William Jennings Bryan was born on March 19, 1860, in Salem, Illinois, to Silas Lillard Bryan and Mariah Elizabeth Jennings Bryan. His maternal ancestry was from England. Mariah Bryan mother joined the Salem Baptists in 1872. Bryan attended services at the Methodist Church on Sunday morning, and then he attended services at the Baptist Church in the afternoon. About this time Bryan began spending his afternoons at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. When he was 14 years old, he attended a revival and was soon baptized in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. He later stated that his decision to be baptized was the most important day of his life; however he later left that church and joined the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, a larger church.
Silas Bryan was of Scottish-Irish and English heritage. He was also an avid Jacksonian Democrat. He entered politics when he was elected to the Illinois State Senate but was defeated for re-election in 1860. He was also elected as a state circuit judge. In 1866 he moved his family to a 520-acre farm north of Salem with a large ten-room house.
Bryan was home-schooled until age ten. He used the Bible and McGuffey Readers to support his views that gambling and liquor were evil and sinful. In 1874 he was sent to Whipple Academy, in Jacksonville, Illinois. After finishing high school at Whipple Academy, he attended Illinois College. He graduated from Illinois College as valedictorian in 1881; he was also a member of the Sigma Pi literary society and Acacia (fraternity).
Bryan then studied law in Chicago at Union Law College, which later became Northwestern University School of Law. He taught high school while studying for the bar exam. He also met Mary Elizabeth Baird. Bryan and Mary Elizabeth had a common cousin, William Sherman Jennings. Bryan and Mary Elizabeth were married on October 1, 1884 and then settled in Jacksonville, a city of 2,000. They became parents of three children: Ruth Bryan Owens, William Jennings Bryan, Jr., and Grace Bryan.
Mary joined Bryan as an attorney and worked with him on his speeches and writings. Bryan practiced law from 1883 to 1887 in Jacksonville and then moved to Lincoln, Nebraska. There he met James Dahlman who helped carry Nebraska for Bryan in two presidential campaigns, and the two remained lifelong friends even though Dahlman was associated with the shady side of Nebraska.
Bryan was elected by a landslide to the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska’s First Congressional District in 1890, becoming only the second Democrat to be elected to Congress in the history of Nebraska. In his bid for re-election he won by only 140 votes in 1892. In 1894 he campaigned for the Senate but lost in a Republican landslide.
“Bryan was a leading American politician from the 1890s until his death. He was a dominant force in the populist wing of the Democratic Party, standing three times as the Party’s candidate for President of the United States (1896, 1900 and 1908). He served two terms as a member of the United States House of Representatives from Nebraska and was the United States Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1915), resigning because of his pacifist position on the World War. Bryan was a devout Presbyterian, a strong advocate of popular democracy, and an enemy of the banks and their gold standard. He demanded `Free Silver’ (because it reduced power attributed to money and put more money in the hands of the people). He was a peace advocate, a prohibitionist and an opponent of Darwinism on religious and humanitarian grounds. With his deep, commanding voice and wide travels, he was one of the best-known orators and lecturers of the era. Because of his faith in the wisdom of the common people, he was called `The Great Commoner.’
“In the intensely fought 1896 and 1900 elections, he was defeated by William McKinley but retained control of the Democratic Party. With over 500 speeches in 1896, Bryan invented the national stumping tour, in an era when other presidential candidates stayed home. In his three presidential bids, he promoted Free Silver in 1896, anti-imperialism in 1900, and trust-busting in 1908, calling on Democrats to fight the trusts (big corporations) and big banks, and embrace anti-elitist ideals of republicanism. President Wilson appointed him Secretary of State in 1913, but Wilson’s strong demands on Germany after the Lusitania was torpedoed in 1915 caused Bryan to resign in protest. After 1920 he was a strong supporter of Prohibition and energetically attacked Darwinism and evolution, most famously at the Scopes Trial in 1925….”
Bryan continued to edit and deliver speeches and traveled hundreds of miles in five days following the end of the trial. He traveled from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Dayton, on Sunday, July 26, 1925. There he went to a church service, ate a large meal and died in his sleep from diabetes and fatigue that afternoon. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery