Church History Almanac: The Beginning of the Scopes Monkey Trial

July 10, 1925: Opening of the Scopes Monkey Trial

The legend of the Scopes Monkey Trial is wrapped up in the name itself: the fateful war between religion and science. But the real story behind the Scopes Trial is rather more complex, folding in both the tensions brought about by Darwin’s theories and the aftermath of revivalistic Fundamentalism. With apologies to Billy Joel: Scopes didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since American evangelicalism’s been turning.

The Men Involved in the Trial

John Thomas Scopes: One of the more curious features of the trial is the way John Thomas Scopes is remembered. Popular accounts pitch him as a principled science teacher, whose commitment to empirical research forced him to teach evolution. The portrait, then, is of an innocent scientist thrown to the gallows for the sake of his conscience—sort of a modern Luther before the Holy Roman Emperor.

In actuality, Scopes was not the science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee. He was the football coach. His role in teaching science classes was limited to when he would substitute teach. At times he filled in for science classes. He was not technically a scientist either, as his he only had received a minor in geology from the University of Kentucky.

Clarence Darrow: the defense was argued by Clarence Darrow, who at the time was something of the Johnnie Cochran in American culture. Darrow had recently argued the latest ‘trial of the century’: the case against Leopold and Loeb for the planned kidnapping and murder of a young boy. Darrow took the murder case for a reported 1 million dollars, though he did so largely based on his belief that capital punishment was barbarous. At the time of the Scopes Trial, then, Darrow as known popularly as a celebrity lawyer who liked to push cultural change through public trials.

William Jennings Bryan: the prosecution was argued by Bryan, formerly the Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, and a staunch Presbyterian and prohibitionist. Bryan saw the fight over Darwin as part of a proxy war over the slouching of American culture away from its Christian heritage.

The Butler Act: Tennessee had passed the Butler Act in 1925, making it a misdemeanor to deny the biblical account of the creation of man when teaching science in schools. The law was not an infraction for believing in Darwinianism but pertained only to public schools that received state funds.

The ACLU: the reason the trial occurred in the first place was a result of the ACLU. They believed the law against teaching Darwin in Tennessee was in violation of freedom of speech. They advertised their willingness to pay for a trial to challenge the Butler Act. At the time, the ACLU saw this not as an issue of science but of free speech.

George Rappleyea: engineer and entrepeneur in Dayton, Tennessee who wanted the trial held in Dayton. Rappleyea believed the attention of the trial (which few cities wanted) would be a boon for the local economy. He invited the ACLU to consider the case in Dayton.

H.L. Mencken: a blisteringly witty reporter and satirist, writing for the Baltimore Herald. Mencken found the entire trial to be crazy, and he himself invented the name ‘Monkey Trial’ during his coverage of the trial. He was a lover of Nietzsche and felt that religious faith could only be held by inferior minds.

Christian Fundamentalists: in the 1920s the Fundamentalist movement became much more organized, but its roots go back mostly to holiness movements spawned during the Second Great Awakening. Apart from defending core truths about biblical inerrancy and the atonement of Christ, Fundamentalists were at times culture warriors. The Butler Act itself, as well as movements for prohibition and other legislation against cultural ills, were driven by this impulse within Fundamentalism.

The Trial

As is obvious from the players involved in the Scopes Trial, the entire thing was staged. Scopes was not a science teacher, and in fact by his own admission he had skipped the chapters on Darwin when he substituted for those classes. Scopes, however, was willing to stand trial and have his name associated with the fight for free speech. He was coached as to his answers in several cases.

The ACLU’s initial strategy was not itself a defense of Darwinianism either. Their strategy was to have Darrow argue for a possible harmony in the claims of evolution and the Bible—a view not dissimilar to modern theistic evolution. The culture of Dayton was assumed to be hostile to the question of evolution itself, so this strategy was believed to be more achievable, and ideal witnesses for this position were selected. It was actually Darrow who altered the strategy mid-trial—perhaps due to clashes with Judge Raulston in the courtroom, perhaps due to the changing circumstances of Fundamentalist protest outside the courtroom. Darrow eventually made the biblical account of creation itself the point of attack. This change in tone was picked up by Mencken and other reporters, effectively making the Scopes Trial a polarizing fight between faith and science.

Ironically, on the sixth day of the trial the defense finished its course of witnesses. Over the next two days, Judge Raulston repeatedly struck testimony of witnesses from the record, and Darrow’s case came to a close. Eight days into the trial, the jury deliberated for nine minutes and came back with a guilty verdict. Tennessee law was clear, Scopes had confessed to teaching evolution, and Judge Raulston required him to pay a fine of $100. Darrow himself paid the fine and immediately appealed the ruling.

Aftermath of the Scopes Trial

The Supreme Court of Tennessee heard the appeal case in 1927 (Scopes v. State, 154 Tenn. 105). They appeared unwilling to rule on the law itself, though they overturned the ruling by a vote of 3-1 on a technicality: the jury was supposed to determine the fine, not the judge. Scopes himself became something of a celebrity in science circles: he was awarded a scholarship to study geology at the University of Chicago and later converted to Roman Catholicism.

The cultural legacy of the Scopes Trial, of course, is a different matter. The circus involved in the trial—from protests by Fundamentalists to the coverage of the trial in the media—forever fixed the Scopes Trial as a death spasm of Christian influence in American culture. Scopes had lost the trial, but science had won in the hearts of educated America. The claims of the Bible were pitched as backward and radical, propped up only by the force of law. By 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas (393 U.S. 97) that any such bans were unconstitutional because they were based on religious views.

The popular memory of the Scopes Trial was later enshrined in the play Inherit the Wind, which was made into a move in 1960. Both the play and movie were made as a stand-in for debates in the 1950s over communism in America and free speech, but the brilliance of the movie especially reinforced the narrative that Scopes was an example that science and faith could never live together—at least not without renewing the culture war.

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