Darwin on trial?

“THE COURT WILL COME TO ORDER,” said the Honorable John T. Raulston. “The Reverend Cartwright will please open the court with prayer.”

It was Friday, July 10, 1925, 9 :00 a.m., in the small rural community of Dayton, Tennessee. The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes should have been open-and-shut: did high school teacher Scopes teach evolution in class? If so, he was guilty of violating a new Tennessee law. But the case ballooned into a media event that revealed a widening chasm in American Christianity. 

Media Circus

In January 1925 the Tennessee legislature passed a bill that made it unlawful “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.” Any teacher found guilty of the misdemeanor would be fined between $100 and $500. Consequently, the bill created a national buzz. 

Immediately the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advertised to pay the costs of testing the statute in court. A mining engineer in Dayton convinced John Scopes (1900–1970), a science teacher and coach who had filled in briefly for the ill biology teacher, to become a test case. Nationally known lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) joined the defense team and William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) the prosecution of the made-for-radio trial (the first to be broadcast nationwide).

Both men were in the twilight of their careers. Darrow, 69, was widely known as a defender of “radicals” and an outspoken agnostic. Bryan, 66, had been a three-time presidential candidate and secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. A leading spokesman for the emerging movement called “fundamentalism,” he had not practiced law in more than 30 years and now wrote a syndicated weekly column on the Bible. 

When the trial began, over 100 journalists—including the sardonic H. L. Mencken—descended on tiny Dayton. Each side, aware of the media circus, played not only to a jury but also to a nation at attention.

On day one of the trial, people crammed into the courtroom, far exceeding the number of seats. In its opening statements, the defense argued that the trial represented not a conflict between secular humanists and Christians, but between tolerant, educated Christians and intolerant, backward-looking Christians. 

The state, on the other hand, said the trial was about the immediate facts: did Scopes break the law? The county superintendent, Walter White, testified that Scopes had admitted to teaching from the textbook Civic Biology, that Scopes confessed he “could not teach that book without teaching evolution,” and that “the statute was unconstitutional.”

The next state’s witness was 14-year-old student Howard Morgan. Prosecuting attorney Tom Stewart asked Morgan how Scopes classified humans with reference to other animals. “The book and he,” replied Morgan, “both classified man along with cats and dogs, cows, horses, monkeys, lions, horses, and all that.” 

During his cross-examination, Darrow asked Morgan, “He [Scopes] didn’t say a cat was the same as a man?” 

“No sir,” replied Morgan. “He said man had a reasoning power that these animals did not.”

Darrow quipped, “There is some doubt about that, but that is what he said, is it?” (Laughter).

After less than four hours, the prosecution rested. 

Man among the primates

The defense wanted to argue that evolution was universally accepted among scientists and that it was not a contradiction for Christians to subscribe to the theory. So it brought in experts from world-class universities who, in many cases, were also Christians.

One was zoologist Maynard Metcalf of Johns Hopkins. (Due to defense objections, the jury never heard Metcalf’s testimony, but the judge did.) Metcalf testified to both academic credentials and his membership in the United Church in Oberlin, Ohio, where he led Bible classes. He agreed with Darrow’s assertion that evolution was “taught in all the leading colleges of the world.” 

“Now in the classification of scientists, zoologists,” asked Darrow, “where does man come?”

“He is classed,” said Metcalf, “among the primates.”

On day five, the prosecution challenged the defense’s scientific testimony. Darrow rebutted, “We expect to show by men of science and learning . . . that any interpretation of the Bible that intelligent men could possibly make is not in conflict with any story of creation.” 

Bryan rose to his feet for the first time in the trial. For the first four sweltering days, he had sat in his shirtsleeves, fanning himself. This would be his only major speech. He read from the biology textbook Scopes had used: “He [Scopes] tells children to copy this [evolutionary tree] diagram, and take it home in their notebooks, to show their parents that you cannot find man! That is the great game to put in the public schools, to find man among animals, if you can.”

He added, “I suppose this distinguished scholar who came here shamed them all by his number of degrees. He did not shame me, for I have more than he has, but I can understand how my friends felt when he unrolled degree after degree. . . . More of the jurors are experts on what the Bible is than any Bible expert who does not subscribe to [its] true spiritual influences.” 

“Amen,” shouted voices in the audience.

“The facts are simple,” Bryan concluded, “the case is plain, and if those gentlemen want to enter upon a larger field of educational work on the subject of evolution, let us get through with this case and then convene a mock court, for it will deserve the title ‘mock court’ if its purpose is to banish from the hearts of the people the Word of God as revealed.” The courtroom swayed with applause.

