What Would Bryan Do?

H/t KT

Would William Jennings Bryan support the recent move by the president of Bryan College?  That’s the question Bryan’s great-grandchildren are asking these days.

As we’ve reported, Bryan College’s leadership has imposed a new, stricter faculty policy.  From now on, faculty must believe that Adam and Eve were real, historical persons and the real, genetic origins of all subsequent humanity.  As science pundit Jerry Coyne has pointed out, that puts evangelical scientists in a pickle, since genetic evidence indicates that the smallest possible pool of original humans had to be at least 2,250 people.  Bryan College is home to science-curriculum innovators Brian Eisenback and Ken Turner, who hope to show evangelical students that evolution does not necessarily disprove their Biblical faith.

What would the original Bryan say about all this?  The college, after all, was founded as a memorial to Bryan’s last decade of work defending the centrality of Biblical wisdom in American life and politics.  As I argued in my 1920s book, though, Bryan himself held some beliefs about both the beginnings and the end of time that have made other conservative evangelical Protestants uncomfortable.  Bryan did not believe in a young earth, nor in a literal six-day creation.  Nor did Bryan think Jesus had to come back before the earth experienced its promised thousand-year reign of peace and justice.

Bryan Gets Grilled by Darrow at the Scopes Trial

Bryan Gets Grilled by Darrow at the Scopes Trial

Other historians, too, have noted Bryan’s complicated relationship with the fundamentalist movement in its first decade, the 1920s.  Lawrence Levine’s Defender of the Faith and, more recently, Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero both get into the gritty details of Bryan’s anti-evolution crusade.

Historians might disagree, but we all will get nervous about trying to predict what Bryan would say about today’s dust-up at Bryan College.  Because Bryan’s ideology and theology remain necessarily part of his life between 1915 and 1925.  It is mostly meaningless to ask what he would say today, because the situation today is so wildly different from what it was back then.

For example, when Bryan led his anti-evolution movement in the 1920s, the scientific jury was still out on the mechanism of evolution.  Darwin’s explanation—modified descent through natural selection—had been roundly criticized and nearly dismissed by the mainstream scientific community.  So when Bryan led the charge against the teaching of evolution, he could claim with scientific legitimacy that natural selection was not established scientifically.  It was not until years after Bryan’s death that biologists and geneticists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and others solved the problem of genetic “swamping” that seemed to make Darwin’s idea of natural selection a non-starter.

I’ve spent my time with Bryan’s papers at the Library of Congress.  I like Bryan.  He was a successful politician, but I don’t hold that against him.  I believe he was also sincere and devoted to justice.  I came to believe that Bryan was profoundly shocked and surprised when he could not produce his dream team of scientific experts at the Scopes Trial to put evolutionary scientists in their place.

Of course, Bryan died just a few days after the trial.  I can’t help but wonder how he might have “evolved” in his thinking if he had lived.  Would his experience at the Scopes Trial have caused him to re-think his confidence that evolutionary science would soon be disproven?  And, more intriguing, how would Bryan have responded if he had lived for an even longer stretch?  An Old-Testament sort of lifespan?

Would Bryan have embraced the “new evangelicalism” of Carl Henry and Billy Graham?  Would he have worked to make sure Biblical religion remained in conversation with mainstream American culture and politics?

I can’t help but think that he would.  I agree with Bryan’s great-grandson Kent Owen, who told reporter Kevin Hardy, “My view of Bryan is that things weren’t set in stone. . . .  He was pragmatic.”

What does this mean for today’s leadership at Bryan College?  On one hand, they are continuing the legacy of their school.  Bryan College was never bound too tightly to the thinking of the original William Jennings Bryan.  From its outset, Bryan College took a firmer, more “fundamentalist” position than Bryan himself ever did.  But on the other hand, the insistence of today’s leadership that Bryan College faculty sign on to a specific understanding of the historicity of Adam & Eve does not sound like something the Great Commoner would have supported.  As long as the principle of respect and reverence for the Bible was maintained, the original Bryan thought, people of good will could disagree on the details.

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2 Comments

  1. I see Bryan College as making a huge mistake here.

    Back before I left religion, I took “sola scriptura” as something akin to academic freedom. You did not have to follow the dictates of the papacy. You were to read the Bible yourself and come to your own conclusions. This was not an invitation to heresy, in that you understood there were traditions. I see that as similar to academic freedom, which does not license me to teach any old thing — there are still traditions. But I am not told what to think.

    It seems to me that Bryan College, and other fundamentalist colleges, are taking steps toward the undoing of the protestant reformation, toward the institution of a new papacy.

    Reply
  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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