Scopes Trial

From New World Encyclopedia

John T. Scopes

The Scopes Trial (often called the Scopes Monkey Trial) was a highly publicized American court case in 1925 that tested a Tennessee law, the Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of any theory of evolution in any state-funded educational establishment. Brought about when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) encouraged John T. Scopes to stand trial for teaching a high school science course that included evolution in the textbook, the court became a stage for the dramatic confrontation between fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan and liberal Clarence Darrow (the latter representing teacher John T. Scopes). Although media attention was focused on the trial, and it has remained famous in popular culture, the case did not resolve any issues, even on appeal. Forty-three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that statutes banning the teaching of evolution were unconstitutional, a year after the Butler Act had been repealed. By the end of the twentieth century, many local school districts required the teaching of evolution, and theories of creationism and intelligent design were banned. At the heart of the question raised in the Scopes trial is the issue of the separation of church and state, or government control over the role of religion in American public life. Unless all people can agree on universal principles, which can then be embodied in law, issues of what state-funded education must and must not teach the children cannot be finally resolved.


The Scopes Trial (Scopes v. State, 152 Tenn. 424, 278 S.W. 57 (Tenn. 1925)), tested the Butler Act, which had been passed a few months earlier on March 13, 1925, by the Tennessee General Assembly. The Butler Act stated:

... that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

At that time, the theory of evolution was considered controversial in public opinion, and a large faction of its detractors linked it with atheism. It would not be until the 1930s that the beginnings of the modern synthesis brought Darwinism to the core of modern biology.

William Jennings Bryan, a prominent politician and progressive Christian, found theories of evolution to contradict his Christian values. In his published work, In His Image, Bryan argued that evolution was both irrational and immoral. Bryan was highly influential in raising public and legislative support for the Butler Act, and its enactment by the legislature of Tennessee came at least partially as a result of his advocacy.

Testing the Butler Act

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to defend anyone accused of teaching the theory of evolution in defiance of the Butler Act. George Rappleyea, who managed a number of local mines, convinced a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, then a town of 1,800, that the controversy of such a trial would put Dayton on the map. With their agreement, he called in his friend, 24-year-old John T. Scopes, who was the Rhea County High School's football coach and also was substitute teacher for science classes, to participate in a test of the Butler Act.

Rappleyea pointed out that while the Butler Act prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution, the state required teachers to use a textbook—Hunter's Civic Biology—which explicitly described and endorsed the theory of evolution, and that teachers were therefore effectively required to break the law. Scopes could not actually remember having covered the section on evolution in Hunter's textbook, but he told the group "If you can prove that I've taught evolution and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I'll be willing to stand trial" (Scopes 1967).

Scopes was charged with having taught from the chapter on evolution to a class at the high school on May 5, 1925, in violation of the Butler Act (and nominally arrested, though never detained). He was indicted on May 25.

Prosecution and defense teams

The original prosecutors were Scopes' friends, Herbert E. Hicks and Sue K. Hicks, a pair of brothers who were local attorneys.

Hoping to attract major press coverage, George Rappleyea, the person primarily responsible for convincing Scopes to allow himself to be charged with breaking the law, went so far as to write to the British novelist H. G. Wells, asking him to join the defense team. Wells replied that he had no legal training in Britain, let alone in America, and declined the offer. However, John R. Neal, a law school professor from Knoxville, Tennessee, announced that he would act as Scopes' attorney—whether Scopes liked it or not—and became the head of the defense team.

Baptist pastor William Bell Riley, the founder and president of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, was instrumental in calling lawyer and three-time Democratic presidential candidate and fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan to act as that organization's counsel.

In response, Clarence Darrow, a staunch agnostic, volunteered his services to the defense. Finally, the defense team consisted of Darrow, ACLU attorney Arthur Garfield Hays, and Dudley Field Malone, an international divorce lawyer who had worked with Bryan in the State Department while Bryan was Secretary of State.

The prosecution team was led by Tom Stewart, district attorney for the 18th Circuit, and included, in addition to Bryan, Herbert and Sue Hicks, Ben B. McKenzie, and William Jennings Bryan, Jr. The trial was covered by journalists from around the world, including H. L. Mencken for The Baltimore Sun, which was also paying part of the defense's expenses. It was Mencken who provided the trial with its most colorful labels such as the "Monkey trial" of "the infidel Scopes." It was also the first U.S. trial to be broadcast on national radio.


