William Jennings Bryan


William Jennings Bryan : biography

March 19, 1860 – July 26, 1925

In his efforts to bring some publicity to his cause, Bryan joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1924 and attended the annual meeting. A featured session at the meeting was a debate on biological evolution between Bryan and Edward Loranus Rice, a developmental biologist from the Methodist-associated Ohio Wesleyan University.

According to author Ronald L. Numbers, Bryan was not nearly as much of a fundamentalist as many modern-day creationists, and is more accurately described as a "day-age creationist": "William Jennings Bryan, the much misunderstood leader of the post–World War I antievolution crusade, not only read the Mosaic "days" as geological "ages" but allowed for the possibility of organic evolution—so long as it did not impinge on the supernatural origin of Adam and Eve."The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, expanded edition, Ronald L. Numbers, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2006, p. 13 ISBN 0-674-02339-0

Scopes trial: 1925

[[Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan chat in court during the Scopes Trial]]

Congresswoman [[Ruth Bryan Owen, Bryan’s daughter]] Bryan actively lobbied for state laws banning public schools from teaching evolution. The legislatures of several Southern states proved more receptive to his anti-evolution message than the Presbyterian Church had been, and passed such laws after Bryan addressed them. A prominent example was the Butler Act of 1925, which made it unlawful in Tennessee to teach that mankind evolved from lower life forms."It shall be unlawful…" to teach "…any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."

Bryan’s participation in the highly publicized 1925 Scopes Trial served as a capstone to his career. He was asked by William Bell Riley to represent the World Christian Fundamentals Association as counsel at the trial. During the trial, Bryan took the stand and was questioned by defense lawyer Clarence Darrow about his views on the Bible. "Asked when the Flood occurred, Bryan consulted Ussher’s Bible Concordance, and gave the date as 2348 B.C., or 4273 years ago. Did not Bryan know, asked Darrow, that Chinese civilization had been traced back at least 7000 years?" Bryan conceded that he did not. When he was asked if the records of any other religion made mention of a flood at the time he cited, Bryan replied: "The Christian religion has always been good enough for me – I never found it necessary to study any competing religion." Paul Y. Anderson, "Sad Death of a Hero," American Mercury, v. 37, no. 147 (March 1936) 293-301.

The national media reported the trial in great detail, with H. L. Mencken ridiculing Bryan as a symbol of Southern ignorance (despite his not being from the South) and anti-intellectualism. In a more humorous vein, satirist Richard Armour stated in It All Started With Columbus that Darrow had "made a monkey out of" Bryan due to Bryan’s ignorance of the Bible.

After the judge retroactively expunged all of Bryan’s answers to Darrow’s questions, both sides closed without summation. The jury quickly returned a guilty verdict with the defense’s encouragement, and Bryan won the case. However, the state Supreme Court reversed the verdict on a technicality and Scopes went free.

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould has speculated that Bryan’s anti-evolution views were a result of his Populist idealism and suggests that Bryan’s fight was really against eugenics. However, the biographers, especially Michael Kazin, reject that conclusion, based on Bryan’s failure during the trial or at any other time to attack eugenics. Kazin notes that there is a section on eugenics in Civic Biology, the biology textbook that landed Scopes in trouble.Kazin p.289. In a speech that Bryan was working on when he died, there is one sentence that says "scientific breeding" is impossible. The speech did not use the word "eugenics" and the term does not appear in his writings. Bryan, Memoirs p. 548.