Impressions of the Scopes Trial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the 1920s, United States culture was sharply divided between modern urban secularism and traditional religious values. This divide gained national attention in 1925, when Tennessee passed the Butler Act, a law prohibiting publicly-funded schools from teaching the theory of evolution. Concerned that other states might follow suit, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered support to anyone willing to be prosecuted as a test case under the new law, hoping to have it eventually declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.

Summary Overview

In the 1920s, United States culture was sharply divided between modern urban secularism and traditional religious values. This divide gained national attention in 1925, when Tennessee passed the Butler Act, a law prohibiting publicly-funded schools from teaching the theory of evolution. Concerned that other states might follow suit, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered support to anyone willing to be prosecuted as a test case under the new law, hoping to have it eventually declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.

John Scopes, a young teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, agreed to act as a test subject, having taught a lesson on evolution to his Rhea County High School science class that April. He was arrested and prosecuted under the Butler Act. By July, Dayton was hosting a trial described by spectators as part state fair, part religious revival. Scopes was found guilty of violating the statute and fined $100, but the decision was reversed on appeal due to a technicality and eventually dismissed, without ever settling the constitutional question.

Defining Moment

The movement toward secular and scientific debate on matters of philosophy, society, and morality sparked a backlash of religious traditionalism in the 1920s. Primarily in the American South, politicians clamored to meet the public’s demands to outlaw the teaching of any subject they feared might undermine long-standing values and traditions by contradicting the literal word of the Bible.

Among these was the Butler Act, also known as the Tennessee anti-evolution statute, which made it a misdemeanor punishable by fine to teach the theory of evolution in any school that received state funding. District Representative John Washington Butler had sponsored the statute at the urging of a local preacher concerned about a young woman in his congregation who had returned from college believing in evolution and disbelieving in God. The law passed in March 1925, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) quickly offered its services to defend anyone willing to be prosecuted under the law so they could challenge its constitutionality before the US Supreme Court.

Intrigued by the idea and desiring to see the Butler Act overturned, mining engineer Dr. George Rappleyea met with county superintendent of schools Walter White and other local figures at a drugstore in town. While the group did not agree among themselves about the origins of the human race and the propriety of teaching evolution in public schools, they did agree that creating a test case for the new law in Dayton would bring the town into the national spotlight and potentially boost its economy.

John Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old science teacher, agreed to be prosecuted under the Butler Act as a test subject. He was arrested on May 7 for teaching a lesson on evolution to his Rhea County High School biology class on April 24, 1925, and was later indicted by a grand jury. The case was brought to trial in Dayton beginning with jury selection on July 10, 1925. The ACLU sponsored a defense team, and several attorneys offered to represent Scopes. But when Populist politician William Jennings Bryan joined the prosecution team after nearly thirty years of retirement from practicing law, the prominent criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow jumped at the opportunity to assist with Scopes’s defense.

The narrow legal purpose of the trial was to allow the jury to decide whether Scopes’s classroom lesson violated the Butler Act. But in reality, both the prosecution and defense knew the real intent of the trial was to have the jury find Scopes guilty, so the case could be appealed to the US Supreme Court–with the ultimate goal of having the law struck down as unconstitutional. The ACLU initially planned to argue that the law impeded academic freedom and violated the constitutionally required separation of church and state. However, the case quickly turned into a much larger debate about science and religion, and whether the two could successfully coexist in any capacity.

Author Biography

Anna Marcet Haldeman was born in 1887. The daughter of one of the most prominent families in Girard, Kansas–her mother Alice was the sister of Progressive Era reformer Jane Addams–Haldeman was educated at the Fort Dearborn Seminary in Chicago and Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College.

In 1916, she married writer Emanuel Julius, who had moved to Girard in 1915 to write for the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. The couple briefly moved to Illinois before returning to Kansas in 1919 to purchase Appeal to Reason and its printing plant. Their most notable series of publications became known as the Little Blue Books–small, inexpensive republications of literature, biographies, and educational texts printed with heavy paper covers, which earned them the title of “parents of the paperback book.” The couple also published their own writings, including the 1927 pamphlet Clarence Darrow’s Two Great Trials, from which the present document is drawn. Haldeman–who adopted the hyphenated last name Haldeman-Julius after marrying Julius–died in 1941. From 1919 until Julius’s passing in 1951, their company had printed more than 500 million books, covering more than 6,000 titles.

