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“The Scopes Trial Settled the Question of Evolution”

Argument 11

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Explore the 12 Arguments Evolutionists Should Avoid series to prepare yourself with answers to common yet faulty assertions by evolutionists.

In July of 1925, thousands of onlookers braved the heat in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, to witness what has been called the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” People across the world tuned in to the “Trial of the Century” as this was the first case receiving national coverage by radio and international coverage by telegraph. Christian politician William Jennings Bryan, as the prosecutor, dueled with defense attorney Clarence Darrow, an agnostic and proponent of evolution. In the end, teacher John T. Scopes was indicted for violating the Butler Act, which forbade the teaching in public schools that “man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

Although Scopes was found guilty, public perception of the trial has been that creation was shown to be blind myth and evolution to be scientific fact. It seems that creationists won the battle but lost the war as the teaching of evolution gradually invaded and took over the science classroom. However, if we peel away some of the misconceptions about the Scopes Trial and chew on the big questions that the “Monkey Trial” raised, we may arrive at the verdict that rejecting the Creator has led to our culture’s moral collapse.

Misconceptions of the “Monkey Trial”

Inherit the Wind, a popular play that has been adapted for film and television, has perpetuated many misconceptions about the Scopes Trial.

Misconception 1: John Scopes was a biology teacher who was jailed for teaching evolution.

Fact: John T. Scopes was not a biology teacher (unless you count substitute teaching), likely didn’t teach evolution, and never was jailed.

The trial was instigated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as a test case. The ACLU opposed the growing number of laws in 20 different states that limited the teaching of evolution. Tennessee’s law, called the Butler Act, stated,

[I]t shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, 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.1

With the ACLU’s assurance of their legal services and provision for expenses, John Scopes agreed to participate in the test case. Scopes had a one-year career at Rhea County High School, coaching football and teaching math. His consideration for the test case was due to his substitute teaching for two weeks in biology class. Though he later confessed he wasn’t sure if he’d actually taught evolution,2 he did use Hunter’s Civic Biology as a class textbook, which taught the evolution of man.

Misconception 2: Christian participants and onlookers in the Scopes Trial were narrow-minded and bigoted.

Inherit the Wind portrays a slanderous caricature of Christians, from ignorant townsfolk to an intolerant prosecutor and vengeful minister. In reality, agnostic Clarence Darrow couldn’t think of anything but nice things to say about how he was treated in Dayton, saying,

I don’t know as I was ever in a community in my life where my religious ideas differed as widely from the great mass as I have found them since I have been in Tennessee. Yet I came here a perfect stranger and I can say what I have said before that I have not found upon anybody’s part—any citizen here in this town or outside, the slightest discourtesy. I have been treated better, kindlier and more hospitably than I fancied would have been the case in the north . . . .3

At one point in the proceedings, after Darrow was cited for contempt of court and then apologized, Judge Raulston graciously forgave him and even shared the gospel with him.4

Misconception 3: The arguments for evolution given in the Scopes Trial would all be supported by evolutionists today.

In the record of the Scopes Trial, human evolution was falsely supported with examples like Piltdown Man, vestigial organs, embryonic recapitulation, and human development.5 Many of these examples have been shown to be fraudulent or untenable.

Even more troubling, the high school textbook that John Scopes used, Hunter’s Civic Biology, advocated the evolutionary superiority of whites over “Negroes.” (This racism was taught by Charles Darwin himself.) The textbook also promoted eugenics as a solution for reducing the population of people considered inferior.

Questions Raised by the Scopes Trial

Who Should Be in Charge of Children’s Education?

Prosecutor William Jennings Bryan said that the decision in the Scopes Trial to uphold the Butler Act protected the rights of parents to guard their children’s religious welfare. Children are not given to the state but to parents as the ones primarily responsible for nurturing and upbringing. Bryan stated in his autobiography, The Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan, that his purposes in the Scopes Trial were to “establish the right of taxpayers to control what is taught in their schools” and to “draw a line between teaching evolution as a fact and teaching it as a theory.” Bryan believed that the Butler Act was not establishing a religion but rather preventing the forcing of irreligion on children.

