In 1925, a trial began that was unlike any other. The area around the Dayton courthouse was bustling. Merchants were lined up selling everything from monkey-related merchandise to Bibles, and preachers set up tents proclaiming their Christian beliefs. Parts of Dayton’s roads were closed down, leaving room for tourists and shoppers. There was a speaker system on the court’s lawn for those outside the trial to hear what was going on, and there was even a dedicated tourist camp.
Inside the courtroom wasn’t much different. The courtroom was equipped with telegraph and telephone wiring, and reporters lined up to broadcast the story via radio. It seemed the whole world was excitedly anticipating the trial’s commencement.
This is the Scopes Monkey Trial, one of the most interesting trials in US history.
In March of 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act, making it illegal for teachers to teach evolution as a viable method for humanity’s formation. Instead, they were supposed to teach the tenets of creationism, that God created mankind exactly as outlined in the Bible. Violation of the act counted as a misdemeanor, and there was a fine instated as punishment. The fine would be between $100 to $500. While this fine may sound small, accounting for inflation, this fine would be between about 1560 and 7800 dollars today.
The law was named after John Butler, who drafted the bill. He was a member of the Tennesee House of Representatives, as well as a member of a local “old-school” or Primitive Baptist Church. In 1922, he launched a campaign against teaching evolution in schools, and the Butler Act was the fulfillment of this promise.
While the ideas of Darwinian evolution weren’t new, they gained momentum in the 1920s in America. At the same time, education became mandatory across the US, including in Tennesee. In 1913, Tennessee issued a state-wide school requirement for children ages 8-14, increasing school attendance. However, many children still weren’t attending school, especially in rural communities. This prompted Governor George Peay to sign the General Education Act in 1925, which would give all children at least 8 months of schooling and gave counties funding who couldn’t afford it.
While Governor Peay wasn’t necessarily a fundamentalist Christian like John Butler, he agreed to sign the act. This wasn’t solely to fight against evolution, but also to encourage building schools and hiring teachers in rural communities, which were more religiously conservative. He believed if evolution gained momentum in the school system, they’d be less likely to enroll their children in school and more likely to protest.
The law was expected to go under the radar and did successfully for a while. However, not too long after, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agreed to defend anyone who violated the act. In response, the manager of the Cumberland Coal and Iron Company George Rappleyea convinced local leaders that a court case against the act would benefit them, saying that it would draw public attention to Dayton, Tennessee, and improve its economy. Eventually, they found John Thomas Scopes. He was a substitute science teacher at the time, and he wasn’t even sure if he’d ever taught evolution. Nevertheless, the jury indicted him in May, and he became the defendant in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Hearing of the plan, William Jennings Bryan offered to help with the prosecution. He was a Christian fundamentalist and a leader in the anti-evolution movement at the time. Just a few years earlier in 1921, he delivered anti-evolution speeches. In 1924, he delivered a lecture on the validity of the Bible, copies of which were sent to multiple lawmakers in the state, including John Butler. Nationally recognized lawyer Clarence Darrow became the defense attorney. With this, the set-up for the trial was complete.
On July 10th, 1925, the trial officially began. The prosecution cross-examined two of Scopes’ students, who both agreed Scopes had taught evolution in class, while the defense cross-examined a zoologist who said evolution was gaining mainstream appeal. After this, Judge John Raulston denied Darrow’s request to have evolutionary experts take the stand, reducing much of his defense. The judge cited this was because the trial was about Scopes’ innocence or guilt, not the validity of the Butler Act.
Five days into the affair, the trial moved outside due to the large crowd. Unable to call evolutionists to the stand, Darrow opted to argue against the Bible’s validity instead. A fierce debate between Bryan and Darrow emerged. Darrow had Bryan take the stand and questioned him on the book of Genesis especially, including the year the flood took place. Many of his questions Bryan was unable to answer, humiliating him in front of the large crowd. Both of them hurled insults at each other, with Bryan accusing Darrow of casting “a slur at the Bible” while Darrow accused him of having “fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.”
