William Jennings Bryan


William Jennings Bryan : biography

March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925

In his famous Chautauqua lecture, "The Prince of Peace," Bryan warned that the theory of evolution could undermine the foundations of morality. However, he concluded, "While I do not accept the Darwinian theory I shall not quarrel with you about it."

Charles W. and William J. Bryan]]

One book Bryan read at this time convinced him that social Darwinism (emphasizing the struggle of the races) had undermined morality in Germany.Coletta, William Jennings Bryan vol 3 p. 200 Bryan was heavily influenced by Vernon Kellogg’s 1917 book, Headquarters Nights: A Record of Conversations and Experiences at the Headquarters of the German Army in Belgium and France, which asserted (on the basis of a conversation with a reserve officer named Professor von Flussen) that German intellectuals were social Darwinists totally committed to might-makes-right.Bryan was especially influenced by pp 22-31 of Kellogg’s book, which is

Bryan also read The Science of Power (1918) by British social theorist Benjamin Kidd, which credited the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche with German nationalism, materialism, and militarism, which in turn was the outworking of the social Darwinian hypothesis.Bryan, Memoirs 552-53

In 1920, Bryan told the World Brotherhood Congress that the theory of evolution was "the most paralyzing influence with which civilization has had to deal in the last century" and that Nietzsche, in carrying the theory of evolution to its logical conclusion, "promulgated a philosophy that condemned democracy,… denounced Christianity,… denied the existence of God, overturned all concepts of morality,… and endeavored to substitute the worship of the superhuman for the worship of Jehovah."Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (1991) p 68

By 1921, Bryan saw Darwinism as a major internal threat to the US. The major study which seemed to convince Bryan of this was James H. Leuba’s The Belief in God and Immortality, a Psychological, Anthropological and Statistical Study (1916). In this study, Leuba shows that during four years of college a considerable number of college students lost their faith. Bryan was horrified that the next generation of American leaders might have the degraded sense of morality which he believed had prevailed in Germany and caused the Great War. Bryan then launched an anti-evolution campaign.Coletta 3:200

Charles, sitting on a log marked "Almost the Solid South" looking at the sun marked "1928" where more hope might come for them. Charles was the losing Democratic nominee for vice president in 1924.]]

The campaign kicked off in October 1921, when the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia invited Bryan to deliver the James Sprunt Lectures. At its heart was a lecture entitled "The Origin of Man", in which Bryan asked, "what is the role of man in the universe and what is the purpose of man?" For Bryan, the Bible was absolutely central to answering this question, and moral responsibility and the spirit of brotherhood could only rest on belief in God.

The Sprunt lectures were published as In His Image, and sold over 100,000 copies, while "The Origin of Man" was published separately as The Menace of the theory of evolution and also sold very well.Bryan, In His Image (1922)

Bryan was worried that the theory of evolution was making grounds not only in the universities, but also within the church itself. Many colleges were still church-affiliated at this point. The developments of 19th century liberal theology, and higher criticism in particular, had left the door open to the point where many clergymen were willing to embrace the theory of evolution and claimed that it was not contradictory with their being Christians. Determined to put an end to this, Bryan, who had long served as a Presbyterian elder, decided to run for the position of Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, which was at the time embroiled in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. (Under Presbyterian church governance, clergy and laymen are equally represented in the General Assembly, and the post of Moderator is open to any member of the General Assembly.) Bryan’s main competition in the race was the Rev. Charles F. Wishart, president of the College of Wooster, who had loudly endorsed the teaching of the theory of evolution in the college. Bryan lost to Wishart by a vote of 451-427. Bryan then failed in a proposal to cut off funds to schools where the theory of evolution was taught. Instead, the General Assembly announced disapproval of materialistic (as opposed to theistic) evolution.