Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers
ROBERT REEDY BRYAN
(pages 77 - 80)
The present sketch is a tribute, not to a preacher, popularly so-called, but to a distinguished pioneer of higher education among East Tennessee Baptist – a man who, though never officially ordained to the ministry of the Word, was ever preaching whether in the professor's chair or out of it. He is the first main pillar and a large part of the enduring foundation of the temple of knowledge at Mossy Creek, which in the last seventy years has grown into Carson and Newman College, Jefferson City.
Professor Bryan was one of a family of fourteen children. He was born in Jefferson County April 11, 1822. His father was Thomas Bryan, of Irish descent. His grandfather, Peter Bryan, was a member of the Territorial Convention, which met at Knoxville, January 11, 1796, to draft the constitution and organize the State of Tennessee. Eleven counties were represented in the convention, each county being represented by five delegates - Peter Bryan being one of five to represent Sevier County.
In his fifteenth year he was converted under the ministry of Elder James Lankford and was baptized into the fellowship of the Dumplin Church.
At the age of 17 he began his career as a teacher, though afterwards attending Holston College at New Market, for two years, and later the High School at Straw Plains, one year - teaching and going to school by turns.
In his twenty-third year (about 1844 or 1845) he commenced teaching at Mossy Creek; teaching public schools, private schools, teaching in the old Baptist "brick" meetinghouse at Mossy Creek "Zinc Works," teaching for five years in any empty building that could be found - clearing the forest, preparing the soil, and sowing the seed of the future college. In 1849 he was one of a group of six who met in council to consider the vital question of denominational education, and project plans for an institution of learning and a suitable building. The men who constituted this honored group were Elders C. C. Tipton and Nelson Bowen, Prof. R. R. Bryan, and the three Newmans (William C., Isaac M., and Samuel I.), most of whom largely gave their lives and fortunes to the cause of Baptist education. Further conference, through C. C. Tipton, was had with Elders "William Billue, Ephraim Moore, Joseph Manning, Woodson Taylor, T. J. Lane, James Lacy, and Grant Taylor, also with Brethren James H. Carson, Coleman Witt, Joseph Hale, Dr. M. F. Helm, and others" - the result of the conference being the organization of "The Baptist Educational Society of East Tennessee." The society proceeded at once to elect a board of trustees; also a building committee was appointed and agents were sent out to raise money. The school having been provided for and "chartered" (1851) as the "Mossy Creek Missionary Baptist Seminary," the first session was opened up in the old Baptist meeting-house hard by the "Zinc Works," with William Rogers, president, and R. R. Bryan, professor. The untimely death of President Rogers threw the whole burden of the college management and work upon Professor Bryan. In September of 1852 the school went into its first new building. In 1853 Samuel Anderson was elected president; in 1857 Matthew Hillsman; in 1859 N. B. Goforth. To these several presidents Professor Bryan was "secretary of state," so to speak, always loyal and in harmony with the administration, always faithful to the interests of the college, and wielding by his magnetic personality a widespread and potent influence for good, not only in the school but in the community at large.
Not unfrequently Professor Bryan had to teach the entire curriculum. This he could do successfully. But when a choice was open to him his greatest delight was in teaching some branch of natural science.
The secret of his success as a teacher, I suppose, was his personality; he was a born teacher. He was friendly, enthusiastic, magnetic. He was not prepossessing or commanding in his appearance by any means - but he was a live wire and shot electric currents through thick skins and drowsy brains, waking up the dormant powers of the mind. One of his most marked characteristics was his patience - a cardinal virtue anywhere but absolutely indispensable in a teacher who, like Professor Bryan, had to deal with young men fresh from the farm, unlettered and undisciplined and, for the most part, from uncultured homes in backward communities.
Another marked characteristic of Professor Bryan was his courageous and persistent devotion to the cause of Baptist education. In 1862 the college was broken up by the ravages of war and the building occupied by Federal soldiers. But in 1866 Professor Bryan girded himself and went to work to rebuild the broken fortunes of his beloved institution - being re-enforced in 1868 by Dr. Jesse Baker.
There is a limit to physical endurance. The over-strenuous life of trying to do two or three men's work was too much of a strain on a body that was never strong, and it was only matter of time when, in spite of a regal will, Professor Bryan's health would utterly break down and he would be forced to give up his school-work, which was the joy of his life. Retiring from active work in the school-room but still battling against disease, he lived to see the college to which he bad given his life well on its feet, and passed to his rest June 26, 1878.
Dr. Goforth, one of his colleagues, said of him: "Prof. R. R. Bryan has many and lasting monuments, not of marble or brass, but more enduring - monuments of immortal minds, molded by personal contact of teacher and pupils in the schoolroom."
Dr. Baker, also a colleague and life-long friend, bore this testimony: "Professor Bryan filled his professorship in the college to the entire satisfaction of the board and of all the patrons of the school. He had a sharp, incisive mind, strong will power, was courteous and affable in his manners, and soon won the hearts of all the young men in the institution. No professor ever connected with Carson College was more universally admired and loved by his students."
Omitting other similar testimonials, I add this note of interest to the family: Professor Bryan was married to Rebecca A. Lankford, a daughter of Elder Jas. Lankford, September 5, 1850, President Rogers officiating at the marriage. The union was crowned with the blessing of eleven children. Some of them, like the father, are born teachers - notably Prof. W. S. Bryan, now of Oklahoma, who is not only a gifted and successful teacher but a useful minister of the gospel.
Burnett, J .J. Sketches of Tennessee's Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919.
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