Skip to main content

John Thomas Scopes Trial: 1925 (The "Monkey Trial")

John Thomas Scopes Trial: 1925
(The "Monkey Trial")

Name of Defendant: John Thomas Scopes
Crime Charged: Teaching evolution
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clarence Darrow, Arthur Garfield Hays, and Dudley Field Malone.
Chief Prosecutors: William Jennings Bryan and A.T. Stewart

Judge: John T. Raulston
Place: Dayton, Tennessee
Dates of Trial: July 10-21, 1925
Verdict: Guilty; however, neither side won the case because the decision was reversed on a technicality involving the judge's error in imposing a fine that legally could only be set by the jury
Sentence: $100 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: The John Thomas Scopes trial checked the influence of Fundamentalism in public education and stripped William Jennings Bryan of his dignity as a key figure in American political history. It also marked the displacement of religious faith and rural values by scientific skepticism and cosmopolitanism as the dominant strains in American thought.

Rarely has the American psyche been so at odds with itself as in the early 1920s. In the cities, Americans were dancing to the opening bars of the Jazz Age, debating Sigmund Freud's theories and swigging bootleg liquor in defiance of Prohibition. In the rural heartland, particularly in the South, believers in oldfashioned values were caught up in a wave of religious revivalism. Preachers damned modern scientific rationalism in all its guises and upheld a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible as the only source of truth. A showdown between modernists and traditionalists to decide which would dominate American culture seemed inevitable. Both sides itched for a decisive battle.

Fundamentalists were particularly galled by the gains modernism had made in public schools, where the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection had supplanted the Biblical story of creation. To them, it seemed their tax dollars were being spent to turn their own children againsteven to scoff atthe religion of their parents. Led by William Jennings Bryan, the thricedefeated presidential candidate of populism, the Fundamentalists tried to drive the Darwinian "heresy" out of the schools by legislative fiat.

In Tennessee a bill sponsored by John Washington Butler was enacted in February 1925, declaring it unlawful for a teacher in any school supported by state funds "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." Fearful that if the Tennessee law went unchallenged other states would soon pass similar bills, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) immediately announced it would defend any teacher charged with violating the Butler Act.

A few weeks later, in the little town of Dayton, a transplanted New Yorker with Darwinian views got into a debate at the local drugstore soda fountain with two Fundamentalist lawyers. However much they fought over evolution and whether mankind and monkeys were close relatives, they quickly agreed that a trial to test the law would do wonders for Dayton's commerce. The 24-year-old science teacher of the local high school, John Thomas Scopes, was recruited that very afternoon to be the legal guinea pig. Just as quickly, the ACLU confirmed it was prepared to defend Scopes.

Using a state-approved textbook, Scopes taught a lesson on evolutionary theory on April 24 to his Rhea County High School science class. Arrested on May 7, Scopes was quickly indicted by the grand jury, setting the stage for what newspaper headline writers were already calling the "Monkey Trial."

The Circus Comes to Dayton

The legal teams fielded by both sides guaranteed the press attention they and Dayton's business leaders craved. The ACLU dispatched its chief attorney, Arthur Garfield Hays, and his partner, Dudley Field Malone, along with Clarence Darrow. Darrow, who had made his reputation by defending controversial clients, became the chief lawyer for the defense. A militant agnostic, he had long been on a personal crusade against resurgent Fundamentalism, and he saw the Scopes trial as the perfect opportunity to kick the wobbly intellectual props out from under that ideology.

Personifying the Fundamentalist world view, the star of the prosecution team was none other than William Jennings Bryan himself. No one was more holier-than-thou or more effective on the stump in defending old-fashioned rural America's Fundamentalist values than "The Great Commoner," as he liked to be called.

Pro-and anti-evolutionists alike billed the trial as a winner-take-all debate between incompatible ideologies, a forensic armageddon between religion and science, faith and reason, traditional and modern values, the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Scientists and intellectuals were horrified at the prospect of a state barring scientific knowledge from the classroom. Civil libertarians saw the case as a crucial test of academic freedom, which had to be defended regardless of the prevailing religious beliefs of the local population. Fundamentalists proclaimed the case a last-ditch battle to save the souls of their children from atheism.

Big-city editors recognized it as a circus and sent their most waspish reporters and columnists to poke fun at the hayseeds. Dozens of new telegraph lines had to be strung into Dayton to handle their cable traffic. In addition to the lawyers and reporters, the town was overrun with itinerant preachers, commercial hucksters, eccentrics of every stripe, and numerous chimpanzees accompanied by their trainers. Monkey dolls, umbrellas with monkey handles, and dozens of other souvenirs with a monkey motif were put on sale.

