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Explainer: The significance of The Scopes Monkey Trial

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July 21, 2020

July 21 marks the anniversary of the verdict in one of the most important court cases in American religious history: The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, or as it is commonly known, “The Scopes Monkey Trial.” This trial—which brought attention to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee—was an open and shut case of guilt. So what attracted so much attention? The trial was a visible clash of the fight raging within Christian denominations at the time between modernist and fundamentalists centered around the teaching of evolution. 

On one side was the fundamentalist, former secretary of state, and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who argued that teaching evolution was contrary to Scriptures. On the other side was self-proclaimed agnostic Clarence Darrow and the American Civil Liberties Union, who saw this case as a chance to roll back the influence of religion in education. The court case, especially when Bryan took the stand in defense of the fundamentalists, was an encapsulation of the ongoing struggle within American Christianity over how literally to interpret Genesis and just how to integrate Christian doctrine with new scientific information. The modernists saw no problem between the two or were willing to change Christian doctrine to fit the new information. The fundamentalists saw this as an attack on true Christianity. 

It was in the courtroom of a small town in Tennessee that these sides squared off for their most visible confrontation, and neither side walked away truly victorious. 

Background

The conflict between fundamentalists and modernists had raged since the late 19th century. At the core of the debate was how to integrate the supernatural claims of the Bible with new criticism coming out of scientific inquiry. New scholarship raised doubts about the authorship of biblical texts, the timeline of their writing, and the details provided. Many of these revisions were attempts to maintain Christianity’s relevance and also find agreement between science and the Bible. Thus, rather than completely abandon the Bible, they choose to reinterpret it, often by disregarding the supernatural elements such as miracles or a virgin birth or a physical resurrection. 

Another point of controversy was in the creation account of Genesis 1-2. Higher criticism raised questions about Mosaic authorship, arguing that there were in fact different accounts of creation that had been woven together by different authors and a final editor. Further, when compared with modern scientific findings as made famous by Charles Darwin and others, it was impossible to square the age of the earth with a literal seven-day creation account. Though there were some Christians at the time—such as Benjamin Warfield and Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary—who saw no problem in accepting a theistic evolution account, many fundamentalists saw this as an attack on the special place of humanity in the cosmos. These critics often asked how humanity was unique in God’s design if men and women were descended from apes. 

At the state level, this reached a crescendo when the Butler Act was passed in 1925 in Tennessee outlawing the teaching of evolution in schools. The ACLU offered to defend anyone who broke the law in an attempt to get it overturned. There has been considerable research which has shown that locals in Dayton, hoping that the trial would attract attention and business to the town, encouraged a local teacher known to teach evolution to challenge the law. He was subsequently fired and tried for breaking the law.

Important figures

John Thomas Scopes: Scopes was the defendant in the court case and a high school biology teacher and football coach. As a young, unmarried man who was not a local in the area, he had little to lose in being the ACLU’s test case. Also, there was never a question of his guilt. Scopes would go on to lose the trial and eventually receive a fine of $100 for the misdemeanor of teaching evolution. The fine was later overturned on appeal. 

William Jennings Bryan: Bryan was a staunch fundamentalist Presbyterian and progressive candidate (a not uncommon combination at the time). As a staunch Prohibitionist and anti-evolution crusader, Bryan often found himself seeking to save the conscience of the nation. He was a three-time unsuccessful candidate for president who served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson before returning to his social and legal advocacy. As a lawyer for the prosecution in the trial, he is best known for taking the stand and being questioned by Darrow as to the scientific accuracy of the Bible. 

Clarence Darrow: Darrow was the lawyer for the defense and vocal critic of religion. As the child of an atheist and a self-proclaimed agnostic, Darrow saw this is as a chance to attack the fundamentalist movement and the way he felt it was overstepping the role of religion in the public square. Darrow was famous before the trial for his role as defense attorney in the Leopold-Loeb murder trial. By the end of the trial, his questioning of Bryan on the witness stand had helped to humiliate the fundamentalist movement before the wider culture as he pointed out supposed contradictions in the biblical text.