The ACLU had originally intended to oppose the Butler Act on the grounds that it violated the separation of Church and State within the public education system and was therefore unconstitutional. Mainly due to Clarence Darrow, this strategy changed as the trial progressed, and the earliest argument proposed by the defense once the trial had begun was that there was actually no conflict between evolution and the creation account in the Bible. In support of this claim, they brought in eight experts on evolution. Other than Maynard Metcalf, the judge would not allow these experts to testify in person. Instead, they were allowed to submit written statements so that their evidence could be used at any appeal.

By the later stages of the trial, Clarence Darrow had largely abandoned the ACLU's original strategy and attacked the literal interpretation of the Bible as well as rhetorically turning Bryan's limited knowledge of science and other religions into ridicule. Only when the case went to appeal, did the defense return to the original claim that the prosecution was invalid because the law was essentially designed to benefit a particular religious group, which would be unconstitutional.

To support his contention that evolution was morally pernicious, Bryan cited the famous Leopold and Loeb trial involving Darrow the year before the Scopes Trial. Darrow had saved two rich young child murderers from the death sentence, and Bryan cited Darrow's own words:

This terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor … Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's evolutionary philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … It is hardly fair to hang a 19–year–old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university. (Darrow 1924)

Malone responded for the defense in a speech that was universally considered the oratorical triumph of the trial. Arousing fears of "inquisitions," Malone argued that the Bible should be preserved in the realm of theology and morality and not put into a course of science. In his gale-force conclusion, Malone declared that Bryan's "duel to the death" against evolution should not be made one-sided by a court ruling that took away the chief witnesses for the defense. Malone promised that there would be no duel because "There is never a duel with the truth." The courtroom erupted when Malone finished, and Scopes himself declared Malone's speech to be the dramatic highpoint of the entire trial and insisted that part of the reason Bryan wanted to go on the stand was to regain some of his tarnished glory (Scopes 1967).

On the sixth day of the trial the defense ran out of witnesses. The judge declared that all of the defense testimony on the Bible was irrelevant, and should not be presented to the jury (which had been excluded during the defense). He declared that the Bible in question was the official Bible of the state of Tennessee, and that this was the King James version. The defense asked where were they to find an expert on the Bible who was acceptable to the court. Bryan interjected "I am an expert on the Bible." Thus in an exceptional and unique episode, Bryan volunteered to be a defense witness while serving as counsel for the prosecution (Larson 1997).

Examination of Bryan

On the seventh day of the trial, Clarence Darrow took the unorthodox step of calling William Jennings Bryan, counsel for the prosecution, to the stand as a witness in an effort to demonstrate that belief in the historicity of the Bible and its many accounts of miracles were unreasonable. Bryan accepted, on the understanding that Darrow would in turn submit to questioning by Bryan.

Biblical miracles and creation days

Darrow questioned the story of Jonah, the account of the Earth standing still, and the Ussher-Lightfoot Calendar. Bryan responded by steadfastly adhering to belief in the reported miracles, but asserted that he did not know how old the Earth was, as the Ussher-Lightfoot Calendar was only a calculation of men. When asked to explain the use of the word "day" in the first chapter, he said:

I have not attempted to explain it. If you will take the second chapter—let me have the book. (Examining Bible.) The fourth verse of the second chapter says: "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth, when they were created in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens," the word "day" there in the very next chapter is used to describe a period. I do not see that there is any necessity for construing the words, "the evening and the morning," as meaning necessarily a twenty-four-hour day, "in the day when the Lord made the heaven and the earth." (Transcript Monday, July 20, 1925)

Adam and Eve

The questioning continued into whether Eve were actually created from Adam's rib, where Cain got his wife, and how many people lived in Ancient Egypt. The celebrated "duel in the shade" was very heated with Darrow telling Bryan, "You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion."

