In the span of only one hundred years, one of the fundamental dynamics of American life radically changed. Throughout the 1800s, most Americans held the same traditional values and beliefs as their fathers, but by the early twentieth century, a more humanistic approach gained a solid foothold. One of the first, and most popular, ideas to gain acceptance was British naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by way of natural selection — whereby plants and animals adapted physically and environmentally to survive. By the 1920s large numbers of U.S. schools taught evolution as part of the science curriculum. Many Americans however, particularly those outside academia, believed Darwin threatened their Christian heritage, notably God’s creation of the earth, and they pushed back against the new approach. To safeguard their beliefs, Tennessee lawmakers outlawed teaching of evolution in early 1925. Soon after, John Scopes of Dayton was arrested and tried for disobeying the act. Defending Scopes was Clarence Darrow, a well-known lawyer and self-proclaimed atheist. Prosecuting the case was America’s preeminent orator. He had long championed the common man and resolved to defend the values he, and they, held dear. His name was William Jennings Bryan. This is the story of his vigorous defense of Christianity against evolutionists, culminating in the famed 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial.”
From the moment he stepped onto the national stage, William Jennings Bryan frequently tied political rhetoric to his evangelical beliefs. He was born in Salem, Illinois in March 1860 to a circuit court judge who instilled in his son staunch Christian convictions and a devotion to the Democratic Party. Bryan graduated from Illinois College in 1881, after which he attended Union Law School in Chicago. He moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1887 where he enjoyed a successful legal career and participated in Democratic Party affairs. As he crisscrossed Nebraska, he argued Christian ethics applied to society and government as much as to individuals. Practicing what he preached, he gained election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1890 where he championed social and economic reforms, especially replacing gold with silver or bimetallism as a foundation for American currency. His greatest defense of the policy came at the 1896 Democratic National Convention where he thundered, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The hall erupted in applause and chose the thirty-six-year-old as their presidential candidate. Defeated by William McKinley, he ran for the nation’s highest office in 1900 and in 1908 — losing each bid. Despite vowing to not seek the presidency again, Bryan remained active in both politics and on the lecture circuit where he maintained God and morality should guide reforms. He personally waged a campaign for such causes as prohibition of alcohol. More precious to him though was the end of all war.
As a devout Christian, William Jennings Bryan believed Christ’s peace carried with it the hope international disputes could be settled by negotiations rather than wars. Beginning in 1904, he frequently delivered a “Prince of Peace” address, which stressed accord. Following Woodrow Wilson’s election as president in 1912, Bryan had the chance to implement his ideas as Secretary of State. He negotiated a series of conciliation treaties and sought establishment of commissions to ease tensions between belligerent nations. His hopes for peace were dashed, however, as war engulfed Europe in late 1914. Watching from across the Atlantic, Bryan desperately fought for American neutrality through such efforts as keeping Americans off ships carrying war materiel. After German submarines sank Britain’s Lusitania in May 1915, killing nearly twelve hundred passengers, including 128 Americans, President Wilson resolved to send a message denouncing Germany. Bryan wanted similar action against Britain for endangering American lives. Wilson persisted against Germany, and began preparations for American involvement, causing Bryan to resign. Nevertheless, after America entered the war in April 1917, he urged Americans to plant victory gardens and to purchase Liberty Bonds. When war ended in November 1918, he ardently backed Woodrow Wilson’s call for the League of Nations as a means of achieving his hopes for lasting peace among all nations. His efforts for such a goal were ultimately unsuccessful, but he had little time for despair as his greatest battle still lay ahead.
As the 1920s dawned, Bryan found his way of life, particularly his cherished Christianity, under attack from modernist forces, and he dedicated himself to preserving traditional American values. After touring the country and reading letters from concerned citizens, he recognized the main threat was science’s replacement of religion in American schools. He watched young men and women deny God as a myth and reject the belief the Bible was infallible. Horrified, Bryan passionately declared the “greatest menace to the public school system today is its Godlessness.” The starkest example was Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Bryan viewed claims mankind was descended from primitive beasts as ludicrous, saying more science existed in God’s creation of man as told in Genesis than in Darwinism. More importantly, he believed Darwinism put the “creative act so far away that reverence for the Creator is likely to be lost.” For Bryan, such loss corrupted Christianity’s foundations and impaired Americans’ spiritual lives. Resolved to “save the Christian church from those who are trying to destroy her faith,” Bryan energetically joined the fundamentalist crusade against evolution.
