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Tennessee vs. John Scopes

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Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the scopes trial in 1925.

Tennessee v. John Scopes was a 1925 case which tested Tennessee's Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of "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."

The resulting trial was one of the most publicized legal battles of the 20th century—a real media circus, the first to be broadcast on the radio. Scopes was defended by the famous criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow, an agnostic. The prosecution was led by William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic Presidential candidate and a Christian.

Butler Act

At issue was the Butler Act, which had been passed a few months earlier by the Tennessee State legislature. The Butler Act provided:

"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."[1]

By the terms of the statute, therefore, it was technically not illegal to teach that apes ultimately descended from protozoa, or to teach the mechanisms of variation and natural selection. It did not require that creationism be taught. It only prohibited teaching that man had descended from a lower order of animal, in a way which contradicted the creation account of Genesis, a teaching which would certainly inhibit the free exercise of religion by teaching Christian children in government schools with public dollars that their beliefs about God were "wrong."

The legislative rationale for the Butler Act was multifaceted, as, at the time, evolution was a relatively new and very controversial idea. At that time, the theory of evolution was strongly linked with atheism, and ultimately codified as a doctrine in the new "religion" of humanism in the Humanist Manifesto. Second, it called for a radically different understanding of human identity, as it asserted that men were descended from a common ancestor with modern apes, an idea which was (and is) highly offensive to many. Finally, it was strongly linked with eugenics, or the policy of exterminating or sterilizing those considered "genetically inferior." All of these ideas conflicted with the Christian idea that all people were created in the image of God, and were vehemently opposed by many Christians.

People and organizations involved in the trial

William Jennings Bryan was highly influential in raising public and legislative support for the Butler Act, and he articulated many of the above concerns in his published work, In His Image, in which he argued that evolution was both irrational and immoral.

The trial was planned, staged and financed by the then-fledgling American Civil Liberties Union, in an effort to challenge the Butler Act. The ACLU recruited Scopes, a substitute biology teacher, and had him claim he taught evolution. The trial was really an attack on the Bible. Whether or not Scopes actually taught evolution was scarcely discussed. Rather, the trial consisted of a string of testimonies from scientists on the “scientific” basis for evolution, and from liberal theologians about how evolution and the Bible are not contradictory.

Hunter's Civic Biology

The text used by Scopes, Hunter's Civic Biology, was primarily a biology textbook. However, it also reflected some of the concerns that drove the Tennessee legislature to enact the law. In support of white supremacy and a policy of eugenics against the genetically inferior, it noted:

“Although anatomically there is a greater difference between the lowest type of monkey and the highest type of ape than there is between the highest type of ape and the lowest savage, yet there is an immense mental gap between monkey and man … . At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the others in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” (pp. 195–196)[2]
“… if such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways of preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country.” (pp. 263–265).

The basis of the trial was the allegation that Scopes had used the textbook, and was charged with violating the Butler Act.


To support his contention that evolution was morally pernicious, Bryan cited the famous Leopold-Loeb trial involving Darrow the year before the Scopes Trial. Darrow had saved two rich young child murderers from the death sentence, and Bryan cited Darrow's own words:

this terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor … Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietsche’s evolutionary philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … it is hardly fair to hang a 19–year–old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university. (And also one of Darrow's father's own favorite authors!)

At the end, Bryan allowed himself to be cross-examined on the witness stand by Darrow, and asked him questions on the Bible, such as, “Where did Cain get his wife?” Darrow ridiculed him and Christianity as ignorant foolishness and superstition before the court and the media. He did everything possible to deride belief in the Bible and to humiliate Bryan. After Bryan’s testimony, Darrow abruptly ended the trial by asking the court to instruct the jury to find Scopes guilty! This was to avoid having to take the stand to be cross-examined as Bryan was.

Scopes was found guilty by the jury and fined $100, which was paid by the ACLU. Although the defense lost the case, it won a huge propaganda victory. They succeeded in convincing the media and, to a large degree, the public, that evolution is based upon scientific evidence, but Christians are ignorant, clinging to blind faith in a book they can’t defend.

Cross examination of Bryan

On the seventh day of the trial, Clarence Darrow took the unorthodox step of calling William Jennings Bryan, counsel for the prosecution, to the stand as an expert witness in an effort to demonstrate that belief in the historicity of the Bible and its many accounts of miracles was unreasonable. Bryan accepted, on the understanding that Darrow would in turn submit to cross-examination by Bryan.