Bryan, correctly gauging the effect the session was having, snapped that its purpose was "to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible." Darrow, with equal vehemence, retorted, "We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States." In response Bryan declared: "and I want the Christian world to know that any atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, can question me anytime as to my belief in God, and I will answer him." (Transcript Monday, July 20, 1925)

The end of the trial

The confrontation between Bryan and Darrow lasted for approximately two hours on the afternoon of the seventh day of the trial. It is likely that it would have continued the following morning, but for Judge Raulston's announcement that he considered the whole examination irrelevant to the case and his decision that it should be expunged from the record. Thus Bryan was denied the chance to cross-examine the defense lawyers in return, and the defense's final attempt to present evidence was denied. In response, Darrow asked the judge to bring in the jury and addressed the:

We came down here to offer evidence in this case and the court has held under the law that the evidence we had is not admissible, so all we can do is to take an exception and carry it to a higher court to see whether the evidence is admissible or not … we cannot even explain to you that we think you should return a verdict of not guilty. We do not see how you could. We do not ask it. (Day 8)

Darrow closed the case for the defense without a final summation. Under Tennessee law, when the defense waived its right to make a closing speech, the prosecution was also barred from summing up its case. Scopes himself never testified, as there was never a legal issue as to whether he had taught evolution. Scopes later admitted that, in reality, he was unsure of whether or not he had taught evolution, but the point was not contested at the trial (Scopes 1967:59-60).

After eight days of trial, it took the jury only nine minutes to deliberate. Scopes was found guilty on July 21 and ordered to pay a fine of $100. Bryan offered to pay it.

Appeal to Supreme Court of Tennessee

Scopes' lawyers appealed, challenging the conviction on several grounds.

First, they argued that the statute was overly vague because it prohibited the teaching of "evolution," a very broad term. The Court rejected that argument, holding:

Evolution, like prohibition, is a broad term. In recent bickering, however, evolution has been understood to mean the theory which holds that man has developed from some pre-existing lower type. This is the popular significance of evolution, just as the popular significance of prohibition is prohibition of the traffic in intoxicating liquors. It was in that sense that evolution was used in this act. It is in this sense that the word will be used in this opinion, unless the context otherwise indicates. It is only to the theory of the evolution of man from a lower type that the act before us was intended to apply, and much of the discussion we have heard is beside this case. (Decision on Scopes' Appeal)

Second, the lawyers argued that the statute violated Scopes' rights under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, as it prohibited him from teaching evolution. The court rejected this argument, holding that the state was permitted to regulate his speech as an employee of the state:

He was an employee of the state of Tennessee or of a municipal agency of the state. He was under contract with the state to work in an institution of the state. He had no right or privilege to serve the state except upon such terms as the state prescribed. His liberty, his privilege, his immunity to teach and proclaim the theory of evolution, elsewhere than in the service of the state, was in no wise touched by this law. (Decision on Scopes' Appeal)

Third, it was argued that the terms of the Butler Act violated the Tennessee constitutional clause providing: "It shall be the duty of the General Assembly in all future periods of this government, to cherish literature and science." The argument was that the theory of the descent of man from a lower order of animals was now established by the preponderance of scientific thought that the prohibition of the teaching of such theory is a violation of the legislative duty to cherish science. The court rejected this argument holding that the determination of what laws cherished science was an issue for the legislature, not the judiciary:

The courts cannot sit in judgment on such acts of the Legislature or its agents and determine whether or not the omission or addition of a particular course of study tends "to cherish science." (Decision on Scopes' Appeal)

Fourth, the defense lawyers argued that the statute violated the Establishment Clause, unconstitutionally establishing a state religion. The Court rejected this argument, holding that the Establishment Clause was designed to prevent the establishment of a state religion as had been the experience in England and Scotland at the writing of the constitution, and held:

We are not able to see how the prohibition of teaching the theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship. So far as we know, there is no religious establishment or organized body that has in its creed or confession of faith any article denying or affirming such a theory. So far as we know, the denial or affirmation of such a theory does not enter into any recognized mode of worship. Since this cause has been pending in this court, we have been favored, in addition to briefs of counsel and various amici curiae, with a multitude of resolutions, addresses, and communications from scientific bodies, religious factions, and individuals giving us the benefit of their views upon the theory of evolution. Examination of these contributions indicates that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are divided among themselves in their beliefs, and that there is no unanimity among the members of any religious establishment as to this subject. Belief or unbelief in the theory of evolution is no more a characteristic of any religious establishment or mode of worship than is belief or unbelief in the wisdom of the prohibition laws. It would appear that members of the same churches quite generally disagree as to these things. (Decision on Scopes' Appeal)

Further, the Court held that while the statute "forbade" the teaching of evolution (as the Court had defined it), it did not "require" the teaching of any other doctrine, so that it did not benefit any doctrine over the others. Nevertheless, having found the statute to be constitutional, the Court set aside the conviction on appeal due to a legal technicality: the jury should have decided the fine, not the judge, as Tennessee judges could not at that time set fines above 50 dollars. The prosecution did not seek a retrial.

