William Jennings Bryan: Scopes Trial Summation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1920s saw a significant cultural shift within the United States. As urban intellectualism moved toward secular and scientific views on ethics and morality, many smaller communities responded with increased religious traditionalism. Worried that these modern views would undermine long-standing values, Southern states in particular sought to ban any teachings that contradicted the literal word of the Bible.

Summary Overview

The 1920s saw a significant cultural shift within the United States. As urban intellectualism moved toward secular and scientific views on ethics and morality, many smaller communities responded with increased religious traditionalism. Worried that these modern views would undermine long-standing values, Southern states in particular sought to ban any teachings that contradicted the literal word of the Bible.

In 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which prohibited teaching the theory of evolution in publicly funded schools. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sponsored high school science teacher John Scopes and a team of legal experts to challenge the law. Prominent attorney and Populist politician William Jennings Bryan led the prosecution team, describing the case as a “duel to the death” between Christianity and evolution. The jury found Scopes guilty of violating the statute and issued a $100 fine, but the decision was reversed on appeal because of a technicality, and the case was eventually dismissed.

Defining Moment

The sharp division between urban secularism and traditional religious values in the United States gained national attention in 1925 when Tennessee passed the Butler Act. The statute made it punishable by a $100 to $500 fine to teach the theory of evolution in any school that received state funding. The law was sponsored by district representative John Washington Butler, who became concerned about the education of young people after learning, from a local pastor, that one of his church members’ daughters had returned from college believing in evolution rather than creationism.

After the Butler Act passed in March 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered financial and legal support for the defense of any teacher willing to face prosecution under the new law. The ACLU sought to bring a test case before the US Supreme Court, hoping the law would be struck down as violating the US Constitution before other states could pass and enforce similar laws. Within a few weeks, a group of community leaders that included mining engineer George Rappalyea and county superintendent of schools Walter White met in a local drugstore to discuss the ACLU’s proposition. While the two sides disagreed on the matter of teaching evolution in public schools, they agreed that hosting such a significant trial in Dayton could benefit the town economically and decided together to pursue the ACLU’s offer.

John Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old science teacher at Rhea County High School, agreed to be the test subject. He was arrested and indicted by a grand jury for violating the Butler Act after teaching a lesson on evolution from a state-approved textbook to a high school biology class on April 24, 1925. Populist politician Bryan, who had ceased practicing law many years prior, came out of retirement to join the prosecution; in response, prominent criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow joined the team representing Scopes.

A significant turning point occurred toward the end of the trial, when Darrow called Bryan to the witness stand to question him as a self-proclaimed “expert” on the Bible. While Bryan’s pious responses seemed to win over the audience and the judge, Darrow ultimately forced him to concede that he did not believe a literal interpretation of every single word in the Bible, thus contradicting a key position in the prosecution’s argument. Judge John T. Raulston ended the examination, and the next morning, he struck the entire testimony from the record, deeming it irrelevant. The trial ended abruptly when the defense asked the jury to return a guilty verdict, and Bryan never got to deliver his summation before the court; it was instead published in the newspapers after the trial ended.

Strictly speaking, the trial’s legal purpose was to allow a jury to decide whether Scopes had violated the Butler Act with his evolution lesson. But in reality, both sides wanted the jury to reach a guilty verdict. The prosecution wanted to see the Butler Act enforced against a teacher who admitted to violating its provisions, and the defense wanted a verdict to appeal, in hopes of having the entire law invalidated by a higher court. In a more general sense, the trial brought international attention not just to the Butler Act itself, but to the larger battle between the traditional values of Southern Christian fundamentalists and rising popularity of modern urban secularism taking place in the United States.

Author Biography

William Jennings Bryan was born on March 19, 1860, in Salem, Illinois. He attended law school in Chicago, then moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1887, to establish a private practice. He became active within the Populist political party and served two terms in the US House of Representatives. He unsuccessfully ran for president in 1886, 1900, and 1908, but was appointed secretary of state by President Woodrow Wilson in 1912. However, he resigned in 1915 because of disagreements over preparedness strategies in advance of the United States’ entry into World War I.

Bryan spent several years campaigning for the prohibition of alcohol and women’s suffrage until 1925, when he returned to the courtroom to prosecute State of Tennessee v. John Scopes, commonly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. He died on July 26, 1925, only five days after the trial.

Document Analysis

Bryan begins by establishing that science “is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals.” He cites examples where science fails to address the moral implications of a situation. For example, science can create machinery, but cannot protect society from the misuse of that machinery. He further asserts that science has “made war more terrible than it ever was before” by creating machinery that allows men to kill each other more efficiently and without warning. He believes that civilization can only be saved by following the teachings and moral code set out by God in the Bible.

Bryan states that the jury must determine whether teachers employed by the state and paid from public funds should be allowed to engage in an “attack upon the Christian religion” by teaching the theory of evolution. He acknowledges that in a broader sense, the trial is no longer about the defendant Scopes, but rather a “battle-royal between unbelief that attempts to speak through so-called science and the defenders of the Christian faith, speaking through the legislators of Tennessee.”

The summation concludes with a message to the jury: They must answer the question “What shall I do with Jesus?” He says that a jury representing a Christian state cannot symbolically crucify Christ by allowing the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools, and he admonishes them that if they do not return a guilty verdict, “there will be rejoicing wherever God is repudiated.” But if they comply with the prosecution’s request, “millions of Christians will call [them] blessed” and will sing in triumph. He closes his summation with the words of the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers.”

Essential Themes

Although it was not delivered to the jury for procedural reasons, Bryan’s summation provides a colorful characterization of the prosecution’s approach to the trial. Rather than focus on legal arguments, Bryan made emotional appeals to religious piety and fear; while this approach seemed to appease the predominantly Christian fundamentalist audience at the trial, it damaged his reputation before the rest of the country. Rather than remember him as a national representative of the Populist political party and an economic reformer, many remember Bryan instead as a religious zealot, who fought stubbornly to keep science education out of public schools.

Initially, the ACLU intended to focus the trial arguments on the importance of academic freedom and the constitutional requirement for the separation of church and state. However, with devout Christian fundamentalist Bryan representing the prosecution and outspoken agnostic Darrow representing the defense, the trial quickly turned into a battle over whether religion and science could coexist in any realm. Trial commentators and journalists described the scene of the trial as something akin to a religious revival; even the courthouse allegedly bore a sign asking passersby if they had read their Bible.

Both sides had a significant stake in its outcome. Bryan and his supporters feared that teaching evolution in public schools would lead to the decline of society’s morals and fought to prevent the young people of Tennessee from hearing any message that contradicted the literal word of the Bible. By contrast, supporters of Darrow and Scopes sought to preserve academic freedom and the separation of church and state. The defense tried to prove at trial that the statute was unnecessary because the theory of evolution could coexist with religious beliefs as long as one did not interpret the Bible literally, but presiding judge Raulston refused to allow the jury to hear any of the proffered scientific evidence.

In the end, neither side was truly satisfied. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the verdict was overturned not on constitutional grounds, but rather because of a procedural error: Judge Raulston had set Scopes’ fine himself, rather than allowing the jury to do so, as required by the statute. Instead of remanding the case to the lower court for a retrial, the appellate court simply dismissed the case. To the disappointment of the prosecution, no further efforts were made to enforce the Butler Act in Tennessee. The US Supreme Court did not render a decision on the constitutionality of such restrictions until the 1960s, when it struck down a similar law from Arkansas for violating the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state. Tennessee repealed the Butler Act in 1967.

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”). U of Missouri-Kansas City, School of Law, n.d. Web. 2 May 2014.
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