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The Scopes Trial

Summary and Keywords

The 1925 Scopes trial was a widely followed court case in Dayton, Tennessee, that attracted the attention of the nation. A prosecution against a schoolteacher charged with violating Tennessee’s new law prohibiting the teaching of human evolution, the trial became a great public spectacle that saw debates over the meaning and truth of the Bible, and the relationship between science and religion. The trial is most famous for the involvement of the lawyers William Jennings Bryan (for the prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (for the defense).

Despite being a legally insignificant case, the trial has remained important in American history because it is seen as symbolizing some of the country’s great social issues in the early 20th century: fundamentalist responses to modernity, the autonomy and clout of the “New South,” and the eternal clash between religion and science.

Keywords: culture, education, evolution, Darwin, fundamentalism, modernism, Progressive Era, religion, science, trials

The State of Tennessee versus John Thomas Scopes was a criminal trial that took place in Dayton, Tennessee, from July 10 to 21, 1925. Scopes was found guilty of violating Tennessee’s previously enacted law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. From a purely legal perspective, the court case was minor: The crime Scopes was charged with was only a misdemeanor, and his conviction was later overturned on a technicality regarding a procedural error by the court. But the “Scopes trial” as it lives on in American memory refers not to the mere judicial proceedings themselves but to the great public spectacle that surrounded the courtroom during the case.

Both in Dayton and across the globe, the trial developed into a public sensation, becoming the impetus—or excuse—for a mass-media event that evoked epic themes and employed both old and new communication technologies in unprecedented ways. Despite its legal insignificance, the Scopes trial was almost immediately referred to as the “World’s Most Famous Court Trial” and the “Trial of the Century.”1

The trial is perhaps most famous for the involvement of the lawyers William Jennings Bryan (for the prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (for the defense). In fact, one of the first books to describe the events of the trial was called simply Bryan and Darrow at Dayton.2

Almost a century later, the Scopes trial continues to be an important point of reference in American culture and is mentioned in almost every U.S. history textbook. The trial also holds a central place in debates over the teaching of evolution in America today, and it has influenced the way people discuss the idea of a fundamental relationship between religion and science. Today, the Scopes trial—and how its history is interpreted—influences the politics of science acceptance and skepticism and informs the perennial conflicts over school textbooks and curriculum standards.

The Scopes trial was a deliberate creation from the outset: John Scopes agreed to be charged with violating Tennessee law in order to provide a “test case” to challenge the 1925 Butler Act. Bryan, Darrow, and other people and organizations became involved in this case to advance their own agendas, or to seek publicity for their own causes. While this may give the impression that the trial was more of a “pseudoevent” and merely “famous for being famous,”3 Tennessee’s antievolution law, and the broader movement against the teaching of evolution in American schools, has a long and complex history, bringing together trends in American religion with new developments in the politics of education and its reform in the early 20th century.

The Scopes TrialClick to view larger

Figure 1. John T. Scopes, one month before the Tennessee v. Scopes trial.

Black and white photograph taken by Watson Davis, June 1925. Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2008-1121.

Darwinism Comes to America

In 1859, On the Origin of Species by the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) was published. Although Darwin’s was not the first biological theory to propose that new species had come into being over time, or that they had developed gradually from other species over the course of generations, the bulk of its evidence, drawn from plant and animal life across the globe, and its postulate of the mechanisms of natural selection helped to make this evolutionary theory much more influential and appealing than earlier ones. Historians of science have also noted that the acceptance of Darwinism by most scientists was eased both by his long-standing scientific reputation and by a sense that the gradualism of natural selection theory was less politically radical than earlier evolutionary proposals.4

Darwin’s ideas about the origin and development of species and biological varieties prompted a whole range of scientific, political, philosophical, and religious responses. Darwin did not directly discuss the evolution of humanity until his 1871 Descent of Man. Nonetheless, many readers already recognized the Origin’s implications for questions about human origins, the shared ancestry of humans with other species, and even the matter of races of humans and whether they were all part of the same species. These were ideas with grand consequences. While Darwinism does not seem to have had a significant influence on the American abolition of most forms of slavery in 1865, some biographers of Darwin have suggested that his family’s long history opposing slavery, and his personal abhorrence of the practice (still legal in the United States in 1859), strongly motivated his efforts to show the common ancestry of all humanity. One of the last major contemporaneous American scientists to die unconvinced of Darwinism was Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), who, though opposed to slavery, was a supporter of polygenism—the theory of the separate creation of the races.5

American religious reactions to the Origin and Descent were very wide-ranging, including many people who found evolution and religion to be compatible, and even those who saw Darwin’s account as providing a more awe-inspiring vision of God than one of distinct separate creations of each species. Even those who rejected evolution or saw it as incompatible with a religious worldview invoked a diversity of theological and scriptural reasons against it. One of the most famous antievolutionary writings of 19th-century America, Charles Hodge’s 1874 What Is Darwinism? concluded that Darwinism “is Atheism. This does not mean . . . that Mr. Darwin himself and all those who adopt his views are atheists; but it means that his theory is atheistic; that the exclusion of design from nature is . . . tantamount to atheism.”6

For some, the religious difficulty with Darwinism came from a sense that the theory left out any place for divine intention or design in the world, that Darwinism relied upon unordained chance. For others, the evolution of plants and animals might be acceptable, but a common ancestry of people and animals seemed at odds with an account of humanity as falling from a perfect unsullied state (to which salvation and grace might restore them). For others, the problem with evolution was that it presupposed that all change was gradual and in accordance with natural laws, ruling out even the possibility of miracles, including the miracle of the revelation of Scripture.7

What is most notable about religious antievolutionism in America before the 1920s is that very little of it was rooted in objections based on a young age of the earth. While the concerns of educated theologians and clergy and the views represented by their published writings may have been more sophisticated than that of a broader public, it appears that (with the notable exception of Seventh-day Adventists), the idea of a 6,000-year-old earth existed more as an evolutionist caricature of its opposition than as an accurate representation of creationist views.

Also notable about religious antievolutionism before the 1920s is that it was not in any recognizable way an organized social movement. While many people rejected evolution, and some enforced that rejection in their seminaries and churches, there was little need to oppose evolution in a wider sense. As a movement, organized antievolutionism took hold as organized school antievolutionism, against the implementation and extension of evolution as something taught in public schools. Recognizing that the antievolutionism that culminated in the Scopes trial was primarily a school movement makes it easier to understand why something like it did not occur soon after Darwin’s publications. Evolution was not brought into the school curriculum until the early 20th century, and when it did, it was part of a larger suite of education reforms that were all seen as embodying an objectionable ideology. School antievolutionism was part of a larger response to the nationwide spread of progressive education reform in the 1910s and 1920s.

Progressive Education and the Invention of Biology

Darwin’s Origin of Species may have been published in 1859, but it was not until more than half a century later that an organized movement against the teaching of evolution began to coalesce. Although Darwinism (as biological evolution was sometimes called) prompted controversies among trustees, alumni, and faculty at some American universities in the 19th century,8 none led to an effort to pass a prohibition. It was in the early 20th century that state legislatures began to consider antievolution laws. What triggered this legislative action was not simply new scientific developments in biology or new religious movements in the United States (though both contributed to the way that religious reactions to evolution were expressed). More important was the introduction in the 1910s and 1920s of evolution as a subject to be taught in many American high schools for the first time. The development of antievolutionism as an organized movement with a political agenda follows less closely the new developments in either biological sciences or religious views and reflects more directly the changing content of school teaching and the political reactions to education reform movements during that time.

Those decades saw major changes concerning how schools were regulated, how textbooks were chosen, and how subject matter was presented. Many of these changes were part of an overall movement to modernize and professionalize American education at a time that the country’s population was becoming more urban, more ethnically diverse, and more invested in industrialized labor. States (sometimes in the face of severe political opposition) undertook initiatives to improve education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, opening state normal schools for the training of teachers, reducing corruption and improving textbook quality by standardizing or establishing criteria for textbook usage, and overhauling rules for teacher licensure.

Education in the early 20th century was largely a state-level responsibility, and there was very little federal input in the content or administration of schools. This did not mean that there were no efforts to bring states into nationwide alignment. Textbook publishers, which by the early 20th century had become increasingly anticompetitive (and, in some instances, were accused of illegal sales tactics to ensure monopolies), had a strong vested interest in selling the same book to schools across the United States. The spread of labor unions in education, particularly the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), also facilitated the rise of common teaching practices and professional standards throughout the country. The “Committee of Ten” report of the National Education Association (NEA) in 1892 also strongly encouraged educators and school districts to align their curricula nationwide. That these nationalizing trends operated outside of direct state control was also a cause of political resistance to progressive education reform. And as states competed with one another economically and politically, there was a strong tendency to imitate education policies that had been judged successful in other states.9

The creation and expansion of mandatory science education in U.S. public schools was a major part of the larger effort to make schools into sites for developing citizenship and preparing students for future work in an industrial American economy. Whereas science was almost entirely absent from most American high schools in the 1870s, by the early 1900s, courses on botany, zoology, and physiology in the life sciences were often part of a standard curriculum that saw chemistry and physics included in later grades.10

The Committee of Ten (and later committees convened by the NEA) emphasized that the purpose of science education was to teach habits of thought and problem solving and to emphasize applications of science and technology to the goals of modern progress. By the early 20th century, especially in large diverse cities like New York, educators began to express concern that the life-science curriculum treated botany, zoology, and physiology as separate topics. By the 1910s, many of these New York educators, some of whom were also involved in the founding of the AFT, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and other progressive organizations, began to develop a new approach to the teaching of life sciences, a unified course of biology.

As a scientific field, biology was not in itself new. The word “biology” dates back to around 1802, and for much of the 19th century, scientists had discovered more about the commonalities between plant and animal life. Core concepts like heredity, metabolism, evolution, cellular theory, and protoplasm had become more central to life-science research. But these concepts had little inclusion in high school course material of the 19th century. Even though some textbooks brought botany and zoology together under a title of biology, and even though some universities had merged departments or majors into a single field of “biology” in the late 19th century, these adjustments were seen largely as “administrative solutions” that did not reflect any major change to the way botany and zoology were actually taught.11

The impetus for a revamped biology curriculum in the 1910s and 1920s was more than an effort to better reflect the state of scientific research; it was a belief that the core concepts of biology could be used to explain the key applications of life sciences to health, hygiene, and industry. It is important that this revamped “civic” biology curriculum found its first implementation in New York City schools, taught to children whose need for biological knowledge was seen as a necessity of urban hygiene and public health, rather than as a preparation for life in an agricultural setting. Civic Biology (a term reflected in the title of some of the most widely used high school textbooks) integrated discussions of plant, animal, and human life, but it did so by emphasizing the social applications of biology. Discussion of metabolism was used to emphasize the necessity of a healthful diet, food safety, and the dangers of alcohol consumption (especially in the years leading to the ratification of Prohibition). Evolution was discussed alongside industrial cultivation of plant and animal varieties for human use and the adaptation of the environment for human benefit. Heredity was presented as knowledge vital for understanding state eugenic practices, as guidance for choosing appropriate reproductive partners, and as information for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. And cellular theory was presented largely to emphasize the dangers of bacterial infection and the necessity of quarantine and sound hygienic practices.

