Cryptozoology - C vs E - Dinosaurs
The Scopes Trial:
A Look Back
Jordan P. Niednagel
© - 9/05

...while you read


The Scopes trial, often mockingly referred to as the "Monkey trial," was an event that, for what it's worth, reshaped America. Most people have heard of it, but few people know anything about it. The setting was simple enough ... Dayton, Tennessee, a county seat in the rolling hills of eastern Tennessee where court officials, attorneys, spectators, reporters and photographers sat on wooden benches under tall maple trees and on soft, green grass to witness what had become "a circus" according to some. The July heat was stiffling, and the court had convened outdoors in order to escape it. Not only that, such large crowds had gathered that there were growing concerns the upstairs floor of the courtroom might collapse. It was clear to see that this was no ordinary trial.


Creation vs Evolution


How It All Began

Earlier that year (1925) the Tennessee legislature had passed the Butler Act. Simply put, the act made it illegal for public school teachers "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." Little opposition had been raised against the bill, and violators could be fined from one hundred to five hundred dollars, which back then was a considerable amount of money.

The ACLU was just a baby at the time, only some six years old, but already they were using lawsuits to diminish the influence of religion (specifically Christianity) on American public life. When the organization caught wind of the new law, they took quick action by sponsoring a test case, publishing ads in Tennessee newspapers expressing their willingness to cover the expenses of any teacher who would be the defendant. Seeing it as a lucrative opportunity, one particular Dayton businessman presented his plan to a small group of merchants and politicians. They loved it. The only hurdle remaining was to find a teacher who had broken the new law, and they found that man in the person of 24-year-old John Scopes.

John Scopes

Scopes was an interesting character. He was well-liked around Dayton for the most part, with the disapproval of some due to his fondness of smoking and dancing. He taught general science, coached football and basketball at the county high school, and when approached by a young boy who had been summoned by the businessman and 'the group' to discuss their plans for him, he was in the middle of a tennis game. Question is, why John Scopes? The group didn't even know whether he had taught evolution, but he was a perfect candidate because Scopes, unlike other teachers, had virtually nothing to lose since he had only been teaching for a year.

To make a long story short, Scopes, when questioned by the men, could not specifically remember whether he had taught evolution or not, but did remember that he had gone over a certain section of a textbook containing evolution ... "so we must have covered these pages." For the men, that was enough, and so began one of the greatest trials in American history.

William Jennings Bryan

By that time William Jennings Bryan had already established himself as a great speaker who had given what was "probably the most famous oration ever made before a political convention" during his Presidential campaign in 1896. After unsuccessfully running for president two more times in years to follow, he became a champion for a variety of issues, including prohibition and, yes, the breaking down of evolution's teaching and influence in public schools. He had personally seen what Darwin's theories had done to influence Germany in believing that the Aryan race was superior (even though World War II was yet to come), and was troubled by the fact that 40% of American college students considered themselves to be atheists or agnostics. Evolution, therefore, was in his view largely to blame for the moral and spiritual decay of America's youth, and after accepting the invitation to aid Tennessee's attorney general in the landmark case, he quoted, "I am now engaged in the biggest reform of my life. I am trying to save the Christian Church from those who are trying to destroy her faith."

Clarence Darrow

With just a passing glance , one could draw an accurate appraisal of Clarence Darrow. He was not the most affable of people, and there were reasons. His parents never showed he and his siblings any outward affection, and although they sent their children to church, they never went themselves. Clarence grew up to be an agnostic, and as a depressed young man he reverted to poker and drinking to try to overcome his boredom with life. After a few years of teaching he became a laywer, with a particular love for defending the underdog, and he was good at it. He defended over fifty men accused of first-degree murder, and of those only one was executed. He even went so far as to defend two teenagers who had murdered another boy for no other reason than to commit "the perfect crime." Darrow didn't even argue that they were innocent, but instead contended that their actions were based on hereditary and environmental factors beyond their control. Pleading for life imprisonment for the boys instead, the judge accepted, and Clarence won yet another controversial case.

