08 September 2015

The Scopes Trial of 1925 - science Vs the Bible

My total knowledge of the Scopes Trial of July 1925 comes from the film Inherit the Wind (1960) starring Spencer Tracy. It was not until later in the 1960s that the Scopes Trial began to be mentioned in the history textbooks of American students and not at all, as far as I remember, in other nations’ history books. So I was interested to read an article called “The Monkey Trial”, written by Roger Hudson and published in History Today, July 2015.

Evolution and religion went head-to-head in a landmark case of 1925. In the stifling heat of a Bible Belt July, a court was sitting in Dayton, Tennessee to put on trial a young supply teacher called John Thomas Scopes (1900-1970), accused of teaching evolution in a local high school.

Religion seemed pitted here in a straight fight against science, the Bible v Darwin, and it turned into one of the first modern media circuses. 200 journalists came to cover the story, filing over 165,000 words a day, dispatched to their papers by telegraph. It was the first trial to be broadcast on national radio in the USA and film footage of it was also regularly being flown out.

William Jennings Bryan, thrice a presidential candidate, a fer­v­ent Presbyterian and leader of the prosecution side, condemned evolution. He said it taught that humans were merely one of 35,000 types of mammal, descended not even from American monkeys but from old world ones. America's most famous journalist, HL Mencken, christened this the Monkey Trial.

George Washington Rappleyea and John Scopes
June 1925
photo credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Once the background to the trial was examined, it emerged things were not quite what they seemed. Tennessee had indeed recently passed an act making it illegal to teach evolution in state schools, but the governor had signed it merely to get the rural vote and did not think it would be enforced. The primary motive of those pressing for the trial was apparently to attract publicity to Dayton. The textbook from which Scopes was required to teach, Civic Biology, did cover evolution and did endorse it, though Scopes later said he was not even sure he had taught it to his class.

However encouraged by the American Civil Liberties Union, Scopes was prepared to go on trial and even urged his pupils to testify against him. The prosecution had the backing of the World Christian Fundam­ent­als Association. Clarence Darrow, who led for the defence at the prompting of Mencken without charging a fee, had become famous across America the previous year when he defended two Chicago teenagers, Leopold and Loeb, after they had kidnapped and murdered a young neighbour.

The judge ruled that Clarence Darrow's expert biblical witnesses were irrelevant! So Darrow sprang a surprise by calling William Bryan himself as a witness and then attacking his literal interpretation of the Old Testament and ignorance of other religions. Bryan's answers to Darrow's quest­ions showed plainly that he was not the full-blown fundam­ent­alist his team took him to be.

John Scopes himself never testified because it was never an issue that he had taught evolution. He was found guilty, fined $100 and then let off on a technicality, frustrating the Civil Liberties Union which had hoped to see the case ending up in the Supreme Court.

Scopes Found Guilty
July 1925
Which newspaper? 

Fundamentalist anti-evolution rumbled on, though William Bryan was not there to lead it: he died 5 days after the trial. It found a rival in the so-called Creation Science movement, which based itself on pseudo-science rather than religion. Then in the 1950s Soviet Russia's successful Sputnik satellites set off a scare that the US was falling behind in scientific studies. The National Defence Ed­uc­ation Act was passed and new textbooks were published by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, which stressed the imp­ortance of evolution. Tennessee's act was eventually repealed in 1967, after the Supreme Court ruled that it violated the Constit­ut­ion's prohibition of the establishment of religion.


Even acknowledging that 1925 Dayton Tennessee was a very different place and time, I can still understand why the trial was seen as a legitimate battle between the Fundamentalists and the Modernists within Tennessee’s education system. The Fundamentalists accepted the word of God, as revealed in the Christian Bible, as the absolute truth. This truth would take priority within Christians’ homes and churches of course, but also within public schools and universities. The Modernists believed that religion was a private concern for fam­ilies and not a state-controlled belief system. Thus private relig­ious revelations had nothing to do with any evolutionary theories that were taught in science classes.