[T]he parent not only has the right to guard the religious welfare of the child, but is in duty bound to guard it [referring to a recent court decision]. . . . this law [Butler Act] did not have its origin in bigotry. It is not trying to force any form of religion on anybody. The majority is not trying to establish a religion or to teach it—it is trying to protect itself from the effort of an insolent minority to force irreligion upon the children under the guise of teaching science. . . . Christians must, in every state of the Union, build their own colleges in which to teach Christianity; it is only simple justice that atheists, agnostics and unbelievers should build their own colleges if they want to teach their own religious views or attack the religious views of others.6

As Bryan recognized, there is no neutral ground when it comes to historical science.7 People commonly think that creation is religious but that evolution is neutral. However, both are worldviews about the past, the one based on God’s Word and the other based on man’s ideas of how billions of years of random chance, natural selection, and mutations could lead to this universe and life on earth, with natural processes replacing the Creator. Is it fair if our public schools present only the side of evolution?

AiG is not working politically to legalize the teaching of creation in the public schools. In our day, many teachers would mock biblical creation or teach it incorrectly. The legacy of the Scopes Trial is a case in point that laws cannot change the heart of man.

Why Would It Matter Whether We Believe in the Six-Day Recent Creation?

In an unexpected challenge during the Scopes Trial, the defense called William Jennings Bryan to the witness stand to be questioned as a foremost student of the Bible.8 Clarence Darrow grilled Bryan about his “fool religion,”9 mocking a literal interpretation of the Bible. Was Jonah really swallowed by a fish? What happened when Joshua commanded the sun to stand still?10 How long ago was the worldwide flood and the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel, and aren’t there records of civilizations more ancient than that?

For most of the questions, Bryan stood fast on the authority of God’s Word.11 When Darrow asked whether Bryan claimed everything in the Bible should be interpreted literally, Bryan responded admirably: “I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: ‘Ye are the salt of the earth.’ I would not insist that man was actually salt . . . .”12 Interpretation should be in line with the context of the passage, such as whether the passage is poetic or historical narrative. Sadly, Bryan didn’t follow his own hermeneutic in regards to the historical narrative account in Genesis of the six-day creation.

Sadly, Bryan didn’t follow his own hermeneutic in regards to the historical narrative account in Genesis of the six-day creation.

When discussing creation, Darrow hit a weak spot in Bryan’s doctrine, a weak spot that allowed the wall Bryan had been building in defense of Scripture to crumble. It was on the issue of the six-day creation that Bryan capitulated, letting man’s idea of long geologic ages influence his understanding of the Bible. When Darrow asked Bryan about the Bible’s six days of creation with their evenings and mornings, Bryan said he believed the days were long periods of time, even millions of years. The pro-evolution defense team readily overran this breach in the wall. They used his compromise to argue that we don’t need to take the Bible literally and that evolution can fit into the Bible.13

If the creation account could be taken non-literally and interpreted as millions of years, then why couldn’t we also conclude that God used millions of years of evolution to lead to man from a lower order of animals? The defense team contended that evolution did not contradict the Bible and so the Butler Act was wrong. They also referenced many Christian leaders of the day who supported the teaching of evolution.

The first attack from Satan in the garden of Eden was casting doubt on God’s Word: “Did God actually say . . . ?” (Genesis 3:1). In response to this danger, the first public school law in America, the “Old Deluder Satan Act” of 1647, made provisions for teaching children to read and write, so they could study the Scriptures for themselves.

A Christian who becomes wishy-washy on scriptural truth throws down his sword and concedes defeat (see Ephesians 6:17 and Hebrews 4:12). When we twist the Bible’s clear teaching on a six-day recent creation based on today’s scientific opinion, we open up the whole Bible to reinterpretation.

Dr. John MacArthur, president of The Master’s University and Seminary, said that if he is interviewing potential faculty members, he asks them whether they hold to the six-day creation as taught in Genesis 1 and 2. If they are not certain on this area, the interview is through, as in his words, “I can’t trust [them] with anything else in Scripture.” MacArthur said, “[I]t’s where the Scripture has been assaulted the most that you find out who the people are who stand true.”14

Teaching children evolution as fact is a direct contradiction to Scripture and could very well discredit the whole Bible in their minds. In a parable, Jesus said that a person who refuses to hear Moses and the Prophets (i.e., the Old Testament, beginning with Genesis) will also not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead (Luke 16:31). When Genesis is denied in an effort to be politically correct, the whole gospel of the risen Lord Jesus is undermined.

