Old Values vs. New Values

47b. The Monkey Trial

Darrow and Bryan
Legendary defense lawyer Clarence Darrow faces off against William Jennings Bryan in the Dayton, Tennessee trial of schoolteacher John Scopes. Bryan died in Dayton five days after the trial ended.

When Darwin announced his theory that humans and apes had decended from a common ancestor, he sent shock waves through the Western world.

In the years that followed his 1859 declaration, America's churches hotly debated whether to accept the findings of modern science or continue to follow the teachings of ancient scripture. By the 1920s, most of the urban churches of America had been able to reconcile Darwin's theory with the Bible, but rural preachers preferred a stricter interpretation.

Amid the dizzying changes brought by the roaring decade, religious fundamentalists saw the Bible as the only salvation from a materialistic civilization in decline.

Darwin Banned

In 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed the Butler Law, which forbade the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in any public school or university. Other Southern states followed suit.

The Butler Law









House Bill No. 185

(By Mr. Butler)

AN ACT prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, 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.

Section 2. Be it further enacted, That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act, Shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred $ (100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($ 500.00) Dollars for each offense.

Section 3. Be it further enacted,That this Act take effect from and after its passage, the public welfare requiring it.

Passed March 13, 1925

W.F. Barry,
Speaker of the House of Representatives

L.D. Hill,
Speaker of the Senate

Approved March 21, 1925.

Austin Peay,

The American Civil Liberties Union led the charge of evolution's supporters. It offered to fund the legal defense of any Tennessee teacher willing to fight the law in court. Another showdown between modernity and tradition was unfolding.

William Jennings Bryan as Don Quixote
This political cartoon appeared during the Scopes monkey trial. Bryan is portrayed as Don Quixote, tilting at the windmill of evolution. The caption reads: "He's Always Seeing Things."

The man who accepted the challenge was John T. Scopes, a science teacher and football coach in Dayton, Tennessee. In the spring of 1925, he walked into his classroom and read, from Dayton's Tennessee-approved textbook Hunter's Civic Biology, part of a chapter on the evolution of humankind and Darwin's theory of natural selection. His arrest soon followed, and a trial date was set.

Darrow versus Bryan

Representing Scopes was the famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow. Slick and sophisticated, Darrow epitomized the urban society in which he lived.

The prosecution was led by William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and former secretary of state. The "Great Commoner" was the perfect representative of the rural values he dedicated his life to defend.

Billy Sunday
Although Fundamentalist minister Billy Sunday drew thousands of listeners to his radio program, he was also well known for his flamboyant on-stage style that included wild-eyed denunciations of alcohol and its users.

Bryan was a Christian who lobbied for a constitutional amendment banning the teaching of evolution throughout the nation.

A Media Circus — with Monkeys

The trial turned into a media circus. When the case was opened on July 14, journalists from across the land descended upon the mountain hamlet of Dayton. Preachers and fortune seekers filled the streets. Entrepreneurs sold everything from food to Bibles to stuffed monkeys. The trial became the first ever to be broadcast on radio.

Scopes himself played a rather small role in the case: the trial was reduced to a verbal contest between Darrow and Bryan. When Judge John Raulston refused to admit expert testimony on the validity of evolutionary theory, Darrow lost his best defense.

He decided that if he was not permitted to validate Darwin, his best shot was to attack the literal interpretation of the Bible. The climax of the trial came when Darrow asked Bryan to take the stand as an expert on the Bible. Darrow hammered Bryan with tough questions on his strict acceptance of several Bible's stories from the creation of Eve from Adam's rib to the swallowing of Jonah by a whale.

In the following famous excerpt from the trial transcript, Darrow questions Bryan about the flood described in the Bible's book of Genesis.

DARROW: But what do you think that the Bible itself says? Do you know how that estimate (of the year the flood occurred) was arrived at?

BRYAN: I never made a calculation.

DARROW: A calculation from what?

BRYAN: I could not say.

DARROW: From the generations of man?

BRYAN: I would not want to say that.

DARROW: What do you think?

BRYAN: I could not say.

DARROW: From the generations of man?

BRYAN: I would not want to say that.

DARROW: What do you think?

