The dramatic Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925 involved the prosecution of high school science teacher John T. Scopes (1900–1970) for violating Tennessee’s Butler Law, outlawing the teaching of evolution in the state’s public schools. The trial was one of American history’s landmark courtroom battles and a watershed in what came to be widely understood as a cresting conflict between science and religion.
The publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 was taken by many as a radical challenge to the Biblical accounts of humankind’s origin. In the ensuing years, revolutionary advances in science and technology, increasing urbanization, and the growth of religious pluralism fed by mass immigration, buoyed both the self-confidence of science and the appeal of a secular public sphere. Evolutionary theory was applied to social relations to justify the laissez-faire (or hands-off) policies and economic inequalities of the Gilded Age (which many Christians condemned) as naturally occurring instances of the survival of the fittest. Prominent public thinkers increasingly argued that religion was dogmatic, superstitious, and impeded the scientific spirit essential to a more enlightened modernity. The 1920s, however, witnessed a revival of Fundamentalist Protestantism, aimed at fighting these trends, and many of the ideas—like evolution—that undergirded them by undermining the authority of Scripture. Part of the Fundamentalist counterattack involved state-level efforts to outlaw the teaching of Darwinian theory to public school children.
The Scopes trial was self-consciously conceived as a theatrical staging of these broad-ranging social debates. Tennessee’s Butler Law was passed largely as a statement of principle. Few of its proponents either intended or expected that it would be aggressively enforced. The proponents of evolutionary theory, scientific investigation, academic freedom, and secular education (including the American Civil Liberties Union) actively recruited John Scopes, a general science teacher substituting as a biology teacher, to admit to having violated the law by teaching a lesson in evolution. They did so in full collusion with local town officials in Dayton, Tennessee (including the prosecutor), who hoped a dramatic public spectacle pitting the claims of science against religion would revive the economic fortunes of the ailing southern town. The town officials bore no ill will toward Scopes, who swam with the opposing side’s lawyers during trial recesses. It was understood that, if convicted, Scopes would serve no jail time, but instead pay a fine generously provided by others. The prosecution and defense teams recruited two of the country’s most famous lawyers to square off on behalf of science on one hand and the Bible on the other—the radical Chicago attorney (and proud atheist) Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) and the Populist evangelical former presidential candidate and secretary of state William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), respectively. The trial was conducted in a carnival-like swirl of hot-dog and lemonade hawkers, souvenir vendors, and street-corner orators. The proceedings were broadcast live from Chicago on WGN radio and charted by swarms of reporters, including the celebrated American journalist H. L. Mencken (1880–1956). The sparring between the two lawyers, including Darrow’s withering cross-examination of Bryan (who mounted the stand himself as an expert on biblical teaching) became the stuff of legend. Although the jury convicted Scopes, the consensus was that Darrow had effectively humiliated the creationists, striking a powerful blow for science and academic freedom. Many have held the trial’s grueling ordeal responsible for Bryan’s death only days after the verdict, as well as for the ensuing retreat of many fundamentalist Protestants from the nation’s public life.
In subsequent years the Scopes trial retained a rich resonance as a symbol of the dangers of not only religious zealotry, but of religion in general, to the advancement of knowledge and intellectual freedom. These symbolic uses were evident in accounts of it in the most prominent cold war era American history textbooks and, most famously, in the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play, Inherit the Wind (and its 1960 film adaptation by Stanley Kramer), which took dramatic liberties with real events by building up the depth of John Scopes’s commitment to evolutionary theory and academic freedom and the ruthlessness and intolerance of the Dayton townspeople and prosecutors. These reconstructed memories were prominent in the culture at precisely the moment in the early 1960s that the U.S. Supreme Court held—in a run of Establishment Clause cases invalidating Bible reading and prayer in the schools—that the Constitution imposed a “high and impregnable” “wall of separation” between church and state. As evangelical and fundamentalist Christians became newly active in politics in the 1980s (in part in reaction to these judicial rulings) and as a new generation of critics of evolutionary theory and proponents of creationism and “intelligent design” gained influence, the meaning and legacy of the Scopes Trial are being reconsidered once again.