Seeking to eliminate Darwinism from society, he urged state legislatures to prohibit the subject in schools. Most states either banned textbooks or forced proponents to resign, though Florida did pass a measure prohibiting evolution classes. Then in late January 1925 Tennessee State Representative John Butler proposed legislation whereby Darwin’s theory was unlawful in any school supported by state funds. The bill was passed by both houses and signed into law by Governor Austin Peay. Bryan subsequently wrote Peay the “Christian parents of the state owe you a debt of gratitude for saving their children from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis.” While he celebrated, however, the American Civil Liberties Union was preparing to challenge the law by offering to pay legal fees for anyone willing to violate the measure. The Union found its man in John T. Scopes, a Dayton, Tennessee science teacher. He was arrested in May after refusing to obey the act, saying he could not teach biology without evolution since the approved textbook included a reference to Darwin’s theory. Almost immediately though, the larger battle between evolution and fundamentalism overshadowed the limited nature of Scopes breaking state law. The struggle was most evident in the choices for legal representation. The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, joined by local prosecutors, tapped Bryan to face off against prominent Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow. Bryan enthusiastically accepted, as he believed “the contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death. If evolution wins in Dayton, Christianity goes — not suddenly of course, but gradually — for the two cannot stand together.” When Bryan arrived in Dayton on July 7th, therefore, he was greeted by admirers who saw him as a “symbol of their simple religious faith,” according to a New York Times reporter. On July 10th he took his seat at the prosecution table.
As the trial began, Bryan largely kept silent as prosecutors examined four witnesses who testified Scopes used Darwin in his lessons. The prosecution then rested, and Darrow began his defense by expressing an intent to call scientists and clergymen to show no discrepancy between Biblical and scientific creation, starting with Dr. Maynard Metcalf, a zoologist at Johns Hopkins University. Seeing this as his moment, Bryan leapt up, grabbed George Hunter’s Civic Biology, the book used by Scopes, and delivered a scorching oration decrying the notion man was a mere mammal. Caustically, he asked if humanity should be “detached from the throne of God and be compelled to link our ancestors with the jungle” before shouting, “Did [Metcalf] tell you where life began? Did he tell you that back of all there was a God? Not a word about it.” Due in part to Bryan’s efforts, the judge rejected additional scientific testimony, though he did allow it read into the official record. This decision led many to believe the trial was over and all that was left were the closing arguments. However, the defense had one more surprise up its sleeve.
Following a weekend recess, Clarence Darrow called William Jennings Bryan himself to the stand. Fellow prosecutors urged him to refuse, but Bryan claimed Darrow was in Dayton to “try revealed religion. I am here to defend it.” He subsequently admitted to a literal acceptance of the Bible, which led to questions about how the sun stood still during Joshua’s battle with the Amorites and how a whale swallowed Jonah. Bryan argued God could perform any miracle, but as the examination continued, it became clear he did not think everything in the Bible was literal. He admitted Joshua’s account might mean the earth stopped revolving around the sun and the six “days” resulting in earth’s creation might not be actual twenty-four hour periods. To explain this inconsistency, Bryan said each account used language people of the time understood. Unspoken was his belief that the Bible’s ability to halt such a dangerous philosophy as evolution was more important than whether every natural event told in the Bible was literally true. Still, thinking he had discredited Bryan, Darrow ended his examination, and the trial. The next day he chose not to give a closing argument, thereby denying Bryan a chance to give a much-anticipated speech. After only eight minutes of deliberation, the jury issued a guilty verdict, leaving Bryan satisfied that the law had been upheld.
Determined to continue the fight, he spent two days typing his undelivered speech before travelling to Chattanooga where it was printed. In Bryan’s own words, the speech challenged all the evolutionist arguments, and he hoped it appeared across America. On Saturday, July 25th, he spoke in Winchester, Tennessee before returning to Dayton for Sunday church services. In what was to be his final public act, Bryan led the congregation in prayer. That afternoon, he laid down to rest and never woke up. Though buried in Arlington National Cemetery, his real resting place was in the hearts and minds of all who saw William Jennings Bryan as American Christianity’s greatest defender.
Today, William Jennings Bryan is seen as a symbol of the fight against progress, but such a belief is too narrow. Throughout the battle against evolution, indeed throughout his entire life, the thing Bryan actually fought for was humanity’s betterment, and his commitment fueled his passion to the very end. It lay behind virtually all his previous struggles, from his fight for silver-backed currency in the 1890s to his efforts to end all conflict in the years before and after World War I. In evolution and its modernist advocates, Bryan saw the complete destruction of Biblical principles that guided healthy Christian living. It was this he ardently opposed — not merely evolution itself. He furiously waged battle against those he considered enemies of the faith, and he never surrendered, ultimately giving his life for his beliefs. Perhaps no finer tribute could define William Jennings Bryan than the words of 2nd Timothy 4:7 — “I have fought the good fight…I have kept the faith.”