Ironically, Darrow had supported Bryan for president in 1896 and again in 1900, but since that time had radically changed his mind about the famous orator. So much, in fact, that when he heard about the upcoming "Monkey Trial" and Bryan's involvement, he quickly volunteered to defend John Scopes. Although the ACLU had hoped for someone more conservative and less controversial than Darrow, they accepted him, well aware of his courtroom prowess.

The Scopes Trial Preliminary

Folks came from miles away to witness what would come to be known as the Scopes trial, including journalists, preachers, peddlers, and scam artists. Dayton's usual population of 1,800 soared by the thousands, and lemonade and hot dog stands could be seen lining the streets with posters and placards on the walls, the most notable and popular of which read "Read Your Bible." One historian put it best: "A stranger trial there probably never was." During a dinner given in his honor just a few days before the trial, William Jennings Bryan said to his large audience:

"The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death . . . If evolution wins in Dayton, Christianity goes - not suddenly, of course, but gradually - for the two cannot stand together. They are as antagonistic as light and darkness, as good and evil."

The first few days were of little significance, with the selection of the jury and the reading of the formal indictment. The only occurence worth mentioning was Darrow's objection to the court beginning with prayer every morning, which the judge allowed to be noted in the record but overruled. After this, one defense lawyer muttered to his colleague a frighteningly accurate prediction, "This is going to be a scrap from now on - a knock-down and drag-out - and we might as well prepare for it."

What few people know is that John Scopes was never even called to take the stand throughout the whole trial. Why? Even Scopes himself wasn't exactly sure, but he had a good idea why. Clarence Darrow was probably afriad that his testimony would show his lack of scientific knowledge because Scopes wasn't an actual biology teacher at all. Whatever the case, the man around whom everything revolved never said a word.

The Scopes Trial Begins

Some students were first called in as witnesses to testify to the fact that John Scopes had indeed taught that all life evolved from a single cell. The final witness, a school board chairman and owner of the local drugstore, testified that for years his store had sold the same biology textbook that Mr. Scopes used in class. What followed was laughable if hadn't been so absurd. Clarence Darrow, in attempting to discredit Bryan's claims that evolution was detrimental to society, asked him whether he had noticed any moral decay in the community during that time. The druggist said no, which rightly drew laughs from the crowd. This clever tactic was a way to side step the real issue.

It would be this strategy that Darrow would stick to, primarily due to the advice of H.L. Menchen, a newspaper columnist who was know for his cynicism. "The thing to do," he said, "is to make a fool out of Bryan."

And that he did.

Bryan Takes The Stand

On Monday morning of the next week, the crowds were as large as ever, with everyone anticipating final arguments as the trial drew to a close. A lawyer rose and read the affidavits, and then, casually, announced to the court that he desired to call Bryan as a witness. There was silence for a moment, and then all the prosecuting attorneys quickly jumped to their feet in heated objection. Not only that, the judge himself was hesitant in allowing such an unusual procdeure to take place. It went through, however, because one man allowed it to ... William Jennings Bryan ... and would prove to be disastrous mistake. Not only was he willing, he was eager, and the next hour and a half would prove to be the climactic apex of the eight day trial.

The following is what was said, word for word, as Mr. Darrow began questioning in his calm, cool, killer manner.

"The John T. Scopes Trial"
by Vernon Dalhart, 1925 (3:06)

Darrow: You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you?
Bryan: Yes, sir, I have tried to.
Darrow: Well, we all know you have; we are not going to dispute that at all. But you have written and published articles almost weekly, and sometimes have made interpretations of various things?
Bryan: I would not say interpretation, Mr. Darrow, but comments on the lesson.
Darrow: If you commented to any extent, could those comments have been interpretations?
Bryan: I resume that any discussion might be to some extent interpretations, but they have not been primarily intended as interpretations.

