The Scopes Trial

A Battle Between Creationism and Evolution in Public Schools

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Daniels, Patricia. "The Scopes Trial." ThoughtCo, May. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-scopes-trial-1779247. Daniels, Patricia. (2017, May 2). The Scopes Trial. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-scopes-trial-1779247 Daniels, Patricia. "The Scopes Trial." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-scopes-trial-1779247 (accessed October 23, 2017).
A view of the Scopes Trial once it was moved outside the courthouse, with William Jennings Bryan seated at left and Clarence Darrow standing on the right.
William Jennings Bryan (seated at left) being interrogated by Clarence Seward Darrow, during the trial of the State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, July 20, 1925. (Photo by Watson Davis, courtesy the Smithsonian Institution Archives)

What Was the Scopes Trial?

The Scopes "Monkey" Trial (official name is State of Tennessee v John Thomas Scopes) began on July 10, 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. On trial was science teacher John T. Scopes, charged with violating the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools.

Known in its day as "the trial of the century," the Scopes Trial pitted two famous lawyers against one another: beloved orator and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and renowned trial attorney Clarence Darrow for the defense.

On July 21, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, but the fine was revoked a year later during the appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. As the first trial broadcast live on radio in the United States, the Scopes trial brought widespread attention to the controversy over creationism versus evolution

Darwin's Theory and the Butler Act

Controversy had long surrounded Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (first published in 1859) and his later book, The Descent of Man (1871). Religious groups condemned the books, in which Darwin theorized that humans and apes had evolved, over millennia, from a common ancestor.

In the decades following the publication of Darwin's books, however, the theory came to be accepted and evolution was taught in most biology classes by the early 20th century. But by the 1920s, partly in response to the perceived loosening of social mores in the United States, many Southern fundamentalists (who interpreted the Bible literally) sought a return to traditional values.

These fundamentalists led the charge against teaching evolution in the schools, culminating in the passage of the Butler Act in Tennessee in March 1925. The Butler Act prohibited the teaching of "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 (ACLU), created in 1920 to uphold the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, sought to challenge the Butler Act by setting up a test case. In initiating a test case, the ACLU did not wait for someone to break the law; instead, they set out to find someone willing to break the law expressly for the purpose of challenging it.

Through a newspaper ad, the ACLU found John T. Scopes, a 24-year-old football coach and high school science teacher at Rhea County Central High School in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee.

Arrest of John T. Scopes

The citizens of Dayton were not merely trying to protect biblical teachings with their arrest of Scopes; they had other motives as well. Prominent Dayton leaders and businessmen believed that the ensuing legal proceedings would draw attention to their little town and provide a boost to its economy. These businessmen had alerted Scopes to the ad placed by the ACLU and convinced him to stand trial.

Scopes, in fact, usually taught math and chemistry, but had substituted for the regular biology teacher earlier that spring. He was not entirely certain that he had even taught evolution, but agreed to be arrested. The ACLU was notified of the plan, and Scopes was arrested for violating the Butler Act on May 7, 1925.

Scopes appeared before the Rhea County justice of the peace on May 9, 1925 and was formally charged with having violated the Butler Act—a misdemeanor. He was released on bond, paid for by local businessmen. The ACLU had also promised Scopes legal and financial assistance.

A Legal Dream Team

Both the prosecution and the defense secured attorneys that would be certain to attract news media to the case. William Jennings Bryan—a well-known orator, secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, and three-time presidential candidate—would head the prosecution, while prominent defense attorney Clarence Darrow would lead the defense.

Although politically liberal, 65-year-old Bryan nonetheless held conservative views when it came to religion. As an anti-evolution activist, he welcomed the opportunity to serve as prosecutor.

Arriving in Dayton a few days before the trial, Bryan drew the attention of onlookers as he strolled through town sporting a white pith helmet and waving a palm-leaf fan to ward off the 90-plus degree heat.

An atheist, 68-year-old Darrow offered to defend Scopes free of charge, an offer that he had never made to anyone before and would never make again during his career. Known to prefer unusual cases, he had previously represented union activist Eugene Debs, as well as notorious admitted murderers Leopold and Loeb. Darrow opposed the fundamentalist movement, which he believed was a threat to the education of American youth.

Another celebrity of sorts acquired a seat at the Scopes Trial—Baltimore Sun columnist and cultural critic H.L. Mencken, known nationally for his sarcasm and biting wit. It was Mencken who dubbed the proceedings "The Monkey Trial."

The small town was soon besieged with visitors, including church leaders, street performers, hot dog vendors, Bible peddlers, and members of the press. Monkey-themed memorabilia was sold on the streets and in shops. In an effort to attract business, the enterprising owner of the local drugstore sold "simian sodas" and brought in a trained chimp dressed in a little suit and bow tie. Both visitors and residents alike remarked on the carnival-like atmosphere in Dayton.

State of Tennessee v John Thomas Scopes Begins

The trial began at the Rhea County courthouse on Friday, July 10, 1925 in a sweltering second-floor courtroom packed with more than 400 observers.

Darrow was astonished that the session began with a minister reading a prayer, especially given that the case featured a conflict between science and religion. He objected, but was overruled. A compromise was struck, in which fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist clergy would alternate reading the prayer each day.

