Too Much Monkey Business: The Scopes Trial

Photo by History.com

Amid a circus-like atmosphere on July 10, 1925, a young science teacher named John Scopes went on trial for teaching evolution in a Tennessee classroom. Four months earlier, a new law passed making it a misdemeanor offense 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.”

When naturalist Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution — that humans and monkeys descended from a common ancestor (not that humans descended from monkeys, as was, and still is, commonly mistaken) — it sent shockwaves through the worlds of science and religion, but for very different reasons.

Scientists welcomed the theory of evolution as an exciting door to new frontiers in human genetics and biology. On the other hand, many Christians saw it as a threat to the Bible and everything they believed in. By the 1920s, the majority of urban churches in the United States had rectified evolution with Scripture. But in the South, the majority still clung to a literal interpretation of the Bible and refused to consider any deviation from their accepted dogma. Period.

The horror. The horror.

This prevailing attitude led to the Tennessee Legislature passing the Butler law in March 1925, which forbade teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in public schools or universities. The American Civil Liberties Union was itching to challenge this and offered to pay the legal fees of any teacher willing to fight it in court.

A teacher in Dayton named John Scopes was up for the task, and duly read from, ironically enough, a Tennessee-approved textbook, Hunter’s Civic Biology. He flipped to a chapter and read about human evolution and Darwin’s theory of natural selection. He was duly arrested for his crime and ordered to face trial on July 10.

Scopes’ attorney was the well-known trial lawyer and city-slicker Clarence Darrow. He agreed to assist the ACLU in fighting the charges against the defendant. Representing the State of Tennessee was William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist Christian who lobbied for a constitutional amendment to ban the teaching of evolution nationally.

This trial was the first ever to be broadcast on radio, and press coverage was intense. In the days before the trial, throngs of people poured into Dayton to watch the spectacle of preachers in revival tents and a supposed “missing link” on display, who was really a short 51-year-man with a receding hairline and protruding jaw. Vendors sold everything from toy monkeys to Bibles and refreshments. There were even two chimpanzees in people clothes hopping around for the crowd’s amusement.

Real high brow stuff.

Still smarter than most in the gallery. Photo by NPR

The defendant was a bit player in his own trial; the real stars of the show were the two flamboyant attorneys firing verbal missiles at one another.

Darrow and his defense strategy were dealt a crushing blow when Judge John Raulston refused to hear expert testimony on evolutionary theory. He decided his best strategy was to attack Bryan’s literal interpretation of the Bible. Darrow came at Bryan with incredulous queries about the latter’s unquestioned acceptance of such Biblical tales including Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib and a whale swallowing Jonah.

The following excerpt from the trial transcript recounts Darrow questioning Bryan about the flood from the Book of Genesis:

DARROW: But what do you think that the Bible itself says? Do you know how that estimate (of the year the flood occurred) was arrived at?

BRYAN: I never made a calculation.

DARROW: A calculation from what?

BRYAN: I could not say.

DARROW: From the generations of man?

BRYAN: I would not want to say that.

DARROW: What do you think?

BRYAN: I could not say.

DARROW: From the generations of man?

BRYAN: I would not want to say that.

DARROW: What do you think?

BRYAN: I do not think about things I don’t think about.

DARROW: Do you think about things you do think about?

BRYAN: Well, sometimes.

Can’t you walk any faster? Photo by Presbyterian Historical Society

None of this made Bryan look very good, but it didn’t matter. Scopes did violate the law (stupid as it was) and was found guilty. But that wasn’t a defeat per se. The defense had asked the jury to come back with a guilty verdict. Then they could file an appeal.

Bryan may have technically won the case, but he had been completely humiliated in the process, and his beliefs were publicly mocked. He died during a nap five days after the trial ended.

The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the Monkey Trial verdict on a technicality in 1927, but the constitutional issues remained unresolved until 1968. Even at that, it’s no secret the line between separation of church and state is still hotly — and stupidly — debated today, especially in the south.

is a news junkie and history buff spending the End Times randomly alternating between bouts of crankiness and bemusement. Come along!

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