Thursday, October 03, 2019

The “Unsung Hero” of Old North Baptist Church

Elder James L. Bryant: The “Unsung Hero” of Old North Baptist Church

To Elders Isaac Reed and Robert G. Green go the credit for organizing the Union Baptist Church (now called Old North Baptist Church) four miles of north of Nacogdoches, Texas on May 6, 1838. To Elder James L. Bryant goes the, the, well…inattention? That may not be so much the fault of historians as it is the lack of information about James L. Bryant. All we know of him fits in a five-year window, mostly from the minutes of the Union Baptist Church. So, what do we know about Elder Bryant? From whence came he?[i] Where did he go? Where was he born, and when did he die? We may not be able to answer these questions satisfactorily, but perhaps we can mine and discover small bits of gold.

J. L. Bryant is probably the same Elder James L. Bryant of the Mt. Zion Association of Separate Baptists in Tennessee and Alabama. The Baptist, a periodical edited by Matthew Lyon of Nashville, Tennessee, on January 16, 1837 carried a report of four associations. One of these was “Mount Zion, a new association formed of part of Duck River.” The new body was formed at Pond-Spring in Coffee County, Tennessee in September of 1836. They planned the next association meeting for September 1837 at Friendship Church in Jackson County, Alabama, and “Elder James L. Bryant is appointed to preach the introductory sermon.”[ii] The Duck River and Mount Zion Associations were Separate Baptist – the kind of Baptists as Daniel Parker identified “Mr. Bryant” and the Union Church in Nacogdoches County.[iii] Elder Bryant could have possibly even kept his appointment to preach at Friendship and still arrived in Texas to teach school, as S. F. Sparks said, prior to the death of his father Richard Sparks.[iv]

J. L. Bryant was possibly the first pastor of Union Church, though that position is traditionally ascribed to Isaac Reed.[v] The compilation of the First Book of Church Minutes 1838-1872 gives Isaac Reed as pastor from 1838 to 1847 (page iv). This conclusion seems to originally come from that given by A. J. Holt in A Brief History of Union Baptist Church (Old North Church). Isaac Reed’s name does not appear again in the Union minutes after the first entry (First Sabbath in May 1838, p. 1) until February 1840.[vi] On the other hand, the name of James or J. L. Bryant appears July 1838, August 1838, September 1838, January 1840, February 1840, March 1840, April 1840, May 1840, June 1840, July 1840, August 1840, October 1840, January 1841, February 1841, April 1841, May 1841, and June 1841 – every recorded conference minute from July 1838 through June 1841, except December 1839.[vii] In July of 1838, “James L. Bryant commemorated the Lord’s supper on sabbath.” According to S. F. Sparks, Elder Bryant also baptized the first candidates – some 20 in all.[viii] These facts suggest he may have been the pastor rather than Isaac Reed.

J. L. Bryant is the preacher “called out” by Elder Daniel Parker. In two different publications – one private and one public – Bryant incurred the wrath of Daniel Parker. In church conference Saturday May 11, 1839, the Union Church prepared and approved a letter to her sister Hopewell Church in Nacogdoches County, warning against “some who trouble you” and might “bring you into disorder.” These some are “Elder Bryant together with the members composing what is called a church, in Sparkes.s Settlement north of Nacogdoches.” The manner of address suggests that “Elder Bryant” is the shepherd of the congregation in the Sparks Settlement (Union Church), and shows that Parker identifies these people as “Seperate Baptist.” When the Union Association, with which Parker and his Pilgrim Church identified, convened in October 1844, the circular included “the disorder of the Union Baptist church of Nacogdoches county, which church holds a number of members who were baptized by a Mr. Bryant, a man who had no ordained or legal authority to administer the ordinances of the gospel.”

In the private letter to Hopewell Church (see Appendix A), Parker lays out three charges against the Union Church. First, the church was constituted by an unauthorized Presbytery. Second, the reception of Elder Bryant was not done in good order.[ix] Third, Elder Bryant administered the ordinances without being restored “to the ministerial function in a gospel or legal way.”[x] The three charges leave the reader wishing for more. Likely they were “unauthorized” because they were separate and distinct from Parker’s orbit, and James L. Bryant was not considered a legal administrator of the ordinances because he was set apart by the Separate Baptists rather than the Regular Baptists. This is all supposition, but it is clear that other Baptists within the state made no such quarantine of James L. Bryant and the Union Church.

