Bryan College recently moved to clarify a component of its decades-old statement of belief, a set of convictions that faculty, staff and some student leaders must affirm annually. The college is named in honor of William Jennings Bryan, who helped prosecute the 1925 Scopes Trial.
For more than 80 years, the college has ascribed to the following view on origins: "that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death." The clarification, approved last month by the board of trustees, says that Adam and Eve "are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms."
That change will potentially force out some faculty members, who have more nuanced views on human origins, those who have reconciled Biblical creationism with natural processes like evolution. Faculty must sign the statement as part of their annual contracts, which are due later this month.
The change has sparked student petitions, letters from alumni and a faculty vote of no confidence in Bryan President Stephen Livesay. Many students, instructors and alumni fear the more narrow stance could change Bryan's campus culture by squelching academic freedom, debate and discovery among students.
In the Rhea County Courthouse in 1925, he famously stood up for biblical creationism and fought against the teaching of evolution in public schools. His victory over John Scopes was viewed as a win for Christianity.
But what many people don't know is that William Jennings Bryan didn't necessarily believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis. His descendants say he might not be happy to know that the current administration of the college founded in his name is forcing professors to sign a document embracing a narrow view of how God created mankind.
"I can't imagine that he would accept this stance at all," said Kent Owen, a great-grandson of Bryan. "He was very forward-thinking. Some of the things he was putting out there were so far ahead of his time."
Bryan, called "the Great Commoner," was a widely known Democratic politician. He served as a congressman, as U.S. secretary of state and launched three failed bids for the White House. He was a deeply religious populist who pushed for women's suffrage and advocated for the addition of a federal income tax.
Owen, a retired Air Force colonel and airline pilot living in California, said he thinks his great-grandfather likely would have softened his staunch view on the origins of man, given all the advances in science since his death in 1925.
"My view of Bryan is that things weren't set in stone," Owen said. "He was pragmatic."
Bryan College annually requires faculty, staff and some student leaders to sign the nondenominational school's statement of belief, which lays out the community's religious beliefs. But this year, a clarification to the decades-old statement states that in signing, professors are agreeing with the conviction that Adam and Eve were created in an instant by God and that humans shared no ancestry with other life forms. If they don't sign, they stand to lose their jobs.
Last month, the board of trustees approved the change, which President Stephen Livesay proposed. Livesay could not be reached for comment on Friday. Last week was the college's spring break.
Col. John Haynes, chairman of the board, maintains the clarification is not a substantive change for the college. And he rejects the idea that the school's namesake would object.
"I think he might have taken up the gauntlet on this issue," Haynes said. "But then again, during his era and the next few decades, this probably would have never been an issue. I don't think there would have been all this consternation."
During the 1925 Scopes Trial, Bryan testified that parts of the Bible, including stories on creation, were "given illustratively."
Defense attorney Clarence Darrow asked Bryan: "Does the statement, 'The morning and the evening were the first day and 'The morning and the evening were the second day,' mean anything to you?"
"I do not think it necessarily means a twenty-four-hour day," Bryan replied, according to the trial transcript.
Bryan went on to say that he believed the six days of creation in Genesis "were periods, but I would not attempt to argue against anybody who wanted to believe in literal days."
Another descendant of Bryan, Jenna Owen Rose, said college leaders may do well to read the transcript. She, too, thinks her great-grandfather would disapprove of the college's recent actions.
"I just think there is a better way for a Christian school to promote Christianity and the beliefs of Christianity," she said. "When you have an enlightened society, and you have kids who are curious and questioning, I don't know that you can tell them how they have to believe."
Rose, a retired educator living in Portland, Ore., said there is no doubt that Bryan was a deeply religious man. But that didn't mean he was an ideologue.
"[Religion] was his life and I think he wanted to lead by example," Rose said. "He hoped he could convince you of his point of view. But to dictate what you believe, I don't think would have ever been his way of doing things. I think he wanted to win you by persuasion."
For years, Rose has traced Bryan's history and legacy. She has read books, visited his birthplace and watched his name pop up as the occasional answer on "Jeopardy." In 2000, she and her brother visited Bryan College for the first time during the school's annual Heritage Day. She was impressed by the students and professors. They seemed to be in such a great place. She was proud of the school, proud of her family's legacy.
"And I don't want it to be lessened because of this," she said.
But school officials say that won't happen.
The school's recent clarification has rocked the campus and invited widespread media attention. But Haynes said he believes that the Bryan community will heal, that professors and the administration will reconcile.
And the trustee said some good has already come out of the controversy. He said he's received many notes of support and encouragement. Some families say they are now considering Bryan specifically because of its stance on creation, he said.
Even if more tough days are ahead, Haynes said Bryan will move forward.
"I think a small school that's not denominationally backed will always have challenges," he said. "But on the other hand, that may be one of its biggest strengths as well."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.