Bryan, Religion, and the Silver Question

by Pam Epstein, Vassar '99

The prevailing issue of the 1896 campaign between Bryan and McKinley was, without a doubt, the question of the gold standard versus free silver. Both the Republican and the Democratic platforms were based on their respective views of how currency should be managed in the future. The Republicans stood by the gold standard; they were for the "honest dollar." Democrats, however, breaking away from the platform of the Democratic president Grover Cleveland, began to stand for free coinage of silver, and their poster boy for free silver became William Jennings Bryan. While this hotly contested issue was without question an entirely economic one, both Republicans and Democrats turned free silver into a moral and religious crusade as well.

In many of his speeches, most notably the famous "Cross of Gold Speech" from the Democratic National Convention, Bryan used very strong religious imagery and analogy to push bimetallism. This can be attributed to more than just the simple fact that Bryan himself was an extremely religious man, who had originally planned to become a minister. The Democratic campaign rested on his ability to rouse small farmers and laborers alike to rally to their platform. Counting on the continuing religious revivalism that was sweeping the country, Bryan turned free silver into a moral issue, and suggested himself to be the savior of the common people. He likened himself to Moses, Jesus, Solomon and David; where he left off, his followers took up, describing "his eyes burning like coals of fire and his head and his powerful priest-like face radiant with hope and courage" (1). Although on the surface, "Bryan's speeches covered a multitude of topics -- silver and gold, money and prices, banking, [and] coercion...[a]t the deeper level...his speeches were all the same, his words were all about good and evil, the righteous and the wicked, the common people and their oppressors, salvation and damnation" (2).

At the same time, supporters of the gold standard reacted to free silver with equal religious fervor. Though Bryan had the following of many ministers and preachers, many religious leaders considered his religious analogies to be blasphemous. At the same time, they considered the idea of free silver to be evil, morally repugnant, and inspired in hell. The main problem for them came from the idea that lowering the value of the dollar was stealing; more than one minister quoted the commandment "Thou shalt not steal" as a reason why the gold standard must be maintained. If bimetallism was instituted, all the money that was owed to Americans and to foreign countries would be depreciated in value, and those lenders would be cheated when their debt was repaid. So for these men, the issue was more about honesty and integrity than economics.

Though Bryan's speeches were said to have induced "conversions" reminiscent of early conversion to Christianity, his religious ploy obviously failed in the end. While whipping up a storm among the "common people," he offended many religious leaders who took a stand against him in their pulpits. Moreover, the free silverites were never able to fully prove exactly what their platform would do for the country, especially as the Republicans had proof that the economy was functioning perfectly well under the gold standard. Arguments for good versus evil were very rousing, but they were not concrete, as many of his opponenets were quick to point out.

Private letter from cartoonist Watson Heston to Ignatius Donnelly, editor of The Representative, concerning the cartoon "History Repeats Itself"

July 12 1896, Morristown, Tenn.
My dear friend:
Yours of the 9th received. I understood you and the situation also with you in regard to the cartoon referred to. I suspected at once that a large portion of your readers were Catholics and their religious ideas obscured their vision so that they misunderstood my motives and the real spirit of the cartoon. When I made that picture I had no thought that it would be seen by many Catholics or I might have modified it a little, but I hope in their sober second thought they will recover their normal condition and see that they were rather hasty in scoring you or stopping a paper which is doing more for their real freedom than all the religions papers on earth. As I said before I do not believe in mixing up politics and religion and did not mean to hurt the feelings of any sincere Christian, for I know how dangerous it is to touch that which religionists hold sacred. While I believe in none of their creeds, yet I would protect all men whether Catholic, Protestant, Jew or pagan in the right to worship or not worship--to believe or not believe as their consciences dictates. After years of investigation, I am convinced that Jesus Christ is absolutely a mythical character, but of course that idea is shocking to the average man.
Sincerely your friend,
Watson Heston

Reprinted courtesy Minnesota Historical Society, from the Ignatius Donnelly Papers

Rev. Park A. Bradford Resigns His Charge at Tyngsboro, Mass.

