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God of Fire, Man of Prayer

By Timothy George

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? By all accounts, it was the spirit and practice of prayer. Hunter B. Blakely, whose book, Religion in Shoes, tells the story of Bryan’s life, reports that “Let us pray” were the words most frequently upon the lips of this beloved pastor. “No man has ever believed more implicitly in prayer than he, and never were prayers more unconventional. Prayer seems to him as natural as for a man to breathe the air. Why not, he would reason, for is God not the most real thing in the universe?”

Brother Bryan was a promiscuous pray-er who prayed with thousands in hospitals, prisons, and halfway houses. He prayed with countless others at weddings and funerals, over the telephone, on the sidewalk, in the mills and factories of the city, and in his pastor’s study, which was known as Birmingham’s “confessional.” It was said that “the fragrance of his prayer life permeated the whole city.” His prayers were often short and to the point, but they were more than pious platitudes. He knew that prayer was a vital component of what St. Paul called “the full armor of God” (Eph. 6:11). Every prayer involved spiritual combat, and one of his most characteristic prayers was this one: “O Lord, help us to fight the devil!”

One of the most interesting prayer stories from Brother Bryan’s life came from one Thursday night when he was walking home alone after dark. Suddenly, a man jumped out of an alley, pushed a gun into his face, and said, “Hands up.” Brother Bryan complied as the man rifled through his pockets, taking his watch and the little cash he had on him. When the robbery was done and before the thief could depart, he heard the minister say, “Brother, let us pray.” As Brother Bryan prayed, the thief lowered his gun and placed the watch and stolen money back into the hands of his victim.

Brother Bryan died in 1941, but his legacy still lives on in many ways: in the church he served, which is still a dynamic center of Christian witness in the heart of the city; in Brother Bryan Mission, which reaches out in Jesus’s name to homeless and displaced persons in Birmingham; and in the silent witness to the power of prayer seen in the statue of Brother Bryan, well placed for all to see at a busy intersection “where cross the crowded ways of life.” Today, in the valley far below the feet of the great Vulcan kneels the humble pastor. His life’s work is inscribed at the statue’s base in bronze and stone:

Fervent in prayer,

Consecrated in life,

Sympathetic in counsel,

Friend of the friendless,

the sorrowing, the poor

and rich:

He went about doing good.

What does the god of fire have to do with the man of prayer? The true God is called a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24, Heb. 12:29). In the Bible, fire and prayer often belong together, as when the prophet Elijah prayed and fire fell from heaven on Mount Carmel, and when the distraught disciples prayed in the Upper Room and Pentecostal fire set the place ablaze. God’s work is done in the context of such prayer. Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses—including Brother Bryan—God’s people are given to know that, in the words of James, “the effectual fervent, fiery prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 4:16, KJV).

Published at First Things, 1.12.15

Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.