The Scopes Monkey Trial ended on this date in 1925 with the conviction of Dayton, TN teacher John Scopes, who was found guilty of teaching evolutionary theory in violation of a Tennessee State Law known as the Butler Act. The trial attracted world-wide attention, even H. L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun, and pitted two American giants against one another: three-time presidential candidate, Congressman, and former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense. The trial was a major milestone in the controversy between creationists and evolutionists, a debate that continues today.
Darrow and Bryan
In what the state believed was a violation of the Butler Act, Scopes used a textbook that contained the concepts laid out by Charles Darwin in his seminal On the Origin of Species. Scopes was charged for this violation. The eight-day trial played out in the sweltering summer heat and at one point was moved outdoors because the courtroom became too hot. Once the closing arguments were completed, it took the jury only nine minutes to convict Scopes. He was fined $100. Two years later the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the conviction and Scopes was never retired.
I first learned of and became fascinated with the trial in the 7th grade. This led me to my local Carnegie Library where I found a wonderful, just published book: Six Days or Forever by Ray Ginger. Loaded with quotes from the trial transcript, the battle between Bryan and Darrow is laid out in great detail. What did an impressionable 12 year old take from this book? That science and religion need not be mutually exclusive. That whether creation took 6 days or billions of years is irrelevant and isn’t the issue anyway. It’s what drove evolution that counts. And that, despite what many profess, no one knows the answer to.
Proverbs 11:29: He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.
Tracy and March
Two years later in 1960, along came my all-time favorite movie: Inherit the Wind. Though it took liberties with the facts, with Spencer Tracy, Frederick March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Claude Akins, Harry Morgan, director Stanley Kramer, and a screenplay ripped right from the trial, what’s not to love? Seen it 100 times, at least.
A few years ago, I visited Dayton and the Rhea County Courthouse where the trial took place. It was like walking into history, like walking on to the set of Inherit the Wind. The echoes of Bryan, Darrow, Tracy, and March can still be heard. If you ever find yourself in eastern Tennessee, visit Dayton. It’s a beautiful small town and a slice of American history.