Scopes Trial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Scopes trial constituted a legal test of one U.S. state’s prohibition of the teaching of the theory of evolution in the public schools, underscoring the concept of the separation of church and state.

Summary of Event

In July, 1925, one of the most widely publicized and bizarre legal cases in U.S. history, Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, better known as the “monkey trial,” was tried in Dayton, Tennessee. Scopes, a football coach and science teacher at Dayton’s Rhea County High School, was charged with violating the Butler Act, Butler Act (1925) a state law passed in January, 1925, that made it illegal to teach in public schools any theories that denied the story of creation as found in the Bible’s book of Genesis. The Butler Act was a reaction to the increasing alarm of many fundamentalist Christians who feared the challenge that science and evolutionary theory presented to a literal interpretation of the Bible. From 1921 through 1929, thirty-seven similar bills opposing the teaching of evolution were introduced in twenty U.S. states. [kw]Scopes Trial (July 10-21, 1925) [kw]Trial, Scopes (July 10-21, 1925) Scopes trial (1925) Monkey trial (1925) Evolution;theory Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (1925) [g]United States;July 10-21, 1925: Scopes Trial[06470] [c]Education;July 10-21, 1925: Scopes Trial[06470] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 10-21, 1925: Scopes Trial[06470] [c]Publishing and journalism;July 10-21, 1925: Scopes Trial[06470] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 10-21, 1925: Scopes Trial[06470] Scopes, John T. Bryan, William Jennings Darrow, Clarence Hayes, Arthur Garfield Malone, Dudley Field Mencken, H. L. Raulston, John T. Stewart, A. T.

Defendant John T. Scopes (seated behind table, in white shirt, with arms folded) and his defense team, including Clarence Darrow (leaning on table), during the trial proceedings.

(Library of Congress)

Shortly after the passage of the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union American Civil Liberties Union;Scopes trial (ACLU) offered to provide legal services to any teacher in Tennessee who would test the constitutionality of the act. George Rappleyea, a local mining engineer, learned of the ACLU’s offer and discussed the possibility of a test case with Scopes, even though Scopes himself was not teaching biology that year. Because the principal of the school, who actually taught the class, had a family who stood to suffer from the attention that such a trial would invite, Scopes volunteered to be the defendant. With the reluctant consent of the chairman of the school board and the county superintendent of schools, Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in his biology class and bound over to the grand jury. The ACLU was immediately notified.

Within a few days, William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic presidential candidate and a well-known religious fundamentalist, announced that he would aid District Attorney A. T. Stewart in the prosecution of the case. Bryan, a populist who had been one of the nation’s most progressive politicians, advocating woman suffrage, railroad regulation, campaign fund disclosure, and abolition of the death penalty, was obsessed with the social implications of the theory of evolution. He was especially outraged by social Darwinism, an unscientific extension of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection that some used to rationalize neglect of society’s poor and weak members. Darwin had never intended his theory to be used as justification for such attitudes, but social Darwinism Social Darwinism had become popularized along with the theory of biological evolution. The idea of “survival of the fittest” went against Bryan’s populism and smacked of an elitism he had been fighting all his life.

The lawyers for the defense in the Scopes trial were led by Clarence Darrow, a well-known agnostic and the most famous trial lawyer in the United States. Darrow had not been interested in the case until he learned that Bryan was to be part of the prosecution. The journalist H. L. Mencken happened to be in Richmond with Darrow when word came about Bryan’s participation, and Mencken persuaded his friend to join the defense. Both Darrow and Mencken considered the trial an opportunity to confront obscurantism, which they saw incarnate in Bryan and the South. Darrow later said of his participation: “For the first, the last, and the only time in my life, I volunteered my services in a case. I did it because I really wanted to take part in it.” Other noteworthy attorneys on the defense team were Dudley Field Malone, a well-known divorce lawyer, and Arthur Garfield Hays, perhaps the most outstanding civil liberties attorney of the time.

Because of the dramatic nature of the trial and the fame of the opposing attorneys, Dayton became the center of national and even international attention. Mencken was the most prominent journalist present, but many others were also there; the country’s major newspapers flooded the small town with reporters. All the wire services had reporters there, and millions of readers followed the case daily in both the United States and Europe. Telegraph wires were run into the courthouse, and the Chicago Tribune installed radio equipment; the trial was the first to be broadcast in American history. The town of Dayton took on a carnival-like atmosphere as the local inhabitants began to prepare for the expected crush of visitors. Stands were built to sell soft drinks and sandwiches; hotels and boardinghouses were quickly filled. One Daytonian later described the scene: “One was hard put to it on the tenth of July to know whether Dayton was holding a camp meeting, a Chautauqua, a street fair, a carnival or belated Fourth of July celebration. Literally it was drunk with religious excitement.”

On Friday, July 10, Judge John T. Raulston had the trial opened with a prayer, to which Darrow objected and was overruled. The jury was selected and the trial began. The state’s case as it was presented was simple: Three schoolboys testified that Scopes had taught evolution in the science class and the prosecution rested.

