Reason, Revelation and the Scopes Monkey Trial

Copyright 1997, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

Since the Rennaissance, Western culture has struggled to reconcile reason and revelation as means of gathering knowledge. During the early scientific revolution, astronomy became a battleground when the heliocentric theory challenged the traditional geocentric model of the heavens and through it humanity's relationship with God. In the late ninteenth century a new challenge arose in the Darwinian theory of evolution, which challenged the revelations of Genesis on human origins.

Even as science was challenging the traditional authority of the Bible, another challenge had emerged within the study of religion. Until the decipherment of ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian records in the nineteenth century, the Old Testament record stood as the oldest historical writing. Thus even those who doubted the revelations of Moses had accepted his historiography, simply because they had no alternative.1 At the same time, the very authorship and antiquity of the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch or Torah, came under scrutiny. For centuries scholars had puzzled over certain anomalies and contradictions in the Pentateuch. By the Enlightenment they could challenge the tradition that Moses had written these books. During the ninteenth century, scholars used techniques known as Higher Criticism to discern four separate strands of writing which a later redactor interwove to produce the modern text of the Pentateuch. This Documentary Hypothesis disturbed conservative churchmen, and the beginning of the twentieth century saw a considerable backlash, loudly reaffirming the traditional ascription of authorship of the Torah to Moses.2

These challenges came at the same time as the major social upheavals of industrialization and the urbanization of America. Many people embraced this change, but others found it terrifying. Fundamentalism arose as a response to this fear. Reacting to these changes as threats, the Fundamentalists embraced a literal interpretation of the Bible as a talisman against new ideas. Thus the strongholds of Fundamentalism lay in agrarian areas, particularly the South.3 The growing prestige of science in modern society posed a particular threat to the Fundamentalists because it appeared to be a rival source of truth, opposed to the Bible.4 To the literalists, the Bible was a single structure, and a challenge to any portion threatened the whole. If one were to question the account of the creation, could one still trust the account of Christ's ressurection? Thus any factual error in the Bible invalidated its status as spiritual guide, which meant they must defend every portion of it with equal vigilance.5

Two major factors led to the development of the antievolution movement of the 1920's. First, the post-World-War-I social changes created a sense of cultural crisis among conservative Americans. Behaviors such as public dancing, which had traditionally received censure from Protestant denominations, became acceptable among the general public. Second, a high-school education became available to a large number of people who had never hoped to learn much more than basic reading, writing and ciphering. Therefore these people came into contact with new subject matter, including evolutionary biology.6 This related directly to the new concept of the teenager, which had emerged in the Progressive Era. Instead of seeing children as being miniature adults, or as undergoing a longer and less defined transition to adulthood, people began to see adolescents as particularly impressionable and spiritually vulnerable. As such, young people had to be protected through various forms of legislation and programs.7

However the Fundamentalist opposition to evolution probably would have remained disorganized if they had not found a leader in William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). Bryan had made a name for himself as a champion of progressive causes in his youth, running for President in 1896, when he was just a year over the minimum age specified by the Constitution, and nearly winning. Later he served as Secretary of State, but resigned when he felt that the Administration was steering a course into World War I. One of the great ironies of Bryan's career is that all the good causes that he championed probably would have succeeded without him, while the attempt to legislate the suppression of evolution probably would have never become a major force without the force of his character behind it. The rest of the Fundamentalist movement of his day lacked the political clout and legal skill to virtually sweep evolution from American textbooks through legislative action.8

Bryan first became concerned about the teaching of evolution while lecturing to students shortly after World War I. He was giving religious talks, and encountered a level of disbelief that disturbed him. One student earned his wrath by suggesting that Darwinism and Christianity could be reconciled by the simple expedient of discarding Genesis. Bryan soon concluded that the theory of evolution was responsible for a remarkable decline in moral standards among students.9 Bryan's opposition to the theory of evolution had crystalized during World War I, which he saw as reflecting the dark side of humanity. He blamed Darwinism for paralyzing the human conscience by teaching that humans descended from beasts and that might made right in place of the Christian teachings of moral responsibility and compassion.10 From a scientific standpoint, Bryan made three major logical errors. First, he equated Darwin's theories with the facts of evolution. Second, he misinterpreted the concept of natural selection as trial by combat. Third, he concluded that Darwinism involved moral approval of such struggle.11

