Early Life


William Jennings Bryan was born into a deeply religious family.  Bryan’s father, a judge, was a Baptist and his mother was a Methodist, until he was twelve, and she converted to the Baptist religion as well.  There was no importance placed on denominational differences, just on morality.  His parents taught truth, love, work, and obedience and condemned drinking, gambling, dancing, swearing, idleness, and dishonesty.[1]   Bryan was converted, with his sister, in a Presbyterian church and remained a member of that denomination, adding to the denominational plurality of the Bryan family.  He stated of the experience, “Having been raised in a Christian home, conversion did not mean a change in my habits of life or habits of thought.  I do not know of a virtue that came into my life as a result of my joining the church, because all the virtues had been taught me by my parents.”[2]  Throughout life Bryan credited his parents, and the McGuffey[3] Reader for his religious convictions and his father for his political aspirations.

After attending Illinois College and Union Law College, where his oratorical skills were polished, Bryan joined the political arena in his native Nebraska.  Bryan began his political careers as an agrarian Democrat at the same time as the advent of Populism, a movement advancing the interests of the economically repressed farmers.  Many of his ideas coincided with the Populists, but he was never a member of the group.  Bryan was elected to serve in Congress in 1890 and again in 1892 due to his opinions on tariffs and prohibition.  These victories were notable as he was the second Democrat elected in Nebraska’s history.[4]

Bryan’s oratorical skills made him very popular in Washington, leading to prominence in the party.  He was first nominated for the presidency in 1896 but lost to William McKinley.  Bryan received the nod from his party again in 1900, but was once again defeated by McKinley.  The Democratic convention chose Judge Alton B. Parker as its candidate in 1904, who also lost.  Bryan’s last run for the presidency occurred in 1908 when he ran against William H. Taft and, once again, lost the race.  Bryan was never bitter toward the common man for his defeats.  He attributed the losses to misinformation, coercion, and special interests, which only strengthened his desire to share his message of religion and reform.[5]


William Jennings Bryan:  A Conservative Progressive

Early Life

The Progressive Politician

World War I:  The Destruction of a Dream

Church and State:  Religion's Role in the Democratic System

Bryan's Downfall:  Evolution and the Scopes Monkey Trial


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This page was last updated on March 30, 2001

[1] Paolo Coletta, William Jennings Bryan: I. Political Evangelist, 1860-1908  (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 5-6.

[2] William Jennings Bryam, quoted in Coletta, 6.

[3] The McGuffey Reader was a collection of poems, short stories, and fables that reincforced religious values.  This popular book for children sold over 122,000,000 copies from 1836-1920.  Therefore it influenced many children, especially those in the Midwest.

[4] Ibid., 41.

[5] Lawrence W. Levine, Defender of the Faith:  William Jennings Bryan: The Last Decade, 1915-1925  (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1965), 222.