Main   Terms   People   Interviews   Resources   Events

The Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’

Until the 1990s no trial in American history had attracted more attention—and been more misunderstood—than the 1925 trial in Dayton, Tennessee, of John Thomas Scopes, accused of violating a state law banning the teaching of human evolution. Shortly after the governor of Tennessee signed the antievolution bill into law, the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York City began to search for a volunteer to test the constitutionality of the law. Although young Scopes had not taught biology and could not remember for sure whether he had discussed evolution during a brief period substituting for the regular biology teacher, he agreed to be "arrested" and to stand trial. For the contest

the ACLU brought in several big-city attorneys, including the famed criminal lawyer and agnostic Clarence Darrow from Chicago. To assist the prosecution, the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association secured the services of William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, a thrice-defeated Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States and a well-known Presbyterian antievolutionist.

The July trial, which lasted eight days through searing heat, attracted international news coverage. The Chicago radio station WGN made history by broadcasting the trial. Downtown Dayton took on the appearance of a carnival. The highpoint of the trial came on the seventh day, when Darrow put Bryan on the stand as a biblical expert, obviously expecting him to defend a literal reading of the Bible. To Darrow’s apparent surprise, Bryan, who, like virtually all Fundamentalist spokesmen, accepted the great antiquity of life on earth, happily volunteered that the "days" of creation could have spanned as many as 600,000,000 years each. Bryan explained that although he believed "everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance, ‘Ye are the salt of the earth.’ I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God’s people." (Privately, Bryan expressed a willingness to accept pre-human evolution—if scientists could demonstrate the evolution of one species into another.) The trial, as expected, ended in a conviction for Scopes, whose own attorneys conceded his guilt. Five days later Bryan died in his sleep, a martyr to antievolutionist cause.

Over the years a number of historians have claimed that, despite Scopes’s legal conviction, the trial actually represented a public-relations victory for the evolutionists. The award-winning movie Inherit the Wind conveys the same message. As the story goes, Bryan’s testimony at Dayton, in which he admitted the antiquity of life on earth, destroyed his credibility with fellow Fundamentalists and brought about the demise of the antievolution movement. The available evidence, however, supports none of these claims. Many journalists did indeed review Bryan’s performance at Dayton harshly, writing that he revealed his ignorance of both religion and science. But Darrow also receive considerable criticism in the press: for disrespecting the judge, for treating Bryan rudely, and for trying to deny the people of Tennessee their democratic right to determine what should be taught in their tax-supported schools. In fact, Darrow became such a liability, the ACLU tried (unsuccessfully) to dump him from the defense team handling Scopes’s appeal to the state supreme court.

By and large, the Fundamentalists emerged from the trial flushed with a sense of victory and proud of the way Bryan had handled himself. The head of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, which had invited Bryan to Dayton, praised him for his "signal conquest" on behalf of Fundamentalism: "He not only won his case in the judgment of the Judge, in the judgment of the Jurors, in the judgment of the Tennessee populace attending; he won it in the judgment of an intelligent world."

Fundamentalists leaders could hardly have felt betrayed by Bryan’s advocacy of an ancient earth, because, except for the Seventh-day Adventist George McCready Price, they agreed with him on that life on earth long antedated Adam and Eve. The events at Dayton neither ended the antievolution crusade nor slowed it down; nearly two-thirds of the antievolution bills introduced in state legislatures in the 1920s came after 1925. Despite its immense symbolic significance, the Scopes trial exerted little influence on the actual course of antievolutionism in America.Ronald L. Numbers, Darwinism Comes To America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), Chapter 4, "The Scopes Trial: History and Legend"; Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes...

 Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Ron Numbers

Topic Sets Available

AAAS Report on Stem-Cells

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms

Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
Becoming Human: Brain, Mind, Emergence
Big Bang Cosmology and Theology (GHC)
Cosmic Questions Interviews

Cosmos and Creator
Creativity, Spirituality and Computing Technologies
CTNS Content Home
Darwin: A Friend to Religion?
Demystifying Information Technology
Divine Action (GHC)
Dreams and Dreaming: Neuroscientific and Religious Visions'
E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom
Engaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics
Evangelical Atheism: a response to Richard Dawkins
Ecology and Christian Theology
Evolution: What Should We Teach Our Children in Our Schools?
Evolution and Providence
Evolution and Creation Survey
Evolution and Theology (GHC)
Evolution, Creation, and Semiotics

The Expelled Controversy
Faith and Reason: An Introduction
Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging, and Healthcare in the 21st Century

Francisco Ayala on Evolution

From Christian Passions to Scientific Emotions
Genetic Engineering and Food

Genetics and Ethics
Genetic Technologies - the Radical Revision of Human Existence and the Natural World

Genomics, Nanotechnology and Robotics
Getting Mind out of Meat
God and Creation: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Big Bang Cosmology
God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion
God the Spirit - and Natural Science
Historical Examples of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)
History of Creationism
Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Issues for the Millennium: Cloning and Genetic Technologies
Jean Vanier of L'Arche
Nano-Technology and Nano-ethics
Natural Science and Christian Theology - A Select Bibliography
Neuroscience and the Soul
Outlines of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)

Perspectives on Evolution

Physics and Theology
Quantum Mechanics and Theology (GHC)
Questions that Shape Our Future
Reductionism (GHC)
Reintroducing Teleology Into Science
Science and Suffering

Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (CTNS/Vatican Series)

Space Exploration and Positive Stewardship

Stem-Cell Debate: Ethical Questions
Stem-Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief

Stem-Cell Questions
Theistic Evolution: A Christian Alternative to Atheism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design...
Theology and Science: Current Issues and Future Directions
Unscientific America: How science illiteracy threatens our future
Will ET End Religion?

Current Stats: topics: >2600, links: >300,000, video: 200 hours.