What happens to a culture that rejects the Creator?

In the article, “Evolution in American Education and the Demise of Its Public School System,” Lael Weinberger contrasted the moral implications of creation and evolution in this way:

We must understand that the implication of evolution is that man is the highest product of evolution, and therefore man takes the place of God in deciding what’s right and wrong. The implication of creation, on the other hand, is that God created everything, and He decides what’s right and wrong. It is obvious why we have a problem with morality from the products of public schools today—they are being taught that they can decide what’s right and wrong for themselves.15

In a June 2018 sermon, John MacArthur reflected on the moral collapse he has witnessed in our society.16 He compared our moral state to open sewage—like the open sewage with overpowering stench that flowed through the slums of a country he visited. While there was a time in America when moral sewage was piped underground, the “works of the flesh” are now openly celebrated (Galatians 5:19–21).

Our culture has rushed headlong down the Romans 1 path of God’s judgment.

Our culture has rushed headlong down the Romans 1 path of God’s judgment. When a people group in unrighteousness suppress the truth about God (Romans 1:18), God gives them over “in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:24–25). From this passage, MacArthur explained that the first judgment on a culture that has rejected the Creator is a sexual revolution.

Following in that wake, the homosexual revolution is the second judgment: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26–27).

The third phase in God’s judgment, for those who do not see fit to acknowledge him (Romans 1:28), is giving people over to a debased mind (for the horrific expressions of such a mind, see Romans 1:28–32, which reads like our daily news). MacArthur said that a debased mind “means the mind doesn’t function. That’s when a kind of insanity prevails, which is demonstrated clearly in the fact that now we’re not allowed to say a man is a man and a woman is a woman. That is insanity; that is a depraved mind.”17

There is a push in our education system to indoctrinate children in the ways of the sexual revolution, the homosexual revolution, and a debased mind.18

Of course, public schools today will not teach children how “from the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female’” and ordained marriage as a lifelong “one flesh” union between a man and his wife (Mark 10:6–9). Sex-ed curriculum will give young people some marginally successful ways to lessen the physical consequences of fornication (e.g., avoiding STDs), but nothing to mitigate the spiritual and emotional devastation from dishonoring their bodies (Romans 1:24; Proverbs 5:3–23; 1 Corinthians 6:9–20).

Drag Queen Story Hour” is a new feature in some public libraries, such as in the New York Public Library network, where children sit at the feet of drag queen storytellers and learn to celebrate gender diversity. When children in certain Kansas City public schools came back to school in 2018, they found the boys and girls would now share gender-neutral restrooms.19

Are We Too Far Gone?

Since the Scopes Trial, our culture has rejected the Creator, and judgment has already been meted out in its three devastating tiers, felt even by our children in public schools. And there is judgment still to come (Revelation 20:11–15). But it is not too late to repent. God compassionately spared evil Nineveh when the people repented at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 1:2; 3:4–10). And someone greater than Jonah has come (Matthew 12:41). Jesus—the Word become flesh through whom the world was made—came to redeem sinners who turn from sin and receive him as Savior and Lord (John 1:1–3, 10–14).

A lesson from the Scopes Trial is that scientific ideas come and go, but God’s Word is unchanging and has consistently been confirmed by science. You can have confidence to read your Bible and share it with your children.

[F]rom childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15–17).

Further Reading

Footnotes

  1. “Butler Act,” 64th Tennessee General Assembly, March 13, 1925, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butler_Act.
  2. James Presley and John T. Scopes, Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), 59–60.

  3. Trial transcript, 225–226. Note that one online source for the trial transcripts can be found at “The Scopes Trial (1925),” University of Minnesota Law Library, http://moses.law.umn.edu/darrow/trials.php?tid=7.

  4. Judge Raulston said, “[T]he Man that I believe came into the world to save man from sin, the Man that died on the cross that man might be redeemed, taught that it was godly to forgive and were it not for the forgiving nature of Himself I would fear for man. The Savior died on the Cross pleading with God for the men who crucified Him. I believe in that Christ. I believe in these principles. I accept Col. Darrow’s apology. . . . we commend him to go back home and learn in his heart the words of the Man who said: ‘If you thirst come unto Me and I will give thee life’” (Trial transcript, 226–227).

