Back to the syllabus

The Scopes Trial

 

In March 1925, the state of Tennessee enacted a law that made it "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."

 

One morning not long after, George Rappelyea, a thirty one year old mining engineer, was talking to his friend Thomas Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old high school science teacher, at Robinson's drug store on the main street of Dayton, Tennessee.  The conversation turned to the new anti-evolution law, whereupon Rappelyea suggested that Scopes teach the forbidden subject to his biology class, thereby securing for Dayton the honor of being the site of the inevitable test case.  Other communities would compete for the trial.  Why shouldn't Dayton have it?

 

Scopes agreed.  By arrangement, he taught evolution to his class; his friends informed the authorities; and Scopes was indicted.

 

Word of the great "monkey trial" spread rapidly. William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for President of the United States, was then living in Florida.  As informal head of the country's fundamentalist movement, he had traveled the South, urging the adoption of anti-evolution laws such as Tennessee's. Bryan now volunteered to assist the prosecution, an offer instantly accepted by the State Attorney General, E.T. Stewart, who was joined in the case by Ben and J. Gordon McKenzie, Sue and Herbert Hicks, and William Jennings Bryan, Jr.

 

The American Civil Liberties Union undertook Scopes' defense.  Arthur Garfield Hays and Dudley Field Malone were sent by the ACLU to Dayton, where, like the prosecution, they were soon joined by a volunteer---American's greatest trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow. 

 

The case was to become a crusade---for Bryan, against atheism and agnosticism; for Darrow, against religious fanaticism.  Meanwhile, Dayton filled up with tourists, newspapermen, hot dog and soft drink vendors, and every sort of crank produced in America. 

 

The trial began on July 10, 1925, an incredibly hot day, in the courtroom of the Eighteenth Circuit Court, Judge John T. Raulston presiding.  A prayer was read, "not just an ordinary prayer," Arthur Garfield Hays noted, "but an argumentative one, directed straight at the defense."

 

Toward the end of the trial, after Bryan had suggested himself as an expert witness, Judge Raulston allowed Darrow to cross-examine Bryan on Bryan's qualifications.  Darrow's every question and Bryan's every answer throbbed out of Dayton…to an astonished and vastly amused world.  A large fraction of the entire population of the town crammed into the courtroom to watch the show.  Only twelve were excluded---the jurors, who were allowed to hear none of it on the theory that it was for the court alone to consider.

 

The trial ended soon after, when Scopes was found guilty.

 

The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the conviction on technicalities.  The anti-evolution law stayed on the Tennessee statue book until 1967, when it was finally repealed.

 

William Jennings Bryan died in his sleep five days after the trial ended.  Some said that his death was brought on by the humiliation and ridicule to which Darrow's cross-examination had subjected him.  (The foregoing is the by Irving Younger.)

 

The following is from the court record where Darrow in questioning Bryan:

 

Q. Do you think the earth was made in six days?

A. Not six days of twenty-four hours.

Q. Doesn't it say so?

A. No, sir.

 

General Stewart: I want to interpose another objection.  What is the purpose of this examination?

 

Mr. Bryan: The purpose is to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible, and I am perfectly willing that the world shall know that these gentlemen have no other purpose than ridiculing every Christian who believes in the Bible.

 

Mr. Darrow: We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States and you know it, and that is all.

 

Q. Does the statement, "The morning and the evening were the first day," and "The morning and the evening were the second day," mean anything to you?

A. I do not think it necessarily means a twenty-four hour day.

Q. You do not?

A. No.

Q. What do you consider it to be?

A. 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."

Q. Then, when the Bible said, for instance, "and God called the firmament heaven,.  And the evening and the morning were the second day," that does not necessarily mean twenty-four hours?

A. I do not think it necessarily does….But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years.  I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.

Q. Do you think the sun was made on the fourth day?

A. Yes.

Q. And they had evening and morning without sun?

A. I am simply saying it is a period.

Q. They had evening and morning for four periods without the sun, do you think?

A. I believe in creation as there told, and if I am not able to explain it I will accept it.  Then you can explain it to suit yourself.

 

In the above cross examination and in other elements of the cross examination, Darrow attacks Bryan's literal interpretation of the Bible.  Darrow is not trying to attack the message of Christ, but, he is trying to show the world that you cannot take everything in the Bible literally.  The writers used poetic language, language of metaphors, symbols.  To take everything literally can lead a reader astray, away from the beauty and truth of God's message.

 

When I was a young college student, before I had read about the Scopes trial, I wanted to be a minister for God.  I belonged to a fundamentalist church.  In school they taught me about evolution.  I saw no problem, no contradiction.  Since God is omnipotent, since in the Bible it said that a thousand years is as a day, why couldn't God have chosen to create human's and all other  living things over a period of millions of years?  To deny him that ability, I believed, was not logical.  My pastor said that I couldn't believe that way……I can only assume in retrospect that he had not read the Scopes trial either.  That was the beginning of a long and dangerous period in my life where I left the church.

 

All forms of fanaticism are dangerous….dangerous emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

 

 

 

 

Back to the syllabus