The 1925 Scopes “MonkeyTrial was the culmination of the Fundamentalist crusade against Modernism, and changed the way the public viewed court cases. It was heralded as the legal showdown of science vs. religion, academic freedom vs. government authority, good vs. evil. In reality, it served only as a public spectacle.

The early 1900’s were a time of change in Western culture. World War I had recently ended with the Armistice of 1918, and America returned to its political and cultural isolation. Once rigid moral standards were loosening. Darwin’s The Origin of Species had been published in 1859, and by this time, his theories on evolution by natural selection were gaining support by scientific minds the world over and had become standard fare in school textbooks.

The Bible was not immune to this new scientific worldview. During the late 1800's, many biblical scholars decided that the Old Testament was a haphazard anthology of stories by many different authors, collected over hundreds of years and borrowed from other ancient civilizations. Many mainline Protestant churches modified their teachings so as not to conflict with this and other recent scientific discoveries.

This all would have proceeded smoothly if it were not for a new religious movement that emerged in the early 1900's. A group of pamphlets called The Fundamentals was circulated, proclaiming that all of the Bible must be true and taken literally; otherwise, the Christian religion would fall apart. These inspired a new group, the fundamentalists, to rail against all the evils of modernism. These fundamentalists were horrified to see so many Protestant churches embracing modernistic thought, including Darwinian evolution. Many of them became so disappointed with their churches that formed their own, honoring a literal interpretation of the Bible.

It did not take long for the fundamentalists to begin petitioning their state governments for legal reform in support of their crusade. In 1922-24, anti-evolution bills were introduced in Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. A few passed, but most didn't. Finally, in 1925, they scored a significant victory.

Tennessee state legislator John Washington Butler drafted a bill making 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” in any public school funded by the state. The law was classified a misdemeanor and assigned the penalty of $100 to $500, a large sum at the time. Although it would seem a questionable statute, it was approved 71 to 5 in the lower house and 24 to 6 in the senate. Few noticed the law's passing, assuming that it would never be enforced.

One of the few organizations to notice the Butler Act’s passing was the recently formed American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU wanted to arrange a test case of the Butler Act. Usually when laws are passed of questionable constitutionality, a test case is arranged, for which a person willfully breaks the law. Lawyers for the prosecution and defense then argue why the law is or is not constitutional. The ACLU made a challenging press release in the May 4th edition of the Chattanooga Times asking for willing clients and offering their legal council.

Mining engineer George W. Rappleyea noticed the press release. He saw it as an excellent opportunity to bring publicity back to his home town of Dayton, Tennessee’s slumping economy (Larson 88). Rappleyea and a few co-conspirators convinced local substitute teacher John T. Scopes to be the willing defendant in the ACLU sponsored test case. He was arrested and released back to his tennis game on bond. Scopes was hesitant, but convinced that the law and the growing fundamentalist movement needed to be challenged. He later wrote in his autobiography:

Here was the crux of the controversy, as far as I was concerned. The Fundamentalists had an inalienable right to believe what they did, but when they insisted that others hold those beliefs too, they were violating other people’s rights. They missed the spirit of Christ’s teachings by clinging desperately to literal, narrow interpretations of the Bible. It was a specific example of the universal conflict of the narrow-minded and intolerant against the broad-minded and tolerant; it can be seen in all lands, in all ages. It is the continuing struggle between those who enforce the letter of the law and those who maintain the spirit of the law.

Word of the trial spread quickly. William Jennings Bryan, the nation’s leading anti-evolutionist speaker, volunteered his services for the prosecution, planning to continue his crusade against evolution in schools. Bryan had run unsuccessfully for president three times, and had served as Secretary of State for Woodrow Wilson. Bryan was more optimistic than most fundamentalists were. Even so, he embodied their arguments of majoritarianism well. He wrote, “The Christians who want to teach religion in their schools furnish the money for denominational institutions. If atheists want to teach atheism, why do they not build their own schools and employ their own teachers?”

News of Bryan’s involvement reached the most renowned criminal trial lawyer of the 1920’s, Clarence Seward Darrow. He had recently gained his national notoriety by defending unpopular socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs and the famous murderers Leopold and Loeb. Darrow was Bryan’s antithesis, as he considered Fundamentalist Christianity a “slave religion”. His assistance was offered to the defense in order to call the country’s attention to the crusade of Bryan and his flock of fundamentalists. With newspapers proclaiming the trial to be a veritable clash of the titans, visitors streamed into the town of Dayton, and swelled its population from less than 1,800 to about 4,500. To most of the town’s natives, upholding the law was a distant second. Business was booming and the world was watching.

The defense team began preparing their case. Darrow and the others intended to show that the Butler Act was unconstitutional on the grounds that it was in favor of religious doctrine, was unreasonable because it went against what most leading scientists believed at the time, and had indefinite wording. Much of this required that expert witnesses in the fields of science and theology be called, but the prosecution objected, saying that the issue at hand was Scopes’ innocence or guilt, not to question the law itself. Judge Raulston opted to omit all expert testimony, but allowed the defense to file affidavits into the record to be considered by any appellate court.

By this time, the courtroom was so full that the floor was cracking under the weight of the spectators, and the heat inside was unbearable. The judge moved the trial outside onto the lawn. Without expert testimony to discredit the Butler Act, the defense was left with few options. In a drastic surprise move, Darrow circumnavigated the restriction on expert testimony by calling Bryan to the stand as an expert on the Bible. His brutal, sarcastic cross-examination trapped Bryan into admitting that he did not really take every word of the Bible literally. Although the other prosecution lawyers begged him to stop, Bryan stood his faltering ground. When Bryan truly began to waiver, Raulston abruptly adjourned for the day. Bryan’s ignorant testimony swayed public opinion to the side of Darrow.

Instead of giving his closing arguments, Darrow pulled another trick and asked the jury to find Scopes guilty. By Tennessee law, this prevented Bryan from giving the long-winded speech he had written, and avoided the possibility of a hung jury. The jury took no time to deliberate and found Scopes guilty of the indictment. While being sentenced, Scopes spoke for the first time during the trial, “Your Honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future … to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my idea of academic freedom.”

The trial of John T. Scopes was meant by some to challenge the constitutionality of the Butler Act, but it’s real legacy was the thousands of spectators that thronged to see it, in person or vicariously through the new medium of radio. It remains a testament to the American public’s fascination with the controversial and sensational.


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