By the late 1910s, new textbooks of biology that incorporated this civic biology approach had begun to dominate high school life-science teaching in America. From the moment civic biology was first introduced, and as it expanded, it attracted controversy and resistance. Some people opposed its presentation of eugenics, others its emphasis on hygiene. Many opposed the prevailing ideology of civic biology: that its role was to prepare students for life in an urban industrial setting. Statewide uniform adoptions often put civic biology textbooks in schools where the older botany–zoology split seemed better suited to student needs (in rural agricultural areas, for example).

Antievolution as a school movement was part of a broader resistance to the ideology of progressive education reform. With the introduction of civic biology came the first large-scale teaching of evolution in American public schools. Organized antievolutionism emerged almost immediately afterward, leading to legislation in the early 1920s. The school antievolution movement co-opted the rhetoric of (largely unorganized) religious antievolutionism, and deployed it to make the evolution question a symbol of a much larger ideological battle.

The relationship between antievolutionism and the broader rejection of progressive education reform can be seen quite clearly than in the case of Tennessee. In 1924, Governor Austin Peay was reelected on a campaign platform promising expansion and reform of education in this economically lagging state. Throughout the 1925 legislative year, he attempted to push a general education bill that would expand the school year and make attendance compulsory, ensure a high school in every county (which many rural counties lacked), and create state schools for teacher training. The bill ran into massive opposition, partly on grounds of costs and new taxes, partly on ideological fears that the state’s schools were a form of cultural hegemony originating from either the North or from the state’s major cities. While a second version of the general education bill was stuck in committee, the legislature passed The Butler Act, an antievolution law that originated with John Washington Butler, a state senator from a very rural district with few high schools.12

After waiting until the last possible day to approve or veto the bill, Governor Peay signed the Butler Act into law on March 21, 1925. Almost immediately, the general education bill was revived and finally became law by the end of the legislative session. It is possible that Peay only approved the antievolution law as a quid pro quo to get his more important education reform bill passed, but it is also likely that without the general education bill, there would not have been a need for an antievolution bill. From the perspective of farmer parents in rural Tennessee, the general education bill meant that their children were going to be forced to attend a school whose curriculum was controlled in Nashville and whose content was designed in New York to encourage youth to move away from their farms and work in urban factories. One need not open the Bible to justify the opinion of farmer parents that education reform was an attack on their way of life, but the religious language of antievolution added a new dimension to their protest.

The text of Butler’s bill illustrates the dual nature of antievolutionism as both a school issue and as a religious issue. The first section of the bill declares “That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach 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.” Exactly what this prohibition meant was unclear. In signing the bill into law, Governor Peay emphasized that it was mostly a symbolic protest and that probably no one would be charged. And, quite possibly, Peay’s prediction would have been correct had there not been a deliberate effort to force a trial to challenge antievolutionism and the ideological values it represented.

In the early 1920s, the American Civil Liberties Union was a small New York City–based organization that had grown out of efforts to defend the free-speech rights of those who refused to support American participation in World War I. This included the defense of teachers in New York who had refused to sign loyalty oaths (one of the issues that had spurred the growth of the New York Teachers Union and the AFT). The ACLU’s interest in the Tennessee antievolution law as a matter restricting the academic freedom of teachers was prompted in large part by Henry Linville. He was a member of the ACLU executive committee, president of the New York City Teachers’ Union (NYCTU), and the former chair of the Biology Department at DeWitt Clinton High School, whose faculty included George W. Hunter, author of the 1914 Civic Biology textbook widely used in Tennessee.13 From the outset, the ACLU saw the antievolution law as another manifestation of a trend to curtail academic freedom and the free-speech rights of professional teachers, not as a violation of the separation of church and state. But seeing an opportunity both to prevent the erosion of teacher rights in another venue and to publicize the cause of the ACLU beyond the New York region, the organization offered to provide legal defense to any teacher prosecuted under the antievolution Law. The ACLU hoped for a conviction that would give them grounds to challenge the law itself in an appellate court (or the U.S. Supreme Court), thus gaining judicial recognition for a principle of academic freedom.14

Word of the ACLU’s offer reached the people of Dayton, a town of about 1,800 people and the seat of rural Rhea County in eastern Tennessee (about 40 miles northeast of Chattanooga). Rare among Tennessee towns that size, Dayton had a high school that had been in operation for almost 20 years by the time the antievolution law passed. Several of the town’s leading business and political figures reasoned that an evolution trial would attract national attention and would be a good way to boost the town’s image (which had been flagging since the 1890s). They turned to John Scopes, a young teacher who had filled in for the regular biology teacher during the school year, and asked if he would be willing to be indicted and to stand trial. He agreed, though in his memoir he recalled that he could not be sure he had actually violated the law until he reread Hunter’s Civic Biology.15 Scopes was formally indicted on May 25, 1925.16 With a defendant secured and with the people of Dayton working to promote the upcoming trial as an epic showdown between Darwin and the Bible, the stage was set for what many would call the Trial of the Century.

