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.

Creation, Evolution, and College Marketing

Bryan College is having a rough time.  The school is experiencing angst as it wrestles with a new policy about the origins of humanity.  The leadership is insisting that members of the school community must adhere to a newly rigid position on origins.  All members of the college community, it seems, will be asked to sign off on a doctrinal statement recognizing that Adam & Eve represented the real, historical ancestors of all humanity.  Traditionally, faculty and students had been encouraged, or at least permitted, to embrace a relatively wide scope of Biblical opinions about the age of the earth and the historicity of Adam & Eve.

Some commentators have argued that this represents a false dilemma for Christians, or even that Bryan’s misery proves the failure of religion in the modern world.  But there is a simpler explanation.

Those familiar with the history of Bryan College can’t help but note the ironies here.  As I point out in my 1920s book, the founding of Bryan College was stymied by William Jennings Bryan’s unorthodox brand of conservative evangelical Protestantism.  Not only did the original Bryan not embrace the notion of a young earth, but Bryan was loud and proud about his postmillennial interpretation of Scripture.  For the growing fundamentalist movement in the 1920s, Bryan’s old-earth position was not remarkable or problematic.  Many leading fundamentalist thinkers in the 1920s had “liberal” positions about the age of the earth.  But Bryan’s postmillennial beliefs caused some worry.  Could “fundamentalists” be postmillennialists?  Such debates threatened to derail the funding of the new university in the 1920s.

Such arguments based on the history of Bryan College are relevant in today’s disputes.  The current leadership of the school insists that their new statement of faith is really only a clarification of their traditional creed.  Indeed, it would have to be, since part of that original charter stipulated that the creed could never be altered.

Faculty members at Bryan differ, however.  As we’ve noted in these pages, faculty members such as Bryan Eisenback have crafted innovative school curricula that hope to teach evolution to Christians in a Christian way.  As described in a recent article in Chattanooga’s Times Free Press, Eisenback has been accused of teaching both evolution and creationism.  As Eisenback described to the TFP,

In my view, God gave us science to learn about the physical world.  When people embrace that, science is our way of understanding God’s handiwork, so to speak, then science isn’t threatening. It becomes exciting.

As usual, Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education offered a sensible argument in the pages of the TFP.  Bryan’s leadership, Rosenau noted, seemed to be staking out a hard-line position unnecessarily.  “The evangelical position,” Rosenau argued, “doesn’t have to be an outright rejection of human evolution. There are ways to be a Bible-believing literalist without being at odds with science.”

Less convincing was the cackling triumphalism of science pundit Jerry Coyne.  In the pages of The New Republic, Coyne argued that the mess at Bryan College resulted from a necessary clash between advancing science and retreating religion.  “Bryan is fighting a losing battle,” Coyne crowed,

but it will be a long battle. These vestiges of superstition, and of blind adherence to it, will eventually disappear as America becomes more secular. There will always be Biblical literalism, but I’m confident it will slowly wane. But it will wane not with the changing of minds, but over the corpses of its adherents, as the older generation dies off and the younger, exposed to secularism and doubt on the internet, begins to ask questions.

I’m an avid reader of Coyne’s blog, but I don’t see how his argument makes sense.  The “older generation” he refers to is many generations derived from the founders of Bryan College.  A pile of the corpses of adherents to Bryan College’s conservative theology would be too high for any young people to climb over!

Corpse imagery aside, there’s a more important point to be made here.  College presidents want most of all to see their institutions thrive.  As the Chattanooga TFP article makes clear, the problem at Bryan College started when prominent young-earth creationist Ken Ham accused the college of falling away from Biblical orthodoxy.  The leadership of Bryan College faces a worrying prospect.  What if conservative evangelical parents no longer trust the orthodoxy on tap at Bryan?  What if they no longer agree to send their children and their tuition dollars to the school?

More than nuances in Biblical scholarship or evolutionary theory, college presidents must consider such things.  The dangers to the bottom line from the condemnation of Ken Ham are real and substantial.  Unless the leadership acted to shore up the impression of orthodoxy, they must have worried that their institution would become just another failed small religious college.

Let me be clear: I have no inside knowledge of the goings-on at Bryan College.  But it seems as if the simplest explanation here is probably the right one.  Beyond keeping the faith true, college presidents must worry about keeping the lights on.  In today’s climate, a bad review from the likes of Ken Ham could easily spell the end of any conservative evangelical school.