J. L. Bryant is possibly the founder and first preacher at the Mount Zion Church in Douglass.[xi] On April 4, 1840 the Union Church book records, “Elder J. L. Bryant presented a petition from Sunday members of the baptist church living near Douglas, praying the church to grant them an arm until circumstances would admit them a constitution which was granted to them, and a delegation of five members was appointed to attend a meeting near Douglas on Saturday before the fourth Lords day in April, consisting of Wm. Sparks, Ambrose Crain, Elijah Anderson, Henry M. Smith and B. F. Whitaker.”[xii] A year later (April 3, 1841), we find in the church minutes that “A letter was read from an arm of this church in the neighborhood of Douglas, praying this church grant them a constitution, granted.” Further, “On motion bro. Bryant was furnished with credentials.”[xiii] It would not make sense that the church previously considered Bryant an elder if he had never been ordained. Rather it is likely that Bryant was the prime mover of founding the church in Douglass, and that the credentials were given because he was leaving Union to supply the church in Douglass[xiv] – the very area where his imposition had infuriated Daniel Parker.

In addition to being a preacher, James L. Bryant was a teacher at Liberty School House. S. F. Sparks wrote, “Previous to this [his father’s death in April 1838, rlv], a Baptist preacher, whose name was J. T. (sic) Bryant, had come to Texas, and was teaching a little school where the old Union Church now stands. Occasionally he preached at private house.” He was in the midst of teaching school when Mrs. B. F. Whitaker asked S. F. Sparks “to go to the schoolhouse and tell Mr. Bryant to dismiss school early, and to send word to the people to come to her house to preaching. She wanted them to come without fail to preach at her house that night…Well, the preacher came, and all that got word were there, and when Whitaker got in sight of his house, and saw so many people there, he was afraid the Indians had killed his family. The preacher had not got more than half through his sermon, when my wife walked up and asked for prayers. I knelt by her. He said he had preached long enough, and if there were any others in the house that desired prayer to come forward. There were some six or eight who came.” (See Appendix B.)

Sibel Bryant joined Union Church by experience in May 1836. Her relation to James L. Bryant is unknown. J. M. Carroll supposed she might be J. L. Bryant’s wife, and he may be correct.[xv] J. L. Bryant’s name is never copied in the list of male members of the Union Church (though this could be a simple editorial mistake). In a list of female members of Union Church, beside Sibel Bryant’s name is the word “dismissed.”[xvi]

On October 25, 1839, a James L. Bryant married Mrs. Elizabeth Costley in Nacogdoches County, Texas. This apparently is Elizabeth Reed, widow of Michael Costley, founder of Douglass, Texas. If Sibel in the Union minutes was J. L.’s wife, and if the 1939 marriage record of James L. Bryant to Elizabeth Costley is the same J. L. Bryant, Sibel must have died before or in 1839. On December 12, 1842 an Elizabeth Bryant married Wiley Davis. If this is the same Elizabeth Bryant, then James L. Bryant may have died before December 1842. This is consonant with his absence from records about that time.

James L. Bryant is mentioned in Union Church records beginning in 1838 (See Appendix C), but is not mentioned after June 1841 (unless the reference to elder “Blone” in November is a poor transcription for Bryant). Isaac Reed is called to the church in February 1842. He served was administrator on the estate of Henry A. Johnson in 1838-39.[xvii] With the widow Elizabeth Sparks, James L. Bryant was named an executors of the estate of Richard Sparks. He performed weddings in Nacogdoches from (at least) June 1838 to January 1841.[xviii] (See Appendix D.) On the other hand, Bryant is never mentioned in the minutes of the Sabine Baptist Association, which began in 1843.

Proposed possible timeline for Elder James L. Bryant (including a number of “leaps of faith”)
  • 1836 In southern middle Tennessee or north Alabama, a member of the Mt. Zion Association of Separate Baptists
  • 1838 In Nacogdoches teaching school at Liberty School House
  • 1838-1841 Pastor of Union; performs marriages and civic duties
  • 1839 Wife Sibel dies
  • 1839 Marries Mrs. Elizabeth Costley
  • 1841-1842 James L. Bryant dies
  • 1842 Elizabeth Bryant marries Wiley Davis
Perhaps James L. Bryant left the Nacogdoches area, never to be heard from again. The preponderance of the evidence, to me, at the least hints that James L. Bryant died in Nacogdoches County between June (or November) of 1841 and December of 1842. We may never know what happened to him. God knows. And keeps a record.