Tennessee v. Scopes

The trial in Dayton was conceived of as a spectator event—a publicity stunt—before it was even a legal case. Although some people criticized the attention-seeking behavior of Dayton’s leaders, others saw the legal case as an opportunity to pursue their own agendas or promote their own causes.17 Perhaps no one saw the Scopes trial as a greater opportunity to publicize a cause than did William Jennings Bryan. If Bryan was not the most important antievolutionist of the early 1920s, he was certainly one of the most famous because of his decades of national prominence as a three-time presidential candidate, as secretary of state, and as elder statesman of the Democratic Party. After the publication of his 1922 antievolutionary monograph, titled In His Image, the New York Times gave him a front-page opportunity to publicize his views (followed soon after by rebuttals from major scientists). Bryan was almost certainly the antievolutionist with whom supporters of evolution were most familiar, even though his theological reasons for opposing evolution sometimes differed from those of other fundamentalists, and even though his views were often distorted in caricatures by his opponents. At the request of William Bell Riley, leader of the World Christian Fundamentals Association whose annual meeting happened to be in Memphis, Tennessee, around the time of Scopes’s indictment, Bryan, who had addressed the WCFA, volunteered to assist the prosecution of John Scopes. Although Bryan’s help was unneeded for securing a conviction of Scopes, this offer resonated perfectly with the Daytonians’ true aims in trying Scopes: to put the town of Dayton on the map.18

Word of Bryan’s involvement brought more celebrity to the affair, with the nation’s most famous defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, offering to join the Scopes defense team (alongside the Tennessee law professor John Neal, ACLU counsel Arthur G. Hays, and Dudley Field Malone, a politician and lawyer who had actually served under Bryan in the State Department). Darrow had made a career of defending unpopular people and causes, none more notorious than the teenage murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in 1924 (who, through Darrow’s efforts, avoided death sentences). Darrow was drawn to the cause of academic freedom, but more attracted to the case by the opportunity to publicly condemn the influence of dogmatic religion on politics. The ACLU did not particularly want the help of Darrow—notoriously known as an agnostic—who, they worried, would make the defense appear more hostile to religion. Scopes, however, wanted him on board, and so Darrow, too, came to Dayton.19 At his recommendation, the Science Service, an organization that helped to disseminate and syndicate popular science across America, began to solicit science experts to come to Dayton as well.20 Even before legal proceedings began, the Scopes trial was turning into an event beyond the control of any one group of its participants.

The trial finally began on Friday, July 10, 1925, with the empaneling of a new grand jury and a reindictment of Scopes; then, after several questions were exchanged between Darrow and Attorney General Tom Stewart, a jury was selected. Even though no arguments were raised, there were already hints of the defense and prosecution strategies to come. For the prosecution, the legal question was quite simply whether Scopes violated the antievolution law, whether he in fact taught what the law prohibited. The defense appeared ready to concede Scopes’s violation of the law but to argue that the law was fundamentally flawed. The defense needed the trial to allow the presentation of arguments against the law so that when Scopes was convicted, an appellate court would have grounds to overturn it.

The defense’s strategy relied on several arguments: The statute’s requirement that it was illegal “to teach 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” could be interpreted as two distinct prohibitions, not simply as a restatement of the same prohibition. If it could be shown that evolution was not inherently contradictory with the Bible, then the law’s vague wording could be grounds for claiming that Scopes’s prosecution under the law was a violation of due process. In addition to this claim, if the law gave preference to those religions that interpreted the Bible as incompatible with evolution and discriminated against those who reconciled the two (endorsing so-called theistic evolution), then the law would also violate Tennessee’s constitutional prohibition against “religious preference.”21

It was not until 1947 that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution applied to state as well as to federal laws.22 With the help of the ACLU, the Court had ruled only a month before Scopes that the protection of freedom of speech under the Bill of Rights was incorporated into state laws.23 However, it was not considered a strong argument that such freedoms were enjoyed by teachers hired by the state to fulfill a state function. Thus, on the advice of Hays, the defense turned away from academic freedom as a legal strategy and focused more on religious preference and due process. For both of these claims, it was necessary for the defense to show that there were interpretations of the Bible that were not inherently incompatible with evolution. Such an interpretation created an apparent contradiction within the text of the law (vagueness) and discriminated against those religious people who held that interpretation (religious preference).

Both to demonstrate a clearer sense of what the evolution theory consists and to show its potential compatibility with the Bible, the defense proposed to bring in the testimony of several experts on the sciences and theology. When court resumed on Monday, July 13, the defense team also introduced motions to quash the indictment on the grounds that the law was invalid, too vague to be applied, and in violation of the Tennessee and U.S. Constitutions. These arguments were not expected to succeed, but the hearings on them, which continued for more than two days, were created as part of the official record of the trial, which could be included in an appeal. On Wednesday, July 15, the prosecution began to call witnesses to support its case. The prosecution quickly established that Scopes had used Hunter’s Civic Biology in class, teaching students passages such as the “Doctrine of Evolution,” and rested later that afternoon after calling only four witnesses, (two students from the school, the superintendent, and the school board member/druggist in whose shop the offending Civic Biology was sold).24

The Scopes TrialClick to view larger

Figure 2. F. E. Robinson’s Drugstore, Main Street, Dayton, Tennessee. Taken the month before the Tennessee v. Scopes trial.

Black and white photographic print taken by Watson Davis, June 1925. Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2008-1101.

After the prosecution’s brief but efficient case, the defense began calling its first expert witness, zoologist Maynard M. Metcalf. As soon as questions turned to the substance of evolutionary theory, however, the prosecution objected on the grounds that the jury did not need expert opinions concerning what evolution was in order to assess whether Scopes had taught it. The court agreed, allowing Metcalf’s testimony to be presented but with the jury excluded from the room. As Judge John Raulston explained, “this evidence is going in the record so that in the event the case goes up to the appellate court, they may see what the character and nature of the evidence was that was excluded.”25 The trial continued Thursday with attorneys from both sides debating whether further expert testimony ought to be allowed. As that debate progressed with the jury excluded from the room, the issues shifted from the narrow legal question of whether John Scopes had taught something illegal, with lawyers from both sides beginning to address the public spectacle of the trial, drawn into the larger debate about science and religion.

Science and Religion on Trial

Debate over the admissibility of expert testimony dominated Thursday’s proceedings, as the defense made the case that such experts were necessary for advancing defense interpretations of terms in the law itself: what “evolution” meant, what was involved in “denying” it, and even what constituted a “lower order of animals.”26 If evolution was properly understood, Hays argued, then Scopes could not have violated the law by teaching it because doing so would not deny the possibility of divine creation nor would it necessarily place humanity’s descent from a “lower order” of animals. But as the debate over definitions continued, questions about what counted rightly as either “science” or “religion” were tacitly opened up for wider debate.

