Bryan's Last Speech
During his debate with Clarence Darrow in the Scopes trial, William Jennings Bryan prepared to present a speech that was never delivered. The statements below are excerpts from that speech recorded in the booklet, Bryan’s Last Speech (Oklahoma City: Sunlight, 1925). Background information is first given by Charles Darwin’s son and then material taken from Bryan’s speech.
When the Legislature of Tennessee passed a law forbidding the teaching of evolution in the public schools and a young man named Scopes, employed as a teacher, violated that law, Mr. Bryan volunteered to go to Dayton, where Scopes was to be tried, to assist in the prosecution. Other distinguished men, pro and con, volunteered their services, the most celebrated of those representing the defendant being Clarence Darrow, of Chicago.
. . . By reason of a strange, quick turn of events which terminated the trial, this speech was never delivered, all argument, at last moment being waived, and the Great Commoner [Bryan] spent the remainder of his life—a few brief days—in revising it before it was given to the public press. For the convenience of the public that will wish to treasure it, it is prepared and presented in the present form. (6)
The following is taken from Bryan’s speech.
Now let us follow with his son’s exposition of his father’s views as they are given in extracts from a biography written in 1876. Here is Darwin’s language as quoted by his son:
“During these two years (October, 1838, to January, 1939)) I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (thought themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. When thus reflecting, I felt compelled to look for a first cause, having an intelligent mind, in some degree analogous to man; and I deserved to be called an atheist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the ‘Origin of Species.’ It is since that time that it has very gradually, with many fluctuations, become weaker. Then arises the doubt, can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draw such grand conclusions? I can not pretend to throw the least light on such such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insolvable by us; and I, for one, must be content to remain an agnostic. (24)
Bryan then commented on Darwin’s statement, “Can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?”
“Here is the explanation; he drags man down to the brute levels, and then, judging man by brute standards questions: ‘Whether man’s mind can be trusted to deal with God and immortality.’” (25)
When Darwin’s mind would lead him to conclude God was behind all creation, he chose to doubt his mind instead of trust it when evidence might lead him to accept such a grand conclusion. Because Darwin came to doubt his mind, he left his strong atheist view to become an agnostic. His mind could lead him to believe God created, but he was not sure he could trust his mind when it led him to conclude God created. The question is, if he could trust his mind if it led him to believe man developed by the process of evolution, why could he not believe his mind if it led him to believe God created?