From the beginning it was the defense’s goal to put the Butler Act, rather than Scopes, on trial. Darrow wanted to prove that the theory of evolution was neither contrary to the Bible nor nonreligious, and therefore the Butler Act was unconstitutional and violated the civil rights of all Tennessee teachers. The first controversy surrounded the question of admitting the testimony of “experts” (scientists) who had been assembled by Darrow and Malone for the defense. Each of the experts was both an evolutionist and a Christian whose testimony was intended to prove that there is no conflict between science and religion. When the first expert was called, Stewart objected on the grounds that any interpretation of evolution or the Bible, whether by an expert or not, would be opinion rather than fact and should therefore not be admissible as evidence. Further, said Stewart, such testimony would have nothing to do with the case at hand, which was to ascertain whether or not Scopes had taught material that conflicted with the law. At this point, the judge excused the jury until he could rule on whether or not scientific testimony was admissible. He admonished the jurors not to stand around in the courthouse grounds, where they might hear the trial in progress over the public-address system that was broadcasting to the crowd outside.

On Friday, July 17, Judge Raulston, agreeing with the prosecution, refused to permit the scientists to testify, declaring that the only relevant question for the court to decide was whether Scopes had actually taught the theory of evolution. This ruling destroyed the defense’s case because it prevented the testing of the questions of the constitutionality of the law and the violation of the defendant’s civil liberties, as well as the truthfulness of the doctrine of evolution.

The trial probably would have ended there, for the defense did not deny that Scopes had taught evolution, had not Bryan made the mistake of allowing Darrow to get him on the stand as an “expert” on the Bible. Darrow bore down hard on Bryan’s fundamentalist beliefs, and in a grueling and sarcastic hour and a half of cross-examination made a shambles of the man often called the “Great Commoner,” eliciting an admission from Bryan that he did not really believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. This admission shocked many of Bryan’s fundamentalist followers. Darrow’s cross-examination had a shattering effect on Bryan himself as well, and many think that it caused his death, which occurred five days later in Dayton.

Bryan had prepared a long oration to deliver when he summed up the prosecution’s case. He hoped to regain his lost stature by overwhelming the crowd with his oratory, but he never got the chance. Darrow and Malone did not make a final summation for the defense; therefore, none was allowed for the prosecution. Indeed, the defense attorneys asked the jury to find their client guilty so that they could appeal the verdict to a higher court.

On July 21, Scopes was found guilty and fined one hundred dollars. The defense appealed the verdict to the Tennessee State Court of Appeals, and in 1927 Scopes was cleared on a technicality—the appeals court found that the lower court had exceeded its authority in fining Scopes.

Significance

By throwing out Scopes’s conviction, the Tennessee Court of Appeals effectively destroyed Darrow’s case. His whole plan had been to take the issue all the way to the federal courts in order to get the Butler Act declared unconstitutional. The case never made it to the federal courts, and the law remained on the books until 1967.

Initially, many journalists and educators assumed that the spectacle of the Scopes trial had dealt a death blow to the influence of religious fundamentalism in the public schools. On the contrary, however, many school boards across the United States reacted by taking evolution out of their high school curricula. Textbooks were revised quietly to avoid controversy. Tennessee, for example, stopped using high school biology textbooks that included discussion of evolution. Like dozens of other states, Tennessee allowed no such textbooks to be used until several decades later. It was only in the late 1950’s, with the Soviet Union’s launch of the first human-made satellite, Sputnik, that American school boards made a concerted attempt to strengthen science textbooks, which included reinstating information on evolution. Debates concerning how American public schools should approach the teaching of the theory of evolution and the subject of creationism did not end there, however; they continued into the twenty-first century, further complicated by the introduction of the concept of “intelligent design.” Scopes trial (1925) Monkey trial (1925) Evolution;theory Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (1925)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bird, Wendell. The Origin of Species Revisited: The Theories of Evolution and of Abrupt Appearance. New York: Philosophical Library, 1989. Idiosyncratic study of the legal and religious issues involved in the debate about evolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ginger, Ray. Six Days or Forever: Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969. A highly readable, accurate account of the trial.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1997. Offers analysis of the trial and its impacts from cultural, historical, and legal perspectives. Draws on previously unavailable archival materials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution. 3d ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2003. Provides a careful assessment of the legal, cultural, and religious issues involved in the debate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olasky, Marvin, and John Perry. Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005. Argues that slanted newspaper coverage of the trial and later accounts of the trial by historians failed to depict the events and their importance accurately. Examines the trial from a creationist viewpoint.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scopes, John Thomas, and James Pressley. Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967. Reminiscences about the trial from the central figure after a long passage of time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wills, Garry. Under God: Religion and American Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Presents a penetrating examination and analysis of American religious history. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 address the issues raised in the Scopes trial.

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