Although many historians regarded this as Bryan's reactionary period, Bryan's detestation for Darwinism actually grew out of his Progressive ideals. In his younger years he had fought such evils as plutocracy and imperialism because he regarded those forces as lowering man from the image of God to a brute animal. Thus evolution, which taught that humans were indeed the descendants of beasts, struck him as the root of monstrosity.12 He believed that Darwinism would wreck the goal of a just and humane society by substituting the law of the jungle for the Golden Rule. He saw social Darwinism and German militarism as two perfect examples of what happened when science supplanted the Christian basis of morality. He also believed that legislation could reform behavior. Therefore, one should respond to the corrupting influence of Darwinism by passing a law against it. He also believed that those laws should be made by the people, not any elite, no matter how well educated that elite might be.13

Bryan embraced Biblical literalism primarily as a means of closing the door to theories which he regarded as dire threats to the human race. He did not reject evolution because he interpreted the Bible literally. Rather, he interpreted the Bible literally where it buttressed his rejection of evolution.14 Bryan regarded Christianity as the source of the morality underpinning Western civilization. In his theology human reason could not produce a viable moral code because humans were fallen, sinful creatures and thus only the divine revelation of the Bible could provide.

Curiously enough, Bryan did not consider athiestic or agnostic supporters of evolution as a serious threat, believing they would find little audience among Christians. Instead he found his greatest menace in the Modernist theologians, who believed they could reconcile evolution with Christianity. To him they were unravelling the authority of Scripture by using words such as "allegory" and "poetry" to circumvent passages they found unbelievable.15 Bryan also regarded the notion of theistic evolution (that God might use evolution as part of His creative plan) as an anesthetic that dulled the Christian's senses for the amputation of his religion. To Bryan, God was not a deistic First Cause but a personal God who answered prayers and redeemed the repentant sinner.16 Anything that diminished that relationship he regarded as anathema.

Bryan started speaking publicly against Darwinism in 1921, when he added a speech entitled "The Menace of Darwinism" to his Bible conferences and Chautauqua talks. Later that year he added a second anti-evolution speech, "The Bible and its Enemies," to his repertoire. Both speeches argued that Darwinism did not follow the traditional Baconian definition of science as a process of explaining facts, but rather drew conclusions from observed similarities. Bryan also argued that Darwinism failed to convince the popular mind, and concluded that Darwinism drew people away from God by providing a materialistic explanation of human origins.17 Bryan believed that the majority of people still believed in divine creation and that the evolutionists were a tiny minority. In his views this minority was trying to force their ideas upon the majority.18

In the next several years things moved from talk to action with the passage of the Butler Act, the work of a Tennessee state legislator who ran for office on a platform of banning the teaching of evolution. In his second term as a state legislator he finally drafted the bill, which passed with relatively little opposition and a fair amount of fanfare from conservative politicians.19 Bryan had supported the Butler Act; however, he opposed a penalty for offenses against it. He believed that teachers would respect a simple declaration and a penalty would only draw criticism.20

Tennessee law-enforcement agencies made no serious effort to enforce the provisions of the Butler Act and biology teachers continued as before. Yet citizens became concerned about the constitutionality of this law, and some decided that it should be tested. The American Civil Liberties Union began to accumulate a defense fund against an actual trial. The talk turned into action in Dayton, where some local leaders decided to make a test case. They then pulled in John Thomas Scopes (1900-1970), a young teacher who pointed out that it was virtually impossible to teach biology without reference to the theory of evolution, and that the official textbook contained discussion of the proscribed theory. With that they had enough to arrest and indict Scopes.21

Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), a famous attorney who had championed liberal causes, agreed to lead Scopes' defense. William Jennings Bryan became a member of the prosecution at the behest of the World's Christian Fundamentals Association. When he received word of their request, he replied that he would be glad to serve without monetary compensation.22 He regarded his actions as a service to all humanity, and most of all to God. With these two famous men involved, it became inevitable that the trial would be a media circus.

Interestingly enough, Bryan had had a previous unpleasant encounter with John Scopes at the latter's high school graduation in Salem, Illinois, Bryan's hometown. Bryan was the commencement speaker, and near the beginning of the speech his dentures produced a peculiar whistling, which set Scopes and three other students to laughing. This broke the effect of Bryan's masterful speaking, and he glared the offending students to silence. It remained a painful memory for Bryan when they next met, at Dayton.23 However he did not hold a grudge, for he believed in hating the sin but loving the sinner. Far from bearing any personal ill-will toward Scopes, Bryan was even willing to pay the young teacher's fine.24 In return, Scopes found admirable qualities in Bryan. He recognized the greatness of Bryan's oratory skills and believed that Bryan was a man born before his time. Scopes suggested that Bryan would have won the 1869 presidential race if he had possessed television technology and thus been able to take his silver voice into every American home.25 Similarly, Bryan did not regard himself as an enemy of Darrow on a personal level, although he bitterly opposed the cause that Darrow defended. Far from it, they had been friends for nearly four decades. During the trial Bryan presented Darrow with a small carving of a monkey, and in return Darrow gave him a similar one.26