Lowell, Mass., Sept. 4-- One of the most notable features of the silver movement in this city is the leadership of Rev. Park A. Braford, a Congregational minister, who has just resigned his pastorate in Tyngsboro, Mass., owing to pressure brought against him on account of his advocacy of free silver.
Mr. Bradford was quite popular with his congregation until he began to advocate free silver and to assail the gold standard. Had he not come out openly upon the public platform he might have continued to minister to his flock, but to speak at a Democratic rally in favor of Bryan and Sewall and to accept the presidency of the Lowell Non-Partisan Silver League was too much for his congregation to bear.
He soon learned that his action had aroused the indignation of his flock, and, feeling that he was not quite justified in holding the position of pastor while following a course so despicable in the eyes of his church, he decided to get out.
--New York Journal, 5 September 1896

A Populist Preacher's Opinion

The Rev. Myron W. Reed, of Denver, Colo., delivered a sermon from the church standpoint last Sunday. That Mr. Reed is a thinker as well as a preacher is attested by the following extract from his sermon:
"I want you to read what an American prophet said soon after the revolutionary war:

'The spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest and our cities united. From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill... The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off on the conclusion of this war will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.'

That was written by Thomas Jefferson. Is it not true of the days since the war we remember? The war was over and we went about our business. And money changers went about their business. Now we are getting awake and are braiding a whip. We are in interesting days for rascals and the enemies of rascals.

I am very grateful to God that a Democratic convention has been inspired to give to the people of these States a Democratic platform. I have read it carefully and it sounds like Jefferson and Jackson and Lincoln. I want everything there is in that platform and more, but I remember there is more to follow. As a first course for 1896 it will do. It will leave me with an appetite. There are other years and other things.

The platform is not built for "the god of things as they are" to stand upon. "The god of things as they ought to be" stands on this platform.

The man fits the platform. He is older than the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence.... He is older than the preacher of the sermon on the mount.
--Arkansas Gazette, July 15

Why should the Democratic managers demand of us a complete and unconditional surrender? They say we must fuse, but their idea of fusion is that we play minnow while they play trout; we play June bug while they play duck; we play Jonah while they play the whale.
--Tom Watson, New York World, 5 August 1896

from Bryan's Speech in Grand Rapids:
to the Ladies

We can support bimetallism, I say, by appealing to authority and I could continue quotations until morning from the highest authorities in this land. But if it is not sufficient to prove our case by reason, by logic and by authorities, we can prove it by analogies. I have been taught to believe that He who was infinite in power, was also infinite in love. He never gave to mankind a need without giving the means of satisfying it. When He made food necessary to human existence, He gave the earth with its bounties, and there has always been enough to satisfy the hunger of man; when He made water necessary to human existence He filled the earth with veins and planted the springs along the hillsides; when He allowed weariness to creep over the limbs of the toilers He sent sleep, tired nature's sweet restorer, to renew their strength; when he gave to mankind a mind capable of development and a thirst for knowledge He filled the universe with His wonders which may well occupy the thoughts of man; and when he fitted man for society, placed him among his fellows and fashioned the channels of trade, he stored away in the secret places of the mountains the gold and silver suitable for money. Mankind found these precious metals, dragged them from their hiding places and for six thousand years they have come down to us side by side, ministering unto the wants of man. I may be in error; if I am, I hope I may be led into the better way, but in my humble judgement, the man who would rob mankind of his food and leave his appetite; who would corrupt the springs from which he drinks and yet leave the necessity of water; who would rob him of his needed rest and yet allow his weariness to come again; or condemn his mind to ignorance and gloom or superstitiion, is no more an enemy of his race than the man who, knowing what he does, but deaf to the entreaties of the poor and blind to the suffereing he would cause, would strike out of existence one of the precious metals given by the Almighty Himself to meet the needs of man.

Cartoons Dealing with Bryan and Religion
(including references to the 'Cross of Gold' speech)

20 August, Sound Money
5 September, Harper's Weekly
19 September, Judge
10 October, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
20 October, L.A. Times
22 October, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Campaign Song

No crown of thorms to its brow shall press, Never again, say we, no cross of gold mankind distress; Never again say we. We'll loosen all the cords that bind; Give equal chance to all mankind, and here a new Redeemer find, Leading to victory.

