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Educational Home Page about the Scopes Trial



Not Just Another Monkey Tale

Jen and Stephanie check out the original courthouse where it all happened
It's a beautiful sunny day. Stephanie and I are driving across Tennessee, listening to John Cougar Mellencamp on the radio. We pass by red farmhouses, wide-open fields, antique stores, and a church on what seems to be every corner. We are on our way to Dayton to investigate the famous Scopes Trial of 1925. As we drive onward, it is not difficult to imagine this place as it must have been more than 75 years ago.

It's 1925. Jazz music is jamming, the new intellects are expounding Freud and contemplating abstract art. All that is new is cool, and all that is old, is not. But in the south, as the roaring '20s erupted, Christian Fundamentalists were working hard to combat the wild times set in motion by these new social patterns. Could all these churches be leftover remnants of a time gone by?

If only Steph were around to capture this historic story!
By the mid-'20s, Oklahoma, Florida, North Carolina, and other states had passed laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the classroom. In Tennessee, the Butler Law was passed with the support of Governor Austin Peay. Although he was not a Christian Fundamentalist, many of his constituents were and he wanted to keep them happy. He never believed the law would be an active statute and I bet he didn't imagine that an entire nation would soon be listening in on one of the most publicized trials of the century, the Scopes Trial of 1925.

The facts of the trial appear straightforward. A law was passed that prohibited the teachings of evolution as fact in the schools. A young teacher was carried away in handcuffs and thrown into jail for breaking the law (at least, that is how Stephanie remembers learning it when she was in school). A trial ensued between the Evolutionists and the Creationists . Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? But the deeper we delved into the facts, the clearer it became that the Scopes Trial was so much more complicated.

Jen contemplates
After the passing of the Butler Law, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York City put out an announcement that it would support any teacher willing to challenge the statute. And here is where the facts get interesting. George Rappelyea, one of Dayton's town leaders and the owner of a mining company, got hold of the announcement and decided this would be a great way to get Dayton on the map. According to our interview with Tom Davis, the Director of Public Information at Bryan College in Dayton, Rappelyea was not so much interested in education as he was in getting publicity for Dayton, a small midwestern town. If he could find a teacher willing to test the law, the exposure from the trial would attract the attention he needed to get more funding for his suffering mining company.

 Jen and Steph sip a soda where the conspiracy began.
Enter John T. Scopes , a football coach and substitute biology teacher. Scopes agreed to take part in the plan. Rappelyea and other town leaders met at the local drugstore, and so began the conspiracy to test the law. They chose the defending attorneys-they even chose the prosecuting attorneys! Then they put out a warrant for John T. Scopes for violating the Butler Law.

On the prosecuting side was 75-year-old William Jennings Bryan. He was politically very active, working for the good of the common man. He even ran for president on three occasions. He was also a Christian Fundamentalist and traveled the country giving speeches such as, "Is the Bible True?" A great orator who spoke about the literal interpretation of the Bible, he was the perfect character to prosecute the case.

Jen checks out
On the defending side was 70-year-old Clarence Darrow. He had worked in the labor movement, and was known as the "champion of the underdog ." Although he was supportive of Bryan's political agenda and had even defended him at one time, Darrow was strongly against Bryan's crusade to wipe out the teaching of Darwinism. Being an agnostic (one who doesn't isn't sure if God exists or not), he was the perfect opponent to Bryan's prosecution.

As the trial approached, the city of Dayton took on a carnival atmosphere. From the "holy roller" Fundamentalists to the performing chimpanzees, everyone wanted to get into the act. There were banners in the streets, lemonade stands on the sidewalks, and the locals were renting out rooms for all the spectators who had come to town. It was even the setting for the first live radio broadcast of a trial.

