A tribute to a beloved, influential and prolific pastor.
The son of a clergyman, Bryant Mays Kirkland was born in Essex, Connecticut, on May 2, 1914. Ordained in 1938, he would go on to pastor Presbyterian congregations in Willow Grove and Narberth, Pennsylvania; Haddonfield, New Jersey; and Tulsa, Oklahoma, before he was called to the pulpit of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1962.
During a 25-year tenure at FAPC, he authored several books on pastoral care and faith, including Growing in Christian Faith (1963), Home Before Dark (1965), Living in a Zigzag Age (1972) and Experiencing God in Unexpected Ways (1978). He published a collection of sermons, A Pattern for Faith, in 1982.
During World War II, Kirkland was a civilian chaplain at Camp Blanding, Florida. After the war, he led preaching missions in India, the Azores, Scotland and many parts of the United States, and was a guest lecturer at the U.S. Army Chaplain School. Beginning in 1952, he served for more than 30 years as a visiting lecturer in homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary. (One of his students, Thomas Tewell, later succeeded him as senior pastor at FAPC.)
At FAPC Kirkland oversaw an extensive renovation of the church facilities in the early 1960s, including the design and construction of the Narthex and the glass-fronted entrance that opened up the church to the avenue outside.
At Kirkland's invitation, Duke Ellington and his orchestra recorded their famous Concert of Sacred Music in the FAPC Sanctuary on Dec. 26, 1965. The piece was the first of three sacred concerts Ellington would write between 1965 and 1973, work he later called "the most important thing I have ever done." Jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, a friend of Kirkland's, also performed several concerts in the Sanctuary during the 1960s and 70s.
At Kirkland's direction, the Session undertook a response to the city's growing homelessness crisis, including the opening of a men's shelter in Jones Auditorium in 1986. Now the David B. Skinner Shelter, the 12-bed, volunteer-run shelter operates 365 nights a year on the lower level of the church house.
Kirkland presided at his last worship service at FAPC on Feb. 15, 1987, nearly 25 years to the day after his installation as senior pastor on Feb. 18, 1962.
Kirkland served as president of the American Bible Society, president of the board of trustees at Princeton Theological Seminary and as a trustee of the John Templeton Foundation in Radnor, Pennsylvania. He was also interim minister at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, and at congregations in Moorestown, New Jersey, and Malvern, Pennsylvania. He held a bachelor of arts degree from Wheaton College, a bachelor of theology from Princeton, a master of arts from Eastern Baptist Seminary, doctor of divinity degrees from Beaver College and Lafayette College, and an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Tulsa.
Kirkland died on Easter Sunday, April 23, 2000, in Virginia. His first wife of 55 years, Bernice Tanis Kirkland, died in 1996. His second wife, Lola Mae Shiflet Kirkland, died in Virginia in June 2017. At his death Kirkland was survived by three daughters—Nancy Thompson of Corona del Mar, California, Elinor McFerren of Chicago and Virginia Stuart of San Francisco—six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Memories of Bryant Kirkland, from three who knew him well.
John Howard Sanden was a longtime member of FAPC, now living in Connecticut. He painted the portrait of Dr. Kirkland that hangs in Bonnell Hall.
My first wife Priscilla and I joined FAPC in 1970. On a beautiful Fathers’ Day morning in June 1973, we were seated in our customary front row seats for the 11 o'clock service. Our daughter, Pam, then just seven months old, was asleep upstairs in the nursery. As we stood to sing the first hymn, Priscilla, then 32 years old and in excellent health, complained of "a terrific headache." My brilliant suggestion was that she go into the chapel and lie down in one of the pews until she felt better. Apparently, she changed her mind, and went out the 55th Street door.
Moments later, usher Charles Dougherty made his way to the pulpit and whispered in Dr. Kenneth Jones’ ear. Dr. Jones looked at me, motioning me to join him. Out on the sidewalk, Priscilla was lying motionless, attended by state troopers waiting for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who was working in his office across the street. Priscilla had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, which had left her with no life signs except a beating heart.
Dr. Kirkland rushed to the hospital as soon as he could following the worship service. Priscilla lingered for three days while the family consulted with the physicians. Dr. Kirkland had a small table set up in the hallway outside her door, where he stayed through long hours, working and making telephone calls.
When at last the doctors told us that it was hopeless, Dr. Kirkland held me strongly by the hand as he and I went in to witness the disconnection from the life-support apparatus. Dr. Kirkland assured me that Priscilla was "present with the Lord" and he said a beautiful prayer.
Pam, who was upstairs in the nursery that day in 1973, is now 41 years old. Elizabeth and I were married in December 1973 by Dr. Kirkland, and Pam had a new mother.
Jeanne Pape has been a member of FAPC since 1979, but knew the senior pastor for many years before then. Her mother, Grace MacDowell Schneider, was a longtime research assistant to Dr. Kirkland.
