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John Scopes

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John T. Scopes

John Thomas Scopes (1900-1970) was a substitute high school teacher who went on trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925 for teaching evolution against State law. Chicago criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow unsuccessfully defended Scopes against the charge. Well-known political leader and former secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, was on the prosecution team. Scopes was found guilty under the Butler Act, which banned teaching evolution in publicly funded state educational institutions, and the judge fined Scopes $100. The State Supreme Court later overturned the decision on the minor technical point that the judge, instead of the jury, had set the fine. After the trial, Scopes moved to Chicago, got a master’s degree in geology, and then took a job as a petroleum engineer in Venezuela.

Early years

John Scopes was born on Friday August 3, 1900. He was the fifth child of Thomas and Mary Scopes of Paducah, Kentucky. John’s father came from England, and although his father’s family belonged to the Church of England, his father drifted into agnosticism as he got older. In 1911, shortly after John had turned 11 years old, the family moved to Danville, Illinois. In 1916 they moved to Salem, in southern Illinois, which was also the birthplace of William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted John Scopes nine years later in his famous court trial.

After graduating from Salem’s class of 1919, Scopes got a law degree from the University of Kentucky in 1924 and moved to Dayton, Tennessee. Here he landed a job as football coach and fill-in teacher at Rhea County High School, when the principal (who was also a teacher and the school’s football coach) resigned suddenly.

The ginger-haired Scopes managed to endear himself to the townsfolk of Dayton, even if he was a little obnoxious at times. He attended the town’s Presbyterian Church—looking for dates more than religion, he admitted at the release of his autobiography, Center of the Storm.

Did Scopes teach evolution?

Much debate has taken place over whether John Scopes really taught evolution at the school. Scopes admitted teaching from the textbook Civic Biology, by George W. Hunter, and said he had planned to teach the chapter on evolution when he filled in for the biology teacher in April 1925. However, on the day he had planned to teach evolution to the biology class, he fell ill, and could not recall teaching the class that chapter on evolution. But he did remember teaching evolution in his general science class in April, and two of his students—Howard Morgan, 14, and Bud Shelton, 17—corroborated this.

The Scopes trial

Main Article:Tennessee vs. John Scopes

The Scopes trial began on Friday July 10, 1925 in sweltering heat. Judge John Raulston asked Rev. Cartwright to open the court with a prayer. In contrast to the mocking position on religion that defense attorney Clarence Darrow and some members of the American Civil Liberties Union held, Rev. Cartwright was dignified and humble in his prayer, asking God "the Supreme Ruler of the Universe" to enable the court to "administer its affairs" with justice and wisdom.

John Scopes arrived for the trial wearing a blue shirt and a hand-painted bow tie. He sat in the front row near John Washington Butler—who wrote the Butler Act under which Scopes was being tried. At 9.22 a.m., Judge Raulston called the case of State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes. He selected a grand jury, read the Butler Act, then the first chapter of the Bible's book of Genesis.

Judge Raulston said, "the vital question now involved for your consideration is, has the statute been violated by the said John T. Scopes or any other person by teaching a theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and in Rhea County since the passage of this act and prior to this investigation. If you find the statute has been thus violated, you should indict the guilty person or persons, as the case may be."

The court found Scopes guilty and fined him $100. Defense attorney Clarence Darrow congratulated those on his own side, then compared the trial to a witchcraft trial. After the trial, Science News-Letter (forerunner of today’s Science News), began a scholarship fund to send Scopes to graduate school. Scopes decided to study geology at the University of Chicago and later worked in the oil industry in Venezuela and the United States.

The verdict was overturned in January 1927. Scopes died from a terminal stroke at the age of 70 on October 21, 1970. He is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Paducah, Kentucky.

The Scopes UFO photo

A photograph of John Scopes taken in June 1925—just weeks before his trial—appeared on the New York University website in 2005. [1] It featured a UFO in the sky behind Scopes. The Creation Tips website analyzed this photo and compared it to a similar one on the web that didn’t have the UFO. The Creation Tips analyst found the resolution of the UFO section of the photo was different from the resolution in the rest of the photo. This, they decided, proves the UFO was not in the original. [2]

Related References

See also