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NHC Home TeacherServe Divining America 20th Century Essay:

The Scopes Trial
Christopher Armstrong and Grant Wacker
Duke University
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Historians who know nothing else about American religion often know one thing for sure: in July of 1925 fundamentalists got their noses rubbed in the dirt at the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee. That building, of course, housed the famous Monkey Trial, the place where rural traditionalism met and finally bowed to the forces of urban secularism. This image, perpetuated by numerous journalists, by the popular play and movie Inherit the Wind, and even by respected textbooks, contains some truth and considerable mistruth. The task is to get it all sorted out.

The energies that culminated at Dayton had been brewing for more than a half century. From the 1870s, Southern evangelicals led the fight against evolutionary teaching (commonly and somewhat misleadingly called Darwinism following the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species). After the Civil War, conservative Protestants in the North concerned themselves primarily with the defense of the authority of the Bible. Although they occasionally mobilized against the teaching of evolution, they left that fight mostly to their Southern cobelligerents. (Why Southern rather than Northern conservatives decided to draw a line in the sand over that issue remains unclear. Perhaps traditional assumptions remained so prevalent in Southern culture that Southern legislators believed they could translate them into law without fear of reprisal.)

The 1920s cradled a lasting conflict. Between 1923 and 1925 four Southern states (Oklahoma, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas) tried, with mixed success, to stop the teaching of evolution in the public schools. In the spring of 1925 Tennessee joined the fray by passing the Butler Act, the strongest bill to that point. This law made it illegal "to teach any theory that denies the Story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal." Even so, many prominent Tennesseans found themselves uncomfortable with the anti-evolution position. In early May a Dayton mine manager and a local druggist (the latter also part-time chairman of the schoolbook committee) met with John Scopes, a young high school science teacher, to discuss resistance. They knew that the American Civil Liberties Union had offered to support any Tennessee teacher willing to defy the statute. They decided to take up the challenge, with Scopes serving as the reluctant point man.

Scopes's friends arranged to have him arrested for teaching the forbidden doctrine. The ACLU quickly assembled its counsel, including the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, a religious agnostic known for defending political and labor radicals. William Jennings Bryan, an attorney, a prominent Presbyterian layman, and three-time Presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, volunteered his services as counsel for the State. Though hardly a scholar, since the early 1920s Bryan had been waging a highly publicized battle against evolutionary thought, which he considered the nemesis of Christian civilization.

The days surrounding the trial found Dayton swamped with hundreds of reporters, its streets bedecked, carnival-like, with concession stands, toy monkeys, and the bookstands and soapboxes for opportunists of all stripes. Pioneering radio broadcasters and photographers crowded the courtroom. Cable relayed the events to Europe. Historian George M. Marsden sets the scene (Religion and American Culture, 184-85).

This was at the height of the age of . . . media-generated national crazes, as well as controversies over changing mores, jazz, new dances, styles of dress for women, and sexually-suggestive Hollywood movies. Proponents of the new, more lenient culture were already deeply antagonistic toward defenders of the old-style Victorian mores, and so made the most of a drama in which science could be pitted against religion, city against rural, and North against South.

The trial itself proved as eventful as the verdict uneventful. The arguments focused upon the state's right to specify what was taught in public classrooms, not the scientific merits of evolution per se. In the course of eight sweltering days of spirited debate, Bryan himself took the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. (How the Bible, rather than John Scopes or the Butler Act, came to be on trial is an intriguing story in itself.) Some observers felt that Bryan acquitted himself ably, while others believed that he disgraced conservative Protestant Christianity by his inability to answer some of Darrow's questions about the Bible's consistency and accuracy. At the end, the jury found Scopes guilty and the judge fined him $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court later reversed the judgment against Scopes on a technicality, although it upheld the constitutionality of the Butler Act. Bryan died of a heart attack five days after the trial while napping in a Dayton residence.

Guiding Student Discussion

If sketching the bare facts of the events leading up to the trial is fairly easy, enabling students to grasp its long-range sources and significance in American culture proves more challenging. But also more interesting. You might begin by asking students why so many reasonable Americans pitted themselves against a theory so strongly supported by the professional scientific community. The answer lay in the assumptions that had informed the thinking of many conservative Protestants (and for that matter many conservative Catholics and Jews) from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Drawing upon Common Sense Realism, a philosophy rooted in the Scottish Enlightenment, Victorian Americans widely presumed that true science consisted of unbiased observation of the plainly observable facts of nature. Since the fossil evidence for partly evolved human beings remained sketchy at best, some conservative Christians attacked evolution as scientifically unsupported. Moreover, since Holy Scripture had proved itself truthful in other respects, there was no reason to doubt the veracity of the Genesis account of human origins. The point was clear: the Bible had proved itself more, not less, scientific than the upstart science of Darwinism. Bryan spoke for millions when he snorted of Darwin's theory: "It is millions of guesses strung together."

