This Week in Texas Methodist History December 26
On December 31, 1907 the Campbell Sunday School Class of First Methodist Episcopal Church South in Beaumont hosted William Jennings Bryan as he delivered his most requested speech, The Prince of Peace, to an audience of 1500. Bryan had been one of the most famous men in the United States for a decade as the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1896 and 1900.
He had risen from the obscurity of a two-term congressman from Nebraska on the basis of his oratorical skills. His Cross of Gold speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention had made him the youngest person ever nominated for the presidency by a major party. He was thirty-six years old. In the ensuing campaign he made hundreds of speeches from his rail car while his opponent, William McKinley, sat on his porch and let reporters come to him.
His platform was rooted in his fervent Presbyterian faith. He was for the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, against Darwinism, against U. S. imperialism, and for conventional moral principles. In 1896 the main issue was monetary policy. Apologies for the over simplification, but it was basically the debtors (farmers) who wanted cheap currency versus the lenders (bankers) who wanted tight currency. The Cross of Gold Speech was a plea for the monetization of silver. Such a policy would induce inflation and therefore relief for the debtor-farmers. Bryan lost to McKinley but had another chance in 1900. By this time in addition to the monetary issues, one of the most important foreign policy questions in U. S. history was added—that of the annexation of the Philippines. Bryan was against it. He lost again.
After the 1900 campaign Bryan was a superstar. He had delivered hundreds of speeches all across the United States and was well known to both the political elite and the common man.
He liked the life of the orator so rather than returning to the life of the lawyer after his second defeat, he turned to the Chautauqua Circuit. He was a robust young man of forty and was able to schedule as many as four appearances in a single day. His speaking fee was as much as $500. Bryan became a wealthy man and eventually acquired estates in Nebraska, Miami, Florida, and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Even though a wealthy man, he was known as the Great Commoner and published a weekly magazine called The Commoner.
The New Year’s Eve appearance in Beaumont was part of a speaking tour. On December 30 he gave the same Prince of Peace talk at the New Temple Theater in Palestine, boarded a sleeper car at 10:00 pm and arrived in Beaumont the next morning. Here is the text of the Prince of Peace speech from the New York Times, Sept. 7, 1913. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F10A1EF83A5F13738DDDAE0894D1405B838DF1D3
Soon after giving Prince of Peace to the 1908 MEC General Conference, Bryan received the Democratic nomination for president one more time, but he was again defeated. It was back to the lecture circuit. One month after his defeat he gave the Prince of Peace to students at the University of Texas. Woodrow Wilson’s victory in 1912 put a Democratic back in the White House and Bryan became Secretary of State. Although not a Christian pacifist, he was ardent for the cause of peace. His main activity was negotiating treaties between potential belligerents that promised arbitration of disputes before escalation to war.
In fact, President Wilson made most of the important foreign policy decisions without Bryan. Other members of the Wilson administration, especially David Houston, considered Bryan to be too naïve to engage in the rough and tumble world of international conflict. After the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 Wilson sent Germany a set of demands. Bryan resigned in protest because he thought the demands were too harsh.
Resignation from the Department of State did not mean an exit from politics. Bryan campaigned for prohibition and woman’s suffrage. He moved to Miami and allowed his name to be used by the developers who were creating cities in southern Florida. His final act on the public stage was the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. It was in that small town that he died five days after he had participated in the successful prosecution of John Scopes.
He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with the epitaph, “He Kept the Faith.”