Not until 1968 did the U.S. Supreme Court rule in Epperson v. Arkansas 393 U.S. 97 that such bans contravene the Establishment Clause because their primary purpose is religious. Tennessee had, however, repealed the Butler Act the previous year.


The press

The press coverage of the "Monkey Trial" was overwhelming. The front pages of newspapers like New York Times were dominated by the case for days. More than a hundred newspaper reporters from all parts of the country and two from London were in Dayton. Twenty-two telegraphers sent out 165,000 words a day on the trial. Chicago's WGN radio station broadcast the trial with announcer Quin Ryan via clear channel broadcasts for the first on-the-scene coverage of a criminal trial. Two movie cameramen had their film flown out daily in a small plane from a specially prepared airstrip.

H. L. Mencken's trial reports were heavily slanted against the prosecution and the jury which was "unanimously hot for Genesis." He mocked the town's inhabitants as "yokels" and "morons." He called Bryan a "buffoon" and his speeches "theologic bilge." In contrast, he called the defense "eloquent" and "magnificent" (Mencken 1925). Some creationists claimed that Mencken's trial reports turned public opinion against creationism, though few people seem to have actually noticed this at the time.

The trial also brought publicity to the town of Dayton, Tennessee, leading some to speculate that it was a publicity stunt:

The whole matter has assumed the portion of Dayton and her merchants endeavoring to secure a large amount of notoriety and publicity with an open question as whether Scopes is a party to the plot or not. (The Salem Republican, June 11 1925)

Anticipating that Scopes would be found guilty, the press fitted the defendant for martyrdom and created an onslaught of ridicule. Time's initial coverage of the trial focused on Dayton as "the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war." Life adorned its masthead with monkeys reading books and proclaimed "the whole matter is something to laugh about." Hosts of cartoonists added their own portrayals to the attack (De Camp 1968).

Overwhelmingly, the jokes were at the expense of the prosecution and those aligned with it: Bryan, the city of Dayton, the state of Tennessee, and the entire South, as well as Fundamentalist Christians and anti-evolutionists. Rare exceptions were found in the Southern press, where the fact that Darrow had saved Leopold and Loeb from the death penalty continued to be a source of ugly humor. Papers across the country routinely dismissed the efforts of both sides in the trial, while the European press reacted to the entire affair with amused condescension.

Inherit the Wind

The stage play Inherit the Wind (1955) by Lawrence and Lee, later adapted into a film in 1960 by Stanley Kramer, was (very loosely) based on this trial. It starred Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond/Darrow, Fredric March as Matthew Harrison Brady/Bryan and Gene Kelly as E. K. Hornbeck/Mencken. In 1965 the play aired on television with Melvyn Douglas as Drummond and Ed Begley as Brady. In 1988, a rewrite of the Kramer movie shown on NBC starred Jason Robards as Drummond and Kirk Douglas as Brady. Another version aired in 1999 with another pair of Oscar winners, Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott as Drummond and Brady. American schools' (sometimes exclusive) use of the film to teach about the trial has led to many public misconceptions about the subject.

There were a number of substantial deviations from actual events in the movie:

  • Whereas Brady (the Bryan character) as portrayed as refusing to read Charles Darwin, Bryan was well acquainted with Darwin's ideas.
  • It has the Bryan character claiming that sexual intercourse was original sin, although nothing at all was said about sex during Darrow's examination of Bryan.
  • While the play had Brady betraying Cates'/Scopes' girlfriend, the local preacher's daughter, the real Scopes did not have a girlfriend at all.
  • In the play Brady protests that the fine is too lenient; in real life Bryan, as noted above, actually offered to pay the fine himself.
  • Brady dies, in the courtroom, almost as soon as the trial's outcome is decided; Bryan did not die until five days after the trial ended.

