“This is Sunday morning,” Brann once wrote, “and it is safe to say that while I pen this paragraph more than 100 preachers are pounding away at The Iconoclast in their pulpits — thereby causing all the curious sisters to resolve to read it secretly. I sometimes wonder if God didn’t raise those fellows up especially to act as my agents — to indirectly aid me in imbuing the whole world with the idea that every religion which makes people better and happier is really worth relevance.”
Brann, who was born in 1855 in Illinois, was a talented writer who wrote for and edited various newspapers in Texas and the Midwest, a man who had a way with sharply expressed words. He was, as the name of his Waco, Texas, publication implied, an iconoclast with a knack for rhetorically knocking down high and mighty hypocrites. By today’s standards, his well-articulated points were intolerant and bigoted. He had a beef with various parts of society — Episcopalians, African-Americans, Brits, suffragists and Baptists, especially Baptists. And seeing that Waco, home to Baylor University, might be fairly called ground zero for Southern Baptists, Brann kept himself very busy.
“The Bible tells us that God made a perfect man and let him degenerate until he began to breed Baptists,” Brann wrote.
Of course, it is horribly unfair to be so sweeping as to offer blanket condemnation of such a large group. As historian and scholar Wayne Flynt so vividly reminded us during last week’s visit to Anniston’s Parker Memorial Baptist Church, there were and are countless Baptists committed to honestly, sincerely and humbly putting their faith to action.
Brann, however, specialized in finding and decrying the exceptions. One case involved an 11-year-old Brazilian girl, Antonia Teixeira, who arrived in Waco in the late 1800s looking for training to work in the mission field. Instead, she was put to work as a maid in the kitchen of Baylor’s president, Rufus Burleson. Two years later, she was pregnant and gave birth to a “pretty, two-pound Baylor diploma,” as Brann put it. The Iconoclast made no secret of the fact that Antonia claimed to have been raped by a member of Burleson’s family.
None of this played well with the Baylor campus. On two occasions, Brann was physically attacked by parties loyal to the university. Still, sales of The Iconoclast soared, reaching perhaps as much as 120,000 an edition.
A one-man show about Brann is called O Dammit! Being a Lexicon of Venom, Vitriol, and Vigorous Witticisms. It was written in 1998 by Jerry Flemmons, a Texas journalist I had the pleasure of working with for much of the 1990s. (Jerry, a colorful Texas curmudgeon of the highest order who died in 1999, is surely worthy of his own one-man show.)
In his introduction to the play, Flemmons wrote, “William Brann became famous, and infamous, and dead, in only forty months as author, editor, and publisher of The Iconoclast.”
The end was rather nasty for the publisher. The father of a Baylor student, Tom Davis, had had quite enough. On April 1, 1898, Davis shot Brann in the back while he strolled along the streets of Waco. The publisher, who had taken to carrying a pistol with him, returned fire. Both men were dead within hours. Printed prominently on Brann’s tombstone is the word, “Truth.”
Last week, a friend wondered what role Brann would play in today’s media landscape. Instead of a newspaper printed in a small Texas town, would Brann communicate in the blogosphere or on cable news? That sounds highly likely.
It’s highly unlikely, however, that Brann, a man gunned down 113 years ago for his fiery words, would portray this era’s violent rhetoric and actions as something out of the ordinary in U.S. history.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.