[i] I found three men named James Bryant in the 1830 census in the general vicinity of the Mount Zion Association of Separate Baptists – two in Lincoln County and one in Marion County. One of the two in Lincoln County seems to be in Lincoln in 1840 and Franklin in 1850, so he can probably be discounted. “Our” James L. Bryant might be one of the other two. This assumes, of course, that he was already in that area by 1830 – which we actually do not know for sure.
[ii] The Baptist, Monday, January 16, 1837, pp. 3-4.
[iii] The Baptist (Sunday, May 1, 1836, p. 4) prints the 13 articles of faith of the Duck River Association of Separate Baptists. The 4th article states, “We believe that Jesus Christ, by the grace of God, tasted death for every man, and through his meritorious death, the way of salvation is made possible, for God to have mercy upon all that come unto him on gospel terms.” This was a serious deviation for Parker, and even some of the United Baptists in Tennessee (who desired to reunite with the Separates) thought the fourth article owned “a want of perspicuity” and “is not so definite as might be desired.” (The Baptist, Sunday, May 1, 1836, p. 3).
[iv] “Recollections of S. F. Sparks,” July 1, 1908, The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, p. 76.
[v] At least one other reader interpreted Parker’s words and actions to mean Bryant was the pastor of Union. “Sometime later, Hopewell Baptist church had some trouble with Union Baptist Church pastored by Elder Bryant of the Separate Baptist order.” – Authorized Church Constitution Versus Direct Authority, Mark W. Fenison, 2013, p. 146.
[vi] To be fair, there are several conferences either not held or not recorded between May 1838 and February 1840. However, of those in the record – June 1838, July 1838, August 1838, September 1838, December 1839, January 1840 – the name of Isaac Reed is not mentioned. The minutes only specifically state he was chosen as pastor in February 1842. No specific mention of choosing as pastor is noticed again until December 1844, when David Lewis was chosen. However, the 1844 minutes of the Sabine Baptist Association lists Lemuel Herrin as pastor, suggesting he might have been chosen in the previous year (1843).
[vii] J. M. Carroll writes, “Concerning Elder Bryant, we could learn very little. He seems to have become a member, soon after its organization, of Union (Old North) Church and to have assisted Pastor Reed in some of the official work of that church. The only definite record we find of him is in the minutes of Parker’s Pilgrim Church.”  (A History of Texas Baptists, p.113) Apparently Carroll means a definite record other than the minutes of the Union Baptist Church.
[viii] “Recollections of S. F. Sparks,” July 1, 1908, The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, pp. 77-78.
[ix] I found no note of James L. Bryant uniting with the Union Church, though Parker’s words suggests he did. Sibel Bryant joined Union Church by experience in May 1836. J. M. Carroll writes “In the records of Union Church—1838—almost immediately after its organization, we find the names of J. L. Bryant and Sister Sybil Bryant. They were received by letter. We surmise that these were the preacher and his wife, but the records do not so state.” (A History of Texas Baptists, p. 114). It is unclear why Carroll thought they were received by letter. Apparently, he did not get this from A. J. Holt. Holt used the spelling “Sybil” – whereas the transcription to which I have access has “Sibel” – he, nevertheless, clearly says she was received by experience, which the transcription also says.
[x] In the 1844 minutes of the Pilgrim Predestinarian Church, there is discussion of “Restoring Bro. Hanks to his ministerial Function.” Thomas Hanks was an early preacher in Texas. He was a member of Union in Nacogdoches County for a time. It would seem that the restoration is some kind of recognition of coming out of perceived disorder to the true faith and order of the church (in this case Daniel Parker’s church).
[xi] Though the name of this church is not given in the Union Church minutes, Mount Zion was organized in this area before 1843. We know that because it went into the constitution of the Sabine Baptist Association.
[xii] First Book of Church Minutes, 1838-1872, Old North Baptist Church, p. 13.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 15.
[xiv] This would suggest that Bryant was a member of the Union Church. In addition, Parker’s letter to the Hopewell Church speaks of “The Reception of Elder Bryant” – though Parker thought it was “not done in good order.” If Parker’s information on Bryant and Union is correct, it would mean either they received him as a member, or as an ordained elder, or both.
[xv] Nacogdoches County marriage records on
[xvi] First Book of Church Minutes, 1838-1872, Old North Baptist Church, p. 5.
[xvii] Telegraph and Texas Register (Houston, Tex.), Saturday, December 29, 1838, p. 4.
[xviii] Early Nacogdoches, Texas, Marriages - Book A.

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