by Stan Griffin

Before there was an O. J. Simpson, or a Martha Stewart, or a Scott Peterson, there was John Thomas Scopes. His was the first important trial of the 20th century conducted under the unblinking eye of a "media microscope."

The Scopes trial attracted national, even worldwide, interest; and it drew several hundred reporters and photographers. Eventually millions of words were written and sent out to an eager audience who devoured them hungrily. Attorneys drew more attention than the defendant: one was the most famous criminal attorney in the nation; and the other had three times been a Democratic Party candidate for the U. S. Presidency. At issue were academic freedom and the relationship between religion and education. It has been 80 years, but the effects of this trial are remain with us today.

It all began with a man named Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. Darwin’s book, "Origin of the Species" (1859) stated: modern man originated in a " ... lower form and progressed to the more sophisticated form we have become ... Tracing (man’s) ... descent showed a clear relationship to other primates .. " He was saying in his way: "Monkeys and humans had common ancestors."

Two Christian groups had strong objections to Darwin’s ideas, calling them "immoral": 
(1) FUNDAMENTALISTS believe every word in the Bible is true. (2) CREATIONISTS think " ... all things in the universe were created directly by God, (and) ... not the result of a long evolutionary process ....this applies with particular force to forms of life ... (and) is based on the account of creation in Genesis ..."

In the early 1900s, public high schools began teaching Darwin’s theory. Christian organizations counterattacked in 20 states by putting pressure on politicians to pass ordinances banning this. They were successful in several places. Oklahoma, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Tennessee all enacted similar legislation. A little town in Tennessee soon became the arena for "legal combat" over evolution.

Early in 1925 Tennessee’s legislature passed the Butler Act into law which made it illegal for teachers in state-supported schools " ... to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of Man as taught in the Bible ... (or) teach man has descended from a lower order of animal ..."

The American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) learned about the Butler Act and made two determinations. In their opinion: (1) it was unconstitutional (contrary to the U. S. Constitution); and (2) the " ... religious nature of the people behind the law challenged the idea of separation between church and state ..." Very quickly they placed a notice in Tennessee newspapers offering to pay legal expenses for any teacher willing to test the law. A volunteer could do that by admitting he broke the law. When he was arrested, he would stand trial. Then the courts would have their say. This ad sparked particular interest in Dayton, Tennessee.

This soon-to-be famous municipality was a small mining town in the southeast part of the state with an approximate population of 1,800. In this Rhea County seat were beautiful homes, nine churches (all Protestant), a hosiery mill, a canning factory, and a blast furnace operated by the Cumberland Coal and Iron Company. Farms in the area grew soybeans, wheat, tobacco, and strawberries.

In the spring of 1925 Dayton was in a self-described " economic slump, ...(it) needed something for a boost, something to put (it) on the map ..." On a morning in May, a group of leading citizens held a meeting at Robinson’s Drug Store to discuss what they might do about that situation. Eventually they agreed a Butler Act test case held in Dayton could bring a lot of people to town. With them would come fame and fortune for their town.

The conference then turned to the choice of a teacher to act as defendant. When the name of John T. Scopes surfaced, the group quickly reached a consensus. He was quickly summoned from a local tennis court, and the situation was explained to him. He was asked if he was willing to be formally accused, admitting he had broken the law when he taught Darwin’s theory in a biology class. (Scopes wasn’t the regular biology teacher, but he substituted for him at the end of the term.) Scopes agreed to let his name be used. 

John Scopes

John T. Scopes was born in Paducah, Kentucky on August 3, 1900. His family moved to Illinois when Scopes was 13. They lived in Danville, then in Salem where he graduated from high school. (Commencement speaker at ceremonies there was William Jennings Bryan, soon to play an important part in Scopes’ life.)

The family returned to Paducah in 1920. John graduated from the University of Kentucky with a Bachelor of Arts degree. A teaching job opened up at the Rhea County Central High School in Dayton, and he was accepted for the position to teach math and physics and coach football.

The state’s Attorney General was in charge of prosecuting Scopes. He was assisted by several lawyers (an early "Dream Team"). One of them shone brighter than all the others: William Jennings Bryan, world famous statesman, politician, and public speaker who was known as the "Great Commoner."