Labor and the Church.
I have been looking up history, and am compelled to say, in all candor and truth, I fail to find anything recorded in history that the church has done for the workingman that would in any way entitle her to his confidence or respect. During labor's long struggle for justice and liberty the church has made no effort in his behalf.... When four millions of workingmen were held in cruel slavery in the United States the church not only failed to do anything for their freedom, but gave her sanction to the damnable custom.
--Rev. J. A. Bradic, Caseyville, Indiana, in The Coming Nation, July 25, 1896.

(see also the "Cross of Gold" address)

from Bryan's Chicago Speech, Second Reception
The Bible tells us that when the children of Israel were in bondage and asked for a lightening of their burdens, the Pharoah of their time said that they were idle and recommended more work. He compelled them to make bricks without straw. Pharoah has been the same in all ages. No matter to what race he belongs, no matter when or where he lives, Pharoah lives on the toil of others and always wants to silence complaint by making the load heavier.

In presenting this badge my Hebrew friends have referred to David and Goliath. Whenever we have a great contest in which right is arrayed against might, the contest between David and Goliath is always cited to give inspiration to those who fight for the truth. David conquered, not because he was stronger, but because he was on the right side; and if in this contest I am likened to David, let me reply that as David triumphed because he was right, so my only hope of victory is in the righteousness of my cause.

from the Madalin Speech
Let me read one of the planks of [the Chicago] platform: We are opposed to the issuing of interest bearing bonds of the United States in time of peace, and condemn the trafficking with banking syndicates which, in exchange for bonds, and at an enormous profit to themselves, supply the Federal Treasury with gold to maintain the policy of gold monmetallism.

That is one of the planks. That was not put in there to attract the love of those who have grown rich out of the GovernmentÕs extremities. We did not expect those who have a passage way from the Federal Treasury to their offices to join with us in closing up the passage way. We did not expect those who are making a profit out of a gold standard and out of the embarrassment which it brings to the Treasury to join with us in putting an end to the gold standard. Why, if we had expected it, we would have expected it in the face of all the history of the past.

Do you remember the Good Book tells us that some 1800 years ago a man named Demetrius complained of the preaching of the Gospel. Why? He said, "It destroys the business in which we are engaged. We are making images for the worship of Diana, and these people say that they be not gods that are made with hands."

But Demetrius was much like men who have lived since his day. When he had made up his mind that the preaching of the Gospel interfered with his business he didn't go out and say to the world, "Our business is being injured and we are mad." What did he say? He said, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians."

We have some today who are very much like Demetrius. They know that the restoration of bimetallism destroys the business in which they have been engaged.

But when they make public speeches they don't say that the Democratic party is wrong because it interferes with their business. What do they say? They say, "Great is sound money; great is an honest dollar."

from the Buffalo Speech

Our opponents tell us that they will try to secure an international agreement, and that they simply desire to maintain the gold standard until other nations will help us to let go. Can you expect the restoration of bimetallism from those who wrote the St. Louis platform? Never, until you can gather grapes from thorns and figs from thistles. Those who are responsible for the gold standard are not the ones to whom we must look for deliverance. As well might Pharoah have been expected to lead the children of Israel out of bondage, as to expect the Republican party to break the shackles of the gold standard.

from the Labor Day Speech
Let me now read to you the language used by one whose words have won for him the title of the wisest of men -- Solomon. He said:

Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me, lest I be full, and deny Thee and say, who is the Lord? Or lest I be poor, and steal and take the name of my God in vain.

Solomon desired neither poverty nor riches. He rightly estimated the dangers which lie at either extreme and preferred the -- I was about to say, golden, but I will call it the -- golden and silver mean. Neither great wealth nor abject poverty furnishes the soil in which the best civilization grows. Those who are hard pressed by poverty lose the ambition, the inspiration and the high purpose which lead men to the greatest achievements; while those who possesss too great riches lack the necessity for that labor which is absolutely essential to the development of all that is useful. Solomon was right, therefore, when he praised the intermediate condition, for the great middle classes are the bulwark of society, and from them has come almost all the good that has blessed the human race.

