“A Rigorously Christian Liberal” – Wm Jennings Bryan

On our recent trip we found a bookstore in Sedona AZ going out of business; and of course you have to go in. Talk about bittersweet! You hate to see a bookstore of any kind going out of business. (Unless it’s one of those “adult” stores that – I presume – only sell stuff like books on accounting, tax strategy, property management, business law, etc.) On the other hand, it means wonderful opportunities for those of us sadly afflicted with lust for the feel of a new carefully chosen book in our hands.

So Connie picked out some very good childrens’ hardbacks (all hardbacks were $4, all paperbacks $2). And I found a new hardback biography of William Jennings Bryan (and a paperback of Clinton quotes).

Bryan was elected to Congress from eastern Nebraska in 1890 and 1892. He was later three times the Democratic nominee for President, and served as Secretary of State early in Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency.

Unfortunately he is mostly remembered today as the silly man portrayed in the movie “Inherit the Wind.” That he was not entirely silly (no politician is, despite what we may sometimes think) is clearly indicated by these quotes from my new book.

First there is this awesome rebuke he delivered to the Republicans among his fellow Congressmen. He’d been elected in a “wave” year not unlike this recent election (except, unfortunately, Nebraska is sending no Democrats to Congress this time). This was late in a ringing speech early in his career in Congress.

You rioted in power,
you mocked the supplication of the people,
you denied their petitions,
and now you have felt their wrath.

He wrote this a few years earlier, as a college senior.

I rejoice that in a few years it will not be necessary to shoot a man to convince him that you are right and to blot out a nation to prove to them that their principles are false.

Most Americans, he said,

are interested, not in getting their hands into other people’s pockets, but in keeping the hands of other people out of their pockets.

Here’s Bryan on what makes a good orator:

He borrows from the philosopher his principles,
from the poet his language,
from the warrior his courage,
and mingling with these his own enthusiams,
leads his hearers according to his will.

And when Bryan died Will Rogers said this:

Bryan was just a plain citizen, holding no office. Yet this country holds hundreds and thousands of people who feel that they haven’t got a Soul now who will conscientiously fight for them, the plain people. Bryan had no Vice President.

I certainly would not agree with all his convictions or all his positions. How would you ever dare say that about anyone? There are things here to avoid. But there is much here to emulate.

The author, Michael Kazin, sums it all up like this:

… a rigorously Christian liberalism was not a contradiction in terms.


Kazin ends with this.

As everyone who heard him could attest, Bryan made significant public issues sound urgent, dramatic, and clear, and he encouraged citizens to challenge the motives and interests of the most powerful people in the land. That is a quality absent among our recent leaders … Bryan’s sincerity, warmth, and passion for a better world won the hearts of people who cared for no other public figure in his day. We should take their reasons seriously before we decide to mistrust them.

And, from the intro:

He did more than any other man to transform the Democratic Party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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  • You are right, Elisia. We are sending Democratic Senator Ben Nelson back to the Senate – by a landslide’s landslide. And true, “Congress” is often used to include both “Houses of Congress.” It’s a confusing but common usage, and does have a certain logic to it. I was trusting the context here to clarify which I was referring to, but I guess I didn’t make that context entirely clear.

  • One quick correction-

    You wrote “Nebraska is sending no Democrats to Congress this time.” Technically, the Senate is part of Congress, so we are sending Democrat Ben Nelson. I know, I know, Congress is often used in reference to the House only, but it really means both House and Senate.

    Blame all those college poly-sci courses for making me nit-picky!

  • The Tennessee “Monkey” trial was a sad time for Christians, America and Bryant. The consequences are felt even today, the decision split familes, congregations and denominations, and directly led to the the hard-right christianism that we see. I dare say that Bryant is spinning in his grave, as most definitley not a right-winnger. I think he once said that he “wasn’t interested in the age of rocks, but rather the Rock 0f Ages.