Bryant, John R. 1943–
John R. Bryant 1943–
Minister, church leader
Bishop John R. Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church has earned a reputation as one of black America’s most charismatic and committed religious leaders. A fiery preacher well schooled in the cadences of African-American religious oratory, Bryant used the pulpit to further his commitment to social reform and for his belief in bringing the resources of churches to bear directly on the problems of the less fortunate. As Bishop of the AME Church’s Fifth Episcopal District, Bryant presided over churches in 14 Western states.
Bryant was born on June 8, 1943, in Baltimore, Maryland, and attended Baltimore City College High School. He was the son of the Rev. Harrison J. Bryant, pastor of Baltimore’s Bethel AME Church, an institution with roots stretching back to 1785. The elder Rev. Bryant was an early participant in the civil rights struggle in Baltimore and was arrested at age 85 during an anti-apartheid demonstration at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. When John Bryant became interested in radical movements as a student at Morgan State University in the 1960s, his father was dismayed. But the son reminded the father of his own activist past, and the two soon began to participate together in sit-ins.
After graduating from Morgan State in 1965, Bryant joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Liberia in West Africa. That stint marked the beginning of a long involvement with Africa on Bryant’s part, but after his term in the Corps ended he returned to the United States and enrolled at the Boston University School of Theology. He received a Master’s degree there in 1970 and went on for a doctorate at the Colgate Rochester Divinity School.
Bryant served as pastor at churches in Fall River and Cambridge, Massachusetts outside Boston. After receiving his doctoral degree, he returned home to Baltimore and assumed the leadership of Bethel AME Church in 1975, where his father’s pastorship had ended only 11 years earlier. At 31, Bryant was the youngest pastor in Bethel’s history, and the church’s congregation got a taste of what he was capable of
At a Glance…
Born on June 8, 1943, in Baltimore, MD; son of Harrison Bryant, a preacher at Bethel AME Church, and Edith Bryant; married Cecelia Williams; children; jamal, Thema. Education: Morgan State College (now University), BA, 1965; Boston University School of Theology, MTh, 1970; Colgate Rochester Divinity School, DMin, 1975.
Career: U.S. Peace Corps, 1965-67; AME churches in Fall River, MA, and Cambridge, MA, and Bethel AME Church, Baltimore, MD, pastor, 1975-87; AME Church 14th District, West Africa, bishop, 1988-; AME Church 10th District, Texas and Southwest (while retaining 14th District assignment), 1991; published book, God Can, 1998; named Bishop of AME Church Fifth District, becoming spiritual leader of ca. 200,000 church members in 14 Western states, 2000.
Selected memberships: National Committee of Black Churchmen (board member); National Council of Churches; Black Ecumenical Commission; World Methodist Council on Evangelism.
Selected awards: Boston University School of Theology, Outstanding Alumnus Award; Morgan State University, Outstanding Alumnus Award; Paul Quinn College, honorary doctorate; Payne Theological Seminary, honorary doctorate; Virginia Seminary, honorary doctorate.
when he increased the church’s membership from 600 to 1,600 in two years and to over 3,500 by 1979.
Bryant shook things up at Bethel, turning a traditional Labor Day celebration in 1979 into an event designed to help those without jobs. “I refused to celebrate labor on Labor Day when 14 percent of Baltimore’s black populations are unemployed,” Bryant told the Washington Post. “It’s sadistic.” Instead, Bryant corralled local employers into showing up at the service with donations of clothing and canned goods—and job offers. After 250 openings were registered with the church, volunteers began matching employers with the skills of those who had attended the service.
In 1988, Bryant was named Bishop of the AME Church at its General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. He was assigned to the church’s 14th Episcopal District, which covered 101 churches in several West African countries. Bryant, now known as Bishop John, was accompanied to Africa by his wife, Reverend Dr. Cecelia Williams Bryant, or Rev. Dr. C, who founded a new branch of the AME church in Ivory Coast and became the first woman to sit on the Chieftancy Stool of a tribal group in Tiara, Sierra Leone. The couple raised two children, who in time earned the distinctions of Rev. Dr. Jamal Harrison Bryant and Dr. Thema Simone Bryant. They have one granddaughter. The trip to Africa was nothing new for the Bryant children, who had spent one Christmas in Haiti in the mid-1980s with their mother. “Our children came back with a greater sense of how blessed they were, and a deeper understanding of the global reality—that there are people in the world who aren’t thinking about rooms full of gifts,” Bryant wrote in the December 2003 issue of Ebony.
The church’s 10th District, headquartered in Texas and comprised of over 250 churches, was added to Bryant’s responsibilities in 1991. He replaced a former bishop who was fighting charges of crack cocaine abuse. Bryant, Texas churchgoer Max Edison told the Houston Chronicle, “relates theology to the sociology of African-Americans, a trait which I feel is lacking in too many of our ministers. Relating them is a basic premise that the AME Church is based on.”
Indeed, Bryant himself told a Houston crowd that “the AME church [in its infancy] was a self-help movement. When we [blacks] were excluded from everything, we concluded that we could do anything by the grace of God. Even African liberation efforts could look at the independent black church movement as evidence that black people could govern, could organize, could implement.” Bryant argued that “there is a malaise present in the black community, and it’s growing…. We feel so much rage, so much despair, so much hopelessness, all we know how to do is to wipe each other out.” Though it was necessary for blacks to demand justice from American society, Bryant warned against the tendency to “put all of our eggs in one basket, such as expecting court decisions to solve our problems.”
Bryant’s work in Africa inspired South African-born AME minister and former anti-apartheid activist Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo to write The Preaching of Bishop John R. Bryant. Bryant himself published a collection of his own sermons, God Can, in 1997. In 2000, Bryant was named Bishop of the AME’s Fifth District, making him the spiritual leader of over 200,000 church members.
Bryant’s preaching lost none of its fire as he rose toward the top of the AME hierarchy. At a Martin Luther King, Jr., Day observance in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2001, he delivered a speech with what the Omaha World Herald called “a chandelier-rattling ending.” “Let history record that in the last half of the 20th century, there rose a man who shook the earth [King]…,” Bryant thundered. “Calling all comfortable, satisfied earth-shakers. The votes of the disallowed and thousands went uncounted. Calling all earth-shakers! There are more black boys in jails in the criminal-justice system in America than there are in college. Calling all earth-shakers! You dare hold your peace? You dare compromise? You dare settle for less than liberation and justice? Calling all earth-shakers.” A student newspaper at Washington’s Howard University described a Bryant sermon in similar terms in 2004, by which time it had become clear that the roster of great preachers in the modern black church had grown to include the one with roots in one of America’s oldest black congregations.
Ebony, December 2003, p. 174.
Hilltop (Howard University, Washington, DC), March 30, 2004.
Houston Chronicle, October 12, 1991, p. Religion-1.
Omaha World-Herald, January 16, 2001, p. 9.
Washington Post, September 4, 1979, p. CI; January 19, 1991, p. C14.
“Bethel History,” Bethel AME Church, www.bethel1.org/history.htm (April 28, 2004).
“Reverend Dr. Cecelia Williams Bryant, Episcopal Supervisor,” AME Church, www.ame-church.org/RevC.html (April 28, 2004).
“The Right Reverend John Richard Bryant, Presiding Prelate,” AME Church, www.ame-church.org/BishopJohn.html (April 28, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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