In (Partial) Defense of William Jennings Bryan (Famous “Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial” of 1925)

In (Partial) Defense of William Jennings Bryan (Famous “Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial” of 1925) October 10, 2016


William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) as a young man [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




[Note: a few years after I wrote this, I was able to visit the famous courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee]


I don’t think Bryan was so much a “pseudo-intellectual” as he was simply ignorant of biblical exegesis and the latest developments of science at the time of the Scopes Trial.

The man was a lawyer (second in his class), a US Congressman, three-time presidential candidate, and Secretary of State from 1913 to 1915. He was influential in the movement to popularly elect senators, and women’s suffrage. According to Encyclopedia Britannica (1985), “he made a distinctive contribution to world law by espousing arbitration to prevent war.”

I’m not sure a man becomes a “pseudo-intellectual” simply because (being a lawyer, politician, diplomat, and social reformer) he is not up on his biblical exegesis and apologetics, and philosophical apologetics, and was trapped on the stand by a very clever opposing (secularist) lawyer.

We are in danger of accepting the secularist stereotypes of all “fundamentalist” Christians as ignorant troglodytes. That was not the case (especially not in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). But it is so easy to join the bandwagon and pile on Bryan because of the Scopes Trial.

We always hear about the episode with Clarence Darrow ad nauseam, while very few people are familiar with the Piltdown Man hoax, that dazzled and duped evolutionists for 41 years, or Nebraska Man, introduced as evidence at the Scopes Trial, that turned out to be the tooth of an extinct pig (all “it” was, was a tooth), or embarrassing scientific espousal of eugenics and phrenology and suchlike: used to bolster cultural racism and Nazism (Nazi Germany being a very scientifically advanced culture).

No; forget all that. Even we Christians have been brainwashed to believe that Bryan was merely a doltish idiot because he did a poor job defending an over-literalism of the Bible that was itself an unworthy position, in its extremity. But Darrow was simply wrong, too, in some of his line of questioning (see the transcript of his questioning of Bryan). He implied that it was patently ridiculous for Jonah to have been swallowed by a large fish or whale. But we know there have been instances of that, where men actually survived the ordeal. Therefore, it is not unthinkable at all. It isn’t even a miracle. Darrow asked hackneyed, garden-variety skeptical questions like “where Cain got his wife”. Moreover, he showed the seething condescension that we are so familiar with, with folks like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens today, saying, “You insult every man of science and learning in the world” and referring to “your fool religion” and “your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.”

Bryan showed, for example, that he was not a young-earth, six literal days creationist, as many fundamentalists (even relatively sophisticated ones) are today:

Q–Have you any idea how old the earth is?
Q–The Book you have introduced in evidence tells you, doesn’t it?
A–I don’t think it does, Mr. Darrow.
Q–Let’s see whether it does; is this the one?
A–That is the one, I think.
Q–It says B.C. 4004?
A–That is Bishop Usher’s calculation.
Q–That is printed in the Bible you introduced?
A–Yes, sir….
Q–Would you say that the earth was only 4,000 years old?
A–Oh, no; I think it is much older than that.
Q–How much?
A–I couldn’t say.
Q–Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?
A–I don’t think it is older or not.
Q–Do you think the earth was made in six days?
A–Not six days of twenty-four hours.
Q–Doesn’t it say so?
A–No, sir. . .
Q–Does the statement, “The morning and the evening were the first day,” and “The morning and the evening were the second day,” mean anything to you?
A— I do not think it necessarily means a twenty-four-hour day.
Q–You do not?
Q–What do you consider it to be?
A–I have not attempted to explain it. If you will take the second chapter–let me have the book. (Examining Bible.) The fourth verse of the second chapter says: “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth, when they were created in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,” the word “day” there in the very next chapter is used to describe a period. I do not see that there is any necessity for construing the words, “the evening and the morning,” as meaning necessarily a twenty-four-hour day, “in the day when the Lord made the heaven and the earth.”
Q–Then, when the Bible said, for instance, “and God called the firmament heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day,” that does not necessarily mean twenty-four hours?
A–I do not think it necessarily does.
Q–Do you think it does or does not?
A–I know a great many think so.
Q–What do you think?
A–I do not think it does.
Q–You think those were not literal days?
A–I do not think they were twenty-four-hour days.
Q–What do you think about it?
A–That is my opinion–I do not know that my opinion is better on that subject than those who think it does.
Q–You do not think that ?
A–No. But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.
Q–Do you think those were literal days?
A–My impression is they were periods, but I would not attempt to argue as against anybody who wanted to believe in literal days.

In this instance he was not defending biblical hyper-literalism. In fact, most of those who do so today would consider him a “flaming liberal” on this basis alone. There are, for example, still geocentrists today (even Catholic ones), but Bryan didn’t take that position:

Q–The Bible says Joshua commanded the sun to stand still for the purpose of lengthening the day, doesn’t it, and you believe it?
A–I do.
Q–Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?
A–No, I believe that the earth goes around the sun.
Q–Do you believe that the men who wrote it thought that the day could be lengthened or that the sun could be stopped?
A–I don’t know what they thought.
Q–You don’t know?
A–I think they wrote the fact without expressing their own thoughts.

Note again that he does not stake out a position of extreme literalism. The window is left open for a more sophisticated phenomenological view. Bryan isn’t required to have known every jot and tittle of exegetical / philosophical speculation about Bible matters, in order to “prevail” in this exchange between two legal minds. It’s unreasonable to expect him to be such an expert. In fact, he states exactly why he wanted to testify. Apparently (from what I can gather from this) Darrow had taunted him beforehand (probably off the record):

Bryan–The reason I am answering is not for the benefit of the superior court. It is to keep these gentlemen from saying I was afraid to meet them and let them question me, and I want the Christian world to know that any atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, can question me anytime as to my belief in God, and I will answer him.

Darrow–I want to take an exception to this conduct of this witness. He may be very popular down here in the hills….

–Your honor, they have not asked a question legally and the only reason they have asked any question is for the purpose, as the question about Jonah was asked, for a chance to give this agnostic an opportunity to criticize a believer in the word of God; and I answered the question in order to shut his mouth so that he cannot go out and tell his atheistic friends that I would not answer his questions. That is the only reason, no more reason in the world.

So sure, we can critique his answers on the stand (and that’s very easy to do safely hid away and with the hindsight of 84 years) , but it’s not necessary to insult the man’s intelligence and make out that he wasn’t a real intellectual: to accept all the stereotypes we are supposed to believe as dogma, from our secularist overlords. That simplifies and caricatures true history, which is always, invariably more complex and interesting than the spoon-fed versions of he public schools. Bryan’s closing speech (that he actually didn’t give, for some reason), contains some very eloquent and wise observations, that were much-needed, then and now:

Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endangers its cargo.. . . If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings, alone, can solve the problems that vex heart and perplex the world….

Again, we need not agree with Bryan in every particular. I don’t. But there is no necessity to disparage him as a “pseudo-intellectual.” Bryan probably accomplished more good things in his life than all of us reading and writing these things will ever do, put together. He was not an idiot. And he deserves to be remembered for more than a few (perhaps) stupid or philosophically / theologically insufficient remarks made under the pressure of an intense cross-examination on a blistering hot day.

Related paperMy Claims Regarding Piltdown Man & the Scopes Trial Twisted


Meta Description: Analysis of William Jennings Bryan, of Scopes Trial fame (1925): beyond the usual stereotypes.

Meta Keywords: Christianity & science, Christianity & evolution, creationism, theistic evolution, William Jennings Bryan, faith & reason, Scopes Trial, scientific method, scientism

Browse Our Archives