The opening came on Thursday afternoon when, for the first time, William Jennings Bryan addressed the court at length. Earlier in the day, Hays had referenced a comment Bryan had made to the press before the trial, calling it a “duel to the death,”27 and Bryan took this as an invitation for a rebuttal. After giving an account of the reasons why the meaning of the law required no debate over its interpretation and therefore no expert testimony, Bryan expanded his discussion to an attack on Hunter’s Civic Biology, lamenting the fact that the state required that text while prohibiting use of the Bible in schools. Several states had provisions banning the use of compulsory Bible reading in public schools, in many cases a by-product of denominational disagreements in the 19th century. But Bryan asserted that Tennessee could only teach texts like the Civic Biology “that declare [the Bible] to be a lie.”28 For Bryan, theistic evolution was inherently contradictory. He understood evolution to be a claim that gradual development by natural law was the only permitted account of change in the world, and therefore that evolution by definition excluded the very possibility of miracles or revelation.29 Whereas the defense’s strategy was to show that religious believers who accepted theistic evolution were being discriminated against, Bryan’s position was that such believers were self-contradictory, deluded, or dishonest. His speech continued, invoking themes he had delivered in talks and in his writings against evolution for the previous several years. He invoked the claim that the majority of Tennesseans (as represented by a legislature that overwhelmingly passed an antievolution law) did not want evolution taught. He cited evidence that teaching students about evolution and human descent from other animals causes a loss of faith. He cited theological arguments that evolution precludes miracles central to Christianity, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection. It was Bryan who, on that Thursday afternoon, threw open all the questions about evolution and religion. He even cited Darrow’s work in the Leopold and Loeb case, arguing that the philosophy that had corrupted the minds of the two teen killers was the result of their rejection of Christianity for a materialistic doctrine.

Until that speech by Bryan, the prosecution had insisted on a very narrow theory of the case, focusing only on whether Scopes had broken the law. Attorney General Mackenzie and Assistant Prosecutor Sue Hicks had argued that broad philosophical questions were irrelevant to the matter at hand. While the speech resonated with many in the courtroom and the audience, it also opened the doors to a much broader defense rebuttal.

By comparison with Bryan, who spoke loudly and at length, defense lawyer Dudley Field Malone was understated and deliberate, and his response had the effect of turning the case in some ways. Observing that Bryan had introduced philosophical questions about the nature of both religion and science, of the meaning of evolution and the meanings of the Bible, Malone maintained that the defense could not be prevented from presenting its own answers to these same issues. Moreover, Malone referenced his own past working for Bryan, questioning what had become of the man he had admired: “Why, where issues are drawn by evidence, where the truth and nothing but the truth are scrutinized and where statements can be answered by expert witnesses on the other side—what is this psychology of fear? I don’t understand it. My old chief—I never saw him back away from a great issue before. I feel that the prosecution here is filled with a needless fear.” Malone’s response drew “profound and continued applause.”30 According to some observers, his speech affected Bryan, in a way that Darrow’s and Hays’s jibes had not.

On Friday morning, Judge Raulston ruled that the defense’s expert witnesses were not eligible to testify, having no bearing on the question of how the jury ought to understand the meaning of the law. Recognizing the defense’s intent to appeal, Raulston agreed to allow the defense to submit affidavits by the experts to be included in the court record, so that the appellate courts would have access to these views if they decided the court had erred in excluding them. Rauston’s ruling prompted Darrow to make a comment questioning the court’s impartiality (causing the court to cite him for contempt on Monday). With no chance for the expert witnesses to be heard (and no opportunity for Bryan to cross-examine them, which was what he really wanted), the great showdown between Darwin and the Bible that had been promised appeared destined to fizzle out. Many members of the press covering the trial left Friday afternoon, rather than remain in Dayton through the weekend for what was sure to be a formality the next Monday.

Bryan and Darrow at Dayton

After some debate over whether the defense was entitled to read the affidavits aloud into the trial record, or whether they were to be filed simply as written, the court agreed to allow Arthur Hays to read out the expert statements (with the jury members absent, as they had been for almost the entirety of the proceedings). Late Monday afternoon, when this had finished, the defense sprang a surprise.

“The defense desires to call Mr. Bryan as a witness,” announced Hays to the court. Saying that if “the only question here is whether Mr. Scopes taught what these children said he taught, we recognize what Mr. Bryan says as a witness would not be very valuable. We think there are other questions involved.”31 Despite the concerns of the attorney general, and the sheer absurdity of calling an opposing lawyer as a witness, Bryan agreed to take the stand, setting the stage for one of the most dramatic scenes in American legal history. In his memoir, Scopes himself suggested that perhaps it was the sting of Malone’s rebuttal of his speech the previous week that prompted Bryan into accepting this invitation.

The Scopes TrialClick to view larger

Figure 3. Defense attorney Clarence S. Darrow interrogating the prosecutor, Williams Jennings Bryan. The defense team sits directly behind Darrow (visible, from left: Dudley Field Malone, his arm on railing; Arthur Garfield Hays; and Scopes’s Tennessee attorney John R. Neal).

Photograph by William Silverman, 1925. Smithsonian Institution Archives, 2009-21077.

Calling Bryan to testify was an idea that had struck Darrow over the weekend. He began his questioning by asking about Bryan’s experience reading, writing about, and interpreting the Bible. For several years, Bryan had written a column on Bible lessons that was syndicated in many newspapers around the country. Darrow’s ostensible point was to show that there was a variety of interpretations of the Bible, and that the law must be open to them (even those that found evolution acceptable). Bryan resisted this line of questioning from the outset, arguing that he did not see his commentary as “interpretations.”