Document Analysis

In this excerpt from the pamphlet Clarence Darrow’s Two Great Trials, Marcet Haldeman-Julius sets the scene of the Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee. She describes it as having the “super-heated, jazzy atmosphere of a Billy Sunday revival,” and provides colorful descriptions of relevant locations. She explains that the Aqua Hotel housed the top reporters from periodicals as near as neighboring Tennessee towns and as far away as the London Daily News from England–thus highlighting the national and international interest in the trial.

Haldeman-Julius describes the defense’s headquarters at the Mansion House, selected for its size and relative seclusion, but in a state of disrepair–it lacked screens, lights, and a working plumbing system, but was the only place big enough to house the entire defense team. George Rappleyea, the engineer who orchestrated the events leading up to the trial, is a highly scientific man constantly in action, while primary defense attorney Clarence Darrow is a forceful speaker, who firmly believes in his cause.

Haldeman-Julius’s characterizations of the Tennessee town in which the trial took place–and of the prosecution and the public support for the anti-evolution education law–are considerably less generous. She describes the general atmosphere in Dayton as one of “ignorance and bigotry” against anyone who does not accept the teachings of the Bible literally. Judge John T. Raulston is a vain and ambitious man who describes himself as “jist a reg’lar mountain’eer Jedge,” prides himself on his ignorance and focuses on getting reelected.

Public sentiment regarding prosecutor William Jennings Bryan is split between those who believe he is a hero defending religious truth and those who believe he is an ignorant hypocrite. Haldeman-Julius posits that Bryan’s interest in the religious movement is largely limited to its benefits for his political career, and suspects that Bryan, in his embrace of the masses, has grown bitter toward the intellectuals who have dismissed him and his beliefs. She briefly interviews the statute’s sponsor, District Representative John Butler, and says that, despite his admitted bias, Butler is a likeable man who, while simple and uneducated in some senses, is neither illiterate nor ignorant.

Haldeman-Julius writes about several courtroom scenes, particularly the end of the trial when Darrow calls Bryan to the stand as an “expert witness” on the Bible. She describes the choruses of “Amen!” that punctuate the examination and opines that, while the audience and even the judge seemed to believe Bryan’s pious responses were winning the day, Darrow was, in fact, deftly parading the ignorance of the prosecution and the state of Tennessee before the entire nation.

Essential Themes

Haldeman-Julius provides a very colorful description of the scene in Dayton, Tennessee, during the Scopes trial. The piece is full of subjective observations, and she does not hide her personal biases. She admits she finds it “difficult to write calmly about” Judge Raulston and freely expresses her opinion that William Jennings Bryan and his religious supporters are uneducated and ignorant. Her characterization of the circus-like atmosphere in Dayton during the trial shows her disdain, and she believes the masses failed to understand that the true significance of the trial extended far beyond attaining a guilty verdict against Scopes.

A pivotal moment in the debate occurred when Darrow called Bryan to the witness stand as an “expert” on the Bible, based on Bryan’s self-proclaimed years of study. Darrow questioned Bryan on specific Bible stories, with the intent of forcing Bryan to concede that every single word in the entire Bible could not be taken literally–a direct contradiction of the fundamentalist beliefs, on which the prosecution had based its case. Despite support from the audience and the judge, Bryan eventually conceded this point to Darrow. The next day, Judge Raulston struck Bryan’s testimony from the record as irrelevant and abruptly ended the trial. Since the trial ended suddenly with the defense requesting a guilty verdict from the jury, Bryan never got to deliver his closing speech to the court; instead, it was published in newspapers shortly thereafter. However, Bryan had little opportunity to respond to comments and criticisms, as he died in his sleep only five days after the conclusion of the trial.

The trial ended on July 21, 1925, with the jury returning a guilty verdict and Judge Raulston issuing a $100 fine to John Scopes. The defense appealed, and in 1926, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision, but not on the constitutional grounds the defense had hoped for. Instead, it reversed the decision because Judge Raulston set Scopes’ fine, rather than the jury setting it as required by the statute. Since the higher court could not correct the error itself (since properly setting the fine required a jury), the case would have to be remanded to the lower court for a new trial. However, in the interest of ending the publicity circus surrounding the matter, the Tennessee Supreme Court simply dismissed the case. The state made no further efforts to enforce the Butler Act, which was repealed in 1967 after the US Supreme Court declared a similar statute from Arkansas to be an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Adams, Noah. “Timeline: Remembering the Scopes Monkey Trial.” NPR. NPR, 5 July 2005. Web. 20 May 2014.
  • Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. Cambridge: Basic, 1997. Print.
  • Linder, Douglas O. “State v. John Scopes (‘The Monkey Trial’).” University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. Douglas O. Linder, 2008. Web. 20 May 2014.
Categories: History Content