Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan was a far more complex figure than his detractors painted him in the press. Many believed that Bryan represented a figure of backwards religious bigotry and misguided zealotry, an impression that was buttressed by subsequent movies and books. Bryan's attitude toward religion, and his role in the Scopes trial, was far more complex than many are willing to believe. After his death in 1925, his wife published his memoirs, which are quotations from his speeches and correspondence interspersed with her commentary. The following excerpts indicate that Bryan was less concerned with evolution than he was with freedom of religion and that his notions of faith were not as simplistic as has been portrayed. Taken from Mary Baird Bryan and William Jennings Bryan, The Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan, (Chicago, 1925): 457-8, 458-9, 479, 485-6.

Miracles are performed today - miracles as marvelous as anything recorded in Holy Writ. There is such a thing as a new birth; the heart can be so transformed that it loves the things it formerly hated and hates the things it formerly loved. The feeding of five thousand with a few loaves and fishes is no nearly so great a mystery, nor, measured by man's rules, so seemingly impossible as the cleansing of a heart and the changing of a life. The spiritual gravitation that draws a soul toward heaven is just as real as the physical gravitation that draws matter toward the earth's center. We judge the gravitation by the influence it exerts; the proof of the spiritual law is as abundant and as conclusive….

There are realities in the spiritual world which science cannot explain because spiritual things are spiritually discerned, but these things are no less demonstrable than the things with which science deals.

We affirm, therefore: First, that God can perform any miracle He may see fit to perform, whether it be by laws unknown to man, or by the overcoming of natural forces by forces greater than nature; second that it is not unreasonable to believe that an infinite God may have reasons for performing miracles that finite man does not now, and possibly never can, comprehend; third that the evidence of the Bible, which is trustworthy, furnishes convincing proof that miracles have been performed by characters in the Old Testament and by Christ and His apostles, all drawing from the same source of infinite power. Belief in the power of God to perform miracles, in the willingness of God to perform miracles, and in the actual performance of miracles, is confirmed and corroborated by man's experience in his own heart and life, and by his observation of similar changes in the hearts and lives of others....

Mrs. Bryan writes: "Mr. Bryan was a firm believer in the doctrine of complete separation of church and state. He believed in absolute equality before the law of all religious denominations…. He believed that all sects should advance their religion by their own efforts and at their own expense, unaided by the State. But his soul rose in righteous indignation when he found from the many letters he received from parents all over the country that state schools were being used to undermine the religious faith of their children. He argued that if the power of the State could not be properly used to advance religion, it followed as a matter of course that the power of the State must not be used to attack religion….

Friends and enemies alike have been interested to know why Mr. Bryan took up the question of evolution. This is a matter I can easily explain. When delivering lectures he found his audiences were in some respects different from his political audiences…. After the address when people came to shake his hand, he often heard such remarks as these:…

Weeping mother: "How I wish our son could have heard you speak. He has lost his faith".

" Tall youth: "Mr. Bryan, I have been slipping away from the Church, but you have brought me back."…

Those repeated indications of unbelief, especially among college students, puzzled him. Upon investigation he became convinced that the teaching of evolution as a fact instead of a theory caused the students to lose faith in the Bible, first, in the story of creation, and later in other doctrines which underlie the Christian religion….

I had been waiting till the close of the trial to discuss with him the future of his work. The time seemed opportune and we had our last serious talk. Beginning with the assertion of Tolstoy that religion is the relation which man fixes between himself and his God, we spoke of the sacredness of that relation; that almost everyone has some little irregularities in his belief which he mentions to no one - a matter between himself and his God - but his religion is to him a satisfactory faith. Mr. Bryan and I spoke of his work thus far; his effort to prove the presence, both in the Church and school, of a theory which when taught as fact tended to destroy belief in the truth of the Bible; that having proved the existence of such a situation, he was trying to do three things; first, to establish the right of taxpayers to control what is taught in their schools; second, to draw a line between the teaching of evolution as a fact and teaching it as a theory; and third, to see that teachers proven guilty of this offense should be given an opportunity to resign.

We spoke of the narrow margin between this perfectly legitimate work as touching the public servant, and an encroachment on individual religious belief which is a sacred domain. We agreed that care must be taken at this point that no religious zeal should invade this sacred domain and become intolerance.

Mr. Bryan said, "Well, Mamma, I have not made that mistake yet, have I?" And I replied, "You are all right so far, but will you be able to keep to this narrow path?" With a happy smile, he said, "I think I can." "But," said I, "can you control your followers?" and more gravely he said, "I think I can." And I knew, he was adding mentally, "by the help of God."

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