John T. Scopes Found Guilty
of Teaching Science (1925)
It was on this date, July 21, 1925, that a court in the tiny mining town of Dayton, Tennessee, handed down a guilty verdict against 24-year-old high school teacher John T. Scopes for violating the Butler Act (passed earlier that year*) – that is, for teaching the theory of evolution in a public school classroom.
PARIS – On this side of the ocean it is difficult to understand the susceptibility of American citizens on the subject and precisely why they should so stubbornly cling to the biblical version. It is said in Genesis the first man came from mud and mud is not anything very clean. In any case if the Darwinian hypothesis should irritate any one it should only be the monkey. The monkey is an innocent animal – a vegetarian by birth. He has never placed God on a cross, knows nothing of the art of war, does not practice the lynch law and never dreams of assassinating his fellow beings. The day when science definitely recognizes him as the father of the human race the monkey will have no occasion to be proud of his descendants. That is why it must be concluded that the American Association which is prosecuting the teacher of evolution can be no other than the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
— Paris Soir, July 13, 1925
Everyone knows the principal combatants in the courtroom, but it is not as well known that the case was sought by the American Civil Liberties Union to turn back a string of state laws forbidding the teaching of science rather than religion in science class, but also as a publicity stunt to bring world attention onto Dayton. That part was engineered by Dayton promoter George W. Rappelyea. Through Rappelyea's persuasion and the backing of ACLU lawyers, including trial lawyer Clarence Darrow – who was a famous agnostic known for defending political and labor radicals – the reluctant Scopes agreed to be defendant. His friends promptly had him arrested.
The trial began on July 10, 1925, and the post-World War I Daytonians suffered a media multitude in order to hear their favorite pastor, William Jennings Bryan, defend the faith. Though he was no scholar, Bryan had been waging a pitched battle against teaching the evolutionary theory, which he considered the inimical to Christian belief.
Judge John Raulston presided in a sweltering courthouse and eventually had to move the proceedings outdoors to accommodate both the heat and the crowds. Far from impartial, Raulston began the trial by reading the first 27 verses of Genesis! Then he ruled to exclude the science experts and their testimony because, he said, neither religion nor Evolution was on trial.
So Darrow called on Bryan as an expert witness and the court could hardly disagree. Bryan stood his ground in favor of the Bible and Darrow laid out the trap that snagged him. In his questioning, Darrow reveal Bryan for the incurious, unlearned bigot he was:
Darrow: Do you believe Joshua made the sun stand still?
Bryan: I believe what the Bible says.
Darrow: When was that flood?
Bryan: I would not attempt to fix the day.
Darrow: But what do you think the Bible itself says? Don't you know how it was arrived at?
Bryan: I never made a calculation.
Darrow: What do you think?
Bryan: I do not think about things I don't think about.
Darrow: Do you think about the things you do think about?
Bryan: Well, sometimes.
Darrow: You have never had any interest in the age of the various races and peoples and civilizations and animals that exist upon the earth today?
Bryan: I have never felt a great deal of interest in the effort that has been made to dispute the Bible by the speculations of men or the investigations of men.
Darrow: And you never have investigated how long man has been on the earth?
Bryan: I have never found it necessary.
Darrow: Don't you know that the ancient civilizations of China are six thousand or seven thousand years old, at the very least?
Bryan: No, but they would not run back beyond the creation, according to the Bible, six thousand years.
Darrow: Do you think the earth was made in six days?
Bryan: Not six days of 24 hours.
Darrow: Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?
Bryan: No sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.
Darrow: Do you think the sun was made on the fourth day?
Darrow: And they had evening and morning without the sun?
Bryan: I am simply saying it is a period.
Darrow: The creation might have been going on for a very long time?
Bryan: It might have continued for millions of years.
In spite of Darrow's drubbing, Bryan won the case and Scopes was fined $100. The verdict was overturned in early 1927 on a technicality, much to the relief of many in Dayton. Rappelyea's publicity stunt had succeeded only too well!
* This law made it illegal "to teach any theory that denies the Story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animal."
Originally published July 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s a reminder that, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times, we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world. Last Sunday, May 27, was the 78th birthday of the science […]