Bryan was born on March 19, 1860 in Salem, Illinois. He practiced law in Illinois and Nebraska and was editor of an Omaha newspaper. Bryan was a prominent member of the Democratic Party and their nominee for President in 1896, 1900, and 1908; he was defeated by two Republicans also named William (McKinley and Taft).

Bryan served as Secretary of State in President Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet in the years preceding World War I. He moved to Florida in 1920 and continued to be very popular on the lecture circuit. Bryan was a lifelong supporter of a "literal" (word-for-word) interpretation of the Bible, a staunch believer in Christian fundamentalism, and an outspoken critic of evolution.

He saw the Scopes case as an opportunity to score a victory over Darwin.

Defending Scopes was Clarence Darrow, Bryan’s equal when it came to attracting publicity. He was born on April 18, 1857 in Kinsman, Ohio (near Youngstown). Darrow practiced law in Ohio for a while, then moved to Chicago (1887). He specialized in cases involving labor union, defending leaders on charges ranging from murder to dynamiting a newspaper building. Darrow then left the unions and devoted himself to opposing the death penalty. The year before Scopes’ trial, Darrow defended two young men--Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb-- accused of murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks. They were found guilty, but Darrow’s zealous defense saved them from a death sentence.

Clarence Darrow

When he learned Bryan was going to be involved in the Scopes trial, Darrow–an agnostic (one who doesn’t deny God but refuses to admit the possibility of knowing him)-- quickly volunteered his services to the defense.

Weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin, the town was inundated with people from all over the country. Dayton’s main street was lined with flags and banners. Street hucksters dispensed such items as small cotton monkeys, Bibles, biology textbooks, and pins which said, "Your Old Man’s A Monkey." There were live apes and chimpanzees along with circus performers. Evangelists and all types of religious fanatics mingled with local farmers, miners and curious townspeople. Concessionaires sold lemonade and hot dogs. It was truly a "festive atmosphere" which enveloped the town.

There was also the press: reporters, columnists, and 22 Western Union telegraphers who daily "burned the wires" with reports of the trial’s progress. For the first time ever, a trial was broadcast–live–by radio (Chicago’s WGN).

The Scopes trial began on July 10, 1925 at the Rhea County Courthouse, a large brick building with a belfrey. It was surrounded by a large yard and trees. and could accommodate 700 people. However, more than 900 squeezed in. All available standing room was taken.

William Jennings Bryan

It was summer in the South so temperatures were high. The courtroom was sweltering. On the seventh day, Judge John Raulston (himself a fundamentalist) took the unusual step of moving proceedings outside to the lawn. His motive could have been the heat. Then again, it might have been a crack in the first-floor ceiling and the danger of collapse. Once in the open air, crowds grew to 5,000.

Bryan included these words in his opening statement: "If evolution wins, Christianity goes." First to take the stand in the state’s case was the county superintendent of schools. He testified Scopes had admitted teaching Darwin. Next, seven of Scopes’ students (reluctant witnesses) stated he had taught them from a book by Darwin. At that point, the state of Tennessee "rested" (ended its case).

In his opening statement for the defense, Darrow said the prosecution is " ... opening the doors for a reign of bigotry equal to anything in the Middle Ages ..." His strategy was to call a number of "expert witnesses," Bible scholars and scientists. After long discussions, Judge Raulston refused to allow their testimony.

Darrow expected to lose in Dayton. He would then appeal to the Tennessee State Supreme Court and hope they would say any law forbidding the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional. That would nullify the Butler Act.

Darrow surprised everyone when he called Bryan himself as a defense witness. Bryan could legally have declined, but he seemed eager to "cross swords" with Darrow. For nearly two hours, the two men did just that. Darrow ridiculed Bryan’s belief in the literal truth of the Bible. He was able to show Bryan didn’t really believe every Biblical event.

Through Darrow’s expert questioning, Bryan also was shown to lack enough knowledge of science to have " ... any valid opinions about it ..." Many onlookers believed Bryan was humiliated. The press described him as " ... pitiable ... (and a) punch drunk warrior ..."