Students need to understand that resistance to Darwinism stemmed from other, less tangible sources as well. The most salient, undoubtedly, was the sense that evolutionary teaching undermined the authority of the Bible in general. If the Scriptural account of human beginnings had to be reinterpreted as merely symbolic, then what else would have to be reinterpreted as merely symbolic? The miracles of Jesus? The Resurrection? Students do not need to share the world-view of conservative Protestantism in order to appreciate the apprehension that thoughtful (as well as not-so-thoughtful) adults felt when a fundamental source of authority was called into doubt.

A host of additional factors, which students can readily grasp, fueled the flames. Fundamentalists took note, for example, of the social location where Darwinism arose: among agnostic intellectuals in Britain. And under the guise of Nietzschean philosophy it seemed to serve as a covering rationale for the Might-Makes-Right ideology of German aggression in the Great War. Fundamentalists also noticed that evolutionary assumptions flourished among upper-class academic elites, especially in the urban Northeast and Midwest. Resistance grew especially acute when such conservatives saw their sons and daughters going off to college and, faced with teachings that contradicted their parents' beliefs, seemed to lose their faith entirely.

Finally, students should view the events in Dayton not simply as a response to outside threats but as a product of conservative initiatives. Rather than assuming (as many historians do) that conservative Protestants were backwoods rubes fighting for their lives in the face of a modern juggernaut, what would happen if we turned that scenario around and assumed that fundamentalists represented the aggressors? Nearly every day throughout the 1920s barnstorming evangelist and healer Aimee Semple McPherson appeared in somebody's daily newspaper. Billy Sunday's star shone almost as brightly. Within the evangelical subculture scores of personalities, such as evangelist Paul Rader and author William Bell Riley (mentor of Billy Graham), functioned with unquestioned authority. One thing remained clear for such conservatives: the battle for the schools would serve as a battle for the historically Christian character of American civilization itself. Evolutionary teaching in the schools thus acquired powerful symbolic value, much as alcohol or immigrant Roman Catholics had in previous decades. Fundamentalists, like almost everyone else, proved that they were prepared to fight, and fight hard, for the dominance of their symbols.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of teaching these materials will be the question, who really won in Dayton? On one hand it is evident that conservatives suffered a crushing defeat in the minds of secular newspaper editors and journalists like H. L. Mencken. They also fell into everlasting disrepute among academics, humanists, and scientists alike. To this day the term fundamentalist evokes images of bigotry and ignorance on secular and not-so-secular college campuses. On the other hand, the teaching of evolution effectively disappeared from the nation's public schools until the 1960s. And even then the fight went on. After World War II, the ranks of Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, who resisted evolutionary teachings privately if not always publicly, swelled by the millions. The rise of creation science in the 1980s, and the continuing skirmishes in the courts over those matters into the late 1990s, lend credence to Gallup polls that show that nearly half of adult Americans and one-fourth of college graduates continue to doubt Darwinian explanations of human origins. Far from being an aberration, the Scopes Trial represented one of the deepest and most persistent conflicts of modern American culture. The goal is to help students see it as an integral though painful part of different Americans' attempts to come to terms with modernity, and with each other.

Historians Debate

In recent years, a growing stream of historical works have debunked the notion that Americans have always considered religion and science at odds with each other. That point is persuasively made in David N. Livingstone's Darwin's Forgotten Defenders (1987). However, the nineteenth-century assumptions that eventually led to the trial are traced in Theodore Dwight Bozeman's Protestants in an Age of Science (1977). The classic account of the trial itself remains Ray Ginger's Six Days or Forever? (1958). (The title is potentially misleading, however, since Bryan held to the "day-age theory" which allowed for the possibility that the six days of creation represented a longer period.) Ginger's work is entertaining but hardly evenhanded. For a more sympathetic treatment of conservative grass-roots concerns one should see the relevant chapters in Norman F. Furniss's The Fundamentalist Controversy (1963) or George Marsden's briefer analysis in Religion and American Culture (1990). The legal issues are clearly set forth in E. J. Larson's Trial and Error (1989). For in-depth analysis, one might turn to Sheldon Norman Grebstein's primary source compilation (now, sadly, out of print, but available in most libraries), Monkey Trial: The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes (1960). This collection includes a chronology of events, transcripts from the trial, and primary sources including the texts of the Butler Act, relevant sections from Genesis, Darwin's Origin of Species, and the textbook used by Scopes. The continuing appeal of anti-evolutionary thinking in America receives persuasive treatment by a noncreationist historian of science, Ronald L. Numbers, in The Creationists (1992).

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Grant Wacker holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and is currently Professor of the History of Religion in America at the Duke University Divinity School. He is the author of Augustus H. Strong and the Dilemma of Historical Consciousness (1985) and is coeditor, with Edith Blumhofer and Russell P. Spittler, of Pentecostal Currents in American Protestantism (1999). He is working on two books: a monograph to be titled Heaven Below: Pentecostals and American Culture, 1900-1925, and a survey textbook of American religious history with Harry S. Stout and Randall Balmer.

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Religious Liberalism and the Modern Crisis of Faith | The Rise of Fundamentalism | The Scopes Trial | Marcus Garvey | Roman Catholics and the American Mainstream | American Jewish Experience in the 20th Century | Islam in America | Religion in Post-World-War II America | The Christian Right |
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