July 21, 2024
John Scopes and the Teaching of Evolution

John Scopes and the Teaching of Evolution

In the mid-1920s, many young Americans flaunted long-established Victorian culture. Women were voting, illegal booze was flowing through speakeasies, and art had become abstract. Traditionalists in the South responded with a wave of religious revivalism. Journalists seized upon one particular court trial in Tennessee, for it exemplified this struggle between religious tradition and modernity. Who would win? In the summer of 1925, a high school biology teacher named John Scopes stood trial in Dayton, Tennessee. He was charged with violating the state’s “Butler law”, which forbade teaching the theory of evolution.

Scopes’ personal guilt mattered little, as the trial was engineered from the start. Scopes and several townspeople (who wanted tourism) had responded to a Chattanooga newspaper ad submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ad announced that the ACLU was “looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing [the Butler law] in the courts. Our lawyers think a friendly test case can be arranged without costing a teacher his or her job… All we need now is a willing client.” It was expected that regardless of the trial’s outcome, Scopes would keep his job. The trial’s significance lay in the conflict between religious and academic values.

The defense’s goal went beyond acquitting Scopes; they aimed to obtain a Supreme Court declaration that laws forbidding the teaching of evolution were unconstitutional. Two of the country’s most famous attorneys faced off in the trial. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential nominee, was prosecutor. By 1925, Bryan and his followers had already introduced legislation in fifteen states to ban the teaching of evolution. Clarence Darrow, who represented the defense, had achieved nationwide fame through an exciting murder trial the previous year. The lawyers were well-matched, and prosecutor Bryan declared that “the contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death.”

Meanwhile, the town of Dayton prepared a carnival atmosphere. Streets filled with thousands of visitors, children’s lemonade stands, performing chimpanzees, and vendors of monkey dolls. The trial was moved outside, for people feared the crowded courtroom floor would not support its audience. WGN radio set up new infrastructure, allowing this to be the nation’s first court case heard live over the radio. Bryan eventually lost control of his case. Darrow, the defense attorney, subjected him personally to a cross-examination about the Bible and science. Ultimately, Bryan admitted believing that our world was not completed in a week, but was created over a period of time that “might have continued for millions of years”. The judge, however, had this testimony expunged from the record.

John Scopes was ultimately found guilty of teaching evolution and was fined $100. This is what the defense had requested; the issue could now be tackled by a higher court. Scopes then delivered his only statement of the trial, declaring: Your honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom–that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom. I think the fine is unjust.

The Tennessee Supreme Court heard the Scopes case in 1927. The court voted to uphold the Butler law, but they dismissed Scopes’ earlier $100 conviction on a technicality. Tennessee overturned the Butler law in 1967.

Clearly, the Scopes trial did not end the debate over teaching evolution. However, the national radio broadcast, complete with the lawyers’ debates over religion and science, seems to have influenced voters nationwide. Of the fifteen states with anti-evolution legislation pending in1925, only two enacted laws restricting the teaching of evolutionary theory.

The Scopes trial remains popular in American history classrooms. The lawyers’ debates concern key conflicts between science and religion, faith and reason, and individual freedoms versus majority rule.