ALFRED MCGREADY BRYAN was born in Logan county, Kentucky, on the 19th of August, 1805. His parents were James and Anne Bryan. His father was an elder in the Presbyterian Church. His parents were both devotedly pious. In his later life he spoke more frequently of the piety of his mother; but this may have arisen from his unusually sensitive disposition, which would lead him to cling more tenderly to the recollections of his mother. The writer has heard him state that his parents were of those who signed Mr. McGready's celebrated Preamble and Covenant in 1796. The history of this transaction is familiar. It was one of the precursors of the great revival of 1800.
Of Mr. Bryan's early boyhood little is known, except his religious training. This would be inferred from the character of his parents. He also made frequent allusions to it himself, always with apparent earnest thankfulness to God for such a blessing. When about seventeen years old he professed religion. He had been attending a camp-meeting at Red River Meeting-house, not far from his home. On his return home one evening of the meeting, he was telling his mother, with some interest, of those who had professed religion, and of others who were mourners. She turned to him, and with great tenderness inquired, "And what of you, my boy?" The inquiry went like an arrow to his heart. He retired to a secret place, and sought and found peace. He returned to the meeting, which was still in progress, and was encouraged by the ministers to stand up and tell what God had done for his soul. He immediately developed unusual gifts, and his attention was directed to the work of the ministry. On application, he was accordingly received as a candidate for the ministry, by the Logan Presbytery, at Pilot Knob Meeting-house, on the 2d day of April, 1823. He was licensed at the Union Church, in Russellville, April 7, 1825. On the 8th of October, 1829, he was ordained, at Glasgow. His trial-sermon was from St. John i. 29. Rev. Alexander Chapman preached the ordination-sermon, and Rev. William Harris presided and gave the charge.
From the time of his licensure to the spring session of the Presbytery in 1829, Mr. Bryan labored in different parts of Kentucky--all the upper part of which was at that time included within the bounds of the Logan Presbytery. At the spring session of 1829 he was appointed to supply Russellville, Mount Moriah, Red River, and Liberty congregations, until the fall meeting. At this meeting, as it has been stated, he was ordained. By the Presbytery, in the fall of 1829, he was appointed to what was called the Mercer District, in the upper part of Kentucky. In April, 1830, he is noticed as an advisory member of the Logan Presbytery. It is supposed he had been attached to the Kentucky Presbytery, which was stricken off from the Logan Presbytery about the time of his ordination.
About this time also he took charge of a congregation in Nashville, Tennessee. Here he continued eighteen months or two years. I believe this was the first permanent effort made to establish a Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Nashville. Rev. Robert Donnell had held several meetings there, but his visits were occasional only.
In 1831 Mr. Bryan was appointed, in connection with four others, by the General Assembly, on a mission to Western Pennsylvania. His first sermon in Pennsylvania was delivered in Washington county, it is believed, in the same house in which the stroke of death fell upon him. After laboring as a missionary in Pennsylvania eighteen months, he determined to remain in that State, and took charge of a congregation, the nucleus of which had in the meantime been collected in Pittsburg. His labors in Pittsburg commenced about the close of the year 1832. From that time to his death his history is in a great measure identified with the history of the Pittsburg congregation.
Previous to the time of Mr. Bryan's settlement in Pittsburg, the few Cumberland Presbyterians who had been collected together occupied a building as a house of worship on First Street, and secured such ministrations as they could. A portion of the year 1832 they had been served by Rev. Samuel S. Sparks, who preached at this point in connection with his charge in Monongahela City. On the arrival of Mr. Bryan, a regular organization was effected. This occurred on the first day of January, 1833. The following is an extract from the records of the session:
"Whereas, the great Head of the Church, who works when, and where, and by whom he pleases, has condescended to bless the labors of the Cumberland Presbyterian missionaries in the city of Pittsburg, it has been thought expedient by the missionaries to constitute a society, especially as a number of respectable citizens have solicited them to do so;
"Therefore, on the first day of January, 1833, Rev. John Morgan and Rev. A. M. Bryan constituted a society, which was on the first day of April following organized by Rev. John Morgan, according to the discipline of the Church, and called the First Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Pittsburg. Simeon Bulford and James Watt were unanimously chosen and ordained ruling elders."
