The trial of John Scopes is perhaps the most famous case in American legal history. It was the inevitable conflict of two historical forces: the growing acceptance of modern science and evolutionary theory, and the desire of a fundamentalist religious minority to retain the Bible as the unerring word of God. At the same time, it was a clash of two of the most prominent public figures of the early twentieth century— the great populist and three-time Democratic candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, the most famous trial lawyer of the period.
The brouhaha began in 1925 when the Tennessee legislature passed the ‘‘Butler Bill,’’ which made it a misdemeanor for a public school teacher to teach any theories that deny the biblical stories of man’s creation and to teach, instead, that humans descended from a lower order of animals. The fledgling American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), looking for a test case to combat growing infringements on academic freedom, advertised to defend anyone willing to challenge the law. The offer was taken up by town boosters in Dayton, Tennessee, who saw a high-profile trial as an opportunity to bolster business. They, in turn, persuaded John Scopes, a twentyfour- year-old general science teacher and football coach, to act as plaintiff. Long-time antievolutionist Bryan quickly volunteered for the prosecution, which eventually included chief prosecutor Tom Stewart, retired attorney general Ben G. McKenzie, and Bryan’s son, William Jennings Bryan, Jr. Bryan’s entry enticed avowed agnostic Clarence Darrow to join the defense team of New York attorneys Dudley Field Malone and Arthur Garfield Hays, and local counsel John R. Neal.
During the trial, Judge John T. Raulston sided with the prosecution and barred the live testimony of experts in theology and numerous disciplines in natural science. The defense had hoped that their testimony would show that evolution was compatible with biblical teachings and that the statute was an unreasonable exercise of government power. Stymied, Darrow made the move that would jettison the trial into popular history; he called Bryan to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. Darrow’s persistent questioning about the miracles of the Old Testament— including the Genesis story that claims the earth was created in days of indeterminable length— exposed the inherent inconsistencies arising from a literal interpretation of the Bible. It was the defining moment of the trial.
Judge Raulston, however, ruled Bryan’s testimony irrelevant and inadmissible. With no other proof or witnesses to offer, the defense gave up. The jury, which had been excluded for much of the trial, found the defendant guilty, and the judge imposed the minimum fine of $100. This would prove to be the ACLU’s undoing. In the appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court not only ruled the statute constitutional, they also overturned Scope’s conviction on the grounds that it was the duty of the jury, not the judge, to set the fine. When the state attorney general dismissed the prosecution, the ACLU was left with nothing to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The offending statute stayed on the books, largely unenforced, until it was repealed by the Tennessee legislature in 1967.
Although a clash between Biblical literalists and those who supported the teaching of evolution may have been inevitable, historians point to a number of reasons for an increase in antievolution legislation in the early 1920s. Urbanization, demographic changes caused by increased immigration, and the loosening of social mores were threatening the values and way of life of conservatives in rural America. Evangelical Protestants blamed Darwin’s theory of natural selection, or ‘‘survival of the fittest,’’ for German aggression in World War I and for the new, as yet undiscredited, science of eugenics, which advocated controlled reproduction as a way to improve the human race. In addition, evolutionary theory was making its way into public education at a time when more and more young people were attending high school. Religious fundamentalists saw Darwin’s ideas as threatening the faith and moral values of their children.
The Scopes trial achieved notoriety not only because of its prominent protagonists but also because of the reporting of the hundreds of journalists who attended the ‘‘monkey trial.’’ The most famous of these was H. L. Mencken, whose acerbic observations did much to influence popular opinion in favor of the defense. Later, the Scopes trial became better known as the inspiration for ‘‘Inherit the Wind,’’ a play that portrays the prosecution of John Scopes as an allegory for the persecution of intellectuals during the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
Scopes v. State, 154 Tenn. 105, 289 S.W. 363 (1927).
See also Academic Freedom; Accommodation of Religion; American Civil Liberties Union; Darrow, Clarence; Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968); Establishment of Religion and Free Exercise Clauses; Public School Curricula and Free Exercise Claims; Religion in Nineteenth-Century Public Education (Includes ‘‘Bible Wars’’)