The first day of the trial was spent selecting the jury and was followed by a weekend recess. The next two days involved debate between the defense and prosecution as to whether the Butler Act was unconstitutional, which would thereby place doubt on the validity of Scopes' indictment.

The prosecution made its case that the taxpayers—who funded public schools—had every right to help determine what was taught in those schools. They expressed that right, argued the prosecution, by electing legislators who made the laws governing what was taught.

Darrow and his team pointed out that the law gave a preference to one religion (Christianity) over any other, and allowed one particular sect of Christians—fundamentalists—to limit the rights of all others. He believed that the law would set a dangerous precedent.

On Wednesday, the fourth day of the trial, Judge John Raulston denied the defense's motion to quash (nullify) the indictment.

Kangaroo Court

On July 15, Scopes entered his plea of not guilty. After both sides gave opening arguments, the prosecution went first in presenting its case. Bryan's team set out to prove that Scopes had indeed violated Tennessee law by teaching evolution. Witnesses for the prosecution included the county school superintendent, who confirmed that Scopes had taught evolution out of A Civic Biology, the state-sponsored textbook cited in the case.

Two students also testified that they had been taught evolution by Scopes. Under cross-examination by Darrow, the boys conceded that they had suffered no harm from the instruction, nor had either left his church because of it. After only three hours, the state rested its case.

The defense maintained that science and religion were two different disciplines and should thus be kept separate. Their presentation began with the expert testimony of zoologist Maynard Metcalf. But because the prosecution objected to the use of expert testimony, the judge took the unusual step of hearing the testimony without the jury present. Metcalf explained that nearly all of the prominent scientists he knew agreed that evolution was a fact, not merely a theory.

At Bryan's urging, however, the judge ruled that none of the remaining eight expert witnesses be allowed to testify. Angered by that ruling, Darrow made a sarcastic comment to the judge. Darrow was hit with a contempt citation, which the judge later dropped after Darrow apologized to him.

On July 20, the court proceedings were moved outside to the courtyard, due to the judge's concern that the courtroom's floor might collapse from the weight of hundreds of spectators.

Cross-Examination of William Jennings Bryan

Unable to call any of his expert witnesses to testify for the defense, Darrow made the highly unusual decision to call prosecutor William Jennings Bryan to testify. Surprisingly—and against the advice of his colleagues—Bryan agreed to do so. Once again, the judge inexplicably ordered the jury to leave during the testimony.

Darrow questioned Bryan on various biblical details, including whether he thought the Earth had been created in six days. Bryan responded that he didn't believe it was actually six 24-hour days. Spectators in the courtroom gasped—if the Bible were not to be taken literally, that might open the door for the concept of evolution.

An emotional Bryan insisted that Darrow's only purpose in questioning him was to ridicule those who believed in the Bible and to make them appear foolish. Darrow replied that he was, in fact, trying to keep "bigots and ignoramuses" from being in charge of educating the youth of America.

Upon further questioning, Bryan seemed uncertain and contradicted himself several times. The cross-examination soon turned into a shouting match between the two men, with Darrow emerging as the apparent victor. Bryan had been coerced into admitting—more than once—that he did not take the Bible's story of creation literally. The judge called for an end to the proceedings and later ordered that Bryan's testimony be stricken from the record.

The trial was over; now the jury—which had missed key parts of the trial—would decide. John Scopes, largely ignored for the duration of the trial, had not been called to testify on his own behalf.

Verdict

On the morning of Tuesday, July 21, Darrow asked to address the jury before they left to deliberate. Fearing that a not guilty verdict would rob his team of the chance to file an appeal (another opportunity to fight the Butler Act), he actually asked the jury to find Scopes guilty.

After only nine minutes of deliberation, the jury did just that. With Scopes having been found guilty, Judge Raulston imposed a fine of $100. Scopes came forward and politely told the judge that he would continue to oppose the Butler Act, which he believed interfered with academic freedom; he also protested the fine as unjust. A motion was made to appeal the case, and was granted.

Aftermath

Five days after the trial ended, the great orator and statesman, William Jennings Bryan, still in Dayton, died at the age of 65. Many said he died of a broken heart after his testimony had cast doubt upon his fundamentalist beliefs, but he had actually died of a stroke likely brought on by diabetes.

A year later, Scopes' case was brought before the Tennessee Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of the Butler Act. Ironically, the court overturned Judge Raulston's ruling, citing a technicality that only a jury—not a judge—could impose a fine greater than $50.

John Scopes returned to college and studied to become a geologist. He worked in the oil industry and never taught high school again. Scopes died in 1970 at the age of 70.

Clarence Darrow returned to his law practice, where he worked on several more high-profile cases. He published a successful autobiography in 1932 and died of heart disease in 1938 at the age of 80.

A fictionalized version of the Scopes Trial, Inherit the Wind, was made into a play in 1955 and a well-received movie in 1960.

The Butler Act remained on the books until 1967, when it was repealed. Anti-evolution statutes were ruled unconstitutional in 1968 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Epperson v Arkansas. The debate between creationist and evolutionary proponents, however, continues to this day, when battles are still being fought over the content in science textbooks and school curricula.