fourth on the way. 

The Bruderhof started in 1920 in Germany. Inspired by the first Christians, members hold property in common and try to follow Christ wholeheartedly, living out Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. In 1937, Hitler’s government expelled the community and its members fled to England, where an offshoot of the original group had started a community on a farm in the Costwolds the previous year. It was here that Philip and his wife Joan joined, as did my parents and I. From that time on, Philip’s story and that of the community were intertwined.

Philip was a tall, thoughtful man, not given to many words; throughout his life, he retained the typical West Country speech of the Devon farmer, slow and deliberate. He loved the work on the land and the mystery of growing things. For him to be part of creation was joy – to work with nature, not against it, and “to see in growing corn the fingerprints of God.”

After Philip died, his friends began, from time to time, to receive gifts from his young widow: poems that she had found and collected after his death, and copied out for them.

Most of Philip’s poems and essays have never been published before. Why now? His generation faced great dangers and upheavals, but so does ours. Philip’s response to his own age’s trials – to root himself in God and dedicate himself to a community and to the land he farmed – speaks to our age. Perhaps this is particularly true because his community was itself driven from country to country and continent to continent, and because the earth he tilled was not the West Country soil of his birthplace. His story is not a romantic agrarian elegy, a throwback, but a real human life lived in the thick of history.

Today, Philip Britts’s record of his experience of the natural world is particularly poignant because we are, perhaps even more than he was, aware of the fragility of that world and of our role in stewarding it. Pope Francis has called our use of nature “indiscriminate and tyrannical.” In his encyclical Laudato si’ he writes, “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” Elsewhere, he has pointed out that “an economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. The monopolising of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water…are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth.”

Today, time-tested social structures and moral teachings are being cast off, even trampled on. New wars erupt before old ones have ceased. And technological changes threaten to uproot us from the natural world. In a world of concrete and smartphones, we find ourselves craving reality.

Philip Britts shows us where and how we can slake that thirst. Later writers have shared his sense, best expressed in his poems, that nature is not just nature, but points to something mysterious and profound beyond itself. Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Paul Brand, and many others have sought to express the sense of awe, the link to the transcendent, that they find in the natural world. Wendell Berry writes about life as “miracle and mystery,” and Albert Einstein says, “One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.”

But this is a mystery always at hand, an everyday miracle. As a farmer, Philip experienced this awe in the same soil that meant rootedness and hard work. And his concern was never merely reconnecting to the land, as though that alone could heal us. Rather, he saw that in losing connection to the land, we are losing our humanity and our connection to each other, and that by losing our connection to the created world we are losing an avenue of awareness of the Creator. As a pastor, he read the book of nature together with the book of scripture, allowing them to illuminate each other: “Faith is like water at the roots,” he writes. “If we have faith, we can face the sun, we can turn the heat and the light into life-giving fruits, into love…. Faith is a gift like the rain, and like the rain it is something to be watched for and prayed for and waited for.”

Philip’s times saw many proposed solutions to the problems he witnessed, but after looking at the major movements of the day – the peace movement and socialism, among others – he found his answer closer to home: not in farming for its own sake, but in an attempt to live out his faith and the radical teachings of Jesus on a very personal and local level in an intentional community on the land. This was boots-on-the-ground discipleship, as he travelled with the community to a country far from that of his birth. And as you will see, it would cost him his life.

You will get to know Philip best by reading his own words. The backbone of this book, therefore, is a selection of his poems arranged roughly chronologically, with other writings of his interspersed. I have given these poems and writings context by telling the story of the man who wrote them. Philip was a family friend and a fellow member of the Bruderhof movement, and I have supplemented archival records with my own memories. (My thanks to Miriam Mathis and Carole Vanderhoof, whose research made this book possible.) In keeping with Philip’s poems, I have used British spelling throughout the book. Philip’s words appear in black.

Philip Britts died young and in relative obscurity, but his vision continues to guide the community he helped lead through some of the most challenging years of its history. May Philip’s poetry and insights also inspire you, the reader, in your own quest for deeper roots and greater wonder, and a practical way of life that makes both possible.


Read the book: Water at the Roots: Poems and Insights of a Visionary Farmer

vine-covered gate leading to a green field
Contributed By Jennifer Harries

A member of the Bruderhof, Harries was born in Llansamlet, Wales. Having taught elementary school for decades, she now mentors younger teachers. She lives in New York.

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