Jen checks out The Great Defender
Behind the circus atmosphere, there actually was a trial going on. Darrow and the defense wanted to challenge the constitutionality of the Butler Law. They wanted Scopes to be found guilty so that they could appeal the case to the Supreme Court. The judge, John T. Raulston, kept a firm hand over the proceedings, making sure the trial was not about the constitutionality of the law, but about the fact that Scopes had broken the law. He declared much of the defense's evidence and testimonies from the experts to be inadmissible because they supported evolution but did not prove Scopes' innocence.


Around and Around We Go- Let's see, two people with a poor sense of direction driving thousands of miles...

As I am learning about this, I think: Great strategy! Bring this to the Supreme Court! Go Darrow! But as I start to learn about the way in which Darwinism was being taught at the time, and about Bryan's motivation for speaking out against it-well, that is another story altogether.

The Darwinism of the '20s, as it appeared in Hunter's 1914 Civic Biology, taught that there were five races of "man". It then went on to explain that the lowest level "is of the negro type" and the highest level is the "Caucasians, represented by the civilized inhabitants of Europe and America." These ideas were presented in a popular textbook and taught as fact! Did teachers challenge any of these ideas, or was Darwinism being taught straight from the text without question? Yikes!

 The original juror chairs are still in the functioning courthouse
Not only did the Darwinian teachings of the time have a strong current of racism running through them, but Bryan also looked at them from a political standpoint. Survival of the fittest is a phrase associated with Darwin's Theory of Evolution and was being expanded to describe the social climate as well. The bulk of the money fell into the hands of the few, making it easiest for them to survive. Families like the Carnegies and the Rockefellers held great wealth, while the common man was facing an economic depression. Bryan, an advocate for the common man, did not want to let wealth become an indicator of survival.

Jen and Steph reenact the famous trial.
Although the issues brought to light are still debated today, the trial itself ended rather uneventfully. Darrow brought Bryan to the stand as a bible expert. He then went on to make Bryan look foolish for his literal interpretation of the bible. While the testimony was stricken from evidence, it did stand out to many as an example against teaching creationism. Darrow, who had hoped the case would reach the United States Supreme Court, asked the jury to find Scopes guilty. They did. Scopes was fined and the trial ended. A year later, the case did reach the Tennessee Supreme Court, but not in the way that Darrow had hoped. The case was repealed on a technicality and the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed it altogether.

The Rhea County Courthouse is still in use today.
The Scopes trial may not have accomplished what Darrow had intended. It certainly did not end the debate over the teaching of evolution. But it did-and still does-have a continuing legacy in the laws surrounding the teaching of Darwin's theories in the classroom. In 1925, only two of the fifteen states considering anti-evolution legislation actually did so. In 1987, the case of Edwards vs. Aguillard used the Scopes case to help strike down a Louisiana law mandating that creationism be given equal time with evolutionism in the classroom. Yet in 1999, the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove evolution from the list of subjects tested on their state standardized tests. While this move did not explicitly ban the teaching of evolution, it certainly de-emphasized its importance in the state's curriculum. The Scopes debate lives on.

Who made a monkey out of whom? 
As Stephanie and I drove away from Bryan College (named for the famous prosecuting attorney at the Scopes trial), we wondered about the townspeople living in Dayton at the time of the trial. Mostly churchgoing, blue-collar workers, did they support Bryan and the anti-evolution statute? And if so, whose right was it to determine the laws-the intellectuals or the public at larege? Today, private universities such as Bryan College can teach creationism. As Mr. Davis said during our interview, "Most people on the science faculty [at Bryan College] say that if you take the creationist view, you understand that God started the process. If you take an evolutionist view, it just happened. Ultimately you have to make a choice." Whether or not I agree with that sentiment, I am glad to be living in a time and place where I am free to make such a choice.


Please email me at: jennifer@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Building a better human - in the 1920's?!
Stephanie - The KKK: breaking the cycle of hate
Jennifer - The talking walls of Angel Island
Irene - Making a run for the border
MAD - TV: A giant slushie for your brain