3. The Scopes Monkey Trial 1925
In a small Tennessee town northeast of Chattanooga, a teacher was put on trial for teaching evolution. The notion that man had evolved from cells like other species was not new. Since the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” advocates and opponents of evolution had fought against each other. At issue was the belief that Darwinism directly challenged the origins of the Earth and man as stated in the Bible. The idea that man evolved from apes made fundamental Christian groups mad. In an era where women shortened their hair and skirts, voted, and danced in Jazz clubs, long-standing cultural norms were shattered. A rapidly modernizing world was encroaching upon traditional family roles and how religion shaped those roles.
In Tennessee, John W. Butler was a state legislator, farmer, and leader of the World Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA). He and his supporters successfully passed the Butler Act which made it illegal for anyone to teach ideas surrounding evolution in any school that received state funding. The penalty for defying the Act, which was rarely enforced, was a fine. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wanted to challenge the legality of the law. At issue was how much authority did the state have in directing what topics could be taught and what could not, particularly when the Butler Act was not enforced throughout the state. The ACLU began searching for a person to be their test case.
John T. Scoops was a 24-year-old teacher that hailed from Kentucky. He was contacted by the ACLU to confess that he had violated the Butler Act in teaching his students about the theory of evolution. He was arrested, charged, and put on trial. William Jennings Bryan led the state’s legal team. Bryan was well-known populist, fighter for workers’ rights, and a presidential candidate three times. Clarence Darrow, a famous lawyer from Chicago, headed the defense team. Darrow had also been an advocate for workers’ rights as well as a defender in several well-known murder trials. Bryan and Darrow were friends and allies.
The Scoops Trial drew hundreds of city reporters and spectators to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. A radio station in Chicago made it possible to broadcast the trial live. As the trial commenced on July 10, 1925, it was clear from its onset that it was going to be a spectacle. Darrow and Bryan argued over who could be considered an expert witness. Many of the students called as witnesses were 14-year-old boys who had been coached on what to say. Evolutionists proclaimed that man was made up of cells while anti-evolutionists stated that the history of man was factually stated in the Bible and it was blasphemous to challenge it.
In an unusual and dramatic act, Darrow called Bryan to testify. In an examination about the length of time, it took for the Earth to form, Bryan, stated that he was a defender of Christianity and the Bible and members of the defense, and people like them, had “no other purpose than ridiculing every Christian who believes in the Bible.” Darrow responded, “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and you know it.” This type of banter had been going on for six days.
On July 25, 1925, after closing arguments, the jury deliberated for 90 minutes. John Scoops was found guilty of violating the Butler Act and fined $100.00. The Scoops trial drew a deeper line in the sand between the ideas of evolution and creation. Five days after the trial, William Jennings Bryan died. Those close to him speculated that the stress of the trial adversely impacted his health. In 1955, during McCarthyism, the trial was fictionalized as a play, Inherit the Wind. The play was made into a movie, in 1960, using several passages from the actual trial.