SEE ALSO Christianity; Church and State; Civil Liberties; Creationism; Cross of Gold; Darwin, Charles; Fundamentalism, Christian; Populism; Science
Lawrence, Jerome, and Robert E. Lee. 1955. Inherit the Wind. New York: Random House.
Scopes, John T., and James Presley. 1967. Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Ken I. Kersch
SCOPES TRIAL. Since the American public witnessed the dramatic testimony of William Jennings Bryan in the blistering heat of Dayton, Tennessee, in the summer of 1925, the Scopes Trial has come to represent the controversy over the teaching of evolutionary theories and Darwinism in the American public schools. John Scopes, a local biology teacher, agreed to serve as a defendant in an American Civil Liberties Union test case of Tennessee's antievolutionary law. He was arrested for teaching evolution and held for a jury trial in July of 1925. The issue at stake—whether the state could proscribe the teaching of any science that appeared to contradict the Bible—predated the trial and has remained a source of bitter controversy.
Since the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 and the Descent of Man in 1871, Charles Darwin's concepts of an ancient Earth and a gradual development of new species have been seen as particularly threatening by some groups of Christians, particularly in the United States. Seen to deny the story of Genesis and bolster a materialist interpretation of the appearance of life on Earth, evolution has become, for some important Protestant religious sects, symbolic of growing social disorder, immorality, and the decline of traditional culture in modern America.
The Scopes Trial occurred as a result of the Tennessee legislature's passage of the Butler Act in March 1925. The law, designed to prevent the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the public schools, was not the first of its kind; Oklahoma had passed a similar statute in 1923, while several other states had considered doing so. This series of antievolutionary measures could be attributed in part to the activism of the former Populist leader, three-time presidential candidate, and former secretary of state William Jennings Bryan. After World War I Bryan had become a leader of the newly organized fundamentalist tendency in American Protestantism and a leading opponent of evolutionary theory, which he saw as an immoral science that had legitimated German ruthlessness during the war. Throughout the early 1920s he used his fame and rhetorical gifts to further the antievolutionary cause.
The forces that met and clashed in Dayton, Tennessee, were remarkably like those that have continued to debate the issue throughout the twentieth century. Both prosecution and defense decided to use the occasion to score larger points for their cause. Local prosecutors invited Bryan to join their case, while defense attorneys brought in the famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow. A large group of reporters, as well as spectators from the local countryside, descended on the small town, and the proceedings were broadcast over WGN radio in Chicago.
The trial's most dramatic moment came when Bryan agreed to testify about the Biblical account of creation. In his testimony he revealed, to the consternation of many fundamentalists, his belief in the "day/age" theory, which interpreted the days referred to in the Biblical account of creation as metaphors for much larger ages. Bryan, the town of Dayton, and much of rural America were mocked in the urban press, led by the journalist H. L. Mencken, who attended the trial. But none of this mattered to the outcome of the proceedings, which established that Scopes had indeed broken the law. While the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction on appeal, it set aside the lower court's verdict on a technicality rather than on the merits of the case or the constitutionality of the law. The ACLU thus failed to establish the legal precedent against antievolutionary laws that it had sought.
The events of Dayton and the decline of efforts to outlaw evolution did not mean that evolution could be taught widely in American schools. In fact, after 1925 and well into the 1960s, most public school textbooks removed any mention of Darwin or evolution. Biblical literalists did not budge in their opposition to evolutionary science. But they did change their tactics. Rather than simply attacking evolution, they borrowed the language of science to present the Biblical story of creation in a new, more respectable guise. While this new "creation science" made no headway among established biologists and geologists, it proved convincing to many other Americans. With considerable public support, fundamentalists and creation scientists sought "equal time" to present their views in science classes. Focused first at a statewide and later at a local level, their agitation won temporary victories in the South, the Midwest, and California over the course of several decades. In 1987, however, a 7 to 2 ruling by the United States Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard rejected the equal time proposal and judged mandatory creation science to be an unconstitutional intrusion of religion into public schools.