H.L. Mencken: Mencken, journalist for the Baltimore Sun, is perhaps the person best known for describing the trial to the outside world. His columns portrayed the Bryan and the fundamentalists, not to mention Southerners in general, as backwoods yokels. His writing and depiction of Southern fundamentalists was what helped the modernists win the larger culture war, even as they lost the specific court case.

Events of the trial

At the heart of the trial was not a question of guilt. Scopes did not hide that he had taught evolution. He was guilty under the Butler Act. However, the ACLU argued that the law itself was unconstitutional because it violated Scopes’ free-speech. Bryan, arguing for the prosecution, asserted that the people of Tennessee who paid for the school and Scopes’ salary had a right to dictate what was taught, especially when it was something like evolution, which he claimed undermined the Christian faith. However, both sides, especially Darrow and Bryan, came to see the court case as unconcerned with free speech and a death match between science and religion. 

Thus, the most memorable moment of the trial came when Bryan took the stand in defense of the Bible as an expert witness. After asking a series of questions meant to illustrate the use of figurative language in the Bible (i.e., Jesus describing his followers as the salt of the earth in Matthew 5), Darrow attempted to get Bryan to agree that the earth was only 6,000 years old (a theory popularized by Anglican archbishop James Ussher). As historian Baryr Hankins recounts, Darrow interrogated Bryan about world religions, modern science, and even biblical criticism, showing that he was not an expert in any of these fields. Further, Bryan was not even a literal creationist: Bryan believed that the six days in Genesis weren’t, by necessity, 24-hour days, but rather time periods.  

Bryan was shown to be woefully ill-informed and was summarily humiliated. At the same time, Darrow’s attacks, though in agreement in the conclusion by the broader culture, were not all well-received, even by liberal theologians who saw them as attacks against any faith, not just fundamentalism. By the end of the day, both men found themselves ill-composed, shouting at one another and threatening violence against one another. The judge adjourned for the day, and when the case resumed the following day, both sides agreed that the jury should be brought in and deliver their verdict, which they did in a matter of minutes with a verdict of guilty.

Lasting influence

Scopes lost the trial, but fundamentalists lost the broader culture war. Because there was no doubt that Scopes had taught evolution, this was never about his guilt. The jury quickly determined that Scopes was guilty of breaking the law and was subsequently fined $100. This fine was later overturned on appeal. However, for the fundamentalist movement, this trial served to humiliate them on the national stage, largely due to the writing of journalist H.L Mencken. After being cast as uneducated rubes, many chose to retreat and create their own institutions and subculture rather than interact with broader society. 

Although historians such as Daniel Williams and Darren Dochuk have complicated this narrative by showing that though they did not enjoy the larger cultural influence they possessed previously, they did not entirely disappear. Rather, they laid a foundation for what would emerge in the middle of the 20th century as the evangelical movement, encapsulated in figures such as Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham, and eventually the Religious Right of the 70s and 80s.

However, the trial in Dayton, Tennessee (which is reenacted every July), set the stage for the larger culture wars between fundamentalists/evangelicals and their theologically liberal counterparts over issues such as abortion, the feminist movement, and eventually the LGBTQ movement that would shape the 20th century.

Further reading

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson: Larson’s Pulitzer winning book is one of the most thorough and readable accounts of the trial and its enduring impact on the role that science and religion play in the public square, as well as evangelicalism’s relationship to science and education. 

Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars by Barry Hankins: Hankins’ book looks at the entire decade of the roaring 20s, and he devotes an entire chapter to the court case which represented the high point of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.

Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden: Marsden is the preeminent historian of fundamentalism, and his classic work places the movement in the broader sweep of American religious history. 

Clarence Darrow Papers & Court Transcript: The Court Transcript of Bryan’s testimony and Darrow’s line of questions beginning on day six of the trial can be found in Darrow’s papers contained in the University of Minnesota School of Law.

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the Executive Assistant in the Office of the President at the ERLC. In his role, he assists with all logistical and operational needs for the Office of the President. He also assists with the oversight of the Research Institute under the leadership of the Director of … Read More