The church thus organized was composed of fifteen members. In December, 1833, the first year of their organization, the congregation had completed, and began to occupy, a commodious house of worship, located on the corner of Smithfield Street and Diamond Alley. Their house soon began to fill with hearers. Early in January, 1834, a series of meetings was commenced which resulted in the addition of more than one hundred persons to the Church. Similar meetings were held in several successive years, and were more or less blessed. These accessions of strength enabled the congregation to pay the debt incurred in building their house. This was finally effected on the fifteenth of February, 1838. The following is the grateful acknowledgment of the trustees, found upon their records:
"The Cumberland Presbyterian Church is now out of debt. May it ever continue to be a fold for Christ's flock; and may He, the Shepherd, watch over it, and make the members of the flock strong in the faith and in every good and perfect work; and may there be daily added to it of such as shall be saved; and to God we will give all the praise! February 15, 1838."
This building soon proved too small, and early in 1838 (about the time, it would seem, it which they had completed their payment for it) the trustees appointed a committee to look out a lot for a new building. They selected the lot on which their present house of worship stands.
Another revival occurred in the early part of the winter of 1839 and 1840, and continued through the most of the winter. The congregation were then engaged in building their new house. At the spring communion eighty-four persons were received into the communion of the Church. On the 26th of June, 1842, the new church was dedicated. The cost was about $15,000.
In 1845 another revival occurred. The Lutheran congregation united with Mr. Bryan in holding a union or joint meeting, which resulted in a number of accessions to each congregation.
In the spring of 1845 the great fire visited Pittsburg. Mr. Bryan lost his family residence; his church, however, escaped, but the debt contracted in its erection had not been all paid. His congregation had suffered from the fire, and of course were partially disabled. In May of that year he was a delegate to the General Assembly, which met at Lebanon, Tennessee. Many will recollect one of his short speeches on the floor of the Assembly, in which he alluded to the late fire in the city of his adoption, and to the terrible perils of his family while it was raging, and expressed his gratitude to God, with tears in his eyes, that although he had lost nearly every thing else, his wife and children had been spared to him. The losses of his congregation from the fire made it necessary for him to apply to his brethren in the South for assistance in paying their debt. Accordingly, on leaving the General Assembly, he spent some time in Middle Tennessee and Kentucky, in endeavoring to raise money for that purpose. It needs hardly be said, that he was met wherever he went with a generous liberality.
In 1848 his congregation was visited with another revival, which resulted in the addition of more than one hundred to their communion. His pastorate continued happily and usefully to the spring of 1856. In the course of that spring he received a call to the pastorate of the congregation in Memphis, as the successor of the lamented Porter, who had died there the fall before. He accepted the call, but the decision cost him a struggle. The tenderness of his attachment to his people of Pittsburg can readily be appreciated by those who were acquainted with the tenderness of all his sympathies, and the strength of his attachments. On the first of April he was dismissed from his charge. As an illustration of the feelings of his friends whom he left behind, I quote from his funeral-sermon, by Rev. Dr. Paxton. Says the preacher:
"He went regretted by all who knew him. His brethren in the ministry, of all evangelical denominations, were sad to bid him farewell. His uniform courtesy, kindness, and warm, brotherly sympathy, had endeared him to all hearts; and had it not been that he felt the call of duty, they would all have thrown around him the arms of affection, and said, 'Stay, brother--stay.'"
On his way to Memphis an explosion occurred on board of the steamer. His eldest son, a lovely boy, was scalded to death, and himself and the rest of the family narrowly escaped. This fearful Providence is said to have made a deep impression upon the mind of Mr. Bryan. It was a terrible affliction to his sensitive soul. It staggered him in relation to the propriety of his removal.
He was cordially received at Memphis. His house of worship soon became crowded to excess--so much so, that the necessity of a new building began to be felt.
In the summer of this year, 1856, he was honored with the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the Trustees and Faculty of Cumberland University.