Popular culture

The Scopes trial did not appear in the Encyclopædia Britannica until 1957 when the inclusion was spurred by the successful run of Inherit the Wind on Broadway in New York City, which was mentioned in the citation. It was not until the 1960s that the Scopes trial began to be mentioned in the history textbooks of American high schools and colleges, usually as an example of the conflict between fundamentalists and modernists, and often in sections that also talked about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South.

The trial is described in detail in The Pulitzer Prize-winning book Summer for the Gods, by Edward J. Larson (1997).


The trial benefited the site of the trial, the Rhea County Courthouse, which has been largely restored to its 1925 appearance, and a museum of the trial events is located in its basement. Every summer the locals re-enact key moments of the trial in the courtroom, creating some tourism for the area.

The Scopes Trial is a famous use of great theater that created much public debate, but did little to settle the legal questions involved. The trial and the controversy that ensued for decades have a lot to do with public perception of the topic, beyond the role of the judicial branches of government.

One issue underlying the controversy lies in the fact that the United States Constitution does not comment on the role of government and education, and this has been relegated to the most local of governmental arenas.

Before the trial in Dayton, only the South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Kentucky legislatures had dealt with anti-evolution laws or riders to educational appropriations bills. In 1927 there were thirteen states, both North and South, which considered some form of anti-evolution law. At least forty-one bills, riders, or resolutions were introduced into the state legislatures, with some states facing the issue repeatedly. While most of these efforts were rejected, both Mississippi and Arkansas put anti-evolution laws on the books after the Scopes trial. If Bryan had been alive to throw the magic of his name into the controversy these numbers might well have increased. The Butler Act ended up serving as a model for the anti-evolution crusade and the ACLU could not find a teacher to volunteer for another test case.

Although the trial was entertaining, it did not resolve the question of whether the First Amendment permitted states to ban teaching of a theory that contradicted religious beliefs. In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Epperson vs. Arkansas that such bans contravene the Establishment of Religion Clause because their primary purpose is religious. The court used the same rationale in 1987 in Edwards vs. Aguillard to strike down a Louisiana law that required biology teachers who taught the theory of evolution to also discuss evidence supporting the theory called "creation science."

The controversy continued into the twenty-first century. By the turn of the century in many areas in the United States it had become legal to teach evolution but prohibited to teach creationism. In 2000, Kansas voted out anti-evolution Board members and restored the old science standards. In 2004, a new conservative school board majority proposed that the theory of intelligent design be discussed in science classes.

In 2005 in Dover, Pennsylvania the local school board voted to require teachers to read a statement about intelligent design prior to discussions of evolution in high school biology classes. Eleven parents of Dover students challenged the school board decision, arguing that it violated the Establishment Clause. After a six-week trial, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones issued a decision in which he ruled that the Dover mandate was unconstitutional, based on his findings and belief that intelligent design was not science.

Fundamentally, the issues in this trial involve publicly funded education. This involves issues such as the care of children and which rights belong to parents and which rights to government, and to which level of government (federal, state, or local). Usually such education comes down to the most local level, the Board of Education within the county or even city. There are also issues within this case about what topics the general taxpayer should be expected to fund, and what topics are within the personal choice of individual families and should not be imposed on others. Children are more impressionable than adults and are usually regarded as in need of protection from those with agendas other than the good of the child. The issue of which entity is best to decide such things was not solved within this trial.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Caudill, Edward, Edward J. Larson and Jesse Fox Mayshark. 2000. The Scopes Trial: A Photographic History. University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 1572330813
  • Darrow, Clarence. 1924. "A Plea for Mercy" excerpted from Darrow's twelve-hour speech for mercy for Leopold and Loeb.
  • De Camp, L. Sprague. 1968. The Great Monkey Trial. Doubleday. ISBN 0385046251
  • Larson, Edward J. 1997. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. pp 89, 107. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0465075096
  • Scopes, John T. 1967. Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. Henry Holt & Company, Inc. ISBN 0030603404
  • Scopes, John T. 1971. The World's Most Famous Court Trial, State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes: Complete Stenographic Report of the Court. Da Capo Pr. ISBN 0306719754

External links

All links retrieved January 25, 2023.


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