1925 Seventy-five Years Ago

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On July 10, in Dayton, Tennessee, the trial of John T. Scopes got under way. Scopes was a high school teacher who had told his students about the theory of evolution. That violated a state law against teaching stories of human origins that disagreed with the Bible. Scopes’s lawyers, led by the famous liberal activist Clarence Darrow, attacked this law by questioning the doctrine underlying it: that the Bible is literally true.

Opposing Darrow as the prosecution’s chief adviser was William Jennings Bryan, a three-time unsuccessful candidate for President as a populist and a hero to the nation’s rural folk. He had not tried a case in court since 1897, but his rustiness was no problem. Scopes’s guilt was uncontested; he had volunteered to be prosecuted in order to test the validity of the law. Both sides spent most of the “trial” quibbling over legal points and making stump speeches to the assembled reporters and spectators (the jury was in the courtroom for a total of about two hours).

The climax came on July 20, when Darrow put Bryan on the witness stand as a supposed expert on creationism. As opposing counsel, Bryan was not obligated to testify, and even after he had agreed to do so, he was not required to submit to hostile questioning, since technically he had been called as a friendly witness. But Bryan, a practiced orator who was secure in his convictions, voluntarily submitted to Darrow’s grilling.

The result was a memorable example of the immovable object meeting the irresistible force. The force was Darrow’s rationalist onslaught, which used scientific evidence and purported contradictions in the Bible to show the untenability of a literal interpretation. The immovable object was Bryan’s religion—strong, simple, and pure. In Darrow’s world-view whatever did not comport with logic and established fact had to be rejected. Bryan saw things the opposite way: The Bible was unquestionably true, so anything to the contrary must be false, whether man could explain it or not.

Intellectuals generally saw Bryan’s inability to answer Darrow’s questions as proof of the weakness of his argument. To them the confrontation demolished any credibility that creationism might have had. By impressing the highbrows, however, Darrow was preaching to the choir, for fundamentalists understood Bryan’s don’t-knows and never-thought-about-its as statements of faith and humility. He saw no need to seek explanations, because the Bible gave him all the answers he would need. In the eyes of Bryan’s supporters—who frequently interrupted his testimony with cheers, applause, and appreciative laughter—Darrow never laid a glove on him.

The jury took less than ten minutes to find Scopes guilty, an outcome both sides had requested. Darrow appealed, and in January 1927 the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the anti-evolution law but nullified Scopes’s conviction on the ground that his hundred-dollar fine had improperly been imposed by the judge instead of the jury. On that inconclusive note the case limped to an end. By then Scopes had left teaching to pursue graduate study in geology. Bryan was gone too, having died suddenly in his sleep five days after the trial ended (and a day after addressing eight thousand cheering fundamentalists at Jasper, Tennessee). The Tennessee law stayed on the books until 1967, though it had long since become a dead letter.

Buoyed by Bryan’s triumph at Dayton, fundamentalists spread their campaign to other states, passing anti-evolution laws in Mississippi in 1926 and Arkansas in 1928. To this day anti-evolution sentiment remains strong in many states, with school boards across the country prohibiting mention of the theory or mandating equal time for “scientific creationism.” In an irony Darrow might not have appreciated, activists quote the pleas for tolerance and acceptance of diverse viewpoints that he made at the Scopes trial to argue in favor of teaching the creationist views he mocked so vituperatively.