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William Jennings Bryan

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William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan (Born::March 19, 1860Died::July 26, 1925) is best known to creationists for his prominent role on the prosecution team in the famous Scopes evolution trial of 1925. But Bryan was also a magnetic speaker and influential politician. In fact, he excelled in many areas. In 1890, at the age of 30, Bryan began a political career that within six years saw him win the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States. He was the youngest person ever nominated for the presidency. Although he never became President in his three attempts, Bryan raised the Democratic Party from Civil War losers to an influential party representing farmers, blue-collar workers, and religious and ethnic minorities.

Early years

William Jennings Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois, on Monday March 19, 1860 (he died on Sunday July 26, 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee—five days after the Scopes trial). His father, Silas Lillard Bryan, came from Point Pleasant in West Virginia and then Culpeper in Virginia. His mother was Mariah Elizabeth Jennings, whose family had moved to Illinois from Kentucky.

Bryan was an outstanding student at school. He graduated as the valedictorian and class orator from Illinois College in 1881. He married Mary Baird, his sweetheart from college, in his first year at the Union College of Law in Chicago. He practiced law in Jacksonville, Illinois, from 1883 till 1887, and then moved with his family to Nebraska. Bryan and his wife had three children—Ruthy, W.J., and Grace—between 1885 and 1991.

At an early age Bryan thought of becoming a Baptist preacher. In his adult life, he was a gifted orator, and President Theodore Roosevelt once said Bryan would have made "the greatest Baptist preacher on earth." But Bryan suffered from aquaphobia—a fear of drowning—which was so strong during his childhood that the Baptist pastor could not baptize him by immersion. He left the Baptist Church at the age of 14 and joined the Presbyterian Church, which did not require full immersion.

Presidential hopes

The nation rejected Bryan three times for the presidency, but in time adopted many of his reforms—on income tax, the right of women to vote, direct election of senators, newspaper ownership, and prohibition. When Woodrow Wilson became President in 1912, he selected Bryan as his secretary of state. Bryan had staunchly opposed war since serving with a Nebraska regiment in the Spanish-American War in 1898, and convinced 31 nations to agree to a year's cooling-off period during political disputes. On June 9, 1915, he resigned from Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic Government rather than support Wilson’s belligerence toward Germany over the sinking of the liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. However, he supported Wilson in the 1916 election, and this continued even after Wilson involved the U.S. in World War I the next year.

Bryan’s view of evolution

Bryan leaned toward a fundamentalist view of Scripture, although he faltered in some areas, such as thinking the days of creation may have been something other than 24-hour days. He saw little point in dividing politics from his Christian faith, and after World War I he grew increasingly alarmed at seeing modernists, with their weak beliefs in the Bible, gaining prominent positions in churches and on school boards. The real enemies of Christianity, Bryan said, were not atheists and agnostics, but those who "suck meaning out of every vital doctrine of the Christian Church."

Bryan had for some time argued that the theory of evolution was largely hokum posing a science, and when he read a book by psychology professor James H. Leuba, The Belief in God and Immortality, published in 1916, his concern intensified. Leuba revealed that research showed that college education eroded students’ religious faith. Bryan decided that evolutionary teaching was a serious cause of moral decay.

In 1920, Bryan said he felt that evolution was "the most paralyzing influence with which civilization has had to contend during the last century." In 1921, he attacked evolution in an influential pamphlet titled The Menace of Darwinism. In this pamphlet, Bryan warned: "Under the pretense of teaching science, instructors who draw their salaries from the public treasury are undermining the religious faith of students by substituting belief in Darwinism for belief in the Bible." He suggested that those who worship "brute ancestors" should "build their own colleges and employ their own teachers" instead of using public schools to preach their "godless doctrine."

Opposition to evolution grows

As Bryan’s attacks on evolution increased, so did his support, especially in the South, where fundamentalist values were most sound. In speeches around the nation, Bryan captured support from Bible-believing Christians for his biblical and anti-Darwinist stance. "It is better to trust in the Rock of Ages than to know the ages of rock," he shouted to deafening cheers from supporters.