Despite the circus-like atmosphere, the trial was no laughing matter for Bryan. Arriving a few days early, he preached to a large audience, "The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death. If evolution wins in Dayton, Christianity goes."

Evolution on Trial

The trial began Friday, July 10, 1925, with Judge John T. Raulston presiding. More than 900 spectators packed the sweltering courtroom. Because of an error in the original indictment, most of the first morning was spent selecting another grand jury and drawing up a new indictment. With that task done, a trial jury of 10 farmers, a schoolteacher and a clerk was quickly impaneled, and the court adjourned for the weekend.

On the first business day of the trial, the defense tried and failed to quash the indictment on grounds that the law violated both the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that no one may be deprived of rights without due process of law, and the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment. Describing the Butler Act to be "as brazen and as bold an attempt to destroy learning as was ever made in the Middle Ages," Darrow predicted there would be a natural progression from the forbidding of the teaching of evolution in public schools to the banning of books and censoring of newspapers.

The opening statement for the prosecution was made the next day by A.T. Stewart, the attorney general of Tennessee, who charged Scopes with contradicting the Biblical story of Creation, thus violating the Butler Act. Responding for the defense, Dudley Malone insisted that for Scopes to be convicted the state had to prove two things: that he had denied the Biblical story of creation and that he had taught instead that man descended from a lower order of animals. Proving both would considerably complicate the prosecution's task. (While Scopes had admitted teaching evolution, there was no evidence he had denied the Bible's version of man's origins.) Malone conceded there was there were some apparent contradictions between the Darwinian and Biblical accounts of creation, but he noted that many people managed to reconcile the two theories. Only the Fundamentalists maintained that science and religion were totally incompatible on the subject.

The prosecution's case was presented briskly. The superintendent of the Rhea County school system testified that Scopes had admitted teaching evolution in a biology class. Stewart then offered a King James Version of the Bible as evidence of what the Butler Act described as the Biblical account of Creation. The judge accepted this as evidence over the objection of Arthur Garfield Hays, who pointed out that there were several different versions of the Bible.

Scopes' students testified that he had taught that mammals had evolved from one-cell organisms and that humans share the classification "mammal" with monkeys, cats, etc. The owner of the local drugstore where Scopes had purchased the textbook he used to teach evolution acknowledged that the state had authorized sale of the textbook. Darrow and the druggist read aloud portions on Darwin. To counter, Steward read the first two chapters of the Old Testament's Genesis into the record. With that, the prosecution rested.

The next day, Thursday, July 16, the defense started calling its witnesses, beginning with a zoologist from Johns Hopkins University. The prosecution objected, arguing the evidence was inadmissible and irrelevant since the jury did not need to understand evolutionary theory to decide whether Scopes had violated the law in teaching it.

Bryan seized this opportunity to give his major speech of the trial. Clutching the offending textbook in one hand and a palm fan in the other, he belittled the theory of evolution and ridiculed a diagram in the textbook. Bryan charged that Darwinism produced agnostics and atheists, thus weakening moral standards. As evidence of this, he claimed it had inspired the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings, in turn, had motivated the Chicago "thrillkillers," Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Darrow, who had been the defense attorney in that case, angrily objected, stating that Bryan was misrepresenting Nietzsche's views to prejudice the jury; Judge Raulston overruled him. Bryan closed on a defiant note, assuring his audience that the Bible would survive attacks by scientists trying to reconcile it with evolution. Although some of his quips provoked appreciative laughter from spectators, observers noted that the speech lacked the eloquence and punch of Bryan's best stump performances.

Dudley Malone, presenting the defense's last argument for the admissibility of scientific evidence, charged the Fundamentalists with suppressing new ideas out of fear and claiming they had a monopoly on the truth. Malone proclaimed: "The truth always wins. The truth does not need the forces of Government. The truth does not need Mr. Bryan. The truth is imperishable," Malone declared. "We feel we stand with progress. We feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America. We are not afraid. Where is the fear? We defy it!" Although Malone's speech received more applause than Bryan's, it failed to persuade the judge.

The phrase "descended from a lower order of animals" was clear enough to define evolution under the law, Judge Raulston decided, ruling out the admissibility of scientific testimony.

