Defending William Jennings Bryan

I recently watched (once again…it’s a film I’ve watched many times) the classic film interpretation of the Scopes Trial, Inherit The Wind.  While I have a deep appreciation for the film as someone with an interest in evolution and anti-evolution movements, the portrayal of Bryan in the film is problematic.

Throughout the film, we see Matthew Brady (the character representing Bryan) portrayed in a wholly alien way to someone familiar with William Jennings Bryan.  Brady was a Young Earth Creationist, convinced that the Earth was created in 4004 BC (as given by the Ussher chronology).  The real Bryan held a rather different view, which was compatible with an old Earth (the “day-age” interpretation of Genesis).  While many people instantly think of Young Earth Creationists when the term “Creationist” is mentioned today, Bryan’s position was a relatively common one in his day.  It may seem like I’m jumping on minutia here, but there is a key difference between Brady in the film and Bryan in real life in this area.

One other extremely blatant misportrayal of Bryan within the film comes near the end of the film, when Brady states his desire for a much harsher penalty than the Scopes character recieved.  In reality, Bryan was not trying to ruin Scopes.  In fact, Bryan offered to pay Scopes’ fine.  Thus, Inherit the Wind portrays Bryan in a negative light compared to what he actually was like during the trial. 

A final note: Bryan was not some defeated buffoon come the end of the trial.  He did not give up on the anti-evolution movement.  In fact, Bryan was preparing to expand it before his death(Larson 198-199).  While he was upset by the trial, and   clearly took a beating at the hands of Clarence Darrow, he was not broken.  And the trial was clearly not a victory for evolutionists.  How could it have been?  The trial ended, and Scopes was found guilty.  Scopes fine was eventually discarded on a technicality, thus preventing the defense from challenging the ruling in a higher court.  Evolution would continue to be excluded from classrooms for years to come.

Therefore, when watching a film such as Inherit the Wind, remember that the work is inherently a work of fiction.  Bryan really wasn’t as bad as they made him out to be.  Inherit the Wind, while a classic film, has its own historical problems, as I have partially demonstrated.  However, the film does much to expose the public perception of a battle between science and religion, a battle that is not always necessarily present.  This concept is an old myth, popularized by the likes of Draper, through the conflict thesisInherit The Wind offers a good illustration of this myth, thus making the film worth watching even with its historical errors.  While events such as the Scopes Trial certain had religious and scientific influences and consequences, the perception that science and religion are always necessarily at each other’s throats is inherently and deeply flawed.  Let us remember that when we see Bryan portrayed as a religious zealot yearning for the crucifixion of a science teacher who overused his right to think.  As we have seen, this is not the case at all. Yes.  Social factors were at play in the Scopes Trial.  But this was not a simple case of Science VS. Religion.


Works Cited:

Larson, EJ.  Summer For The Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.  Basic Books, New York, 2006

Explore posts in the same categories: 1900s, evolution, history of science, legal battles, Science and Pseudoscience

5 Comments on “Defending William Jennings Bryan”

  1. John Pieret Says:

    Also, the authors of the play, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, were intentionally using the Scopes trial as a stand-in for McCartyism. As tey said: “we used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control […] It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.”

    It was, in the end, a morality tale and, like a certain book filled with such tales, it is dangerous to take it too literally.

  2. JG Says:

    Great essay, and good comment from John. I too was contemplating MCarthism but not aware of the parable that John pointed out. Instead, I was reminded that Mike’s essay shows that we can enjoy our favorite examples to the point that we imbue them with unwarranted meaning and fictional details. Specifically, I recalled a friend’s unpublished essay about McCarthism as portrayed in high school history books. His argument was the McCarthy story was so loved by liberal textbook writers that it gets repeated with little scrutiney and its portrayal has become more a parable than a historic description. For example, he cites a textbook that says “Macarthy was unmourned at his death,” yet my friend reports that over 2000 people attended his funeral.

    I see a similar examination in this essay. You’ve tried to remind pro-evolutionists not to enjoy the example of the Scope’s trial too much.

    thank you,

    • darwinaia Says:

      Thanks John (JG). Nice point on McCarthyism in history books! I took a history course titled “US Since 1940” last semester, and we covered McCarthyism in depth. The historical reputation of McCarthy (at least in the general public’s memory) is similar to that of Nixon; Nixon is remembered for Watergate and not much else (even though he had an arguably good presidency), and McCarthy is remembered mainly for his paranoia rather than the public appeal he once held. In a period where McCarthyism seems like a long lost memory to many, it’s easy to just laugh along with Drummond’s attacks on Brady and view it as historically accurate. Once again, I thank John for mentioning the McCarthyism link to the film.

  3. Hey good stuff…keep up the good work! I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,)

    A definite great read…:)


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