As he recorded in an autobiographical memoir written in 1939 Henry Laird Phillips was born in St Elizabeth, Jamaica, on March 11, 1847; he said he knew this because it was written in the family Bible. Unfortunately he did not use the same source to give any details about his parents. His family was Moravian, but his Roman Catholic grandmother had him baptised into her church by Father 'Duperong' [Father Dupeyron, riding from Kingston on horseback, frequently visited the missions scattered across the island, as he did in 1850 covering 578 miles and carrying out, among other duties, 13 baptisms - was young Henry one of those?] He wrote about his childhood in St Elizabeth in the 1850s, throwing light on the life of a country child, a century and a half ago. [click here for excerpts]
In 1862 Henry Phillips was sent to the Moravian Training School at Fairfield, in the neighbouring parish of Manchester. He spent six years at Fairfield, and gives a very interesting account of how the students lived. He clearly felt he owed much to the very intense training he received at Fairfield, especially in how to live a disciplined and productive life. He graduated in 1868, and immediately went to teach in St Croix in the Danish Virgin Islands. After two years there he resigned and, against the advice of his pastor and friends who thought he should go to study in Germany, went to New York, arriving there on September 15, 1870. He went straight on to Philadelphia, which was to be his home for the rest of his long life.[click here for excerpts]
Phillips spent two years at the Moravian Mission House, studying Hebrew and working at a mission in North Philadelphia. He also experienced frost and snow for the first time. In 1872 he enrolled at the Philadelphia Divinity School, then located in a modestly-sized private house. This was an Episcopalian theological college, and there is no explanation given of his reasons for becoming an Episcopalian. He remembered especially
the differing but equally effective teaching styles of two professors - Daniel Raynes Goodwin, who encouraged wide-ranging discussion, and George Emlen Hare, who discouraged all questions during class time. He finished his training in the summer of 1875 and was ordained deacon by Bishop Stevens, shortly afterwards. In December 1875 he married Sarah Elizabeth Cole, whose sister, Rebecca J Cole was the second African American woman to qualify as a medical doctor. Dr Cole received her education at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, and the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania.
In 1876 Henry Phillips was ordained to the priesthood at Holy Trinity Church, where he had served as lay reader.