Enraged by this decision, Arthur Hays requested the judge at least permit the expert statements to be entered into the court record, not to be heard by the jury but to be available to an appeals court. Avoiding cross-examination of its expert witnesses, the defense lawyers submitted their written statements, summaries of which went into the record.

Darrow Deflates Bryan

The trial, which had been moved to the courthouse lawn to accommodate the crowds, seemed to be winding down when defense attorney Hays dropped a bombshell: He called William Jennings Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. This was an unheard-of legal tactic, but, with jaunty overconfidence, Bryan sprang up to accept the dare and the doubtful judge agreed. Darrow, whose skill at trapping witnesses with their own words was legendary, dropped his previously gentle manner when Bryan took the stand. First, he got Bryan to state every word in the Bible was literally true. He then asked how the Old Testament figure Cain got a wife if he, Adam, Eve, and Abel were the only four people on earth at the time, as the Bible said. Next, Clarence Darrow pointed out that the Book of Genesis states that the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden was condemned by God to slither on its belly, Darrow then asked Bryan if before that, had the snake walked on its tail? The more Darrow bored in, the more entangled Bryan became in contradictions, and the more foolish he and his cause appeared.

Sweating and shaking, Bryan shocked his own supporters by admitting he didn't think the earth was made in six 24-hour days, as a literal reading of the Bible suggested. This was significant, since literalism was the cornerstone of Fundamentalist doctrine. The personal antagonism between Darrow and Bryan charged the courtroom with electricity. Bryan accused Darrow of insulting the Bible. Darrow responded, "I am examining you on your fool ideas that no Christian on earth believes."

Finally, after an hour and a half, Judge Raulston adjourned the proceedings in a transparent attempt to save Bryan further embarrassment. The next morning Bryan's testimony was described as irrelevant and removed from the record by the judge. The defense immediately rested, denying Bryan any opportunity to erase the previous day's humiliation.

Closing for the defense, Clarence Darrow stole the prosecution's lines by asking the jury to find Scopes guilty so that the case could be appealed. After nine minutes, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. In violation of Tennessee law, which required that the fine be set by the jury, Raulston advised the jury to let him fix the fine, an error that led the court of appeals to reject the original verdict. While the appeals court upheld the constitutionality of the Butler Act, it did not order a retrial for John Thomas Scopes, who by that time had given up teaching.

In a narrow sense, Scopes and the evolutionists lost the battle. But it was soon apparent that they had won the war. No attempt was made to enforce the Butler Act again, although it was not repealed until 1967. Within a few years, efforts to enforce similar laws in other states were also abandoned. The Supreme Court put the issue to rest in 1968, when it held a similar statute in Arkansas unconstitutional because it violated the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

But the Scopes trial is remembered not so much for its legal as its social and cultural significance. It marked a watershed in intellectual history; before Scopes, religious faith was the common, if not universal, premise of American thought; after Scopes, scientific skepticism prevailed. Friends and enemies alike viewed William Jennings Bryan's death just a few weeks after the trial ended as tolling the end of an era. A 1955 play and subsequent film based on the events in Dayton, Tennessee, Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, ensured that the trial would remain among the most remembered courtroom battles in U.S. history.

Edward W. Knappman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Allen, Leslie H., ed. Bryan And Darrow At Dayton: The Record And Documents Of The "Bible Evolution Trial." New York: Arthur Lee, 1925.

Coletta, Paolo E. WVilliam Jennings Bryan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.

Darrow, Clarence. The Story Of My Life. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932.

De Camp, L. Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1968.

Ginger, Raymond. Six Days Or Forever: Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

Hays, Arthur Garfield. Let Freedom Ring. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1928.

Koenig, Louis W. Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1971.

Levine, Lawrence. Defender of The Faith: WVilliam Jennings Bryan: The Last Decade 1915-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Scopes, John. Center of The Storm. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967.

Stone, Irving. Clarence Darrow For The Defense. Garden City N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1941.

Tierney, Kevin. Darrow: A Biography. New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1979.

Tompkins, Jerry. D-days at Dayton. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.

Weinberg, Arthur, ed. Attorney For The Damned. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"John Thomas Scopes Trial: 1925 (The "Monkey Trial")." Great American Trials. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"John Thomas Scopes Trial: 1925 (The "Monkey Trial")." Great American Trials. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/law-magazines/john-thomas-scopes-trial-1925-monkey-trial

"John Thomas Scopes Trial: 1925 (The "Monkey Trial")." Great American Trials. . Retrieved December 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/law-magazines/john-thomas-scopes-trial-1925-monkey-trial

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.