Remembering William Jennings Bryan

Remembering William Jennings Bryan November 13, 2010

I’ve been watching the PBS television series “God in America” on Apple TV. It’s a history of religion in America told in six one-hour segments, beginning with the Massachusetts Bay colony and ending with Obama. If you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend it highly – it’s very well done and I learned a lot.

One of the segments devotes some time to William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes Trial. I have a lot of respect for William Jennings Bryan, in spite of the fact that he was on the wrong side of the evolution debate. Bryan was a devout evangelical who thought Christianity (read: Protestantism) must be brought back to the center of American life. He believed the Bible was the literal word of God, and wove the Bible into his political messages in a way not done before or since (according to this PBS series). He was the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 1896, and stood for the farmer and the miner – the common man. His religion thoroughly informed his politics, and he really believed we should lift up the weak, care for the oppressed, and cherish the poor. He lost the election, but went on to become a very popular speaker.

Then came World War I, which apparently many people viewed as a warning that God wanted America to be brought back to him. Some evangelicals thought this was best achieved through a literal reading of the Bible, and called themselves fundamentalists, after a series of books called the Fundamentals. Bryan wanted to defend fundamentalism against modernity, and nothing posed a greater threat than Darwinism. Bryan said:

“I object to Darwinian theory because I fear we shall lose the consciousness of God’s presence in our daily life if we must accept the theory that through all the ages no spiritual force has touched the life of man.”

If there is a good reason for opposing Darwinism, then that would be it. If Darwinism necessarily means rejecting God, then of course any well meaning evangelical would reject it.

The Scopes trial of 1925 was the opening battle between fundamentalism and liberal Christianity. John Scopes had defied Tennessee law and taught evolution, and was brought to trial with Clarence Darrow as his defense attorney and William Jennings Bryan representing the plaintiff. Bryan hoped the trial would end the Darwinian controversy, and at first things were looking good for Bryan. Darrow had a hard time making his case because the judge wouldn’t allow any of his expert witnesses, so in the end he asked Bryan to testify as an expert witness on the Bible. Bryan happily agreed to testify, and Darrow asked him pointed questions on the precise meaning of parts of the Bible, for example whether he thought the creation periods were 24 hours long. Bryan said he did not necessarily think so. When pressed, he said no, he did not think so.

So now Bryan was doing what the liberal Christians did – making things into metaphors instead of literal truths. Things were starting to look bad for him. Darrow then asked if creation might have taken a very long time, and I love Bryan’s answer that he cared more for the Rock of Ages than for the age of rocks because although I love science, ultimately, I care more about the Rock of Ages, too. Eventually Bryan became frustrated and blustered that Darrow was just trying to slander at the Bible. It seemed Darrow had won the case. The court found Scopes guilty and teaching evolution in Tennessee remained illegal, but in the media fundamentalism had been lost the battle. Bryan was upset by his role in the trial, and planned a speaking tour to follow it, but died less than a week after the trial ended.

I feel sorry for Bryan, because he ends up looking the fool in this story in spite of being an intelligent and compassionate person. He was wrong about evolution, but I think he was right to be concerned about the forces of modernity. He said, “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.”

I really like that phrase, “intelligence consecrated by love.” It contains the best things to aspire to, and the qualities I attribute to God. While Darwinism might make it possible to make sense of life without believing in God (although I must say that it most certainly does not necessitate that view), a worldview bereft of a God-centered morality threatens to be unethical and unloving. Bryan sensed that keenly. It’s too bad he made fighting against evolution the focus of his last efforts, because evolution happens to be true, just misunderstood, and he had much better ideas to be remembered for.

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