The Scopes Trial Highlights the Battle over Evolution

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The Scopes Trial Highlights the Battle over Evolution


The Scopes "Monkey Trial" is the best-known example of the conflict over the teaching of evolution in the United States. Even though most scientists in the 1920s were sure that biology could not be taught without reference to evolution, Christian fundamentalists saw evolutionary theory as a rejection of religious belief. In 1925 Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which made the teaching of evolutionary theory illegal within the state. High school teacher John Thomas Scopes (1900-1970) was tried and convicted in Dayton, Tennessee, for teaching "the theory of the simian descent of man." The Butler Act was not repealed until 1967.


When Charles Darwin's (1809-1882) On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, both theologians and scientists were divided about Darwin's theory of evolution, especially his arguments about human origins. Even some supporters of evolutionary theory believed that the intellectual and spiritual traits of human beings constituted an unbridgeable chasm separating human beings from animals. Some Protestant theologians argued that since God operates through intermediate causes, such as the law of gravity, God could also use evolution as a means of bringing living beings into existence. After studying the relationship between church doctrine and the theory of evolution, Roman Catholic theologians decided that biological evolution was compatible with the Christian faith and that the Bible should not be read as if it were a scientific treatise.

In the United States, however, many Protestant fundamentalists held to a literal interpretation of the Bible and rejected any alternative readings. A belief in the infallibility of the Bible was also a major principle of the American Bible League, founded in 1902. The World's Christian Fundamentals Association, established in 1919, called for a campaign against modernism and the teaching of the theory of evolution, which was denounced as a foreign doctrine that tended to undermine Christianity. Fundamentalists asserted that a literal interpretation of the story of the creation in the Book of Genesis was incompatible with the gradual evolution of humans and other organisms. Moreover, they asserted that Christian beliefs about the immortality of the soul and the creation of man "in God's image" were incompatible with the theory that humans evolved from animals. Anti-evolution crusaders demanded that the states pass laws to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. During the 1920s more than 20 state legislatures attempted to pass laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in their public schools. Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee succeeded in passing such laws.

Fundamentalist anti-evolution literature, such as T. T. Martin's Hell and the High Schools: Christ or Evolution—Which? (1923), equated Darwinism with atheism and fueled the drive to ban the teaching of evolution. (Pastor Martin showed up at the Scopes trial to promote his writings and expound on his philosophy.) In Kentucky attempts to pass a law prohibiting the teaching of "Darwinism, Atheism, Agnosticism, or the theory of Evolution as it pertains to man" were narrowly defeated, thanks to active opposition.

In contrast to the situation in Kentucky, opposition to the fundamentalists in Tennessee was negligible. A 1925 Tennessee law, written by state representative John Washington Butler and passed by a wide margin, made it illegal 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." The penalty for a teacher convicted of violating the Butler Act was a fine of not less than $100 nor more than $500. When Governor Austin Peay signed the bill on March 21, 1925, he said that in all probability the law would never be actively applied or enforced, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch warned that the consequences were likely to be embarrassing.


John Thomas Scopes, who held a coaching and teaching position at Central High School in Dayton, Tennessee, a town with a population of about 1,800, volunteered to test the law. The biology textbook adopted in 1919, George William Hunter's Civic Biology, contained an evolutionary chart and a discussion of evolution. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had offered to provide legal assistance to a teacher who was willing to test the constitutionality of the Butler law. (The ACLU had been established in 1920 to protect constitutional rights and freedoms. In addition to working on cases already brought to court, the ACLU often initiated test cases such as the Scopes trial.) Scopes was asked by several people in Dayton to volunteer as a candidate for the ACLU test case. He agreed.

A small article about the case appeared in the Chattanooga paper. It was picked up by the Associated Press and became a national story. John Randolph Neal, a constitutional expert who ran a private law school in Knoxville, offered to serve as Scopes's lawyer. Neal had been a law professor and dean of the law school at the University of Tennessee, but had left the school in a feud over a textbook controversy with fundamentalists. He wanted to argue that the issue was not whether evolution was true or not but whether the Tennessee legislature had the power to prevent students from learning about the ideas of the world's greatest scientists and thus limiting freedom of thought.

William Jennings Bryan, a nationally known charismatic orator, skillful debater, and popular public lecturer who had been defeated in a bid for the U.S. Senate and in three attempts at the U.S. presidency, served as the state's special prosecutor. A fervent believer in the literal interpretation of the Bible, Bryan had promised fellow fundamentalists that they would drive Darwinism from the schools. (The Scopes trial was to be Bryan's last battle; five days after the trial he suffered a stroke and died.)

