At the College Founded in Response to the Scopes Trial, the Administration, Faculty, and Students Have Become Embroiled in a Controversy over “Origins”

The motto of Bryan College is “Christ Above All.” The college, which has an enrollment of between 700 and 800, was originally named William Jennings Bryan College, after the thrice unsuccessful presidential candidate who became a special co-counsel for the prosecution in the Scopes Trial. In addition to “Free Silver,” the “Great Commoner,” as Bryan was fondly called by his supporters, was a fierce advocate for national Prohibition and an equally fierce opponent of Darwinian evolution. Clarence Darrow, who defended Scopes, put Bryan on the stand and, in exposing the great illogic in Bryan’s very literal reading of the Bible, succeeded, as H.L. Mencken viciously quipped, in making “a monkey out of Bryan.”

Nonetheless, Bryan won the case, largely because Darrow was more intent on winning the public debate than in getting a not-guilty verdict. Eventually, the guilty verdict was overturned on appeal, and the state of Tennessee had become the subject of such national ridicule, that it chose not to re-try Scopes. Bryan, however, never lived to see the verdict overturned because, just five days after the Scopes verdict, he died in his sleep in Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the Scopes trial to which he had returned after a making a quick speaking tour through surrounding cities.

Bryan’s death so soon after the verdict gave extra impetus to the establishment, in the town where he died, of the Christian College that once bore his entire name but that, since 1993, has borne just his surname.

Like many Christian colleges, Bryan College asks its faculty to sign a statement of faith. Bryan’s statement of faith has long read: “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.” But the college’s president has recently sought and received the endorsement of the school’s board of trustees to add the following “clarification” to the statement of faith: ““We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.”

As Kevin Hardy has reported in an article for the Chattanooga Times Free Press [http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2014/mar/02/bryan-college-draws-takes-stand-creation-has-profe/], some of the college’s 48 faculty now fear for their jobs because the new “clarification” in the statement of faith runs counter to a liberalizing trend at the college on the question of origins: specifically, “Some professors, staff, and students didn’t just identify as young-Earth creationists. Their views became more nuanced. They called themselves progressive evolutionists and theistic evolutionists and old-Earth creationists; they found ways to reconcile faith and science.”

More surprising than the unsettling effect that the “clarification” has had on some faculty has been the effect on students at the college. The Student Government Association released the following statement, which was published in the student newspaper: “We believe that though the change has been largely billed as a clarification, professors who came in under the old statement of faith—having made no secret of their theological distinctive—will lose their jobs. We believe that it is unjust that professors who gained tenure, published research, and served faithfully under this old statement of faith will be either fired or forced to choose between violating their consciences or providing for their families.” The publication of this statement, combined with the news that as many as nine of the college’s 44 full-time faculty might not be returning to their jobs at the college in the fall, led the student government leaders to begin a “Hear My Voice” campaign on social media that has attracted considerable support not just from other students, but also from some alumni and supporters of the college in surrounding communities. At least for the students, the issue over the “clarification” added to the faculty statement of faith has, in effect, widened to include other issues, which, taken together, have demonstrated the administration’s lack of responsiveness to student concerns and its attempt to dismiss that lack of responsiveness in its public statements.

 

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