The Scopes Trial

The Scopes trial in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee in the summer of 1925 grabbed the attention of the entire nation. For days on end, people thronged to the town square where they set up tents, jammed the small country court house, read endless newspaper stories and listened to radio broadcasts about the trial of the century that pitted the forces of religious fundamentalism against the revolutionary forces of evolution. (See Allen, section VIII, p.4, Streissguth, pp. 174-80)

Religion was a pivotal cultural battleground during the 1920s. The roots of this religious conflict were planted in the late 19th century. Before the Civil War, the Protestant denominations were united in a belief that the findings of science confirmed the teachings of religion. But, during the 1870s, a lasting division had occurred in American Protestantism over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Religious modernists argued that religion had to be accommodated to the teachings of science, while religious traditionalists sought to preserve the basic tenets of their religious faith.

As an organized movement, Fundamentalism is said to have started with a set of twelve pamphlets, The Fundamentals: A Testimony, published between 1909 and 1912. Financed by two wealthy laymen, the pamphlets were to be sent free to “every pastor, evangelist, missionary, theological student, Sunday School superintendent, Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. secretary in the English-speaking world.” Eventually, some three million copies were distributed. The five fundamentals in these volumes testified to the infallibility of the literal interpretation of the Bible and the actuality of the virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection, and the second coming of Christ. (Id.)

Pentecostals, sometimes associated with Fundamentalists, rejected the idea that the age of miracles had ended. During the 1920s, many Americans became aware of Pentecostalism as charismatic faith healers claimed to be able to cure the sick and to allow the crippled to throw away their crutches. Pentecostalism spread particularly rapidly among lower middle-class and poorer Protestants who sought a more spontaneous and emotional religious experience than that offered by the mainstream religious denominations. The most prominent of the early Pentecostal revivalists was Aimee Semple McPherson.

Between 1921 and 1929, Fundamentalists introduced 37 anti-evolution bills into 20 state legislatures. The first law to pass was in Tennessee. Teaching of evolution was prohibited in Tennessee; the only acceptable story was the biblical story. John Thomas Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, decided to test the statute and was tried for its violation.

Scope’s trial, and the predominantly Northern, urban coverage of it, exemplified the rift in society between the “old” and the “new” Americas – one traditional, rural, pious, slow-moving, the other fast-paced, industrial, go-getting, high-living. Throughout the 1920s, America’s population was shifting from predominantly rural to predominately urban – but defenders of the threatened “old” values were not prepared to lie down and accept defeat. (Moore, p. 269)

The trial pitted science (evolution) v. religion (literal acceptance of the Bible and creationism) in the persons of trial lawyers Clarence Darrow, a radical liberal, agnostic, famous defense lawyer v. William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate, former Secretary of State and renowned orator.

The event became a circus. The Dayton city fathers formed The Scopes Trial Entertainment Committee (Streissguth, p. 172). People from all over jumped into their Model Ts and horse drawn wagons and congregated on the public square, where loudspeakers projected the proceedings from the courtroom to those who could not fit inside the court house and where food vendors hawked their goods. The trial was the first trial to be broadcast live nationally on the radio. (Moore, P. 259) In addition to reporters from newspapers and magazines from all over the country and foreign countries, including the notorious HL Mencken, there were 22 Western Union telegraph operators.

The most dramatic moments of the trial occurred when Bryan took the stand as an expert on the bible and was cross-examined by Darrow. “It was a savage encounter, and a tragic one for the ex-Secretary of State”. (Allen) Common understanding caricatures Bryan as a Bible-thumping buffoon, but Bryan’s position was complex. He opposed the mandated teaching of evolution in public schools because he thought the people should exercise local control over school curricula. He also opposed Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection because the ideas had been used to defend laissez-faire capitalism on the grounds that a perfectly free market promotes the “survival of the fittest”- Social Darwinism. Bryan also opposed Darwinism as justification for war and imperialism. Bryan was also unhappy with Darwin’s assumption that the entire evolutionary process was purposeless and not the product of a larger design. Not a Biblical literalist, Bryan was aware of serious scientific difficulties with Darwinism, such as Darwin’s theory that slight, random variations were enough to generate life from non-life to produce a vast array of biological species. But Bryan mistook the lack of consensus about the mechanisms that Darwin advanced to explain the evolutionary process for a lack of scientific support for the concept of evolution itself.

William Jennings Bryan’s Last Fight, sung by Vernon Dalhart (1925)

                  Listen now all you good people and a story I will tell

About a man named Mr. Bryan, a man that we all love so well

He believed the Bible teachings and he stood for what was right

He was strong in his convictions and for them he’d always fight

Now he’s gone way up in heaven where he’ll find an open door

But the lesson that he taught us, it will live for ever more

When the good folks had their troubles down in Dayton for away

Mr. Bryant went to help them and he worked both night and day

There he fought for what was righteous and the battle it was won

Then the Lord called him to heaven for his work on earth was done

If you want to go to heaven, when your work on earth his through

You must believe as Mr. Bryan; you will fail unless you do.

The jury took nine minutes to find Scopes guilty (Moore, P.267) and he was fined $100, which was paid by Mencken’s newspaper. His conviction was later overturned on a technicality, thereby allowing the state supreme court to side-step the issue of the law’s constitutionality. Other states followed Tennessee’s example; textbooks around the country made no mention of evolution. The Tennessee anti-evolution act was repealed in 1967.

“The John T. Scopes Trial” by Carlos B. McAfee ,is a song advancing the conservative, anti-evolution point of view.

Oh the folks in Tennessee
Are as faithful as can be,
And they know the Bible teaches what is right.
They believe in God above
And His great undying love
And they know they are protected by His might.

Then to Dayton came a man
With his ideas new and grand
And he said we came from monkeys long ago.
But in teaching his belief
Mr. Scopes found only grief
For they would not let their old religion go.

You may find a new belief
It will only bring you grief
For a house that’s built on sand is sure to fall.
And wherever you may turn
There’s a lesson you will learn
That the old religion’s better after all.

Then the folks throughout the land
Saw his house was built on sand
And they said, “We will not listen anymore.”
So they told him he was wrong
And it wasn’t very long
Till he found that he was turned from every door.

Oh, you must not doubt the word
That is written by the Lord
For if you do your house will surely fall.
And Mr. Scopes will learn
That wherever he may turn
That the old religion’s better after all.

​You may find a new belief
It will only bring you grief
For a house that’s built on sand is sure to fall.
And wherever you may turn
There’s a lesson you will learn
That the old religion’s better after all.