The Scopes TrialClick to view larger

Figure 4. Outdoor proceedings on July 20, 1925, showing William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. That Monday afternoon, because of the extreme heat, Judge Raulston moved court proceedings outdoors.

Photograph by Watson Davis. Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2007-0124.

Darrow then moved on to asking about Bryan’s take on various episodes of the Bible: Jonah and the whale, Joshua and the sun standing still, and Noah and the flood. The questions he posed were not original, but they were designed to demonstrate the absurdity of a literal reading of the biblical narrative. As the discussion continued, and as Bryan’s answers did not always fit what Darrow expected of him, the exchange between the two men became more heated. Bryan rejected Darrow’s insistence that a literal reading of the Bible necessarily pegged the date of the creation at 4004 bc or that the days of creation were necessarily of 24-hour duration. In this, Bryan assumed a position similar to many other creationists of the era, who interpreted the biblical “days” as eras of indefinite length.32

There have been different interpretations of the Bryan–Darrow exchange, with some commentators agreeing with Darrow’s own assessment that he had embarrassed Bryan and shown the world that the great antievolutionist was a fool. Others have described Bryan as a passionate (if unsuccessful) defender of fundamentalist theology. Still others suggest that Bryan and Darrow were speaking past each other, and that what Bryan meant in holding the Bible to be “true” meant something different than the kind of interpretation that Darrow was imposing on the text. Religiously, the Presbyterian Bryan was coming from a different theological background than many of his fellow fundamentalists, and it is possible that some of the nuances of his positions were lost in the caricature painted by Darrow.

Regardless, the exchange gradually devolved into name calling and accusations, with Bryan insisting that “the only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible,” and Darrow responding that he objected to Bryan’s “fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.”33 Finally, Judge Raulston intervened and halted the strange proceedings, bringing to an end a climactic scene that for many in the audience was the most memorable part of the entire trial.

Convictions and Consequences

Tuesday, July 21, 1925, saw the World's Most Famous Court Case come to a close. After Monday’s shouting, Judge Raulston attempted to rein in the extralegal excitement on the witness stand, announcing that “the issue now is whether or not Mr. Scopes taught that man descended from a lower order of animals. As I see it, after due deliberation, I feel that Mr. Bryan’s testimony cannot aid the higher court in determining that question.”34 The exchange between Bryan and Darrow from the previous day was officially expunged from the record. Of course, expunging the record could not undo the events themselves, which were widely covered both by print media and on the radio.

The defense had no witnesses left to call, and so, the defense requested that the jury be brought back into the court and instructed to find John Scopes guilty. This was done with little additional fanfare. The trial had ended. John Scopes was convicted and ordered by Judge Raulston to pay a fine of $100, the minimum established by the Butler Act.

On the legality of the case, the prosecution won, but many people saw the real victory as one for the defense. The defense, after all, had not wanted Scopes acquitted, but they had succeeded (in their own eyes at least) in embarrassing the fundamentalists, and especially Bryan. After the trial, both Darrow and Hays would write accounts mocking Bryan’s apparent floundering on the witness stand. Yet there is little evidence that Bryan himself believed that his cause suffered any loss, and he took the conviction as proof that antievolution reflected the will of a great many people. Fresh from the victory in Dayton, Bryan prepared a speaking tour to continue his antievolution crusade. While making preparations, however, he died suddenly in Dayton on July 26, just five days after his final victory.

In accounts of the Scopes trial, Bryan’s death quickly became inseparable from the events of the court case itself, an epilogue that shaped the perception of the trial’s meaning. Some people saw Bryan’s death as evidence of his exertion in defending the Bible against agnostic attacks, and came to view him as a martyr. Others interpreted his death as a physical manifestation of his destruction at the hands of Clarence Darrow. Both of these depictions are melodramatic, but one thing certain is that Bryan’s death prevented him from having further say in how his legacy would be co-opted by the many people who supported or opposed him.

Bryan’s legacy is just one of many myths that became part of the popular memory of the Scopes trial. Much of the media portrayal of Bryan, especially that of Baltimore Sun journalist H. L. Mencken, not only mocked Bryan but made him into a figurehead representing all of southern fundamentalism (at least to a largely northern and progressive audience).35 While some of Bryan’s positions, particularly on the nature of biblical literalism and his refusal to insist upon the necessity of a young earth, were different from others associated with fundamentalism, when he was attacked by the agnostic Darrow, there was no question whose side Bryan’s supporters were taking. Yet one result of the Scopes trial was the polarization of the debate between religious modernists and fundamentalists, particularly over the evolution question, with many of Bryan’s supporters defending positions more similar to Darrow’s or Mencken’s caricatures of Bryan.

In 1955, at the height of McCarthyism and the inquisition, blacklisting, and persecution of academics and other professionals suspected of unpopular political views, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote a play based on the Scopes trial entitled Inherit the Wind. It debuted in 1955 and was adapted as a movie in 1960. The play was not intended as a factual account of the Scopes trial, though some of its scenes are taken directly from the trial transcript. Inherit the Wind paints the Bryanesque “Matthew Harrison Brady” as a dogmatic, almost illiterate, young-earth creationist, who actually drops dead in the courtroom. The Darrow-based “Henry Drummond” comes across as kindly, strong, and heroic. The people of the Daytonian town of Hillsboro are depicted as narrow-minded and hate -filled (the film version includes scenes that would have recalled to many contemporary viewers the terrorism of lynching). The play and film transpose the concerns of the Scopes trial into those of progressive Americans of the 1950s and early 1960s—turning the event into a commentary on the repression of unpopular political thought and invoking tropes of southern and rural racism and prejudice. Inherit the Wind has done much to shape the way in which the actual Scopes trial has been remembered. Perhaps because of its conclusion, in which the beleaguered Brady/Bryan character, dismayed by the small fine imposed by the court, feels defeated despite winning a conviction (and then dies), the myth has long persisted that the trial was a decisive moral (if not legal) victory for evolutionists.36