BRYAN: I do not think about things I don't think about.

DARROW: Do you think about things you do think about?

BRYAN: Well, sometimes.

Who Made Who Look Like a Monkey?

While on the witness stand, William Jennings Bryan frustrated Darrow by not directly answering the defense attorney's questions. Bryan was a Christian, but he did not necessarily interpret the Bible literally. He would not give in, however, to Darrow on the subject of miracles. Bryan believed that miracles happen, though he could not explain how.

The "Great Commoner" felt it important for an articulate defender of the Bible to speak on its behalf. At one point in the testimony, Bryan claimed that the defense had "no other purpose than ridiculing every Christian who believes in the Bible."

Bryan was not opposed to science. He was well regarded in some scientific cricles and belonged to several national science organizations.

Darrow's Defense

The key to Clarence Darrow's defense strategy was to have scientists testify. On the trial's sixth day, Judge Raulston stated, "It is not within the province of the court under these issues to decide and determine which is true, the story of divine creation as taught in the Bible, or the story of the creation of man as taught by evolution." In short, no experts were needed to understand the simple language of the Butler law. Darrow's scientific experts were barred from testifying. By day's end, the sardonic Darrow had been charged with contempt of court.

The trial's seventh day featured charged exchanges between Darrow and Bryan, who was on the stand. But on the trial's eight day, Judge Raulston ruled that Bryan's testimony would not be allowed to stand on the record.

It was clear to Darrow that all was lost in this courtroom. In order to appeal the case to a higher court, Darrow asked the jury to find his client guilty. On July 21, 1925, it did.

It is interesting to speculate how history would have played out had Bryan been able to examine Darrow on the witness stand, which was Bryan's intention. But the trial concluded before Bryan had the chance.

Neither lawyer came out looking like a monkey.

The jury sided with the law. Clearly, Scopes was in violation of Tennessee statute by teaching that humans evolved from apes. He was fined $100 and released. But the battle that played out before the nation proved a victory for supporters of evolutionary theory. A later court dismissed the fine imposed on Scopes, though in the short term, the antievolution law was upheld.

Fundamental Christians were down but not out. Through the radio airwaves, ministers such as Billy Sunday reached audiences of thousands. Aimee Semple McPherson of California preached her fundamentalist message over loudspeakers to arena-sized crowds. At one point, she used a giant electric sports scoreboard to illustrate the triumph of good over evil, foreshadowing generations of televangelists who would follow her lead.

Clearly, the 1920s did not see the end to these conflicts or the answers to their major questions.

On the Web
Inherit the Wind
Many people forget that John Skopes lost the "Trial of the Century." He was found guilty of violating the (obviously unconstitutional) Butler Act and ordered to pay a fine. The American Civil Liberties Union had planned to appeal the conviction and take the case to the Supreme Court, but Skopes' conviction was instead overturned by the TN state supreme court on a technicality. The Butler Act was never again enforced. In 1968 the Supreme Court finally ruled that a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The Scopes "Monkey Trial"
Counterbalance aims to present new views on complex issues and is committed "to stay true to respected theological principles, and to good scholarship." They refute the view that the Scopes Trial was a public relations victory for evolutionists. Interesting counterpoint with many links to articles on the tension between science and religion.
The Talk.Origins Archive
Talk.Origins is a Usenet newsgroup centering on the origins of life and, especially, creation/evolution controversy. This archive was created to provide mainstream scientific information about many of the issues raised in the newsgroup, but the "Other Web Sites" page has dozens of links to sites exploring both sides of the controversy. This is one of the most outstanding resoruces on the Web!
When I want to read fiction, I don't turn to the Arabian Nights; I turn to works of biology — I like my fiction wild. Scientists make a guess and call it a hypothesis. 'Guess' is too short a word for a professor. -William Jennings Bryan
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Dayton, Tennessee, was thrilled to be in the spotlight. Residents believe the attention would be good for business and might even attract settlers seeking refuge from "the atheism of the great urban Sodom and Gomorrahs."
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This old buzzard, having failed to raise the mob against its rulers, now prepares to raise it against its teachers.
-H.L. Mencken, vilifying three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in a report from the Scopes trial
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