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People & Ideas: William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

"The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death," William Jennings Bryan proclaimed at the 1925 Scopes trial. For many Americans, Bryan is remembered for this defense of fundamentalist Christianity in the face of modern science, evolution and Darwinism. But Bryan's career and life spoke to a larger cause: the protection of the weakest and most vulnerable Americans from the powerful and often uncaring forces of modernity.

Born in Nebraska in 1860, Bryan launched his political career as a populist Democrat, championing the interests of workers and farmers bypassed by industrialization. At the 1896 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Bryan advocated changing the nation's monetary backing from gold to silver, proclaiming "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." Bryan frequently linked Christian rhetoric with populism, believing his Presbyterian faith and his Democratic politics to be one and the same. He felt compelled to defend those he thought to be defenseless against the ravages of an unsympathetic modern world. Catapulted onto the national stage after just two terms in Congress, Bryan was the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, 1900 and 1908. Despite losing every race, he remained a popular national figure.

President Woodrow Wilson named Bryan secretary of state in 1912, but Bryan quickly found the position to be at odds with his faith. As Europe descended into war in 1914, he staunchly opposed American involvement in the conflict. He later wrote, "In war, science has proven itself an evil genius; it has made war more terrible than ever before." Bryan watched the massacre of Europe's youth with horror; he could not send America's future to the same fate on foreign battlefields.

Resigning from Wilson's Cabinet, Bryan devoted himself to social reform. The greatest threat to America's spiritual and material future, he believed, was Darwinism and its offshoot, Social Darwinism. In Germany, he believed, the "might is right" theories of Darwin coupled with the philosophy of Nietzsche to create a malignant offspring, German barbarism. In America, Social Darwinism allowed rich and powerful capitalists to justify trampling on the poor and the weak. And it was the poor and weak -- the people Jesus called "the least of these" -- whom Bryan was determined to protect from those who believed that "might makes right." His duty to the downtrodden and his innate sense of justice propelled Bryan on his crusade to save public schools from teaching Darwinian theory.

At the 1925 Scopes trial, Bryan faced off against the self-proclaimed agnostic attorney Clarence Darrow. Bryan took the lead. Darrow appeared defeated. He then hit upon a clever tactic: he called Bryan to the stand to defend the Bible. Under intense questioning in the summer heat, Bryan faltered. His fundamentalist beliefs could not stand up to Darrow's withering inquiry.

Days after the trial ended, Bryan died in his sleep. Shortly before, he wrote: "Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can be perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of machinery. ... 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."

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Published October 11, 2010

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