The trial began in July of 1925, amidst a carnival atmosphere. For the first several days the trial centered on technical matters of court procedure. On Thursday afternoon of the trial, Bryan made a speech decrying the perils of educated outsiders. He derisively referred to Darrow as "the gentleman from New York.27 In his speech he embraced all the homey virtues of traditional Bible teaching and warned that outside ideas would lead children to deride the received truths of their ancestors. Bryan also attacked the biological classification system, waxing indignant over a diagram that showed humans as being grouped with other species, surrounded by "lions and tigers and everything else that is bad".28 On the surface his argument appeared a red herring, since biological classification developed long before the theory of evolution. However at a deeper level it was of supreme importance. To Bryan and many who shared his views, classifying humanity as a species of primates within the class of mammals meant demeaning humanity. Instead of being a special creation, separate and superior to the beasts, humans became just smart beasts.

On the following Monday came the most famous part of the trial, in which Darrow called Bryan as an expert witness for Biblical literalism, then proceeded to humiliate him. When Bryan took the stand, he refused the offers of assistance from the rest of the prosecution. He told them that he was trying to protect the Bible from attack by a man whom he regarded as the greatest agnostic in the nation.29 However Bryan's confidence soon began to melt away as Darrow pelted him with questions. After Darrow asked him if he believed that the snake had walked on its tail before the Biblical Fall, Bryan protested to the judge that Darrow intended to use his questioning to slur the Bible. He then repeated his charge to the entire crowd. Darrow responded that he was merely questioning Bryan on foolish ideas that no intelligent Christian would believe. The judge, alarmed by the crowd's reaction, adjourned the court until the following day. As the courtroom emptied, Bryan sat in his chair and murmurred his distress.30

Many of the most conservative Fundamentalists regarded Bryan as having betrayed them during Darrow's questioning. In responding to the question on Joshua making the sun stand still, he had acknowledged that the earth did indeed travel around the sun. Worse yet, he had admitted that the "days" in the Genesis account could refer to vast ages of time rather than literal days.31 However Darrow did not have a complete victory, since he had managed to show the opposition to Fundamentalism in a bad light as well. As an agnostic, he could not represent those parts of Christianity which sought to reconcile the Bible with modern science. Although his questioning of Bryan had hacked at Fundamentalist dogma, Darrow offered nothing in its place but cynicism and doubt.32

After the conclusion of the trial, Bryan made a brief speech in which he made a comprehensive statement of his complaint against the theory of evolution. He had originally intended to deliver it in the courtroom, as his closing remarks. However the trial had concluded so rapidly that only the senior members of prosecution and defense had made summations to the jury. In his speech Bryan concluded that the theory of evolution degraded the immortal soul by placing humans on the same level with beasts. Furthermore, by making creation a remote process, it diminished faith in a personal Creator and undermining belief in Heaven and the salvation of the soul through the attoning blood of Jesus Christ.33

A closer examination of the text of the speech revealed his woeful lack of understanding of the scientific method. He pointed up the term "theory" in reference to evolution as though it meant merely a guess, not proven fact. In scientific usage a "fact" is an observed datum of evidence while a "theory" is an explanation which binds together a body of observed evedence into a system that can explain other events. Bryan also pointed out how many of Darwin's original concepts, such as sexual selection, had been disproven in the intervening years. From that drew the conclusion that the disproving of the part implied the disproving of the whole. Thus he ignored the process by which scientists continually refine the body of scientific knowledge, a process which often involves superseding portions of older theoretical structures with new ones that better account for the observed data.34 In the past Bryan had often used his beautiful voice and wonderful manner of speaking to cover for a lack of serious substance in his speeches. On paper many of his other speeches also revealed woeful failures of logic and lack of scientific understanding.35

Deprived of the opportunity to turn the trial into a revival meeting, Bryan refused to give up hope entirely. He accepted a speaking appointment and set to rewriting his speech for the occasion. But on July 26, a little over a week after the conclusion of the trial, he died suddenly in his sleep. In death he had the opportunity he had lost in life. Many conservative Christians saw his death as a sort of martyrdom and his funeral became a public outpouring of grief.36 Yet Bryan's downfall and death could also be seen as a tragedy, in the original Greek sense. Through the hubris of posing as an expert on the Bible and science, Bryan had overstepped himself and in turn fate brought him down.