It has been said that Dr. Bryan was well received and popular at Memphis, but it now seems probable that his heart was never there. In February of 1858 he was called to the management of a protracted meeting at Lebanon, which had been commenced with very favorable promise by others. He continued the meeting about three weeks, preaching every night, and delivering a practical lecture every morning. It was a meeting of great interest. Many will recollect it in heaven. He had been often in Lebanon, and had many friends there, but the labors of that meeting greatly increased the interest of the community in himself and in his preaching. The congregation were then without a pastor, and he was twice called, with unusual unanimity, in the course of a few months, to the pastorate. It seemed afterward, however, that his heart was with his former charge of Pittsburg. In the spring of 1859 he was recalled to Pittsburg, and commenced his second series of labors there on the first of April. In his absence the congregation had undergone sore trials, and the wonder is, that it was not broken up. The nature of these trials needs not be mentioned. Even the recollection of them is afflicting. The people rallied, however, around their old pastor, and there was a prospect of extended usefulness; but in the providence of God it appeared that he came back rather to die.
On the third week in January, 1861, he attended the convention for prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit of God in the land. The convention was held in Pittsburg. He took a deep interest in the meeting. At the close of the last session of the convention, which was held in the First Presbyterian Church, he is said to have offered a prayer of unusual earnestness and fervor--so much so, that the remark became general with those who were present, "What a remarkable prayer Brother Bryan offered!" This was his last public service in Pittsburg. The following day, Friday, he started to Van Buren, in Washington county, to administer the Lord's Supper, by appointment of the Presbytery. A minister who was present at the meeting writes that "it was evident in all his preaching and private conversation, that he felt an unusual anxiety for the salvation of sinners. His labors were evidently blessed, and the prospect for doing good was well marked."
On Saturday he preached from Gen. xxxv. 1-3; on Sabbath morning, from 1 Cor. v. 7-8; on Sabbath night, from Luke xiii. 23-24; on Monday, from John iv. 29. Having closed his sermon on Monday, he invited the anxious to the seat prepared for them in order to prayer. To give them time to assembly, he commenced singing the hymn,
While singing his voice faltered, and he immediately fell back unconscious in his seat. In a few minutes he rallied for a moment, opened his eyes, and said to a lady who stood near, "O sister, I was almost in Paradise!" In another instant all appearance of consciousness departed, and he never spoke again. Having been removed to the house of a friend, he received every attention which Christian kindness and medical skill could bestow, but in vain. The spirit lingered through the night and to the following midday, when it took its departure, and a good man rested from his labors. He died January 22, 1861.
On the 8th of April, 1835, Mr. Bryan was married to Miss Ann Eliza Rahm, of Pittsburg. He left behind him six children, four of whom are members of the Church. His widow still lives respected, with the younger members of the family, in Alleghany City.
The records of the session show that in the course of his pastorate in Pittsburg, about eleven hundred persons were received into the communion of his congregation; and of these, eight or nine hundred were received upon examination. What a testimonial went before him to Heaven!
In relation to the character of Dr. Bryan, I quote from Dr. Paxton's funeral-sermon:
:He combined," says the respected preacher, "all the elements of a useful and effective minister of the New Testament. With a strong practical cast of mind, which made him wise in counsel; an energetic executive capacity, which gave him promptness and efficiency in his plans and purposes; a king, conciliatory address, which won friends, and seldom gave offense; a large heart, which drew out the sympathies of others--he combined all those peculiar gifts which gave force and impressiveness to his pulpit ministrations.
"As a preacher, he had unusual power in addressing unconverted men upon the value of the soul, the danger of their impenitent condition, and the preciousness and freeness of the salvation offered to them in the gospel. A number of things combined to fit him for such moving appeals. He had an awful conviction of the dreadful state of an impenitent sinner. He had a realizing apprehension of the perdition of the ungodly. To this he added a clear view and a precious experience of the Saviour's atoning work, and of the office of a simple faith in effecting the salvation of a soul. All this gave such deep feeling, and such an unmistakable earnestness to his entreaties, that few sinners could listen to his moving persuasions and go away unconcerned.
"As a preacher, he possessed another quality in an unusual degree--the faculty of bringing out and applying the consolations of the gospel to the distressed and afflicted. In all the sermons which it was my privilege to hear from his lips, this was the distinguishing characteristic. He had searched the Scriptures, and felt the consolations of God in his own soul, and therefore knew how to apply them with great tenderness and descrimination to the souls of others.