Judge Raulston eventually allowed expert scientific testimony, but only in affidavits read into the court record. The jury would never see or hear it, but it might come into play in the inevitable appeal.

The defense read into the record comments from the governor: “It will be seen that this bill does not require any particular theory of interpretation of the Bible regarding man’s creation to be taught in the public schools.” 

They also read a statement from Tennessee Episcopal priest Walter C. Whitaker: “As one who for 30 years has preached Jesus Christ as the Son of God and as ‘the express image of the Father,’ I am unable to see any contradiction between evolution and Christianity.” They added similar statements from other theologians and scientists. 

Surprise move

Then, in what proved to be the most effective strategy of the trial for the defense, defense attorney Arthur Hays called Bryan as an expert witness. Hays wanted to weaken the prosecution’s case by making its star attorney look foolish. Over the objections of his own team members, Bryan took the stand. 

Darrow asked his counterpart, “You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven’t you, Mr. Bryan? . . . Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?”

“I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there,” Bryan said. “Some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance, ‘Ye are the salt of the earth.’ I would not insist that man was actually salt.”

Darrow questioned Bryan about the Book of Joshua: “Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened to the earth if it had stood still?”

 “No,” Bryan replied. “The God I believe in could have taken care of that, Mr. Darrow.”

His antagonist turned to the date of the flood: “What do you think that the Bible, itself, says?”

“I never made a calculation.”

Darrow: “What do you think?” 

Bryan: “I do not think about things I don’t think about.” 

“Do you think about things you do think about?” snapped Darrow.

“Well, sometimes.” The court rippled with laughter.

Darrow: “Mr. Bryan, don’t you know that there are many other religions that describe the flood?”

Bryan said he did not. But when he mentioned that he had studied Confucianism, Darrow asked if he knew how old Confucianism and Zoroastrianism were, persisting, “Do you know they are both more ancient than the Christian religion?”

Bryan replied, “I am not willing to take the opinion of people who are trying to find excuses for rejecting the Christian religion.”

“You don’t care how old the earth is, how old man is, and how long the animals have been there?”

“I am not so much interested in that.”

But Darrow would not rest: “Would you say that the earth was only 4,000 years old? 

Bryan: “Oh, no; I think it is much older than that.” 

Darrow soon asked, “Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?” 

“I don’t think it is older or not.”

“Do you think the earth was made in six days? 

“Not six days of twenty-four hours.”

When prosecuting attorney Stewart complained, “What is the purpose of this examination?” Bryan exclaimed, “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.”

Darrow snapped, “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States and you know it; that is all.”  

Hunting for Cain’s wife

Questioning on Genesis continued. Bryan indicated that he believed in a literal Eve, made out of Adam’s rib. When Darrow asked, “Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?” Bryan snapped, “No, sir. I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.”

Darrow kept pressing Bryan to admit the days of Genesis were literal, but Bryan resisted: “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. . . . 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.”

 Finally Bryan snapped, “Read it!” and turned to the judge. “Your Honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible.”

“I object to that,” replied Darrow. “I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes!”

The next morning, the judge refused to let the questioning of Bryan continue; he believed Bryan’s testimony would “shed no light” on the trial. But to many, the exchange shed all too much light on fundamentalism. The Christian Century said that though there was a convincing argument for the conservative position, Bryan had “neither the mind nor the temper” to make it. The Nation was more sarcastic: “Among fundamentalist rank and file, profundity of intellect is not too prevalent.” 

Other commentators criticized Darrow for his bad behavior at the trial, and the ACLU wanted to drop him from the appeal team. But Scopes insisted on keeping him. In time, and due in part to Inherit the Wind’s influence, it would be the attacks on Bryan and on small-town America that held America’s cultural attention. Darrow would come to symbolize clear-headed modernity at its finest; Bryan to represent tendentious Christianity at its worst. The truth was more complex than that.

Knowing the trial was a lost cause, Darrow on the eighth and final day asked the judge: “I think to save time we will ask the Court to . . . instruct the jury to find the defendant guilty.” After only eight minutes of deliberation, the jury did so. The judge fined Scopes $100.

The trial did not end the debate that it revealed. Anti-evolution legislation continued to pass for some years, and statutes limiting the teaching of evolution still exist in the twenty-first century—including in Tennessee. CH

By David Goetz and the editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #107 in 2013]

David Goetz is an author and the former editor of Leadership Journal. This article is abridged and adapted from Christian History 55: The Monkey Trial and the Rise of Fundamentalism.
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