In one sense, the Fundamentalist vanguard at Dayton did achieve their objectives. Numerous anti-evolution found their way into state legislatures during the 1920's. Three states (Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas) passed them into law. Alarmed, publishers downplayed the theory of evolution in their biology texts. The very book Scopes had used, Civic Biology, lost its section on evolution.37 This situation prevailed until 1957, when the Soviet launching of Sputnik led to an embarrassed re-evaluation of high-school science curricula. Only then did the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study restore evolution as the central theme of biology textbooks.38 In 1951 a legislator from the Dayton area introduced a bill to repeal the Butler Act, but it failed. In 1958 the Butler Act remained on the books.39 Only in the 1980's did the Supreme Court finally strike down the last of the anti-evolution acts.

On another level, the Fundamentalists failed disastrously. Although they drove evolution from the pages of textbooks and thus from high-school classrooms, they also created a backlash among the scientific community. Many rejected all faith entirely, equating the militant Fundamentalists with religion in general. Thus science became even more alientated from religion, and many young people concluded that they could not enter the sciences without first becoming sceptics. Even in society at large, people tended to discredit traditional Christianity as something for fools. Yet many continued to long for spiritual experience, and thus turned to various non-traditional religions, especially ones such as Scientology which contained a scientific or pseudo-scientific element.

  1. Francis C. Haber. The Age of the World: Moses to Darwin. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press 1959). 23.
  2. Joseph Blenkensopp. The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 13.
  3. Dorothy Nelkin. The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982), 30.
  4. Raymond Eve and Francis B. Harrold. The Creationist Movement in Modern America. (Boston: Twayne, 1990), 48.
  5. Ibid. 55.
  6. Ibid. 21.
  7. Edward J. Larson. Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Evolution. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 36-37.
  8. Stephen Jay Gould, "William Jennings Bryan's Last Campaign," in Nebraska History 77 (Fall/Winter 1996), 177.
  9. Ray Ginger. Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. (Chicago: Quadrangle Books,1958), 30-31.
  10. Ronald L. Numbers. The Creationists. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 41.
  11. Gould, 179.
  12. Levine, 268.
  13. Eve and Harrold, 23.
  14. Lawrence W. Levine. Defender of the Faith: William Jennings Bryan: the Last Decade, 1915-1925. Ginger, 39-40.
  15. Robert W. Cherny. A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), 173.
  16. Larson, 45-46.
  17. Ginger, 90.
  18. Ibid. 2-7.
  19. Larson, 55.
  20. Ginger, 18-20.
  21. Levine, 329.
  22. John T. Scopes and James Presley. Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), 27.
  23. LeRoy Ashby. William Jennings Bryan: Champion of Democracy. (Boston: Twain, 1987), 198.
  24. Scopes, 209.
  25. Lous W. Koenig. Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1971), 643.
  26. Mary Lee Settle. The Scopes Trial: The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. (New York: Franklin Watts, 1972), 88.
  27. Ginger, 134.
  28. Larson, 69.
  29. Koenig, 651.
  30. Ibid. 652.
  31. Ibid. 655.
  32. Ginger, 180-182.
  33. The World's Most Famous Court Trial: Tennessee Evolution Case. (Cincinnati, Ohio: National Book Company, 1925), 333.
  34. L. Sprague De Camp. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 37.
  35. Ginger, 192-193.
  36. Niles Elderidge. The Monkey Business: A Scientist Looks at Creationism. Ellen Hansen. Evolution on Trial. (Lowell, Massachusetts: Discovery Enterprises, 1994), 41.
  37. Ginger, 217.


    Ashby, LeRoy, William Jennings Bryan: Champion of Democracy. Boston: Twain, 1987.

    Blenkinsopp, Joseph, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    Cherny, Robert W. A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

    De Camp, L. Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968.

    The Monkey Business: A Scientist Looks at Creationism. New York: Pocket Books, 1982.Eve, Raymond A. and Francis B. Harrold, The Creationist Movement in Modern America. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

    Ginger, Ray, Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. Chicago: Quadrangle Books,1958.

    Gould, Stephen Jay. "William Jennings Bryan's Last Campaign," in Nebraska History 77 (Fall/Winter 1996), 177-183.

    Hansen, Ellen, ed. Evolution on Trial. Lowell, Massachusetts: Discovery Enterprises, 1994.

    Koenig, Louis W. Bryan: A Politica Biography of William Jennings Bryan. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1971.

    Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    Levine, Lawrence W. Defender of the Faith: William Jennings Bryan: the Last Decade, 1915-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

    Nelkin, Dorothy, The Creation Controversy: Science or Scripture in the Schools. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.

    Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

    Scopes, John T. and James Presley. Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

    Settle, Mary Lee. The Scopes Trial: The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. New York: Franklin Watts, 1972.

    The World's Most Famous Court Trial: Tennessee Evolution Case. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Book Company, 1925.

    Copyright 1997, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

    For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

    This paper was originally written as part of a course in the history of Darwin's theory of evolution, taught by Dr. John Haller of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

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