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On This Day: Tennessee Educator John Scopes Indicted for Teaching Evolution

Last updated: February 15, 2023

May 25, 2011 06:00 AM

by findingDulcinea Staff

On May 25, 1925, the “Scopes Monkey Trial” began when John Scopes was indicted under a state law barring the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Scopes Agrees to Stand Trial

In March 1925, the state of Tennessee passed a law forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools. It stated, “[I]t shall be unlawful for any teacher … 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.”

That May, the ACLU began to run advertisements for a teacher willing to challenge the law, offering to pay for the defense. Residents of Dayton, Tenn., hoping to gain publicity for the town, convinced local physics and algebra teacher John Scopes to be the test defendant. The 24-year-old Scopes had possibly assigned reading on evolution while substituting as a biology teacher, though he did not specifically remember teaching evolution.

The trial attracted high-level supporters from both sides of the debate, and pitted two top legal minds against each other. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time candidate for president and prominent Christian speaker, agreed to join the prosecution, despite that fact that he had not practiced law in 30 years. Famed attorney Clarence Darrow, an agnostic, joined the defense.

The Scopes-Monkey Trial

Sources in this Story

  • Time: The Great Trial
  • PBS: American Experience: Monkey Trial
  • American Heritage: 20 Questions About the Scopes Trial
  • HistoryNet (American History): Scopes Trial
  • The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: The Biology Wars: The Religion, Science and Education Controversy

The case of State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, which began on July 10, attracted national attention and created a “fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war” atmosphere in Dayton, wrote Time. The magazine was condescending in its description of the town, which was typical of the national press’ coverage.

The defense, making no attempt to claim Scopes’ innocence, argued that the law was unconstitutional. In their opening statements, Darrow and Bryan “pictured the trial as a titanic struggle between good and evil or truth and ignorance,” writes UMKC law professor Douglas Linder.

The first six days of the trail were largely forgettable except for a speech by Darrow’s co-counsel, Dudley Malone: “The truth always wins and we are not afraid of it.. … We are ready to tell the truth as we understand it and we do not fear all the truth that they can present as facts. We are ready. We are ready. We feel we stand with progress. We feel we stand with science. We feel we stand with intelligence. We feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America.”

On July 20, the seventh day of the trial, Darrow called Bryan to testify. Darrow relentlessly questioned Bryan on the details of the Bible, as the debate descended into personal bickering and arguments over trivial points. The press portrayed Bryan, who began falter as the examination wore on, as a defeated man, though the debate had no clear winner.

“In trying to prove that Bryan’s creationism rested on shaky assumptions and incomplete knowledge, Darrow scored some points, though the question ultimately came down to faith and belief,” writes American Heritage editor Frederic D. Schwarz. “In trying to prove that Bryan’s creationism was self-contradictory, however, he failed.”

The following day, Judge John T. Raulston ruled that the Bryan examination be stricken from the record. Darrow asked the jury find Scopes guilty so that the case could be appealed in a higher court. After just nine minutes of deliberation, the jury found Scopes guilty and Judge Raulston fined him $100.

The verdict was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on a technicality: Under the evolution law, the jury—and not the judge—was required to set the fine. The Tennessee Supreme Court therefore refused to hear an appeal, ending the Scopes case. The evolution law, largely ignored and unenforced since the Scopes trial, was repealed in 1967.

Background: Controversy Over Evolution

The Scopes trial arose from a “so-called ‘anti-evolution crusade’ [that] began just after World War I,” according to Edward J. Larson, speaking at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “By the 1920s, both sides had carried this theological dispute into the classroom. Neither side wanted the other’s view taught as scientific fact in public school courses.”

In 1923, Oklahoma and Florida became the first states to ban the teaching of evolution in public classrooms. An anti-evolution bill was introduced in the Tennessee legislature in January 1925 and was passed in two months, overcoming one pro-evolution legislator’s attempt to add an amendment to “prohibit the teaching that the earth is round.”

Tennessee’s progressive Gov. Austin Peay was expected to veto the law, according to J. Kingston Pierce in American History magazine, but he signed it as part of a deal to win support for other legislation. Peay did not believe the law would have much effect, telling the legislature, “Probably, the law will never be applied.”

Learn more about Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution.

Key Figures in the Scopes Trial

PBS provides short biographies of John Scopes, Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan and reporter H.L. Mencken.

Learn more about the lives of Darrow and Mencken in their findingDulcinea profiles.

Reference: Scopes Trial Archives

The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law’s Famous Trials in American History series provides primary documents such as photos, cartoons, biographies, trial excerpts, a chronology and film footage of the Scopes trial.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives features selected unpublished photographs from the trial, uncovered in archival material donated to the Smithsonian in 1971.

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