Various comments will be added during the discussion. At this point, it is clear to see where Darrow is going. He is trying to point out that Bryan must make interpretations of Scripture when teaching it, and that such is no different than when one endeavors to interpret Genesis.

Darrow: Then you have made a general study of it (the Bible)?
Bryan: Yes, I have. I have studied the Bible for about fifty years. . . .
Darrow: Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?
Bryan: I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there. Some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance, "Ye are the salt of the earth . . ." I would not insist that man is actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people.

If one thinks about it, "literally interpreted" is a contradiction in terms. A text can either be taken literally where no interpretation is needed, or it needs to be interpreted because its meaning is figurative rather than literal.

Darrow: But when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale - or that the whale swallowed Jonah, excuse me, please - how do you literally interpret that?
Bryan: When I read that a big fish swallowed Jonah - it does not say whale...
Darrow: Doesn't it? Are you sure?
Bryan: That is my recollection of it, a big fish; and I believe it; and I believe in a God Who can make a whale and can make a man, and make both do what He pleases.
Darrow: Doesn't the New Testament say whale?
Bryan: I am not sure. My impression is that it says fish, but it does not make much difference. . . .
Darrow: But in the New Testament it says whale, doesn't it?
Bryan: That may be true. . . .

Darrow was attempting to reveal Bryan's ignorance of the Bible, but the attempt backfired because he couldn't remember the facts himself. While the book of Jonah does say "a great fish," Jesus did use the Greek term for "whale" in Matthew 12:40. The two can be interchangeable.

Darriow: You believe that the big fish was made to swallow Jonah?
Bryan: I am not prepared to say that. The Bible merely says it was done.
Darrow: You don't know whether it was the ordinary mine-run of fish or made for that purpose?
Bryan: You may guess; you evolutionists guess.
Darrow: But when we do guess, we have the sense to guess right.
Bryan: But you do not do it often.

This wasn't exactly the wisest reply made by Bryan. Personal attacks don't accomplish much, nor are they tactful, obviously.

Darrow: But you believe that He made . . . such a fish and that it was big enough to swallow Jonah?
Bryan: Yes, sir. Let me add: One miracle is just as easy to believe as another.
Darrow: It is for me?
Bryan: It is for me.
Darrow: Just as hard?
Bryan: It is hard to believe for you, but easy for me. A miracle is a thing performed beyond what man can perform . . . and it is just as easy to believe the miracle of Jonah as any other miracle in the Bible.
Darrow: Perfectly easy to believe that Jonah swalled the whale?
Bryan: If the BIble said so. The Bible doesn't make as extreme statements as evolutionists do.
Darrow: You believe the story of the Flood to be a literal interpretation?
Bryan: Yes, sir.
Darrow: When was that Flood?
Bryan: I wouldn't attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed as suggested this morning.
Darrow: About 4004 B.C.?
Bryan: That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today. I would not say it is accurate.

It's clear to see that neither man had a clue what they were talking about. They both had confused the creation date with the date of Noah's flood (the creation date had been hypothesized by Archbishop Ussher at 4004 B.C.)

Darrow: That estimate is printed in the Bible . . . but what do you think that the Bible itself says? Don't you know how it is arrived at?
Bryan: I never made a calculation.
Darrow: A calculation from what?
Bryan: I could not say.
Darrow: From that generations of man?
Bryan: I would not want to say that.
Darrow: What do you think?
Bryan: I do not think about the things I don't think about.
Darrow: Do you think about thing that you do think about?
Bryan: Well, sometimes.

Everyone erupted in laughter at Bryan's response, including the judge. As humorous as it was, however, a change was happening, and Bryan could sense it. The crowd, most of whom had supported him in the beginning, were slowly withholding that once vigorous support. Even the attorney general saw this, and again tried to stop the examination, but to no avail, as Bryan again objected.

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