Fifty years ago this month the biggest news story since World War I broke across the front pages in this country and abroad: the Scopes “monkey” trial of July 9–21, 1925. And only a few days after the trial ended, its most famous participant, William Jennings Bryan, lay dead.
Today historians are beginning to see the Scopes trial and William Jennings Bryan in a different way than most Americans saw them in 1925. By the end of the trial, Bryan was the most vilified man in America, at least in most of the nation’s leading newspapers. He died shortly afterward with a dark cloud hanging over his reputation.
But from the perspective of half a century, Bryan’s place of leadership in both the Progressive movement and evangelical Christianity is being reassessed. The experiences of fifty years have forced historians to take a second look at the harsh criticisms leveled at him in the mid-1920s. Bryan’s personal and political reputation is being restored, and evangelicals are rediscovering a respected “hero of the faith.”
The 1920s were a time of intellectual, social, and economic upheaval in the United States. They were also a time of bitter trial for American Christianity. As the noted historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom said: “Furious controversies, great debates, and wild fulminations were the order of the day. And nearly all of this conflict is part of the nation’s religious history, either because the churches were active participants or because events impinged on their life” (A Religious History of the American People, p. 896).
Perhaps most important for evangelical Christianity was the spectacular development of science and technology in the period. Some Protestant leaders tried to accommodate traditional doctrines to modern scientific ...1
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