If anything, antievolution became stronger than ever once Scopes was convicted. In 1927, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the court had acted improperly in allowing the amount of Scopes’s fine to be set by the judge instead of the jury. On those grounds, Scopes’s conviction was set aside, but the antievolution law remained in place. With the prosecution declining to retry the case, Scopes no longer had standing to appeal to a higher court. From the point of view of the ACLU’s original aim, which was to seek a judicial ruling against the antievolution law, this was an abject failure. After it became clear that there would be no further legal challenge, other states passed similar antievolution laws. (It was not until 1968 that the Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that antievolution laws were deemed unconstitutional. Anticipating the ruling, the Tennessee legislature repealed their law in 1967.)

The Scopes trial, and its appellate anticlimax, motivated fundamentalists to see school antievolutionism as both a morally and legally appropriate expression of their concerns about modern secular society. For many white Southerners (not only religious fundamentalists), the trial served as an example of northern and urban elitism and cultural and economic hegemony. These social dynamics continue to shape debates over the presentation of evolution in American schools, and the Scopes trial continues to serve as a cultural precedent (albeit not a legal one) for controversies over creationism, creation science, and intelligent design.37

Discussion of the Literature

The changing history and historiography of the Scopes trial reflects the changing trajectory in the way scholars have discussed the history of science and religion in recent decades. Until the late 20th century, histories of religion and science were often articulated as examples of what has often been called the conflict thesis. This theory, named in reference to John Draper’s highly influential 1874 History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, suggests two things: that science and religion are inherently incompatible and that the conflict between these two ways of thinking are sufficient to explain why events in science–religion history occur. (In some accounts of the conflict thesis, there is also a view that science must eventually prevail in such a conflict.) This conflict thesis was popular during the Scopes trial itself, and led to the view that the trial was a natural expression of a fundamentalist Protestant interpretation of the Bible that is irreconcilable with Darwinian evolution, and that the major public attention it attracted was a natural consequence of the epic themes invoked by the event.38

The conflict thesis informed many early accounts of the trial, including those of many commentators at the time. This tendency to see the trial as rooted in the inherent opposition of Darwin and the Bible (and often to present the warfare as a battle that science must eventually win) informed depictions of the Scopes trial as evidence of anti-Progressivism, anti-intellectualism, or anti-modernity.

The success of Inherit the Wind also influenced public perception of the trial, propagating the erroneous view that the Bryan-modeled character defended a young-earth interpretation of biblical literalism. Drawing on stereotypes of the South as bigoted and resistant to progress that echoed concerns over civil rights, Inherit the Wind exemplified a conflict-thesis view of the evolution controversy.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, historians of science and religion began to respond critically to the conflict thesis—both to the idea that science and religion are inherently at odds and to the idea that science–religion relationships are the driving force behind historical events. Some of the earliest major works to explore the “complexity” of religion–science history focused on Darwinism and the diversity of religious reactions to it.39 This historiographical shift toward complexity has also shaped historical reinterpretations of the Scopes trial and its lingering impact on American society. Recent scholarship on the trial has incorporated “the more sophisticated ‘post-conflict’ historiographical paradigm,” either by presenting a more nuanced and less vilifying depiction of fundamentalists and their beliefs or by exploring factors other than religion and science as instrumental in causing the trial.40

Befitting an event deliberately created with public attention in mind there have been many books and articles written about the Scopes trial since 1925. Some of the earliest treatments of the case emphasized precisely the themes of science–religion conflict and of dramatic confrontation between Darrow and Bryan that the trial’s own creators used to market the event. Soon after the trial concluded, two men from Rhea County (where Dayton is located) edited a version of the trial transcript that had been published in the Chattanooga Times and quickly arranged for it to be printed as The World’s Most Famous Court Trial by a short-lived Cincinnati publisher, the National Book Company.41 This text has been reprinted by various publishers since 1925, and has often been cited as the definitive trial transcript in books about the trial.

Available less than a month after the trial’s conclusion, National Book’s transcript included the text of the closing statement that Bryan was prevented from giving at the trial, but, as the ACLU’s associate director Forrest Bailey noted in a letter to Arthur G. Hays, it provided little to no additional analysis. The ACLU itself was working to produce a book about the trial, and Leslie H. Allen’s Bryan and Darrow at Dayton was published later that year. Allen’s book included substantial portions of the transcript, as well as some additional information about the Bible and about the context of the Tennessee law.42

Primary Sources

Perhaps the most useful single collection of primary source about the trial is The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents, edited by Jeffrey P. Moran. In addition to the transcript and some historical analysis, this book includes examples of several different contemporary perspectives on the trial and its importance, in newspapers, cartoons, sermons, and other sources.43

In addition to the trial itself, the papers of several major figures associated with the trial are also available. Both Clarence Darrow’s and William Jennings Bryan’s papers detail their involvement, as do the archives of the ACLU. In 1967, John Scopes wrote a memoir, Center of the Storm, which serves as an important first-person perspective on the trial. As the title’s imagery suggests, Scopes’s view is one of activity all around him, but of relatively little direct action on his own part.44

Further Reading

Allen, Leslie H. Bryan and Darrow at Dayton: The Record and Documents of The Bible-Evolution Trial. New York: Arthur Lee, 1925.Find this resource:

    Clark, Constance Areson. God—or Gorilla: Images of Evolution in the Jazz Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

      Ginger, Ray. Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. Boston: Beacon, 1958.Find this resource:

        Israel, Charles A. Before Scopes: Evangelicalism, Education, and Evolution in Tennessee, 1870–1925. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.Find this resource:

          Keith, Jeanette. Country People in the New South: Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.Find this resource:

            LaFollette, Marcel C. Reframing Scopes: Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs from the Trial of the Century. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008.Find this resource:

              Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion: New York: Basic Books, 1997.Find this resource:

                Larson, Edward J. Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

                  Lawrence, Jerome, and Robert E. Lee. Inherit the Wind. New York: Random House, 1955.Find this resource:

                    Lienesch, Michael. In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                      Moran, Jeffrey P. “Reading Race into the Scopes Trial: African American Elites, Science, and Fundamentalism.” Journal of American History 90.3 (2003): 891–911.Find this resource:

                        Moran, Jeffrey P. The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.Find this resource:

                          Numbers, Ronald L. Darwinism Comes to America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                            Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

                              Pauly, Philip J. “The Development of High School Biology: New York City, 1900–1925,” Isis 82.4 (1991): 662–688.Find this resource:

                                Scopes John T., and James Presley. Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.Find this resource:

                                  Shapiro, Adam R. Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                                    World’s Most Famous Court Trial, Tennessee Evolution Case; a Complete Stenographic Report of the Famous Court Test of the Tennessee Anti-evolution Act, at Dayton, July 10 to 21, 1925, including Speeches and Arguments of Attorneys. Cincinnati: National Book, 1925.Find this resource:


                                      (1.) World’s Most Famous Court Trial, Tennessee Evolution Case; a Complete Stenographic Report of the Famous Court Test of the Tennessee Anti-evolution Act, at Dayton, July 10 to 21, 1925, including Speeches and Arguments of Attorneys (Cincinnati: National Book, 1925), hereafter referred to as Transcript; Edward J. Larson, “Law and Society in the Courtroom: Introducing the Trials of the Century,” UMKC Law Review 68 (2000): 543–548.

                                      (2.) Leslie H. Allen, Bryan and Darrow at Dayton: The Records and Documents of the Bible-Evolution Trial (New York: Arthur Lee, 1925.

                                      (3.) Daniel J. Boorstein, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (New York: Vintage, 1992–1942), 211.

                                      (4.) Ronald L. Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); and Adrian Desmond, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

                                      (5.) Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

                                      (6.) Charles Hodge. What Is Darwinism? (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, 1874).

                                      (7.) Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Adam R. Shapiro, Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1987); and Bradley J. Gundlach, Process and Providence: The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845–1929 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).

                                      (8.) Gundlach, Process and Providence.

                                      (9.) Shapiro, Trying Biology.

                                      (10.) Philip J. Pauly, “The Development of High School Biology: New York City, 1900–1925,” Isis 82.4 (1991): 662–688; Keith Sheppard and Dennis M. Robbins, “High School Biology Today: What the Committee of Ten Actually Said,” CBE Life Sciences Education 6.3 (2007): 198–202; and José Vázquez, “High School Biology Today: What the Committee of Ten Did Not Anticipate,” CBE Life Sciences Education 5.1 (2006): 29–33.

                                      (11.) Pauly, “The Development of High School Biology,” 666.

                                      (12.) Jeanette Keith, Country People in the New South: Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

                                      (13.) Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 80–81; Shapiro, Trying Biology, 98–99; Pauly, “The Development of High School Biology”; and George W. Hunter, A Civic Biology, Presented in Problems (New York: American Book, 1914).

                                      (14.) Larson, Summer for the Gods, 82–83.

                                      (15.) John T. Scopes and James Presley, Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), 59.

                                      (16.) Transcript, 4.

                                      (17.) Larson, Summer for the Gods, 92–95.

                                      (18.) Ibid., 99–100.

                                      (19.) Ibid., 102.

                                      (20.) Marcel C. LaFollette, Reframing Scopes: Journalists, Scientists, and Lost Photographs from the Trial of the Century (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008), 43.

                                      (21.) See Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution of Tennessee in Tennessee Blue Book; and Shapiro, Trying Biology, 98–99.

                                      (22.) Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947).

                                      (23.) Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925).

                                      (24.) Transcript, 119–133.

                                      (25.) Ibid., 145.

                                      (26.) Ibid., 155.

                                      (27.) Ibid., 159, 170.

                                      (28.) Ibid., 172.

                                      (29.) Shapiro, Trying Biology, 104.

                                      (30.) Transcript, 186, 188.

                                      (31.) Ibid., 284.

                                      (32.) Numbers, Creationists.

                                      (33.) Transcript, 304.

                                      (34.) Ibid., 305.

                                      (35.) Angie Maxwell, The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority, and the Politics of Whiteness (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 35.

                                      (36.) Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind (New York: Random House, 1955); and Edward J. Larson, “That the Scopes Trial Ended in Defeat for Antievolutionism,” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

                                      (37.) For the impact of the Scopes trial on subsequent antievolutionism, see especially Numbers’s, The Creationists; Shapiro’s Trying Biology; and Larson’s Summer for the Gods and Trial and Error.

                                      (38.) Jeffrey P. Moran, The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002); John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (New York: D. Appleton, 1874); and Colin A. Russell, “The Conflict of Science and Religion,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

                                      (39.) Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science; Colin A. Russell, “The Conflict of Science and Religion”; and Stephen P. Weldon, “Monkey Business,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences 48 (2014): 115–118.

                                      (40.) James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870–1900 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979); John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991); and Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (New York: Knopf, 1992).

                                      (41.) Transcript.

                                      (42.) Allen, Bryan and Darrow at Dayton; Transcript.

                                      (43.) Moran, The Scopes Trial.

                                      (44.) Ibid.; and Scopes and Presley, Center of the Storm.