The Supreme Court's powerful and far-reaching opinion notwithstanding, creation science has continued to win approval from many Americans, while the teaching of evolution and its mechanisms has lagged in the public schools. For example, in 1999 the Kansas Board of Education, by a narrow majority, approved a new science curriculum that eliminated the required teaching of evolutionary theory. Although the ruling was rescinded in early 2001, it does not appear that threats to American science education will disappear anytime soon.
Conkin, Paul K. When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes and American Intellectuals. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.
Eve, Raymond A., and Francis B. Harrold. The Creationist Movement in Modern America. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Webb, George E. The Evolution Controversy in America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.
Perhaps the most famous symbol of the science-religion clash, the Scopes Trial took place during July 1925 in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. On trial for teaching evolution was high school teacher John Thomas Scopes, who agreed to serve as defendant in a case to challenge Tennessee's recently-passed Butler Act (Public Acts of the State of Tennessee, 1925, Chapter 27). This statute was the first effective legislation that emerged from the anti-evolution crusade, the most dramatic manifestation of the religious movement known as Protestant Fundamentalism. The Butler Act prohibited the teaching in public schools of "any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." The Scopes Trial was precipitated by citizens of Dayton, who hoped to use the resulting publicity to boost their community, and by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which hoped to secure a judicial ruling that such anti-evolution laws were unconstitutional. The trial attracted worldwide attention, in part because noted attorney Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) was a member of the defense team, while famous politician and anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) assisted the prosecution.
The Scopes Trial generated significant media comment, virtually all of it negative. Writers such as H. L. Mencken portrayed Bryan and his supporters as buffoons and dismissed the rural South as a backward region. Although the trial produced a few dramatic moments, such as Darrow's examination of Bryan as a Biblical expert, the courtroom activity proved relatively inconsequential. The ACLU was unable to use the trial as a forum to discuss evolutionary concepts because the judge had prohibited expert testimony as irrelevant. Assuming that Scopes would be convicted, the defense planned an extensive appeal leading to the U. S. Supreme Court and thus took the Dayton proceedings somewhat casually. The local jury had little trouble finding Scopes guilty, after which the defense appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Although this court affirmed that the Butler Act was legitimate, it overturned Scopes's conviction on a technicality and urged the state to drop the matter. This decision ended all appeals and left the constitutional status of the Butler Act undecided.
Although the Scopes Trial is often seen as a defeat for the anti-evolution forces, it actually served to stimulate the movement. Mississippi and Arkansas joined Tennessee in adopting anti-evolution statutes, all of which remained in place until the late 1960s. After the Scopes Trial, evolutionary concepts largely disappeared from the nation's public school science curriculum, as textbook publishers ignored the topic to maintain sales. During the final third of the twentieth century, new anti-evolution campaigns emerged in the form of "creation-science" and "intelligent design" arguments, which sought to convince the public that evolution was bad science and that there existed scientific evidence for the literal interpretation of the Genesis account of creation. Among the states that attempted to compromise the teaching of evolution in this fashion were Arkansas, Arizona, California, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Tennessee. Although efforts to enact state legislation to mandate the inclusion of these concepts in the science curriculum failed to survive constitutional analysis, the place of evolution in American public schools remained nebulous in the early years of the twenty-first century.
See also Creation; Creation Science; Creationism; Darwin, Charles; Design; Evolution; Fundamentalism; Intelligent Design
larson, edward j. summer for the gods: the scopes trial and america's continuing debate over science and religion. new york: basic books, 1997.
numbers, ronald l. the creationists. new york: knopf, 1992.
webb, george e. the evolution controversy in america. lexington: university press of kentucky, 1994.
george e. webb