  5. In support of evolution, Dr. Maynard Metcalf wrote, “In the development of an individual from egg to adult this individual passes through a series of stages of increasing complexity and this individual series in one of the higher organisms strangely parallels and agrees with the racial series first mentioned” (Trial transcript, 253).

  6. Trial transcript, 322.
  7. Bryan contrasted evolutionists’ ideas about the past (AiG categorizes this as historical science) with the scientists who brought us the use of electricity and engines and who quelled the fear of typhoid and yellow fever (what AiG calls operational science) (Trial transcript, 323).

  8. In the trial transcript (page 299), the defense explained their reason for examining Bryan was that they considered him a foremost student of the Bible. The examination of Bryan was enlivened with a good deal of banter, such as when Darrow sarcastically asked, “Where have you lived all your life?” and Bryan responded, “Not near you.” Darrow came back, “Nor near anybody of learning?” Bryan: “Oh, don’t assume you know it all” (Trial transcript, 293).

  9. Trial transcript, 288.

  10. On questions about miracles, Bryan had no difficulty responding, as he summarized later: “[T]he God who created the universe can do anything He wants to with it. He can temporarily suspend any law that He has made or He may employ higher laws that we do not understand” (Trial transcript, 328).

  11. Bryan said, “Our first indictment against evolution is that it disputes the truth of the Bible account of man’s creation and shakes faith in the Bible as the Word of God. This indictment we prove by comparing the processes described as evolutionary with the text of Genesis. It not only contradicts the Mosaic record as to the beginning of human life, but it disputes the Bible doctrine of reproduction according to kind—the greatest scientific principle known.

    “Our second indictment is that the evolutionary hypothesis, carried to its logical conclusion, disputes every vital truth of the Bible. Its tendency, natural, if not inevitable, is to lead those who really accept it, first to agnosticism and then to atheism. Evolutionists attack the truth of the Bible, not openly at first, but by using weasel-words like ‘poetical,’ ‘symbolical’ and ‘allegorical’ to suck the meaning out [of] the inspired record of man’s creation” (Trial transcript, 326–327).

  12. Trial transcript, 285.

  13. Trial transcript, 299–300, 306.

  14. Dr. John MacArthur, “Strange Fire Revisited,” Grace to You, June 1, 2017, https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/GTY167.

  15. Lael Weinberger, “Evolution in American Education and the Demise of Its Public School System,” Answers in Genesis, January 31, 2005, https://answersingenesis.org/public-school/evolution-in-us-education-and-demise-of-its-public-school-system/.
  16. Dr. John MacArthur, “The Fruit of the Spirit, Part 4,” Grace to You, June 3, 2018, https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/48-39/the-fruit-of-the-spirit-part-4.

  17. Dr. John MacArthur, “The Fruit of the Spirit, Part 4,” Grace to You, June 3, 2018, https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/48-39/the-fruit-of-the-spirit-part-4.

  18. On May 31, 2018, a Christian family living in Toronto received an email from the local public school with a brief on the next day’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) pride activities:

    This message is to inform you that the Peel District School Board will raise a PRIDE flag at each of its schools for the month of June. . . . At our school, we very much feel the message of kindness, support, and acceptance is central to our school community. We will be teaching our students about the flag so they understand its message. Please help us to celebrate this moment of respect and kindness.

    With the email notification coming at about 10 p.m. on the night before the raising of the pride flag, the parents had little time to decide what to do or how to prepare their children for the LGBT instruction. The parents expressed their concern, saying,

    We wondered if by “acceptance” they meant that they’d teach all of the kids that they needed to accept an idea and way of life that we believe God wants to bring people out of—and we wondered if our children would be ostracized by teachers and school administrators for not holding the viewpoint that sexuality is whatever you want it to be.

    See also: Pride flag 'builds walls, not bridges' Parent tells peel public school board.

  19. See Mará Rose Williams, “In This Kc-Area District, Boys and Girls Will Share Gender-Neutral Restrooms,” The Kansas City Star, August 14, 2018, https://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article216439305.html.

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