Ninetieth Anniversary of the Scopes Trial

A few photos to set the scene

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 In October 2010 we visited Dayton for a day and got a feel of the place!! We went round the Courthouse and visited various old buildings in Dayton.

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THE SCOPES TRIAL 1925

The myth of the scopes trial has taken on a life of its own and has misinformed opinion ever since the trial in July 1925. In the United States science for evangelicals was dominated by the Scopes trial, and the abiding images of those decades are provided by Inherit the Wind. This portrays American evangelicals as having  a hillbilly faith based on anti-intellectual literalism. Edward Larson in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Summer of the Gods (Larson 1997) corrects much of that, but old story still rules. The events that led up to the trial are the most bizarre in the history of science and religion. As we saw in Chapter 3 ( of my book Evangelicals and Science, 2008), the warfare model of the relationship of science and Christianity dominated the twentieth century. In a sense the warfare model both fuelled the events of the Scopes trial and their interpretation as it had become the received wisdom of any secular Americans. The attorney Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) knew the books of Draper and White by heart, and the defense co-counsel at Dayton, Arthur Garfield Heys said, “Of all the books I have read for this trial, the ‘Warfare between Science and Religion [sic], by Prof. White, is, to my mind, one of the most interesting and readable.” With attitudes like this, it is not surprising that fundamentalists initiated the anti-evolution crusade and objected to the new Darwinian biology textbooks, such as Hunter’s Civic Biology  used in Tennessee. In the 1920s the  Eugenics movement was at its height and many eugenicists were evolutionists—R. A. Fisher, Leonard Darwin, and H. F. Osborn. By 1935, thirty-five states had passed laws to compel the sterilization of the eugenically unfit. As Hunter wrote in his Civic biology, “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.”

Christian anti-evolutionists like the “Great Commoner” William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) who was a thrice-failed presidential candidate

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and Billy Sunday (1862–1935) denounced eugenics as inspired by evolution. Bryan called it brutal and at Dayton argued it was a reason not to teach evolution. Billy Sunday bracketed eugenics and evolution in his 1925 Memphis crusade. The Modernist theologians Shailer Mathews (1863–1941) and H. E. Fosdick (1878–1969) both supported eugenics. From our post-Nazi perspective it is difficult not to grant the moral high ground to the Fundamentalists. It also gave reasons to reject Modernism. Ironically in 1939 when most had rejected eugenics WilliamJ. Tinkle (1892–1981) “was still advocating selective human breeding in his creationist textbook, Fundamentals of Biology” (Numbers,1992, p. 223).

Anti-evolutionism was only part of fundamentalist militancy as their main target was theological Modernism, which swept through every denomination. As a result conservatives formed a loose coalition to combat this threat to orthodoxy. Some stressed the German roots of higher criticism and attributed a “survival of the fittest” mentality to German militarism. These were combined into the distinctive Fundamentalism of the 1920s and 1930s and the formation of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association (WCFA) in 1919. With William Jennings Bryan’s opposition to the war and anti-evolutionism, this led to Dayton. The alliance of Bryan and Fundamentalists like Riley does not demonstrate that they were in total agreement. Riley was a dispensationalist, but Bryan believed in the power of reform to make life better. Bryan had a thirty-five year career in public life, becoming a Democratic Congressman in 1890. With his oratory he became known as the Great Commoner and secured three presidential nominations. After supporting Woodrow Wilson in his presidential campaign of 1912, Bryan became secretary of state and resigned from office after America’s entry into World War One. Yet he was a progressive reformer and  supported both prohibition and female suffrage. As his biographer Lawrence Levine commented, “In Williams Jennings Bryan reform and reaction lived happily, if somewhat incongruously, side by side.” His anti-evolutionism came from his Christian convictions but he was no six-day creationist. He was willing to accept evolution for the animal kingdom but not for man. He was very much in line with earlier Christians, like James Orr. Into this heady political and religious mix the Scopes trial was born. Matters began late in 1921whenKentucky’s Baptist State Board ofMissions passed a resolution asking for a law against teaching evolution. Bryan heard about it early the next year and adopted it. The campaign spread quickly, with John Roach Straton (1875–1929) advocating anti-evolution in New York, Norris in Texas and T. T. Martin throughout the south with William Bell Riley was offering to debate evolutionists, and providing the support of theWCFA. Three years later these four were the most prominent ministers supporting Scopes’ prosecution. In January 1925 Senator Shelton introduced a bill in the Tennessee Legislature. The next day John W. Butler put forward similar legislation in the House of Representatives, demanding a $500 fine for a public school teacher teaching “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible …” The House passed it by 71 votes to five. The public was caught off guard and opponents began to work on the Senate and wrote letters to the press. In February Billy Sunday returned to Memphis for a second crusade. On March 21, the Senate passed the Butler bill by twenty-four to six and itwas sent to the Governor to sign. Despite protests from evolutionists and liberal churchmen it was made law in Tennessee. The American Civil Liberties Union saw the bill as contrary to civil liberties and offered legal help to any schoolteacher challenging the law.