"As a pastor, he had all the qualities of heart and the graces of the Spirit to make him eminently effective. His sympathies were so ready and susceptible, that he was ever prepared to weep with them that wept, and to rejoice with them that rejoiced. In the families of his people his large heart would enter into all their trials, and feel them as if they were his own. At the sick-bed he had the gentleness that soothed the sufferer, and a sweet voice that could speak comfort and inspire hope in the darkest hour. To all this he added those personal qualifications which underlie the outward functions of the ministerial life. He was a godly man, living before his Master's omniscient eye in all honesty and godly sincerity. He was a man of faith-living, working, walking, and preaching by faith; a man of prayer, feeling it his privilege to live in fellowship with God, and in every thing by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, to make his requests known to God."
For some years previous to Dr. Bryan's death, he was considered one of the most popular and useful preachers in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Without doubt he was justly so considered. He possessed many advantages. Although his education was limited, nature had done much for him. His person was fine. His voice was clear, strong, and musical. He had a ready command of language, and a tender heart, which expressed itself in his words. He rarely failed of keeping his audience in sympathy with himself. His hearers felt that his gifts were sanctified by grace. He could not have been otherwise than an effective preacher. The great ingatherings which attended his ministrations in Pittsburg are an illustration.
In 1843 he was Moderator of the General Assembly. The meeting was held that year at Owensboro. It was rather a stormy Assembly; but the dignity and energy with which he controlled its proceedings, were matter of remark by spectators.
But in the midst of his own family, I suppose, Dr. Bryan appeared to greater advantage than even elsewhere. No man was a gentler husband or a kinder father. A friend, too, found a pleasant shelter under his hospitable roof. The writer spent a few days with him in Pittsburg in the summer of 1851. Soon after I called, as an inducement that I should stay with him, and not at the hotel, he remarked pleasantly that they had "a little chamber on the wall, which was furnished with a bed, and a table, and a chair, and a candlestick, for the use of sojourning prophets." The religious services of the family interested me very much. They were so tender and impressive! Of course I occupied his pulpit on Sabbath. His closing prayer in the morning was a model of its kind. It may seem strange, but a portion of that prayer I still recollect. I could hardly forget a petition so earnestly offered up for "the beloved brother" who had ministered to them that day.
I have many pleasant personal recollections of Dr. Bryan, but I need to record them here. A concluding remark may, however, be made. His example is worth a great deal to the Church. A stranger, a young man partially without experience, he established himself in a great city, and by his own energy and influence brought hundreds into the fold of Christ, collected around him a large congregation, and made himself respected and beloved by all classes of persons, and especially by those who would have been considered his rivals in his work. I say, the example of such a man is a treasure to the Church. It shows us what can be effected by consecrated time and talents. Dr. Bryan labored for no selfish interest. He loved the Church, and labored for its interest. He selected his field, guided o doubt by the providence of God, and devoted himself to it. We have seen the result. Why should not scores of others imitate his example?
I must be indulged in a still farther remark. I have said that Dr. Bryan "loved the Church." He loved its primitive theology, primitive usages, and its old men. Every one acquainted with him knew how sensitive he was in regard to every thing affecting the character of any of these. I once saw him weep like a child, when he felt that the theological reputation of some of the fathers had been assailed. He felt that the character of the fathers, in all its aspects, together with the doctrines and usuages formed into a system by them, had been left to us as a sacred legacy.
Dr. Bryan died just at the commencement of our late national troubles. Before I had seen the announcement in the papers, a friend met me on the street and communicated the afflicting intelligence. In the course of our conversation, he remarked, in view of what seemed probably before us, that "it was a good time to die." Dr. Bryan's sympathies were largely extended over both sections of the country. To have witnessed the terrible struggle and sufferings which followed his death, would have been an inexpressible affliction, especially to him. His attachments were strong. Nothing but death could have broken them. A good and wise Providence, in regard perhaps to a tender spirit, removed him before these difficulties were fully developed. He was not allowed to see what he could not prevent, and what he could hardly have borne.
[Source: Beard, Richard, D.D. Brief Biographical Sketches of Some of the Early Ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Southern Methodist Publishing House, Nashville, Tenn.: Published for the Author, 1867, pages 292-306]