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Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925

The 1920s has been characterized by a period of new thinking and a dispute between traditional beliefs and modernization (Boudia). The era became known as a time of contradiction in people’s thoughts and ideas. After World War 1, fundamentalism soared in popularity, particularly in the South and Midwest. Fundamentalists believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible and saw the Darwin theory of evolution as a threat to Christianity (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925). So opposed to evolution, these fundamentalists set out to eliminate it from society, beginning with the education system in Dayton, Tennessee.

By 1925, many states throughout the South had put into effect laws to disallow the teaching of evolution in schools (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925). One of these, the Butler Law, was passed in Tennessee even though the governor, Austin Peay, who was not a fundamentalist (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925). A former teacher, John Butler, “wrote a bill outlawing the teaching of any theory of evolution contrary to the Bible” (Shellnut). Butler felt “teaching of evolution threatened the family and to cast doubt on the Bible was to undermine the foundations of the State” (Shellnut). The governor passed Butler’s bill as he said, “Nobody believes that it is going to be an active statute” (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925).

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His statement soon became inaccurate as the American Civil Liberties Union became more and more heedful of what they thought to be an infringement on their constitutional rights (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925). The ACLU put Tennessee in their sights and instituted a court case to challenge the Butler Law. Soon after, George Rappalyea, a local company manager from New York, arrived at Fred Robinson’s drugstore (Linder). He had with him a copy of the ACLU’s offer of its services to anyone willing to challenge the new Tennessee anti-evolution law (Linder). Rappalyea’s intentions were clearly to kill two birds with one stone: to put the small Tennessee mining town of Dayton on the map and to bring down the despised law. Here at Robinson’s drugstore on May 5, 1925, Rappalyea and other local leaders met to work out the details of their plan (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925). What they needed was a teacher to test the law, and they turned to John Scopes. Scopes was a twenty-four-year-old teacher and football coach at Rhea County High School in Dayton (Cornelius, Scopes Evolution).

He was described as modest, friendly, helpful, and shy (Linder). Many sources say that John Scopes was a biology teacher, but he actually was a Math teacher who filled in for the regular biology teacher at school during an illness and assigned readings on evolution (Linder). There is a discrepancy as to why he agreed to participate in this trial. Some said he was hesitant to join the case while others said he willingly became a defendant in the trial. It seemed that Scopes might have been pressured by Rapplyea to be the defendant in this case. His involvement remains a mystery, as there were no apparent benefits for him other than media exposure, which hardly seemed worth pending criminal charges.

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Upon meeting the conspirators, Rappalyea said, “John, we have been arguing and I said nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution” (Linder). Scopes agreed and told how he had taught from Hunter’s Civic Biology, the Tennessee-approved textbook that contained a chapter on the evolution of man and Darwin’s theory of natural selection (Herndon). He said that every other teacher had taught from that book too (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925). Scopes admitted he was against the Tennessee-anti evolution law because he did not think that schools should be told what could and could not be taught (Herndon). Following more discussion, Scopes agreed to be arrested. Rappalyea was determined, and he wanted the trial to be a grand affair. He began by saying, “[The trial] will make a big sensation. Why not bring a lot of doctors and preachers here? Let’s get H.G. Wells and a lot of big fellows” (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925). He immediately contacted ACLU, and the stage was set (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925).

On May 10, 1925, Scopes was given a preliminary hearing before three judges (Herndon). He was charged with teaching the theory of evolution to his class on April 24 from Hunter’s Civic Biology textbook, which contained sentences such as: “We have now learned that animal forms may be arranged so as to begin with the simple one-celled forms and culminate with a group which contains man himself” (Herndon). A grand jury was ordered to meet formally to indict Scopes (Herndon). Robinson and Rappalyea paid the bond of $1,000 (Herndon). On July 10, the grand jury met one month earlier than scheduled, to assure that Dayton would not get the test case publicity (Herndon). In the meantime, Scopes had been in New York City to meet with the ACLU to choose counsel and come up with a legal strategy (Herndon). The famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow had volunteered for this case (Herndon). Darrow was a Modernist, a person who believed in Darwin’s theories of evolution. He joined the defence team because “ For years”, he said, “I’ve wanted to put Bryan is his place as a bigot” (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925). Five other lawyers represented Scopes including professor John R. Neal who was placed in charge of the case (Herndon).

The main lawyer for the prosecution was William Jennings Bryan, who had a noble resume (Menton). Bryan was a popular speaker who is considered one of America’s greatest orators (Menton). He served as a Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson and was a three-time presidential candidate. Bryan viewed his political role in doing God’s work (Cornelius, William Jennings). Bryan announced that he did not oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools as long as it was dealt with as a theory rather than a fact (Menton). He called the trial a “contest between evolution and Christianity…a duel to the death” (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925).