When Bryan arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, on January 24, 1925, he delivered a powerful antievolution speech titled "Is the Bible True?" A local attorney sent a copy of Bryan’s speech to every member of the state’s General Assembly to enlighten them to the dangers of evolution. Influential evangelist Billy Sunday arrived in town a few weeks later and pumped up the crowds further with his revival meetings, in which he also scorned the theory of evolution.

Among the audience listening to Bryan’s speech on that Saturday night was state representative John Washington Butler. He was so moved by Bryan’s concern over evolution that almost immediately he drafted the antievolutionary Butler Act for the State of Tennessee. The Butler Act banned "the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals [teacher training colleges] and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State." The Butler Act passed initial legislation stage on March 13, 1925, and Governor Austin Peay signed it into law on March 21, 1925.

Bryan immediately sent a telegram of congratulations to Governor Peay, saying, "The Christian parents of the State owe you a debt of gratitude for saving their children from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis."

The Scopes trial

The Butler Act infuriated some atheists and anti-Christian evolutionists. The anticreationist ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) organized a test case against the legislation using Dayton schoolteacher John T. Scopes, who admitted teaching evolution in contravention of the Act.

Scopes was arrested on Thursday May 7, 1925. Five days later, William Bell Riley, founder of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, sent a telegram to Bryan asking if he would join the prosecution team in the trial against Scopes in Dayton. Bryan replied: "I shall be pleased to act for your great religious organizations and without compensation assist in the enforcement of the Tennessee law provided of course it is agreeable to the Law Department of the State." The local prosecutor in Dayton, Sue Hicks, told Bryan he would "consider it a great honor to have you with us in this prosecution." Atheist-leaning agnostic criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) led the team for the defense.

Bryan arrived in Dayton by train on Tuesday July 7, 1925, to a cheering crowd of more than 300. The Scopes trial opened in the Rhea County Court House three days later, on Friday July 10.

Support takes a tumble

During the trial, Bryan said evolutionists had no proof of their theory and "cannot even tell you how life began." He gave an hour-long speech in the courtroom in which he made serious errors, such as saying that humans were not mammals. He also lost respect from many supporters during his testimony when he said the "days" of Genesis could have been long "periods." In a recent comment on this, Christian leader Jerry Falwell said Bryan "lost the respect of fundamentalists when he subscribed to the idea of periods of time for creation rather than twenty-four-hour days." [1]

On Tuesday July 21, 1925, the court found John Scopes guilty of defying the Butler Act (the decision was later reversed on a technical point). But the prosecution lost face over the trial. On the following Saturday, on the way to Winchester, Tennessee, to deliver what would be his final speech, Bryan told his wife, Mary, that he would press on with his crusade against evolution.

At 3 pm the next day (Sunday July 25), Bryan felt exhausted, so he lay down for a nap. He never awoke. His physician, Dr. J. Thomas Kelly, said he died of diabetes mellitus (sugar in the urine), "the immediate cause being the fatigue incident to the heat and his extraordinary exertions due to the Scopes trial."

Life after Bryan

William Jennings Bryan never completely understood evolution, although he understood its devastating effects more perceptively than most of its supporters. He once said that, given a choice, "I would rather begin with God and reason down than begin with a piece of dirt and reason up."

After his death, the Bryan Memorial University Association launched a national campaign to raise $5 million for a college in Dayton. Classes began on September 18, 1930, in the old Rhea County High School. Today the Bryan College campus has 14 buildings on 125 acres.

Interesting facts

  • Salem, Illinois, birthplace of William Jennings Bryan, was also the hometown of John Scopes. [2]
  • John Scopes graduated from the Salem High School class of 1919, and William Jennings Bryan delivered the address. [3]
  • One of Scopes’ jurors suggested Scopes should be hanged. (From an article in the Salem Republican, June 11, 1925.)
  • Bryan’s father was a judge. His father was a Baptist and his mother converted to Baptist from Methodist. One of his sisters, like Bryan himself, converted to Presbyterianism. [4]
  • Some people believe that L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz was a populist allegory. The Cowardly Lion represented Bryan’s pacifism, the Scarecrow represented agriculture, the Tin Man represented industry, and Dorothy’s silver slippers represented Bryan’s campaign to back the U.S. dollar with silver rather than gold. [5]

See Also

Related References

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