In his final statement Darrow indirectly asked the jury to find his client guilty. He was counting on the earlier-mentioned appeal to the state supreme court which (he hoped) would reverse the decision on constitutional grounds and effectively "kill" the Butler Act.

Darrow’s manipulation of Tennessee state law deprived Bryan of the opportunity to give his long-planned closing statement which (he hoped) would give him a chance to state his fundamentalist views for a large audience.

After a short deliberation, the jury (on July 21) did return a verdict of guilty. Judge Raulston fined Scopes $100. In a statement later, Scopes said: "I will continue in the future ... to oppose the law in any way I can ..."

In the days that followed, the public seemed to back Scopes, even though he lost the case. Bryan won it but came off as the loser instead. Many believed Darrow outclassed him. The trial was a "significant setback to anti-evolution forces ..., (and) creationists’ reputations suffered enormously ..." Within a year, the Tennessee Supreme Court did reverse the jury’s decision–but not on constitutional grounds as Darrow had hoped. Instead they cited a "legal technicality." (Judges are limited to $50 fines in such cases.) So the Butler Act remained in force for 42 more years.

William Jennings Bryan remained in Dayton for several days after the verdict, visiting neighboring towns to give speeches. Five days later (July 26), he died in his sleep at age 65. His diabetes was blamed. When he heard the news, Darrow said: "His death is a great loss to the American people."

Clarence Darrow largely retired from the practice of law after the Scopes case. At age 68, he came back only occasionally to defend a client. Darrow died on March 13, 1938 at the age of 80

John T. Scopes never again taught high school biology. He got lots of mail: from fans, "Scopes heaters," and from women who proposed marriage. He was also offered $50,000 (but turned it down) to be part of a vaudeville act in which he would discuss the "Great Monkey Trial" on stage. Instead, Scopes went to the University of Chicago with a scholarship set up by some of the "expert witnesses" who had been denied permission to testify for him. He graduated with a master’s degree in geology and spent the rest of his working life employed by the oil industry in the U.S. and Venezuela.

Scopes wrote a few newspaper articles and an autobiography, "Center of the Storm." He returned to Dayton in 1960 to attend the premiere of a movie, "Inherit the Wind," based on his courtroom experience: The mayor presented him a key to the city and proclaimed July 21 to be "Scopes Trial Day." Scopes died ten years later (October 21, 1970) at age 70.

By the 1960s, public schools began to teach evolution. In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled laws like the Butler Act unconstitutional. Fundamentalist strategy in the 1970s and 1980s was to propose laws making creationism a required subject where evolution was being taught. Two states passed such laws, but they were also judged unconstitutional by the courts who established these principles: "Evolution is scientific, not religious ..." and "creationism is a religious explanation of life ..."

Since then creationists, through local school boards, have worked toward introduction of life theories as "abrupt appearances" and "Intelligent Design." They don’t refer to God, but instead say our species appeared " ... suddenly rather than evolving from earlier forms of life."

Currently (January 2005), Dover, Pennsylvania " has become critical testing ground in a widening national debate about teaching evolution ..." The school board voted to "specifically identify an alternative to evolution." Science teachers oppose what they call an " ... inherently religious, not scientific ..." approach. They have refused to read a disclaimer which criticizes evolution and cite an alternative: Intelligent Design.

©Copyright   Stan Griffin 2005


"The Scopes Trial: Defending the Right to Teach," Arthur Blake, Spotlight on American History, The Millbrook Press, Brookfield, Connecticut, 1994

"Clarence Darrow" Education on the Internet and Teaching History Online

"Clarence Darrow" Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"William Jennings Bryan," Education on the Internet and Teaching History Online

"William Jennings Bryan" Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"John T. Scopes" Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"The Scopes Monkey Trial: July 10-July 25, 1925" Website xroads.virginia.edu

"People and Events: John Scopes" American Experience, Website www.pbs.org

"State vs. John Scopes (The Monkey Trial)," Doug Linder, Website  www.law.umke.edu

"William Jennings Bryan" Website, www.u-s-history.com

"William Jennings Bryan" American Experience, Website www.pbs.org

"Dayton, Tennessee" Website www.law.umkc.edu

"Alternative to Evolution Splits Pennsylvania Town," Neela Banerjee (NY Times), Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 16, 2005

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