Entrance to mine closed in 1924, which resulted in economic problems for Dayton (I had a delightful walk there)

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What happened next is slapstick comedy. Dr. George Rappleyea, a mine Manager, who attended a modernist Methodist church, read in the Chattanooga Times on May 4 of the ACLU’s offer of legal help. The most credible version of the legend says he hurried to Robinson’s drugstore and suggested getting publicity for Dayton. With seven others, including several attorneys, he obtained support from the ACLU. They then called in the high school’s science teacher and football coach, John Scopes and Rappleyea asked him if he had been teaching from Hunter’s Civic Biology. When he admitted his felony Robinson told him, “Then you’ve been violating the law” and then asked, “John, would you be willing to stand for a test case?” The die was cast.

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Scopes was not a radical and taught physics, math, and football rather than biology. Like his father he was agnostic. He preferred sport to politics and occasionally attended  Dayton’s Methodist church. The following day, affront-page article in the Banner carried the story how George Rappleyea was prosecuting a teacher for violating state law. Anyone reading that the prosecution was acting for the ACLU would have known it was not an ordinary criminal case. Many Tennesseans did not appreciate Dayton’s publicity stunt.

Scope’s lodgings

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The preliminary hearing took place on May 9 for action in August. The prosecutors included two local attorneys Sue (a man) and Herbert Hicks along with Bryan, though he had not pursued law for thirty years. According to Larson, this changed the whole issue from a narrow constitutional test to one where evolution as well as Scopes was on trial. The ACLU’s hopes for a test case were dashed again when Clarence Darrow offered to duel Bryan. Darrow, who was then sixty-eight, is best described as an atheistic pugilist of considerable notoriety, which had increased after his successful defense of the Leopold-Loeb case, when Darrow saved two from death by appealing to psychological determinism. The historian Will Herberg described him as ‘the last of the ‘village atheists’ on a national scale’. The humanist Edwin Mimms from Vanderbilt University wryly commented, “When Clarence Darrow is put forth as the champion of the forces of  enlightenment to fight the battle for scientific knowledge, one feels almost persuaded to become a Fundamentalist.”

The ACLU tried to displace Darrow as defense lawyer, but Scopes wanted him. The trial began on July 10, with five hundred visitors from the media. With America’s finest journalists present, including H. L. Mencken, the trial became a media event and dominated the national  newspapers for a week. Judge Raulstonarrived at 8.30 a.m. with a Bible and statute book and as temperatures were set to top 100 degrees he allowed attorneys to dispense with coats and ties. He was followed by the defense, Darrow, Malone and Neal, and then Scopes and Rappleyea. At nine o’clock Bryan entered with the other prosecutors to great applause. The court opened with an “interminable” prayer punctuated by amens. Shortly before noon a thousand people left the stifling courtroom, to find four steers being barbecued. After lunch the jury was selected and the venire men chosen were fundamentalist inclined ,which Mencken did not regard as impartial. After that court was adjourned for the weekend and most visitors headed to the Great Smoky Mountains to escape the heat, while Bryan preached at Dayton’s Southern Methodist church.

