William Jennings Bryan

diane severance, Ph.D.

William Jennings Bryan

Though William Jennings Bryan lost more elections than he ever won, his influence in American life and politics continues strong today. With a methodical and exacting mind, Bryan was a leader of the people, not simply a follower of their polls or opinions. Often he took a stand on an unpopular issue because he was convinced it was right; the public usually came gradually to agree with him.

Bryan was among the first to stand for the popular election of Senators; he worked for amendments establishing prohibition and women's suffrage. He authored a law requiring publicity in campaign contributions, encouraged the establishment of the Department of Labor, and worked for currency reform that later resulted in the Federal Reserve Act. Bryan was called "The Great Commoner" because he worked tirelessly to protect the common laborer and farmer from the wealthy industrialists and manufacturers. But these political achievements were not the strongest motive in Bryan's life. As the Russian Leo Tolstoy wrote Bryan in 1907 at the height of his career,"I had, in the Russian papers, news about you. I wish with all my heart success in your endeavor to . . . help the working people to enjoy the whole fruits of their toil, but I think this is not the most important thing of your life. The most important thing is to know the will of God concerning one's life, i.e., to know what he wishes us to do and fulfill it. I think that you are doing it and that is the thing in which I wish you the greatest success."

The Most Solid Foundation
William Jennings Bryan was born in Salem, Illinois on March 19, 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. His parents were both devout Christians, and the church played an important part in molding young Bryan. When he was fourteen, Bryan was converted to Christ during a revival at the Presbyterian Church. He was always thankful for the foundation the church provided for his life before he left home for college. Bryan's father was a judge and member of the Illinois legislature. He took every opportunity to impress upon young William the value of the Bible. As William later wrote, To him it was not only the Word of God but the fountain of wisdom. He was especially fond of Proverbs and was in the habit of calling me in from work a little before noon to read a chapter and comment upon it. At the time Bryan was often restless at this, but when his father died when Bryan was about twenty, ...the Biblical truths that he sought to impress upon me grew in value and I took up the book of Proverbs and read it through once a month for a year. I have frequently mentioned this experience and advised young men to read Proverbs because of the accumulated wisdom found there -- wisdom on all moral questions and expressed with wonderful force and clearness. In school, Bryan became noted for his eloquence and won numerous awards for debating. It was natural for him to follow his father into law, and in 1883 he received his law degree from Union College in Chicago.

A Union of Like-minded Spirits
The following year he married Mary Baird. Later in life, when Mary reread some of the letters from their four year courtship, she noted that William's time away from his studies was spent in Sunday school, church, prayer meeting, and occasionally a circus or evening at the theater. On his 21st birthday Bryan wrote Mary . . . full of gratitude for the blessing of the past, I turned with some trembling to contemplate the unknown future, its responsibilities, its possible successes, and its probable misfortune. I would dread to be compelled to set forth on this sea with nothing but the light of my reason to aid me. What a blessing it is that we have that guide, the Bible. The future looks bright . . . . Early in their marriage William and Mary decided to spend their leisure hours in study, avoiding the young couples' whirl of social circles. Bryan read much on the tariff, railroad regulation, and political economy and government. Mary often helped William with his study and speeches, while also caring for her ailing parents living with them as well as their three children, Ruth, William Jennings, Jr., and Grace. In 1887 the Bryans moved from Illinois to Lincoln, Nebraska, where William thought he could have a more successful law practice. His oratorical skills were becoming well known, and he was often asked to speak at political or church functions. One evening in 1888 he came home after giving a speech, awakened Mary and said, "I found I have power over the audience. God grant that I may use it wisely." At that moment he sank to his knees in prayer.

The Cross of Gold
In 1891 and 1893 Bryan was elected to the U.S. Congress from Nebraska. He used his eloquence in politics to protect the interests of the farmer and the common laborer. Though defeated in a race for Senator in 1894, in 1896 Bryan became the Democratic candidate for President against the Republican William McKinley. Bryan maintained a silver standard rather than a gold standard for currency would be fairer to the common people, allowing more currency in circulation. At the Democratic convention he electrified his audience with what became known as the "Cross of Gold" speech, saying, "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 was an energetic campaigner, traveling over 18,000 miles and making over 600 speeches in 27 states during the 1896 campaign. Nevertheless, Bryan lost the election to William McKinley, also a man of Christian convictions. Bryan also unsuccessfully ran for President in 1900 and 1908, becoming the only man in history to run as a major party candidate for president three times without winning. In spite of his losses, Bryan did not become despondent and remained active in political and public affairs, seeing many of his policies implemented. Bryan always fought on principles rather than attack persons. He once wrote that ...the experience of public life has tended to confirm in me the convictions of my early education -- that the more we conform our lives and actions, both in private and public relations, to the demands of honor, truth, sincerity, justice, and Christianity, the greater will be our happiness and prosperity.

His Ideas Spread
Bryan continued to be a much sought after speaker. As editor of the Lincoln weekly, The Commoner, he also was able to give his ideas wider circulation. After Bryan used his influence to help Woodrow Wilson be elected President in 1912, Wilson appointed Bryan his Secretary of State. In that position Bryan devoted much of his attention to the negotiation of peace treaties with over thirty nations, binding the signers to submit all disputes to arbitration for at least a year before going to war. In 1915, when Wilson began moving the U.S. towards World War I, Bryan resigned as Secretary of State. After his resignation, Bryan devoted himself more than ever to Christian work. He and Mary moved to Miami, Florida, where William's Sunday School class in the Presbyterian Church became so large it spread to the park. From the bandstand Bryan spoke to thousands, many not normally church-goers. He also worked actively with the YMCA, helping young men battle with the religious skepticism then becoming popular. Bryan came to believe that the teaching of evolution as a fact rather than a theory caused many students to lose their faith in the Bible, and he became a key spokesman against evolution. As he had worked for a Constitutional amendment supporting direct election of Senators, women's suffrage, and prohibition, so he began to think an amendment against evolution might be necessary. This, of course, never came about.

One of the Century's Most Famous Trials
Bryan is perhaps most remembered as the prosecuting attorney in the famous 1925 Scopes Trial. John Scopes taught evolution in a Tennessee school. Such was against the law in that state. Bryan won. Scopes was convicted and fined $100. But Evangelical Christianity lost much ground in the larger culture and was vilified as obscurantist, narrow-minded and bigoted. Now 75 years later, the Creationist-Evolutionist controversy continues. Regarding the law in Tennessee upon which the famous case was based, Bryan gave this penetrating and still provocative commentary: It need hardly be said that this law did not have its origin in bigotry. It is not trying to force any form of religion on anybody. The majority is not trying to establish a religion or to teach it -- it is trying to protect itself from the effort of an insolent minority to force irreligion upon the children under the guise of teaching science. What right has a little irresponsible oligarchy of self-styled "intellectuals" to demand control of the schools of the United States, in which twenty-five million children are being educated at an annual expense of nearly two billion dollars? Christians must, in every State of the Union, build their own colleges in which to teach Christianity; it is only simple justice that atheists, agnostics, and unbelievers should build their own colleges if they want to teach their own religious views or attack the religious views of others.

Bryan died of a heart attack on July 26, 1925, a few days after the conclusion of the Scopes Trial. Throughout his life Bryan had used his political and oratorical gifts to establish popular government, safeguard society, and spread the Christian faith.

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