Baltimore Sun’s 2023 Business and Civic Hall of Fame honoree: John Richard Bryant

A Baltimore native, the retired Rev. Dr. John Richard Bryant has pastored multiple churches, including the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, which he nurtured into a thriving hub of community service. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

The Rev. Dr. John Richard Bryant long ago established himself as a towering figure in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

He turned historic Bethel AME Church in Baltimore into a hub of community service in the 1970s and ‘80s, multiplying its membership by more than a factor of 10. As a bishop of the denomination, he presided over pastors and churches, and set policy across 18 states, nine countries and three Canadian provinces. He brought the AME Church into India and along with his wife did the same with the Ivory Coast.


The man some have called “the pope of the AME Church” says that if there’s one factor that accounts for the scope of his ministry, it’s that he has never strayed from one of the simplest, most powerful ideas his master ever uttered.

“‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor,’” the 80-year-old says in his mellifluous preacher’s voice, quoting a line Jesus delivers in the Gospel of Luke. “If I didn’t believe that and put it into practice, none of what has happened in my life would have taken place.”


He was set on the ministerial path early. His father was also a pastor at Bethel who would become an AME bishop. Bryant was just 10 when he had a dream in which he saw himself, too, mesmerizing the faithful from the pulpit.

Years later, before he headed off to seminary at Boston University, his own minister told him that if he tried to tell his new schoolmates he had been anointed by God to preach, they’d laugh. He ignored the advice, the laughter did come, and “the more they laughed, the more I prayed,” he recalls, until a few students quietly stopped by later to join him.

Bryant’s faith kept inspiring. As a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, he says, he saw Black people holding many positions of authority, and learned the history and culture of his people for the first time. He drew on those impressions in the early 1970s as he deployed “liberation theology” to help grow two Massachusetts churches he called “unapologetically and unashamedly Black.”

By the time he returned to Baltimore as pastor of Bethel AME in 1975, Bryant was both change agent and rising star. His Pentecostal-style preaching, message of self-empowerment and outreach into the wider community boosted membership at the church from about 600 people to more than 10,000 over 13 years. It also gave birth to services ranging from food and housing co-ops to a job program, an elementary school and a thriving women’s center.

He found time to minister to countless parishioners, including former Baltimorean Oprah Winfrey and the city’s future mayor, Sheila Dixon, as well as to guide about 100 men and women into the ministry. That list includes such future AME stalwarts as the Rev. Dr. Vashti McKenzie, who in 2000 became the first female bishop in denomination history.

“I always tell people that he has the intellect of a W.E.B. DuBois, the toughness of a Thurgood Marshall, and the eloquence of a Martin Luther King Jr.,” says Ronald Flamer, a longtime friend of Bryant’s.

His local success “did not deter him from having a global vision,” though, says Bryant’s wife of 53 years, the Rev. Dr. Cecelia (”Rev. C”) Williams-Bryant. Consecrated as the church’s 106th bishop in 1988, he oversaw four of its worldwide Episcopal districts over 28 years, guiding the work of pastors and flocks in thousands of churches in the American South, West and Midwest as well as in the eastern half of Canada.

During that time, Bryant says, he’s proudest of having encouraged the church to focus on youth and elderly engagement, evangelism, church growth and a strategy of expanding its reach worldwide.


As bishop of the 14th district, which covers West Africa, he helped plant its flag in the Ivory Coast for the first time, and eventually expanded the church into India.

He was helping the World Methodist Evangelism organization train local ministers in the South Asian country when a colleague invited him to give them a lecture on the AME church and its values.

He was astounded by the interest it generated, especially among the Dalit, or “untouchable” caste, a group Bryant says identified with the disempowerment African Americans have long felt in this country.

“About 20 little churches” joined the denomination, a number that soon jumped to 150. The country is now home to about 200 AME congregations.

The Bryants today are often called on to teach and visit churches, and they speak often of their two grown children, Jamal Bryant, now the pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia, and Thema Bryant-Davis, a California professor who was recently named president of the American Psychological Association.

Bryant says he’s proudest of having helped grow churches and broaden the faith during his more than half-century of ministry. His partner, Rev. C, expanded on that idea.


“His legacy would be the power of the Holy Spirit, the role of faith, in the uplift of people and the healing of the nations,” she says.

The Rev. Dr. John Richard Bryant

Age: 80

Hometown: Baltimore

Current residence: Baltimore

Education: City College High School, Morgan State University, Boston University School of Theology, Colgate Rochester Divinity School


Career highlights: Peace Corps volunteer, Liberia; Pastor of Bethel AME Church (Fall River, Massachusetts), St. Paul AME Church (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Bethel AME Church (Baltimore); 106th Bishop of American Methodist Episcopal Church; Senior Bishop, AME Church; chairman of the board, Paul Quinn College, Dallas; author, “God Can: Sermons of Encouragement,” and co-author (with Cecelia Williams-Bryant), of “Healing the Wounded Vow: An Encouragement for Clergy Marriage”

Civic and charitable activities: Creator of food co-ops, housing co-ops, food banks, women’s centers, job training programs, school-supply programs, men’s fellowships, church globalization initiatives, and programs for youth, families and the elderly

Family: Married to the Rev. Dr. Cecelia Williams-Bryant; two children, seven grandchildren