The Courthouse,Dayton

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Me in the dock

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And by his statue

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On Monday the court was refilled to capacity and business began. The defense challenged the constitutionality of the antievolution statute to quash the indictment. Neal and Hays began the defense so that Darrow could close dramatically. Hays compared the statute to a law against  Copernicanism claiming that “Evolution is as much a scientific fact as the Copernican theory. McKenzie and Stewart took up the prosecution. Then Darrow took the floor and argued that the antievolution law was illegal as it established a particular religious viewpoint in public schools. Darrow’s speech was electric and Mencken wrote that “It was not designed for reading but for hearing.” Responses to the speech were varied, some hissed (morons to Mencken) and others applauded. Court resumed next morning only to be adjourned due to power failure, which prevented Judge Raulston from preparing his ruling on the motion to quash the indictment.

Wednesday was the hottest day and during lunchtime Scopes went swimming in a mountain pool with two of the prosecutors, Wallace Haggard and William Bryan Jr. and returned late.

A local river

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That afternoon the defence’s first witness, the zoologist Maynard M. Metcalf, was called and Darrow prevented Scopes from taking the stand, because he was not, in fact, a biology teacher and that would collapse the whole trial. Metcalf was an Oberlin graduate and also taught a college-age Sunday-school class. Darrow persuaded Metcalf to explain evolution. The next day William Bryan Jr. opened for the state. Hays followed, to be answered by Bryan Sr., who rose to the occasion with an hour-long attack on teaching evolution, followed by Malone with an appeal for freedom. Stewart was last and put the case for statutory interpretation rather than testimony for or against evolution.

The next day the court met for an hour before closing for the weekend. Monday was crunch time and every seat was filled by 8.30a.m.. when proceedings began with prayer aimed at the defense. Hays read out  the statements of the witnesses for the defense, eight scientists, three of whom sought to reconcile evolution with Genesis, as did the four religious witnesses, including Shailer Mathews. Then Hays summoned Bryan who stated, “They came here to try revealed religion. I have come here to defend it, and they can ask me any questions they please.” As the Nashville Banner reported, “Then began an examination which has few, if any, parallels in court history. In reality, it was a debate between Darrow and Bryan on Biblical history, on agnosticism and belief in revealed religion.”

They jousted over Jonah and the whale and the long day of Joshua. When it came to Genesis 1, Bryan demonstrated his acceptance of the Day-Age interpretation, resulting in the following exchange:

Have you any idea of the length of these periods?

No; I don’t

Do you think that the sun was made on the fourth day?

Yes.

And they had evening and morning without the sun?

I am simply saying it is a period.

They had evening and morning for four periods without the sun, do you think?

I believe in creation as there told, and if I am not able to explain it I will accept it.

This gave the defense what they wanted in that as Hays said, “Bryan had conceded that he interpreted the Bible.” Scopes reported in his autobiography that, “The Biblical literalists…were…disappointed that Bryan gave ground” (Larson, 1997, p. 189) This part of Bryan’s testimony was altered in Inherit the Wind. Soon afterwards Raulston adjourned for the  day and Darrow’s supporters were jubilant. Next day the jury was sent out after Darrow had suggested that the judge should instruct them  to find the defendant guilty. They did and recommended a $100 fine. The following Sunday afternoon Bryan died in his sleep.

Then the Scopes trial took on a life of its own. Soon the Scopes legend began to grow, beginning ith the publication of F.L. Allen’s Only Yesterday:an Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties in 1931 and culminating with the release of the film version of Inherit the Wind in 1960. As Larson wrote, “Far more than what happened in Dayton, these two works shaped how later generations would come to think of the Scopes trial.” Allen intended to give a racy account of the Roaring Twenties, but  altered what happened at the trial, incorrectly stating, “Bryan affirmed his belief that the world was createdin 4004 BC.” By doing this Allen wrongly persuaded future generations that not only was Bryan a six-day creationist but that this was a central tenet of fundamentalism. As Larson points out Allen made many distortions, which became the Scopes legend. Larson then names other writers who adopted Allen’s account such as the historians Furniss and Hofstadter.