The highest compliment ever paid to any class of people was paid to those who are called the common people. When we use that term there are some who say that we are appealing to the passions of the amsses; there are some who say that we are appealing to the passions of the masses; there are some who apply the name demagogue to anybody who speaks of the common people. When the meek and lowly Nazarene came to preach "peace of earth, good will toward men," he was no welcomed by those who "devour widow's houses and for a pretense make long prayers." By whom was he welcomed? The Scriptures tell us that when he gave that great commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as theyself," the common people heard him gladly. This, I repeat, is the highest compliment that has ever been paid to any class of people, and the common people are the only people who have ever received gladly the doctrines of humanity and equality.

from the Philadelphia Speech
That is what they call financiering on Wall Street. I believe that the only thing in the Bible which some of those financiers ever read is the passage which says that about 1800 years ago certain wise men came from the East. They seem to think that the wise men have been coming from that direction ever since...

...We have usury laws saying that a man cannot collect more than a certain rate of interest. The theory underlying the usury laws is found in the Book of Proverbs ÐÊthat the borrower is a servant to the lender. In these transactions men do not always stand upon an equal footing, and, therefore, the Government steps in to protect the weaker from having his rights trespassed upon.

If it right to say that no man shall be permitted to collect more than a certain rate of interest, it is right for the Government to say when it has declared a certain kind of money to be legal tender, that no man shall write a contract saying that the law is a lie.

They talk about gold as if it were divine. It is, in the sense that it is their god. But it is not divine; it is matter. Instead of being a real god, and a thing to be worshiped, we are told that, when the children of Israel made it into a calf, and began to worship it, it displeased God, and he ground the calf into powder.

from the Minneapolis Speech
There is an important difference between those who espouse the cause of bimetallism and those who desert bimetallism. The man who comes to us is always willing to rise before any audience and describe the road by which he came and the arguments which converted him, but the Democrat who goes from us never states the real cause which dragged him out of the Democratic party. I think it was Senator Morgan who stated that their are two kinds of conversion. He mentioned Saul of Tarsus as illustrating one kind. Saul at first persecuted the Christians and afterwards became a preacher of the Christian faith. Aaron was cited as an illustration of the second kind of conversion. He started out as a worshiper of the true God and afterward set up a golden calf. Now, if you will remember, Saul, when he became Paul the apostle, gloried in relating his experience. He told how he was stricken with blindness and how at last the scales fell from his eyes and he saw, but Aaron was always ashamed of that calf business. And so, my friends, with those who come to us they have nothing to conceal; they are perfectly willing to tell where they stand and why they stand there; they are among the most zealous of our recruits. I used to think it might be well to have a mourners' bench for those who were coming to us, but they do not come mourning; they come rejoicing. They are not sorry at all, they are happy. They come with the enthusiasm of missionaries who go forth to preach the gospel to others, while those who go from us are only able to say in explanation of their conduct that if we had the free coinage of silver, it would be awful. Some of them are so under the control of the financiers that we have reason to doubt whether their change is found in the head or is merely a device for extending their notes at the bank.

There are reasons for bimetallism, and those reasons are so plain and simple that they can be easily understood, and when we preach bimetallism we are able to give a reason for our faith.

We are told that all we need is confidence. This confidence idea, my friends, is not a new one; it is at least eighteen hundred years old. I find in the Bible a rebuke of the same kind of confidence which is being preached today. I read there these words, "If a brother or sister be naked or destitute and one of you say unto them, depart in peace, be ye warmed and fed, notwithstanding you give them not those things which are needful to the body, what does it profit?" If you tell our opponents that laborers, who are idle in the streets because the gold standard has made it more profitable to hoard money than to employ labor in the development of the resources of the country, are naked and hungry, their only answer is, "Be ye clothed and fed;" but they give nothing to eat or wear.


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College