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William Jennings Bryan: A Godly Hero

By Charles Colson
Prison Fellowship

CBN.comAt the turn of the century, a prominent Christian led a movement to transform American culture. He stood up for the weak and downtrodden. He pointed out the connection between Darwinism and the nastier parts of American life. And, for his trouble, he was labeled a "fanatic" and a "demagogue."

The "turn of the century" I'm referring to is the year 1900, and the Christian is William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan, whom the Christian Science Monitor called "a forgotten hero," is the subject of a new biography titled A Godly Hero. Its author, Georgetown professor Michael Kazin, wrote the book "to gain a measure of respect for Bryan and his people."

Given Bryan's impact on American history, this shouldn't be necessary. He was a three-time Democratic nominee for president, and he was Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State. And these were just his official duties.

Unofficially, he was regarded as the greatest orator of his age—an age when people went out of their way to hear two-hour speeches, at least the good ones. And Bryan's were spellbinders. His "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic convention is widely regarded as the most electrifying political speech in American history.

Bryan's oratory and Christian passion made him a hero to millions of ordinary Americans, many of whom named their children after him. He articulated their concerns in unapologetically biblical and moral language.

He championed reforms that we take for granted today: women's suffrage, labor unions, and anti-trust, to name but a few. He transformed the Democratic party from a "bulwark of laissez-faire capitalism" into the party of the "little guy."

Yet, he is a "forgotten hero." Why? Mostly it's because of his association with the "Scopes Monkey Trial." His participation on the anti-evolution side gave critics like H. L. Mencken, who already hated him, a chance to caricature Bryan and "his people."

This caricature was then immortalized by the play and movie, Inherit the Wind. If Americans are aware of Bryan at all, their image is of a Bible-thumping blowhard whose positions couldn't withstand scrutiny.

As I've told you before, Inherit the Wind is a Darwinist distortion, especially in its depiction of Bryan. Bryan wasn't opposed to the teaching of evolution. His concern was for the cultural consequences of Darwinism like "Social Darwinism" and eugenics. As he put it, "[science] can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to prevent the misuse of the machine."

As Kazin tells us, Bryan "burned only and always to see religion heal the world." If that sounds familiar, it should—it's the vision that drives many Christians today. While our critics caricature us as being concerned with only one thing—sex—the truth is very different. Much of America's humanitarian efforts in places like Sudan and North Korea are the product of the kind of passion Bryan expressed among evangelicals of his day. If Bryan were around today, he'd be a great social conservative Christian and/or political leader. Like Bryan, the Great Communicator and Populist, our goal today is to heal, not dominate. But like him, we are often caricatured for our troubles.

Let's hope it doesn't take a century for our efforts to gain a "measure of respect," as well.

Order A Godly Hero by Michael Kazin

Children's Book: William Jennings Bryan: Golden-Tongued Orator

More Church History on Spiritual Life

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