William Jennings Bryan


William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), politician, editor, prohibitionist and Christian fundamentalist leader, was born in Salem, Illinois into a Presbyterian family. Educated at Illinois College Bryan received a law degree from Union College of Law in Chicago before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1887 to practice law. Bryan thrived in Lincoln where he was able to sharpen his public speaking and writing skills. Beginning in 1891, Bryan served two terms in the US House of Representatives and, after an unsuccessful campaign for the US Senate, he became the editor of the Omaha World-Herald newspaper between 1894 and 1896.

While Bryan was a three-time candidate for the president of the United States, and secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, he is perhaps best known for his role as a prosecutor in the Scopes Trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The Scopes “Monkey” Trial’s defendant was a high-school biology teacher charged with violating a Tennessee law which prohibited the teaching of evolution. Bryan, who had issued a series of attacks on evolution with titles such as “The Menace of Darwinism” in the preceding years, appeared to be a natural fit for the role opposite John Scopes successful defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. The event resembled a carnival, with tent revivalists and hawkers selling souvenirs flocking to the scene, and had to be moved outdoors to accommodate the thousands who came to witness the trial. Although John Scopes was found guilty, Bryan and the fundamentalists were portrayed as ignorant and were ridiculed throughout the country. Bryan died just days after the trial ended.

For further reading see Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life and Times of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf, 2006). 

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