Ever since Charles Darwin's 1859 publication of the "Origin of Species," America’s science classrooms have been in turmoil. Although today’s scientists generally accept Darwin’s theory of evolution as the cornerstone of biology, his ideas were met with harsh criticism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. American society was proud of its strong religious roots, and biology textbooks of the time enshrined man as the "Lord of the Animal Kingdom . . . created in the image of God.”
Tensions that simmered between evolutionists and fundamentalist Christians for decades reached a flash point at the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ of 1925. Evolutionists took a stand against the asserted censorship of science, and fundamentalists took a stand against perceived moral breakdown. In the process, they ignited a cultural war that lasted for decades, tracing a profound shift in our society’s values and ideals. The attitude of America in the 1920’s was represented perfectly by a visiting British staff writer for the Daily Observer:
America since the first World War has been the prey of multiple terror: fear of the European alien, the Negro, the Asiatic; of Radicalism, Labor, Bolshevism. Harassed by the prophets of woe, scared by the hundred-headed demon of propaganda, the good American conceives a dread of every sort of modernism. And in Tennessee, he is at the moment taking it out of an English avatar of the Anti-Christ - Charles Darwin.
Like elsewhere in America, the state of Tennessee was grappling with the issue of evolution in its science classes. Prominent political figure, orator, and trial lawyer William Jennings Bryan took a stand for fundamentalism, touring Tennessee and galvanizing support for an antievolution law. Although fundamentalists had strong public backing, debate between lobbyists and well-known names on both sides was heated. Nevertheless, paltry pro-evolution lobbying allowed the Butler Act to sail through the Tennessee House of Representatives unchallenged, 71 to 5.
In schools that received state funding, the Butler Act took a stand against the teaching of any theory that denied the story of Divine Creation as taught in the Bible. Additionally, no school could teach that man descended from a lower order of animals. Teachers in violation of the law were guilty of a misdemeanor and subject a fine of at least $100.
Dayton businessman George Rappleyea realized the economic potential of a trial in his hometown. Rappleya took a stand to improve Dayton’s floundering economy, convincing substitute biology teacher John Scopes to stand trial. Scopes would take the chance, writing that, “I knew that sooner or later someone would have to take a stand against the stifling of freedom known as the Butler Act.”
Rappleyea convinced John Scopes to work with the ACLU to take a stand against the Butler Act, even though Scopes had never directly taught the theory of evolution. The textbook that Scopes used, Professor George W. Hunter’s Civic Biology, included information regarding evolution that students were required to review for finals. He later would confide to acclaimed newspaper reporter William K. Hutchinson, “I didn’t violate the law… I never taught that evolution lesson. Those kids they put on the stand couldn’t remember what I taught them three months ago. They were coached by the lawyers.”
Nevertheless, with his agreement to answer the ACLU’s press release and take a stand against the Butler Act, Scopes set the stage for the most emotionally charged and media-covered-circus trial of the 1920s. Although Rappleyea was confident that the trial would focus signifigant attention on Dayton, no one could have foreseen the national curiosity that such a minor trial would create.
Overnight, the sleepy town of Dayton was transformed. Two of the most famous names in American society, flamboyant Clarence Darrow and conservative William Jennings Bryan, were slated to represent the opposing sides. The defense, made up of Clarence Darrow, Dudley Malone, John Neal, Arthur Hays and Frank McElwee would represent Scopes and evolutionism. Fundamentalists, the State of Tennessee, and the prosecution would be represented by William Jennings Bryan, Tom Stewart, brothers Herbert and Sue Hicks, Wallace Haggard, and Gordon McKenzie. But even before the trial, tensions loomed.
America and the world watched closely as the trial began on July 10th, 1925. The court opened with a prayer by a local reverend, despite Darrow’s heckling. After infighting and intense examination candidates were plucked from the pool of applicants to create the jury. Bryan and the prosecution spoke about the perceived need to take a stand against evolution. H.L. Mencken, of the Baltimore Sun, described the opening day of the trial.
Bryan has been oozing around the country since his first day here, addressing this organization and that, presenting the indubitable Word of God in his caressing, ingratiating way, and so making unanimity doubly unanimous. From the defense yesterday came hints that he was making hay before the sun had legally begun to shine--even that it was a sort of contempt of court. But no Daytonian believes anything of the sort. What Bryan says doesn't seem to these congenial Baptists and Methodists to be argument; it seems to be a mere graceful statement to the obvious.
Day two of the trial climaxed with Darrow’s dramatic stand for evolution and eloquent speech condemning human incompetence.
If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted ******s to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.
After day three’s heated argument over the sessions opening with prayer, day four marked an attack against the defense’s grandstanding and the prosecution’s stand against Scopes. The bitter fighting that the Scopes trial was remembered for was rapidly becoming more important than the trial itself. Suddenly, the battle between evolutionists and fundamentalists was taking precedence over the conviction of Scopes. America cared more about the clash between two warring social forces than the fate of a small-time biology teacher. But as the trial continued on, it was clear that the debate would only become more heated. Day 5 of the trial saw the testimony of expert witnesses for both sides, and the debate over the inclusion of that testimony in the court record.
The prosecution’s consistent argument that the defense was using the trial for publicity reasons payed off on Day 6. Judge Raulston launched two crushing blows to the defense: first, by excluding expert testimony by defense witnesses, and second, by declaring Darrow to be in contempt of court. Judge Raulston said:
In the face of what I consider an unjustified expression of contempt for this court and its decrees, made by Clarence Darrow, on July 17, 1925, I feel that further forbearance would cease to be a virtue, and in an effort to protect the good name of my state, and to protect the dignity of the court over which I preside, I am constrained and impelled to call upon the said Darrow, to know what he has to say why he should not be dealt with for contempt.
Darrow, flustered and upset, would later apologize for his actions. He would get his revenge on day 7, with his brutal cross-examination of Bryan. For many tense minutes, Darrow systematically interrogated Bryan about religion, science and morality, eventually embarrassing and humiliating the top prosecutor. Nevertheless, after 8 tense days of testimony and vicious argument, the jury delivered their verdict. Based upon compelling evidence from the prosecution, the jury concluded that Scopes was guilty of violating the Butler Act.
With a simple verdict, the great monkey trial drew to a close. The ACLU payed Scopes’ $100 fine, fundamentalism was firmly rooted in the American psyche for decades to come, and the memories of Dayton faded. Nevertheless, Americans have never truly forgotten the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Something of the great battle lives in our collective memory, a remembrance of the epic clash between religion and science. Yet without the confrontation, our society’s values and ideals would never have been tested, a stand would never have been taken between the old and the new, and the life of every American would be profoundly different than it is today.