I didn't know Dr. Kirkland very well for the first few years of his ministry. After all, he was Mom's boss and was always "Dr. Kirkland" to me. One day that all changed.
In the early 1970s both of my parents were hospitalized. Mom came home to our house on Long Island first, and I took a few days off from work to care for her. On her second day home, the weather was dreadful. It rained so hard that we joked about calling Noah. Early afternoon the front doorbell rang, and when I opened the door, there was this guy looking very much like a vagrant, so wet and unkempt-looking with a hat slouched over his face that I carefully (and I thought quietly) locked the front screen door, only to be greeted by "Jeanne! It's Bryant! Let me in!"
It was in that moment that this dear man, this internationally acclaimed minister, became a friend. Imagine driving 35 miles through that downpour to visit a member of his staff, a member of his flock! With all of his responsibilities!
I was not a member of FAPC, was still on a spiritual journey wandering through the wilderness, and it took another five years for me to join. But joining that April day 35 years ago felt like coming home to family.
John Crane and his wife, Gail, have been members of FAPC for more than 50 years. Dr. Kirkland married the couple in what is now the Kirkland Chapel on April 25, 1964.
There are many stories that I can tell about Dr. Kirkland. One of my favorites is that every morning on the bus ride from home to the church, he would have five index cards containing the names and backgrounds of five church members. During the bus ride, he would think about them and pray for them. As a result, he knew the congregation so well that during a church lunch or dinner, he could introduce everyone by name and then mention something about his or her background -- all from memory.
Throughout his long ministry here, he went every Monday to Princeton Seminary to teach a class on preaching. He always told his students that they shouldn't forget to prepare a title that would motivate people to come to church. One Sunday, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were staying at the St. Regis Hotel across the street when they saw that Dr. Kirkland's sermon title: "J.C., won't you smile at me?" So they came to church, introduced themselves to Dr. Kirkland, and discussed the sermon over lunch.
Dr. Kirkland also had a keen interest in science and technology and weaved that interest into his sermons. When the personal computer was first introduced, he immediately wanted get one to see what it could do. Late in his ministry, he learned to fly solo for relaxation and to be closer to God.
Perhaps the line that Bryant Kirkland is best known for at FAPC is this one: "You can't go it alone in New York."
It was a theme he returned to repeatedly. At least three of his sermons in the FAPC Archives are titled "You Can't Go It Alone."
"One of the most dynamic principles of life is that we must maintain our vital relationships to God, each other, to benefit for ourselves," he said. "We are being raised in a society that says 'Look out for number one' and the cheap end of man is the bottom line. All of nature is based on vital relationships. Jesus punched that metaphor home shortly before was crucified and risen from the dead. 'Except the branch abide in the vine it cannot bring forth much fruit.' No human being can go it alone. We find our meaningfulness in other people. We bring meaningfulness to other people! Except the branch abide in the vine it withers and cannot bear much fruit."
Words on a screen hardly convey Kirkland's passion for his message. Far better to hear him deliver it. "You Can't Go It Alone," a sermon from April 13, 1984, is now posted on our Sermons page. Listen to it here.
An archive of Kirkland's sermons (including print and audio files) is available online from Princeton Theological Seminary. The Kirkland Collection includes digitized recordings of Through the Bible in One Year, a series of lectures delivered at FAPC and originally produced in 1980.
The handsome portrait of Bryant Kirkland that hangs in Bonnell Hall (and appears on our home page) was painted in 1980 by John Howard Sanden.
Sanden—a renowned painter, longtime member of FAPC and close friend of Kirkland—recalls that the senior pastor was a reluctant subject: "Dr. Kirkland, known to everyone as extraordinarily punctual and precise in every detail of his schedule, managed to come notably late to his portrait sittings. But come he did, and we had some great discussions."
Sanden set up a makeshift studio on the stage of Jones Auditorium. He brought in a large studio lamp to compensate for the weak northern light filtering in from the windows.
Sanden later did another portrait of Kirkland on behalf of the American Bible Society in New York, where Kirkland has served as president and chief executive officer. Kirkland later reflected that "The painting of a portrait can be a spiritual experience both for the painter and the subject, because an adequate reproduction of a human personality involves discernment of the light shining within."
In an introduction to a published collection of Sanden's portraits, Kirkland wrote:
Part of the illumination also shines out of the inner perception and intuition of the painter. It takes a clear eye to interpret the meanings of the lights and shadows playing across the features of the model. The history of a person's inner battles is hinted in the gentle creases and furrows around the eyes and across the brows, and even more deeply graven in the secrets of the heart. Perception, not just pigments, creates a memorable portrait.
Sanden also painted the portrait of FAPC's longest-serving associate, Dr. Kenneth O. Jones, that now hangs in the auditorium that bears his name, and where the Kirkland portrait was executed. A third work by Sanden, Portrait of Christ, graces the west wall of Kirkland Chapel.