Editor’s Note: First published in St. Louis MetroVoice 4, no. 11 (November 1994).
There has never been a stranger trial in the history of American jurisprudence than the famous Scopes “monkey trial” that took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. This trial pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow in a classic confrontation over the teaching of evolution and creation in the public schools. Regrettably, much confusion about the important issues raised in this trial has been perpetuated by the frequent production of the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play Inherit the Wind (and its many film and television versions). Inherit the Wind is clearly based on the Scopes trial, but takes considerable theatrical liberties to portray the trial as a moral triumph of “science” (evolutionism) over Christian “fundamentalism” (creationism).
The gist of the play is that a young biology teacher is jailed and tried by local businessmen and clergy for daring to teach evolution in the high school. Bible-believing Christians, (especially the “fundamentalist” prosecuting attorney) are portrayed as ignorant, mean-spirited, and close-minded hypocrites who seek both legal and divine vengeance against the teacher for his great “crime.” They are opposed by a defense lawyer (a brilliant, broad-minded, and kindly agnostic) who fights courageously to spare the young teacher from this army of ignorance. This is all pretty typical “Hollywood” fare, and would hardly merit our examination were it not for the fact that this scenario has come to be perceived as essentially an historical account of the Scopes trial. The facts show otherwise.
This scenario has come to be perceived as essentially an historical account of the Scopes trial. The facts show otherwise.
The basis for the Scopes trial was a presumed violation of the Butler Act by teacher John Scopes. The Butler Act declared that it was unlawful for a teacher in the public schools of Tennessee “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” This law was one of 36 such bills introduced in 20 states in the 1920s. The Butler act, like many others, did not forbid teaching the evolution of animals and plants; only human evolution was proscribed. The maximum fine for violation of the Butler act was $200. Imprisonment was not a provision of the law, and John Scopes was never jailed.
The whole idea of suing a teacher for teaching evolution was not conceived by the citizens of Dayton, Tennessee, but rather was promoted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York City. The ACLU advertised in newspapers to locate a teacher in Tennessee who would be willing to test the Butler Act in the courts (with all expenses to be paid by the ACLU). A Dayton resident, George Rappleyea, saw an ACLU advertisement in a Chattanooga newspaper and pressured his friend John Scopes to accept the offer. Unfortunately, Scopes was not a science teacher (he majored in prelaw) and had never actually taught evolution! Scopes was a math teacher and football coach who had merely filled in for the biology teacher (who was ill) for two weeks at the end of the school year. Still, with Scopes’ reluctant permission, Rappleyea immediately notified the ACLU that “Professor J. T. Scopes, teacher of science Rhea County high School, will be arrested and charged with teaching evolution.”
The Scopes trial began on July 10th, 1925, and lasted eight days. The trial became a major media event covered by over 200 news-men. It was the first trial to be covered by a national radio broadcast, and the first to receive international coverage as 65 telegraph operators sent daily reports over the newly laid transatlantic cable. Dayton took on a carnival atmosphere as spectators, “soap box” orators, and vendors converged on the little town from all over America. Much of this attention resulted from the fact that two of America’s most famous lawyers faced off on a deeply divisive religious and philosophical issue—how did humans come into being, and what control should parents have over how this subject is handled in our public schools.
The chief lawyer for the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, a popular speaker who is widely regarded as one of America’s greatest orators. Bryan was a leader in the Democratic Party for nearly 30 years and served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. Though politically liberal in many of his views, Bryan was a conservative Christian who early developed a strong interest in the creation-evolution controversy. He clearly favored creation, but was inquisitive enough about evolution to have read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1905 (20 years before the Scopes trial). Bryan was sufficiently sophisticated in his knowledge of the scientific evidence to carry on a correspondence-debate with distinguished evolutionists of his day such as Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn. Bryan publicly declared that he did not oppose the teaching of evolution in the public schools as long as it was dealt with as a theory rather than a fact.
The chief lawyer for the defense, Clarence Darrow, was a well-known criminal lawyer who specialized in defending unpopular people and causes. Darrow was an outspoken agnostic who was eager to discredit Biblical Christianity and promote evolutionism. Darrow made it clear in his autobiography (The Story of My Life, Charles Scribner & Sons, 1965) that his only purpose in participating in the Scopes trial was to make the country aware of evolutionary beliefs, and to publicly ridicule the beliefs and perceived intentions of fundamentalist Christians. Darrow could be exceedingly hostile in his treatment of the opposition and was cited for contempt of court during the Scopes trial for repeatedly interrupting and insulting Judge Raulston!
The question of Scopes’ guilt or innocence was of no concern to his “defense.”
Although the only question in the trial was whether or not John Scopes taught that man evolved from lower orders of animals, the “defense” mainly sought to promote evolutionism and discredit the Biblical account of creation. The question of Scopes’ guilt or innocence was of no concern to his “defense.” In fact, the lawyers for the defense actually had to coach Scopes’ students (with limited success) to claim they were taught evolution. To make evolution believable to the jury, the defense and its witnesses often equated evolution with the development of the embryo! Though irrelevant to the case, Darrow had gathered a large group of evolutionists to testify to the “fact” of evolution. The prosecution successfully demanded the right to cross-examine these expert witnesses. Darrow was so determined that his “experts” not be questioned on their evolutionary opinions, that he refused to call his witnesses to the stand!
In one of the most extraordinary events in the trial, the prosecuting attorney was actually put on the witness stand (as an expert on the Bible) to be questioned by the defense! Ignoring the advice of his fellow counsel, Bryan agreed to be questioned by Darrow on his own Christian beliefs, with the understanding that he would then have the opportunity to question Darrow regarding his atheistic beliefs. After systematically ridiculing Bryan for his acceptance of the miracles and teachings of the Bible, Darrow asked the judge to instruct the jury to find his own client (John Scopes) guilty as charged! This incredible concession served to bring the trial to a speedy conclusion and spared Darrow from taking the witness stand to be questioned by Bryan. This ploy also prevented Bryan from giving his closing argument to a world-wide audience.
In his closing argument (published after the trial, The World’s Most Famous Court Trial, National Book Company, Cincinnati, 1925, pp. 323, 325), Bryan contrasted the revealed truth of God with the evolutionary speculations of men:
Christianity welcomes truth from whatever source it comes, and is not afraid that any real truth from any source can interfere with the divine truth that comes from the inspiration of God. . . . The evolutionist does not undertake to tell us how protozoa, moved by interior and resident forces, sent life up through all the various species, and cannot prove that there was actually any such compelling power at all. And yet, the school children are asked to accept their guesses and build a philosophy of life upon them.