Darrow questioned the story of Jonah, the account of the Earth standing still, and the Usher-Lightfoot Calendar. Bryan responded by steadfastly adhering to belief in the reported miracles, but asserted that he did not know how old the Earth was, as the Usher-Lightfoot Calendar was only a calculation of men. When asked to explain the use of the word "Day" in the first chapter, he said: :"I have not attempted to explain it. If you will take the second chapter—let me have the book. (Examining Bible.) The fourth verse of the second chapter says: "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth, when they were created in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens," the word "day" there in the very next chapter is used to describe a period. I do not see that there is any necessity for construing the words, "the evening and the morning," as meaning necessarily a twenty-four-hour day, "in the day when the Lord made the heaven and the earth."

(Unlike what happens in Inherit the Wind where the Bryan character is essentially tricked into admitting the days of creation were not literal twenty-four-hour days, Bryan knew where Darrow was trying to herd him and pre-empted the attack by admitting the point. The great irony of the cross-examination is that Bryan repeatedly relied on the agnostic's creed and kept answering he did not know.)

The questioning continued into whether Eve was actually created from Adam's rib, where Cain got his wife, and how many people lived in Ancient Egypt. The celebrated "duel in the shade" was very heated with Darrow telling Bryan, "You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does believe in your fool religion." In response Bryan declared: "The reason I am answering is not for the benefit of the superior court. It is to keep these gentlemen from saying I was afraid to meet them and let them question me, and I want the Christian world to know that any atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, can question me anytime as to my belief in God, and I will answer him."

Bryan, correctly gauging the effect the session was having, snapped that it was "to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible." Darrow, with equal precision and vehemence, described the underlying political issues in his quick retort, "We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States."

Immediately after questioning Bryan, Darrow suddenly asked the judge to instruct the jury to find his client guilty and closed the case for the defense. Thus he denied Bryan the chance to cross-examine him in return. Scopes never testified, as there was never a legal issue as to whether he had taught evolution. (It seems highly likely that Scopes never did in fact actually teach any aspect of evolution, but the point was not contested at trial. The law itself was on trial.)

After eight days of trial, during which Darrow was charged with contempt but later apologized, Scopes was found guilty on July 21 and ordered to pay a $100 fine. Bryan offered to pay it.

Appeal to Supreme Court of Tennessee

Scopes' lawyers appealed, challenging the conviction on several grounds.

First, they argued that the statute was overly vague because it prohibited the teaching of "evolution," a very broad term. The Court rejected that argument, holding:

"Evolution, like prohibition, is a broad term. In recent bickering, however, evolution has been understood to mean the theory which holds that man has developed from some pre-existing lower type. This is the popular significance of evolution, just as the popular significance of prohibition is prohibition of the traffic in intoxicating liquors. It was in that sense that evolution was used in this act. It is in this sense that the word will be used in this opinion, unless the context otherwise indicates. It is only to the theory of the evolution of man from a lower type that the act before us was intended to apply, and much of the discussion we have heard is beside this case."

Second, the lawyers argued that the statute violated Scopes' rights under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, as it prohibited him from teaching evolution. The court rejected this argument, holding that the state was permitted to regulate his speech as an employee of the state:

"He was an employee of the state of Tennessee or of a municipal agency of the state. He was under contract with the state to work in an institution of the state. He had no right or privilege to serve the state except upon such terms as the state prescribed. His liberty, his privilege, his immunity to teach and proclaim the theory of evolution, elsewhere than in the service of the state, was in no wise touched by this law."

Third, it was argued that the terms of the Butler Act violated the Tennessee constitutional clause providing: "It shall be the duty of the General Assembly in all future periods of this government, to cherish literature and science." The argument was that the theory of the descent of man from a lower order of animals was now established by the preponderance of scientific thought that the prohibition of the teaching of such theory is a violation of the legislative duty to cherish science.

The court rejected this argument, holding that the determination of what laws cherished science was an issue for the legislature, not the judiciary:

"The courts cannot sit in judgment on such acts of the Legislature or its agents and determine whether or not the omission or addition of a particular course of study tends "to cherish science."

Fourth, the defense lawyers argued that the statute violated the Establishment Clause, unconstitutionally establishing a state religion.

