The Pr5ogressive Politician


William Jennings Bryan’s political ideology and prominence in the national scene caused him to emerge as the leader of the Progressive movement.  The Progressives were often in opposition to the capitalists due to their exploitative nature.  The Progressive agenda consisted of social, political, and economic reforms.  However, in the case of Bryan, there was a distinctly religious quality to his philosophy.  In this respect, Bryan’s beliefs were similar to the Social Gospelers[1], rather than the Fundamentalists.  Social Gospelers believed that Christian ideas should be applied to government.  Bryan wrote about these ideas as well, under the name of “applied Christianity.”  Bryan affirmed this idea when he stated, “Whether I speak on politics, on social questions, on religion, I find the foundation of my speech in the philosophy of Him who spoke as man never spoke, who gave us a philosophy that fits into every human need and furnishes the solution for every problem that can vex a human heart or perplex the world.”[2]  Fundamentalists were premillenialists, therefore they felt change would not occur until the second coming of Christ; thus reform was seen as futile.  Bryan stated that he was not concerned with the second coming, as it was more important to convince people of the first coming, rather than dismiss them as hopeless because of their immoral state.[3]  The Fundamentalist movement was also defined by belief in the following characteristics:  the infallibility of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, the deity of Christ, the resurrection and atonement of Christ for the world’s sins, the second coming, the desire to get modernists[4] out of the church, and the idea of anti-evolutionism.[5]

            Progressivism was applied to the economically repressed plight of farmers and was later extended to the plight of urban workers who were repressed by the capitalists.  However, due to Bryan’s agrarian Nebraska background, his Progressivism was manifested primarily as a battle between the East and the West – the city and the country.  Bryan felt that the country had a higher level of morality than the city for three reasons.  In the country, man is in daily contact with nature, the farmer gets his money from the earth instead of other men, and the hard physical labor resulting in the need for rest kept man away from the temptations of the city.[6]

            The city was the home of big business and the corrupt capitalists.  Bryan felt strong contempt against these robberbarons, who were prospering while the farmer was suffering.  Bryan disliked their business principles, and was especially vocal in his protests against trusts.  He had no confidence in their decisions and accountablilty for their action since he felt that society had made business stronger than God.  He stated that men were accountable for their deeds but corporations have no form of judgement, which was potentially dangerous.[7]  In Bryan’s opinion this was a political question, which had an economic side, and economic issues had a moral consideration.  Therefore he proposed that the nation’s problems could be solved by listening to one’s morals.[8]  He felt that trusts were morally wrong and encouraged churches to advance his idea. 


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] Bryan was not as Socialist in his ideas as some of the Social Gospelers were.  However, Bryan did advance some ideas that were seen as Socialistic, such as municipal utilities and government operated railroads, telegraphs, and telephones.

[2] William Jennings Bryan, quoted in Lawrence W. Levine, Defender of the Faith:  William Jennings Bryan:  The Last Decade, 1915-1925 (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1965), 250.

[3] Willard H. Smith, “William Jennings Bryan and the Social Gospel,” The Journal of American History 53 (June 1966):  56

[4] Modernism was a liberal theology that greatly differed from religious fundamentalism.

[5] Levine, 258-9.

[6] Ibid., 227-8.

[7]Paul W. Glad, The Trumpet Soundeth:  William Jennings Bryans and his Democracy, 1896-1912 (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1960), 88.

[8] Paolo Coletta, William Jennings Bryan:  I. Political Evangelist, 1860-1908 (Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 353.