In July of 1925, the trial was drawing near, and the atmosphere in Dayton was that of a carnival (Linder). The streets were decorated with banners, lemonade stands were set up, and chimpanzees performed on Main Street (Linder). Anti-Evolution League members sold copies of Bryan’s book Hell and the High School. Then, on July tenth, nearly a thousand people migrated into the Rhea County Courthouse for the first day of the trial (Linder). Judge John T. Raulston called the court to order, and suggested moving a trial under a tent that would have seated 20,000 people. The motion was not carried out and the jury selection process began (Herndon). Twelve men selected to the jury, ten of whom were church-going farmers (Linder). Court was adjourned for the weekend, and on Sunday, Bryan gave the sermon at Dayton’s Methodiat Church (Linder). Judge Raulston and his entire family attended and listened to the sermon from the front pew (Linder).

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Opening statements portrayed the trial conflict between “good and evil or truth and ignorance” (Linder). The prosecution opened by asking the court to take notice of the book of Genesis (Linder). Then the Chief Prosecutor asked seven students in Scope’s class about his teachings. They said that Scopes told them that man and all other mammals had evolved from a one-celled organism (Linder). Then, drugstore owner Fred Robinson testified to Scope’s statement that any teacher in the state who was teaching Hunter’s Biology was violating the law (Linder). The prosecution rested as they realized it was a simple case.

The defence had been very persistent about whether and when their scientists were going to able to testify (Herndon). This was a major issue; the defence may try to prove that the theory of evolution was a valid scientific proposition that did not necessarily negate the teachings of the Bible (Herndon). The defence called its first witness, Dr Maynard Metcalf, a zoologist from the John Hopkins University (Linder). The prosecution objected as they felt the testimony did not aid in determining Scopes’ guilt or innocence (Linder). The Judge allowed Dr Metcalf to be questioned about the theory of evolution only to have the testimony ruled inadmissible the very next day (Linder). After that, the defence was denied every time that it called an expert on the theory of evolution to the stand (Senk).

Upon noticing the strain on the courtroom floor from the weight of many spectators, Raulston moved the trial to the lawn outside the courthouse (Linder). They read statements of eight scientists and four experts on religion who had been prepared to testify (Linder). Then, the defence proceeded to execute what the New York Times described as the most amazing court scene in Anglo-Saxon history (Linder). The defence called William Jennings Bryan to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible (Herndon). Bryan argued under the condition that he would be allowed to interrogate Darrow as well (Linder).

The dialogue that followed portrayed the basic nature of Darrow’s argument and became the turning point in the trial, which brought the public cast of mind over to Darrow’s side (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925). Darrow began by asking, “You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven’t you, Mr. Bryan?” (Linder). Bryan responded “Yes, I Have. I have studied the Bible for about fifty years.” (Linder). Darrow continued with a procession of questions intended to weaken the foundation of a literalist interpretation of the Bible (Linder). He asked Bryan about a whale swallowing Jonah, Joshua making the sun stand still, Noah and the great flood, the temptation of Adam in the garden of Eden, and the creation according to Genesis (Linder).

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Bryan originally said that “Everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there”, but he then acknowledged that the Bible should not be taken literally in every case (Linder). As an explanation to Darrow’s questions as to whether the six days of creation told of in Genesis were twenty-four-hour-days, Bryan said, “My impression is that they were periods… I want the World to know that man, who does not believe in God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee to slur at the Bible…and I am willing to take it” (Herndon). Darrow retorted, “I object to your statement. I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.” (Herndon).

The press deemed the battle a defeat for Bryan who died in his sleep five days after the trial ended (Linder). One historian stated, “As a man and as a legend, Bryan was destroyed by his testimony that day.” (Linder). Bryan’s performance was described as that of “a pitiable, punch drunk warrior” (Linder). Therefore Bryan was not permitted to deliver the closing statement that he had been working on for weeks (Linder).

After only eight minutes of deliberation, the jury came back with a guilty verdict, and the judge imposed the minimum fine allowed of one hundred dollars upon Scopes (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925). Scopes said to the court, “Your Honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future…to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my idea of academic freedom” (The Scope Monkey Trial-July 10, 1925). One year later, the Tennessee Supreme Court did reverse the decision of the Dayton court not on constitutional grounds as Darrow had doped, but on a technicality, as the jury must set the fine, not the judge (Linder). In 1954, the case was appealed and denied. In 1967, the Butler Act was finally repealed (Ledden).

It is obvious that there was a significant amount of bias present in this trial.

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