Hofstadter drew parallels with the Scopes trial and McCarthyism in his Anti-intellectualism in American life, which is what the liberal left wanted to hear. This association with McCarthyism inspired Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play, Inherit the Wind, in which anti-evolutionism was not the danger but McCarthyism instead, as they felt that McCarthyism paralleled some aspects of the Scopes trial. When I first saw the film some thirty years ago I thought it was a docudrama of the Scopes trial. Whatever the intentions of the playwrights, this is how most viewers perceive it as it molded their understanding of 1920s anti-evolutionism. The characters in Inherit the Wind have their counterparts in the Scopes trial, but much was changed for artistic and political reasons. Prominent in the film is the fundamentalist mob singing about the old-time religion. Bryan was metamorphosed into Brady, a mindless reactionary demagogue who told Drummond (Darrow) that creation took  place “on the 23rd of Octoberin the Year 4004BC at  -uh,at 9 a.m!” Brady collapsed and died at the end of his closing speech. At the time critics savaged the play and the movie and by 1967 Joseph Wood Knutch could say, “Most people who have any notions about the trial get them from the play Inherit the Wind, or from the movie.”

The response today of YEC leaders to the Scopes trial exposes the ambiguity of the participants. The Bryan of Inherit the Wind would be more to their liking. Henry Morris wrote, “Probably the most serious mistake made by Bryan on the stand was to insist repeatedly that he had implicit confidence in the infallibility of Scripture, but then to hedge on the geological questions, relying on the day/age theory. George McCready Price had warned him against this very thing. Darrow, of course, made the  most of it, ridiculing the idea of people claiming to believe the Bible was inspired when its meaning was so flexible that one could make it say whatever he wished!” (Morris, 1984, p. 66). Writing in 1942, Price complained that Bryan had “conceded the entire geological arguments to evolutionists, with the pitiful results now known to all the world” (Numbers, 1992, p. 99).

The Australian, Carl Weiland, reviewing Larson’s book also criticized Bryan for accepting geological time. He wrote “In fact, it may surprise many readers to know that the ‘Great Commoner,’ as the populist Bryan was affectionately known, would have felt perfectly comfortable with any of today’s ‘intelligent design’ theorists and long-age creationists. In a pinch, he would have been able to cope with some form of theistic evolution, it seems so long as Adam’s soul remained divinely created. . . .And of course, it is well-known that in the witness box, the wily Darrow showed up the inconsistencies in Bryan’s acceptance of millions of years in the face of the Bible’s clear statements on six days. Not to mention that Bryan, not having a clear stand or understanding on the historicity of Genesis, had no coherent response to the question of Cain’s wife, either. The message this gave people was quite clear—if even this great ‘champion’ stumbled in the face of ‘science,’ Christians had no answers, and the Bible could not be trusted.”3

It is almost impossible to consider the Scopes trial dispassionately as it is hard to separate myth from history. Many see it as the precursor of the recent YEC debates and education bills. In one sense it is, but there are vital differences. In 1925 the contentious issue was the teaching of evolution, but not geology. Today the intention is to reject both evolution and geology.

Perhaps the real victor of the Scopes trial was George McCready Price, who is the grandfather of modern creationism, to whom we now turn.

P.S. A link to the transcripts of the trial http://darrow.law.umn.edu/trials.php?tid=7

Thanks to Gary Hurd for giving the link

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Bryan College, which has recently purged OECs , i.e. those believing the same as Bryan. (Had to correct this as originally said YECs.) They is a distinct irony in that Bryan College is YEC wheres as Bryan was OEC and open to evolution except for humans.

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