Birmingham, Alabama was a wild and untamed mining town in the heart of the reconstructed South when James Alexander Bryan came to pastor the Third Presbyterian Church there on this day in 1888. When he died in 1941, Birmingham had become a vibrant industrial center. In the years between, Brother Bryan—as he was affectionately called—won the hearts of generation after generation of her citizens. He was an unlikely hero for the bustling town though. For one thing, he was noticeably inept as a pulpiteer. His sermons were often halting, rambling, and inarticulate. Though entirely committed to the authority of the Scriptures and the centrality of preaching, he simply was not a skilled orator.
He was also a poor administrator. Though perpetually busy, he was easily distracted and rarely kept up with his workload. He didn't even maintain a particularly winsome appearance. He was more often than not disheveled, shabbily dressed, and hastily groomed. In a day when manliness and imposing presence was especially esteemed, he was shy, soft-spoken, and had a slight stutter.
Nevertheless, he was practically a cultural icon in the city. Near the end of his life, he was honored by local dignitaries in a city-wide celebration. The president of the City Commission said: "No man in Birmingham is better known or better loved than Brother Bryan. There is one man in this city about whom we are all agreed, and he is Brother Bryan." The editor of the city newspaper agreed: "Brother Bryan is the only man, whom we have ever known, whose motives have never been questioned. He is the one man for whom we are all unanimous." The city erected a statue of the humble pastor at one of her busiest intersections near downtown. It portrayed him in a posture of prayer and proclaimed him "the patron saint of Birmingham."
How had this seemingly inept pastor won over an entire city so completely? How had this painfully ordinary man accomplished a feat so extraordinary as this? Very simply, Brother Bryan was a common man who proved to be an uncommon example of the Christian mandate of loving his neighbor. He made it a habit to make a circuit every morning just before dawn to all the factories, shops, fire and police stations, schools, and offices downtown to pray with as many common working men and women as he could. He would simply announce himself, drop to his knees wherever he was, and begin to intercede for each of them. The words most often on his lips were, "Let us pray."
He also distinguished himself with his selfless service to the poor, the needy, the brokenhearted, and the sick. His indefatigable efforts to encourage the distressed, led him to establish several city outreaches to the homeless, to orphans and widows, and to the victims of war and pestilence overseas. More than any rich philanthropist, he demonstrated the power and effect of merciful service on the fabric of a community. Though he violated all the rules of success, he seemed to incarnate the essence of the Christian faith. He was, as many called him, "religion in shoes."