Look at the date when State Representative John W. Butler, head of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, lobbied Tennessee’s leg­isl­atures to pass anti-evolution laws for state schools. Success came when the Butler Act (prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory) was passed in Tennessee in March 1925! So I do not un­d­erstand why Hudson believed the Tennessee governor Austin Peay signed the law ONLY to gain support among rural legislators. Governor Peay, Hudson noted, did not believe the law would be en­forced, nor did he believe the new law would interfere with Tenn­es­see’s public school education programme. Who passes a new law with the specific expectation that the new law will not be enforced??

Since the Scopes Trial took place in July 1925, only four months after the Butler Act was passed into law, we have to assume that the Tennessee governor and his men were actively waiting for the first opportunity to enforce the new law in court.

But I also note that the engineer-manager of the Cumberland Coal and Iron Company, George Washington Rappleyea, convinced a group of Day­ton businessmen to sponsor a test case of the Butler Act. And that the American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend anyone accused of teaching the theory of evolution in a state school. Thus it is possible that Rappleyea and the American Civil Liberties Union were also waiting for the first opportunity to challenge the offen­sive law in what they hoped would be a famous trial. In either case, poor John Scopes seemed like a bit of a pawn.

Since the jury found that John Scopes was guilty in 1925, and since the Butler Act was not repealed by the Tennessee legislature until 1967, was the young teacher ever allowed to work in his profession again? Apparently not - he chose to work as a geologist for the rest of his career.


Deb said...

Religion and State by Merriman is a book that seems to give a useful analysis, and not just in Tennessee.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, As you suggest here, the Scopes trial was not about religious impulse or feeling, but rather about the control and power that comes through the manipulation of religion.

Incidentally, Clarence Darrow was from Northeast Ohio; apparently his family name was well established from early on. Even today there is a long stretch of Highway 91 that goes by the local name of Darrow Road.

Hels said...


Thank you...certainly not just in Tennessee!

A Christian school that taught a biblical view of creation in science classes has been cleared of breaching state curriculum requirements for the teaching of evolution (Sydney Morning Herald 9th December 2008). A NSW Parliamentarian said the board's ruling set a dangerous precedent that had "opened the floodgates to a religious invasion of the curriculum. The board had failed in its duty to protect the integrity of the science curriculum". So as recently as 2008, the evolution-issue was still being fought over in NSW, at least in some non-government schools.

Hels said...


certainly not about _private_ religious belief or behaviour... just about its _public_ role, in this case in the science curriculum of governmental schools.

I wish I had known more about Clarence Darrow. Since the Tennessee legislation banned the teaching of Evolution Theory in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, Darrow must have been a very brave man and a very learned lawyer to take the case on.

Andrew said...

As you point out in a comment, this matter is still raising its head at times and references to religion in our state schools should come under the subject of history and studies of the contemporary world. It would have been interesting to follow the 1925 case as it unfolded.

Another Student of History said...

Did John Thomas Scopes understand the events swirling around him? Did he become a star or a villain, or was he neglected after the trial?

Hels said...


I would assume that if the 1925 Scopes case was well publicised here as it unfolded in Tennessee, people would have tsk tsk'd and said it couldn't happen here, at least in _public_ schools and universities.

The Butler Act said: "That it 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".

Now I am not so confident.

Hels said...

Another Student

since this show trial was a battle between two powerful and opinionated lawyers in William Bryan and Clarence Darrow, young Scopes was largely ignored.

The Science League of America said that after the trial, Scopes decided to pursue graduate work in geology. So he enrolled in the Ph.D. program in geology at the University of Chicago. Yet the trial continued to haunt him, including the appeals. Eventually the state attorney general declined to prosecute Scopes again, leaving the Butler Law intact and unchallenged. Even so, Scopes’s notoriety persisted. Later in the year, he was recommended for a graduate fellowship, which he was eventually denied: the president of the university administering the fellowship advised him to “take your atheistic marbles and play elsewhere.” Short on funds, Scopes indeed looked elsewhere. Leaving graduate school, he worked for Gulf Oil of South America for three years, mainly in Venezuela.