By Timothy George, First Things
Birmingham is a post-Civil War city founded in 1871 in response to the discovery of one of the world’s richest mineral deposits of iron, coal, and limestone. The abundance of these raw materials led to a thriving steel industry, and Birmingham became the “Pittsburgh of the South.” In the early twentieth century, the leaders of Birmingham commissioned a statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge, to represent the city at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Today, Vulcan stands 56-feet tall high atop Red Mountain overlooking the city, a symbol of Birmingham’s history. Colossus-like, Vulcan is the largest cast-iron statue in the world, welcoming thousands of visitors every day from near and far.
But Birmingham is also known for another statue, one less prominent and auspicious. It is not the image of a Roman deity standing tall and proud, looking upward at the sky with a spear in his hand. No, this statue depicts an older man, shoulders slumping, hat in hand, kneeling in prayer. The man is James Alexander Bryan (1863-1941), who was known affectionately as “Brother Bryan.” For more than fifty years he served as pastor of Birmingham’s Third Presbyterian Church. Catherine Marshall once referred to him as “the patron saint of Birmingham.” If anyone ever deserved that title, it was surely he.
Though well trained at Princeton Theological Seminary, Brother Bryan was not known for heady sermons or church politics. Rather, he was dearly loved as the tender shepherd of the entire city. He ministered to everyone who crossed his path, rich and poor, black and white, the mighty and the meek. He reached out to students, nurses, and factory workers. He was the unofficial chaplain to the fire and police departments. His heart went out especially to the poor, the destitute, the jobless, the hungry, the lonely, the lost. In the spirit of Francis of Assisi, Brother Bryan served those on the margins of society. Born in South Carolina during the American Civil War, he grew up in the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws. He knew injustice when he saw it and he determined to treat everyone he met with dignity and respect. As a minister in the city that later would be called “Bombingham,” Brother Bryan became an apostle of racial reconciliation. He believed that every person was an image-bearer of God and thus infinitely dear and precious in the sight of the heavenly Father.
What was the secret of Brother Bryan’s ministry?
I read the biography while in seminary, mostly because it was written by a relative of mine. But it is an impressive and inspiring story.