When a young teacher named John T. Scopes taught evolution in his high school science class in the 1925, he was taken to court for violating state laws.
Science Clashes with Religion
At the beginning of the 1920s, people were being deluged with scientific theories in the newspapers. Even though few could understand them, new scientific theories were often front page news. “The prestige of science was colossal,” said historian Frederick Lewis Allen.
Although Darwin had come up with his theory of evolution in the mid-19th century, less educated members of society, with the help of the new mass media, were just finding out about it. Soon two different schools of thought emerged — the Fundamentalists and the Modernists.
Two Creation Theories
The Fundamentalists believed in the literal translation of the Bible and refused to accept any teaching that seemed to conflict with it, even science.
The Modernists tried to reconcile their beliefs with scientific thought, reject what was out of date, and retain what was essential.
The Modernists were not united under a single belief system, which made it difficult for them to organize as a group. The Fundamentalists, on the other hand, were extremely organized and managed to get the theory of evolution banned from public schools in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.
Tennessee’s Evolution Law
The Tennessee law read: “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.”
Enter John T. Scopes, a high school biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee.
He chose to teach evolution in his classroom, specifically to be drawn into a court case. But Scopes wasn’t the only one on trial. The Bible, as well as Darwin’s theory, were both scrutinized in the courtroom.
Monkey Trial Becomes a Media Circus
Clarence Darrow led the defense. The prosecution’s star attorney was William Jennings Bryan, who had run for the presidency against William McKinley in 1896 and 1900.
The trial began on July 10, 1925. From the beginning, it felt like a carnival. Outside the courtroom were lemonade stands and hot dog vendors, as well as booksellers hawking the latest biology texts. Over 100 reporters swarmed into the courtroom. The proceedings were broadcast live on the radio, and daily newsreels were sent to movie theaters.
“It was a strange trial,.” wrote Frederick Lewis Allen in his book Only Yesterday. “Into the quiet town of Dayton flocked gaunt Tennessee farmers and their families in mule-drawn wagons and ramshackle Fords; quiet, godly people in overalls and gingham and black, ready to defend their faith against ‘foreigners,’ yet curious to know what this new-fangled evolutionary theory might be.”
The Bible vs. Darwin
The trial quickly turned into a debate on whether the Bible or Darwin was “right.” Darrow was not allowed to call any scientists as witnesses. In the most sensational stunt of the trial, Darrow called Bryan to the stand to testify as an expert on the Bible. In answering Darrow’s questions, Bryan came across as “ridiculous” to most sophisticated Americans.
Scopes was found guilty of breaking the law and was fined $100. But the debate about evolution was only beginning, and continues to resonate almost a century later.
- Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig
- The 1920s by Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber
- Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s by Frederick Lewis Allen