The Scopes Trial

In March 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed a measure known as the Butler Act that made it illegal for teachers in the public schools to present as factual any theory of creation other than the biblical account. This law, of course, was aimed at English biologist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was grossly distorted in the public mind to assume that man had descended from apes. A firm grip on traditional values was important to many rural Americans during the turbulent postwar years, when cultural tensions were evident in such issues as prohibition, racial and ethnic relations and religious authority.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an advocacy group formed in 1920 to protect the rights bestowed by the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, advertised in Tennessee newspapers to find an individual willing to challenge the Butler Act. Several civic leaders in the hamlet of Dayton found a willing participant in John T. Scopes (1900-70), a substitute high school biology teacher. The motivation for the challenge was not only rooted in a fundamentalist response to the teaching of evolution, but also as a means to train a national spotlight on the tiny, struggling community.

Scopes was promptly cited for teaching evolution as a fact in his biology class, which set the stage for what was then termed “the trial of the century.” Press representatives from most of the nation’s major newspapers poured into Dayton and many filed daily reports of the proceedings. A circus-like atmosphere prevailed and happy local merchants raked in the profits. The trial was also followed closely in Europe, where few understood America’s preoccupation with religious fundamentalism.

Scopes was represented by ACLU lawyers who reluctantly allowed the noted defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, to take center stage. Darrow induced his client to readily admit his violation of the Tennessee statute, but argued that the law violated the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state as well as Scopes’ academic freedom to express his professional views. Darrow argued further that evolution in the minds of many ministers and theologians was consistent with some interpretations of Scripture.

The prosecution also stood in the shadow of a prominent personality — William Jennings Bryan, the former secretary of state and three-time presidential candidate, who volunteered to serve as an advisor to the state. Near the end of his long career, Bryan was a firm religious fundamentalist, but urged the prosecution to fight its battle on constitutional grounds. Bryan believed that communities were justified in setting curriculum standards in tax-supported schools. However, he was overruled by his colleagues who chose to argue science and religion.

Bryan blundered during the trial by allowing Darrow to call him as an expert witness on the Bible. Under relentless questioning carried live on the radio, Bryan came across to many as old, tired and foolish. In the end he disappointed even his supporters by admitting that some biblical events should not be taken literally. Bryan died five days after the trial's conclusion.

The outcome of the proceedings was never in doubt. The judge made clear to the jury that the law’s constitutionality or efforts to support the validity of Darwin’s theory were not germane; the only issue in question was whether or not Scopes had presented evolution as fact — and he had admitted as much. The teacher was found guilty and fined $100 for his transgression.

Later, on appeal, the Tennessee supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the law, but reversed Scopes’ conviction on the technical point that the fine had been excessive.

Some observers, then and later, proclaimed the Scopes Trial as the turning point in the struggle between rural fundamentalist values and those of scientifically-inclined urban dwellers. In the short term, the celebrated “Monkey Trial” probably inhibited the passage of laws similar to Tennessee’s in other states that did not want to endure the ridicule that had been heaped on Dayton.

However, from the longer view, the trial might better be regarded as an opening scene in an ongoing American drama. Tennessee repealed the Butler Act in 1967, but opposition to the teaching of evolution flourishes today in efforts to remove it from public school curricula or to have it share its place with so-called “creation science.”


See other domestic activities during the Coolidge administration.

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Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson.
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Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned by John A. Farrell.
Drawing on untapped archives and full of fresh revelations, here is the definitive biography of America’s legendary defense attorney and progressive h...