The 21st was the final day of the trial. The judge ruled that Bryan couldn’t testify again and called for his testimony to be removed from the record. Darrow decided to abandon his defense and have Scopes declared guilty, hoping for an appeal at a later date. The jury agreed to this, deciding his guilt in just under 10 minutes. Scopes was fined the minimum $100, thus ending the trial. The ACLU offered to pay his fine for him.
While Bryan had won the trial, the testimony he gave in court ruined his reputation. In an unfortunate coincidence, he died five days after the trial’s conclusion due to sudden apoplexy, or a stroke that causes bleeding in the brain. He did maintain his reputation among other religious people, however, and his tombstone reads “He Kept the Faith.” There was also a university named in his honor, The Willian Jennings Bryan Memorial University. The university still exists to this day and is now called Bryan College.
As Darrow wanted, the case was eventually appealed. In 1927, the Tennesee Supreme Court overturned the ruling against Scopes. This had nothing to do with the Butler Act, which was still regarded as constitutional at the time. Instead, it was because Judge Raulston had determined the $100 fine instead of the jury.
The trial found its place in popular media eventually. John Scopes published a memoir of the trial called Center of the Storm. In addition, the trial’s story was adapted into a Broadway play known as Inherit the Wind in 1955. Five years later, a film version of the play was released. The critically-acclaimed film earned three Oscars and was nominated for four. A 1990 version of the film followed. In 2007, Inherit the Wind reemerged on Broadway and was even nominated for the “Best Revival of a Play” award.
The trial also had a ripple effect on other states regarding anti-evolutionary laws. Mississippi and Arkansas both passed their own versions of the Butler Act just a few years after. However, this was relatively short-lived. Three decades after the Scopes Monkey Trial, the Tennesee courts repealed the act, allowing public schools to teach evolution. Later, the Supreme Court found the Arkansas anti-evolution law the be in violation of the constitution as well in the case Epperson v. Arkansas. Some efforts were still made to uphold creationism in schools after the fact, and Tennesee passed an act in 1973 declaring that evolution and creation should be given equal emphasis. Like the Arkansas law, though, the Supreme Court also ruled this as unconstitutional. Other states also tried to pass similar equal emphasis laws, especially in the south, which had similar results. Overturning these laws paved the way for evolutionary teachings being the norm in science classes.
This debate was far from over, however. After the equal emphasis was overturned in many states, creationism was renamed “intelligent design,” which argued that humans have too many “irreducibly complex” systems to possibly originate from evolution. While eventually rejected as creationism was, this debate has even popped up recently. In 2017, lawmakers in South Dakota proposed that both the limitations and strengths of evolution should be taught. In addition, Arizona attempted to limit references to evolution in school science classes. While these attempts also proved unsuccessful, they did prove that the legal legacy of the Scopes Monkey Trial exists in modernity.
Despite not having a lasting effect on state law, the trial is still remembered and spoken about to this day. It made evidence for evolution more mainstream and stirred up the debate between creationism and evolution in the US, which continues to this day.
- https://www.npr.org/2005/07/05/4723956/timeline-remembering-the-scopes-monkey-trial (primary source used for most sections, includes a detailed timeline on the Scopes Monkey Trial events)
- https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1925?amount=500 (used to convert 1925 USD to 2021 USD.
- https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/monkey-trial-begins (quick recap)
- https://www.britannica.com/event/Scopes-Trial (another quick recap)
- https://www.ushistory.org/us/47b.asp (relevant context of the trial)
- https://dsi.mtsu.edu/trials/hoffschwelle (public education acts in Tennesee)
- https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/science/bioscience/butler-act-the-law-that-outlawed-evolution/ (information on the Butler Act)
- https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053946/ (Inherit the Wind movie information)
- https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/inherit-the-wind-452232 (Inherit the Wind Broadway play information)
- https://www.pewforum.org/essay/darwin-in-america/ (legacy of the Scopes Monkey Trial in state laws)