Shortly after Bryan joined the case, Neal received a telegram from Clarence Darrow and Dudley Field Malone expressing their desire to assist the defense. Darrow was America's best-known defense attorney, and he offered his services to Scopes at no charge—the only time in his career he ever did so. Even though Neal was listed as the defense's chief counsel (four attorneys represented Scopes), Darrow took the lion's share of the publicity and courtroom work. With two such well known figures as Darrow and Bryan about to do battle over the legitimacy of evolution, publicity about the case reached the national level, especially after H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun (which helped pay for Scopes's defense) labeled the story the "Monkey Trial." Hordes of people descended on Dayton, and the trial began to take on a circus atmosphere.

The case was heard by Judge John T. Raulston during a special term of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit. The trial was held in Dayton from July 10–21, 1925. A radio microphone was set up and a movie camera recorded the scene for the newsreels. Experts on both science and religion came to Dayton to testify against the Butler Act, but the prosecution moved to exclude expert testimony. Judge Raulston ruled for the Fundamentalists and denied the use of expert testimony in Scopes's defense. Denied the testimony of their expert witnesses, the defense lawyers called Bryan himself to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible.

Convinced that the case would be lost in Dayton, the defense team planned to appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court, where Charles Evans Hughes would represent the defense. Judge Raulston, however, ruled out any test of the law's constitutionality or of the validity of Darwin's theory. This ruling limited the trial to the single question of whether or not Scopes had taught evolution. Scopes was convicted and fined $100. Bryan magnanimously argued against a monetary fine, and even offered to pay Scopes's fee himself. On appeal in 1927, the state's supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the Butler Act and denied motions for a new hearing. The judgment at Dayton, however, was reversed on a technicality: the judge had imposed the fine when it should have been decided by the jury. In spite of the trial, Scopes was asked to stay in Dayton as both a coach and teacher. Instead, he used a scholarship fund donated by the defense to earn his Ph.D. in geology from the University of Chicago.

While the Scopes trial created a national sensation, the outcome was far from clear. Despite the publicity, subsequent anti-evolution laws were passed in other states, and teachers in Tennessee during the 1960s were still required to sign a pledge that they would not teach evolution. The teaching of evolutionary science at the high school level declined after the Scopes trial and most biology textbooks omitted any mention of Darwin or evolution. Evolution did not regain a significant place in biology textbooks until the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a new interest in science education in the United States.

Thirty years after the Scopes trial, playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee fictionalized the proceedings in Inherit the Wind, a play that has since become a classic of American theater. When the movie version premiered in Dayton on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the trial, John Scopes was given the key to the city. He was convinced, however, that little had changed—indeed, Tennessee educators still had to promise not to teach evolution. The Butler law was finally repealed in 1967, just one year before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all state laws that banned the teaching of evolution. The Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to ban the teaching of evolution "for the sole reason that it is deemed in conflict with a particular religious doctrine."

The battles over the teaching of evolution have raised many questions about the separation of church and state, the teaching of controversial subjects in public schools, and the ability of scientists to communicate with the public. Many scientists find it impossible to believe that the theory of evolution, which lies at the core of modern biology, could be considered controversial. Long after the Scopes trial, however, questions of evolution and divine Creation continue to influence both public opinion and biology education.


Further Reading

Awbrey, Frank, and William Thwaites, eds. Evolutionists Confront Creationists. San Francisco, CA: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1984.

Ginger, Ray. Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1958.

Kitcher, P. Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1983.

Larson, Edward J. Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Moore, J. R. The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Nelkin, Dorothy. The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982.

Numbers, Ronald L., ed. Creation-Evolution Debates. New York: Garland, 1995.

Scopes, John T., and James Presley. Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

Webb, George E. The Evolution Controversy in America. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994.


Clarence Darrow Questions William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Trial (Monday, July 20, 1925). Transcript.

Ianone, Carol. "The Truth About Inherit the Wind."

Mencken, H. L. Writings on the Scopes Trial.

Mencken, H. L. Writings on the Scopes Trial.

Mencken, H. L. Writings on the Scopes Trial.

University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School. Famous Trials in American History. Tennesse vs. John Scopes: "The Monkey Trial," 1925. "Biographies of Trial Participants."

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The Scopes Trial Highlights the Battle over Evolution

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