The Court rejected this argument, holding that the Establishment Clause was designed to prevent the establishment of a state religion as had been the experience in Britain and Scotland at the writing of the constitution, and held:

"We are not able to see how the prohibition of teaching the theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship. So far as we know, there is no religious establishment or organized body that has in its creed or confession of faith any article denying or affirming such a theory. So far as we know, the denial or affirmation of such a theory does not enter into any recognized mode of worship. Since this cause has been pending in this court, we have been favored, in addition to briefs of counsel and various amici curiae, with a multitude of resolutions, addresses, and communications from scientific bodies, religious factions, and individuals giving us the benefit of their views upon the theory of evolution. Examination of these contributions indicates that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are divided among themselves in their beliefs, and that there is no unanimity among the members of any religious establishment as to this subject. Belief or unbelief in the theory of evolution is no more a characteristic of any religious establishment or mode of worship than is belief or unbelief in the wisdom of the prohibition laws. It would appear that members of the same churches quite generally disagree as to these things."

Further, the Court held that while the statute forbade the teaching of evolution (as the Court had defined it), it did not require the teaching of any other doctrine, so that it did not benefit any doctrine over the others.

Nevertheless, having found the statute to be constitutional, the Court set aside the conviction on appeal due to a technical issue the jury should have decided the fine, not the judge, as Tennessee judges could not at that time set fines above $50. The prosecution did not seek a retrial.

Not until 1968 did the US Supreme Court rule in Epperson vs. Arkansas that such bans contravene the Establishment Clause because their primary purpose is religious. (Tennessee had previously repealed the Butler Act the prior year.)

Publicity and drama

The press coverage of the "Monkey" Trial was overwhelming. The front pages of newspapers like the New York Times were dominated by the case for days. More than one hundred newspaper reporters from all parts of the country and two from London were in Dayton. Twenty-two telegraphers sent out 165,000 words a day on the trial. Chicago's WGN radio station broadcast the trial with announcer Quin Ryan via clearn channel broadcasts for the first on-the-scene coverage of a criminal trial. Two movie cameramen had their film flown out daily in a small plane from a specially prepared airstrip. H. L. Mencken's trial reports were heavily slanted against the prosecution and the jury which was "unanimously hot for Genesis." He mocked the town's inhabitants as "yokels" and "morons". He called Bryan a "buffoon" and his speeches "theologic bilge". In contrast, he called the defense "eloquent" and "magnificent". Some evolutionists have claimed that Mencken's trial reports turned public opinion against creationism, though few people seem to have actually noticed this at the time.

The trial is described in detail in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Summer for the Gods, by Edward J. Larson (ISBN 0465075096); also useful is Ray Ginger's Six Days or Forever? (ISBN 0195197844). Another detailed resource is The Great Monkey Trial by L. Sprague de Camp. Although the play "Inherit the Wind", written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, is very loosely based on the events, it is important to note that this was a "literary device" since many believe that the play was actually about Senator Joseph McCarthy and the proceedings of the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities. See also The World's Most Famous Court Trial, State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes: Complete Stenographic Report of the Court, by John Scopes (ISBN 0306719754)

The trial also brought publicity to the town of Dayton, Tennessee, leading some to speculate that it was a publicity stunt. From The Salem Republican, June 11, 1925:

"The whole matter has assumed the portion of Dayton and her merchants endeavoring to secure a large amount of notoriety and publicity with an open question as whether Scopes is a party to the plot or not."

The site of the trial, the Rhea County Courthouse, has in recent years largely been restored to the its 1925 appearance, and a museum of the trial events is located in its basement. Every summer the locals re-enact key moments of the trial in the courtroom.

Inherit the Wind

Main Article: Inherit the Wind

The stage play Inherit the Wind (1955) by Lawrence and Lee, later adapted into film, was very loosely based on the Scopes trial. The productions have been widely criticized for taking extensive creative licensing, which many felt made Bible-believers look ignorant and intolerant. The original film starred Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond/(Clarence Darrow), Fredric March as Matthew Harrison Brady/(William Jennings Bryan) and Gene Kelly as E. K. Hornbeck/(Mencken). In 1988, a rewrite of the Kramer movie starred Jason Robards as Drummond and Kirk Douglas as Brady.

There were a number of substantial deviations from actual events in the movie:

  • Whereas Brady was portrayed as refusing to read Darwin, Bryan was better acquainted with Darwin's ideas than were the defense team lawyers, not to mention several of the so-called expert witnesses.
  • It has the Brady character ("Bryan") claiming that sexual intercourse was original sin, although nothing at all was said about sex in the actual trial.
  • While the play had Brady betraying Cates' girlfriend, the local preacher's daughter, the real Scopes didn't have a girlfriend at all.
  • Brady protested that the fine was too lenient; the real Bryan, as noted above, actually offered to pay the fine himself.
  • Brady dies almost as soon as the trial's outcome is decided; Bryan did not die until five days after the trial ended.

Related References

See Also