OTD in History… July 10, 1925, the Scopes Monkey Trial begins against teaching evolution
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history July 10, 1925, the Scopes Monkey Trial begins pitting fundamentalist versus evolutionary theories of creation and whether Charles Darwin’s evolution theory should be taught in schools, the trial was one of the most famous in history but did not put the topic to rest. The eight-day trial called The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes was more show than reality. Earlier that year, Tennessee farmer John W. Butler urged the state legislature to pass a law preventing the teaching of evolution in schools. The legislature passed the law, called the Butler Act on March 25, making it a high misdemeanor crime punishable by fine for anyone 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 American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend anyone willing to violate the Butler Act.
Local Dayton businessman George Rappleyea conspired with the superintendent of schools to challenge the law, they chose high school substitute teacher John T. Scopes to test the law. Scopes substituted for a biology teacher where he supposedly taught out of a required textbook, that includes a chapter on evolution. The plan included the students testifying that he taught the theory, and on March 25, the grand jury indicted Scopes. The prosecution called upon “lawyer, three-time Democratic presidential nominee, former United States Secretary of State, and lifelong Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan” to serve as a special prosecutor. To counter the defense convinced Clarence Darrow to take the case as part of the defense team.
With Bryan and Darrow at the helms on either side, the case would attract national attention, and make a circus. Reporters from all over the country and world covered the trial, and the radio broadcasted the proceedings. H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun orchestrated the hype, and he was helping to pay for the defense, while preachers countered by setting up revival tents, vendors sold Bibles and chimpanzees in suits entertained the masses around the Rhea County Courthouse.
Judge John T. Raulston presided, he was widely viewed as biased against the defense and in favor of the prosecution, going as far as quoting from the Bible during the trial, claiming the law was not on trial but Scopes, and in doing so denied the defense their expert witnesses. ACLU attorney Dudley Field Malone for the defense gave the most stirring speech of the trial on July 15. Malone concluded to cheers:
There is never a duel with the truth. The truth always wins and we are not afraid of it. The truth is no coward. The truth does not need the law. The truth does not need the forces of government. The truth does not need Mr. Bryan. the truth is imperishable, eternal, and immortal and needs no human agency to support it. We are ready, to tell the truth as we understand it and we do not fear all the truth that they can present as facts. We are ready. We are ready. We feel we stand with progress. We feel we stand with science. we feel we stand with intelligence. We feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America We are not afraid. Where is the fear? We meet it! Where is the fear? We defy it! We ask your honor to admit the evidence as a matter of correct law, as a matter of sound procedure and as a matter of justice to the defense in this case.
On the seventh day, when the defense ran out of witness they called Bryan as a Bible expert although he was not. With the heat, Judge Raulston moved the trial outside, increasing the audience for the climax of the case. Darrow conducted the questioning on Bryan focusing on Adam and Eve, where he ridiculed Bryan telling him, “You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion.” Bryan responded, “The reason I am answering is not for the benefit of the superior court. It is to keep these gentlemen from saying I was afraid to meet them and let them question me, and I want the Christian world to know that any atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, can question me anytime as to my belief in God, and I will answer him.” The judge stopped the questioning within two hours and ordered the exchanged expunged from the record, which prevented Bryan from cross-examining.
In the closing statement, Darrow spoke to the jury:
We came down here to offer evidence in this case and the court has held under the law that the evidence we had is not admissible, so all we can do is to take an exception and carry it to a higher court to see whether the evidence is admissible or not…we cannot even explain to you that we think you should return a verdict of not guilty. We do not see how you could. We do not ask it.
Both sides were denied a closing argument; Bryan, who had been preparing it for weeks, distributed his to the press:
Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endanger its cargo. In war, science has proven itself an evil genius; it has made war more terrible than it ever was before. Man used to be content to slaughter his fellowmen on a single plane, the earth’s surface. Science has taught him to go down into the water and shoot up from below and to go up into the clouds and shoot down from above, thus making the battlefield three times as bloody as it was before; but science does not teach brotherly love. Science has made war so hellish that civilization was about to commit suicide; and now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future. If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world.
After eight days, and biggest legal spectacle in history, the jury would come back in eight minutes with a guilty verdict; Judge Raulston imposed the minimum fine of $100 without the jury rendering the sentence or allowing Scopes to give a statement. Judge Raulston related where Scopes expressed, “Your honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom. I think the fine is unjust.”
Bryan won the case but humiliated publicly on a widespread scale, which he could not overcome, he died five days later on July 26. In 1927, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction not based on the appeals argument but because Judge Raulston handed down the sentence when it was the jury’s responsibility. Pulitzer Prize winning historian Edward J. Larson notes in Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, “As a result of the Scopes trial, evolution largely disappeared in public school science classrooms [until the late 1950s].” Only in 1968, did the Supreme Court strike down the law deeming it an infringement on Freedom of Speech.
Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. New York: BasicBooks, 2006.
Mencken, Henry L. A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Brooklyn, N.Y: Melville House Publ, 2006.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.