Minister, Community Chaplain, Humanitarian
James Alexander Bryan was born on March 20, 1863, in Williamsburg County, South Carolina. His teenage years were spent in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he attended the Lovejoy Academy. Entering the University of North Carolina in 1880, he alternated between law and theology for his academic major. Following graduation in 1885, he returned home to care for his family and taught school in the Gastonia Female Institute, Gastonia, North Carolina. Receiving a scholarship to Princeton University in 1886, he left to pursue a degree in theology.
"Brother Bryan," as he was affectionately known, came to Birmingham as a Princeton student. He served as pastor for a little congregation in a tent at the corner of Avenue G and 23rd Street, which later became Third Presbyterian Church. After graduating from Princeton in 1889 with a bachelor of divinity degree, he accepted the pastorate of Third Presbyterian Church, which by then was housed in a small wooden structure. In 1890, he was introducted to Leonora Clayton Howze of Marion (Perry County), Alabama. They married in January 1891.
While serving Third Presbyterian Church, Brother Bryan was pastor to all Birmingham. He conducted meetings among the firemen, policemen, railroaders and students. His evangelistic fervor was not confined to Birmingham. He conducted meetings throughout the South, from West Virginia to Texas.
Brother Bryan was known for his generous and selfless spirit, always helping the poor and needy. An example can be found in the book, Religion in Shoes, by Hunter Bryson Blakely. As the minister was walking home alone late one evening following a midweek prayer meeting, a man slipped out from an alley, stuck a gun in his face and proceeded to rob him, taking some money and his watch. The pastor responded: "Brother, let us pray." The prayer began and the gun lowered. At the conclusion of the prayer, the thief returned both money and watch. Brother Bryan spoke out against oppression, was a prohibitionist and championed civil rights. His legacy continues as The Brother Bryan Rescue Mission, which was established in 1940 and ministers to the homeless and destitute. "We who have watched his footsteps see the tracks which he has left among the desolate and distressed." [Birmingham Age Herald, June 7, 1914]
At his death in 1941, James Bryan had served as pastor of only one church. However, he had served all Birmingham as its chaplain, crusader and defender. He, his wife and seven children were an integral part of Birmingham. A kneeling statue of Brother Bryan on the circle at Five Points South and the nearby Brother Bryan Park bear witness to the impact of this man on the entire city of Birmingham.