Human evolution is now taught in biology with relatively little controversy, but this is a relatively recent development. In July 1925, modern science and theology ended up in court together during The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes.
This was hardly the first time science and religion had clashed, and nor would it be the last. Many hoped the case would be a decisive victory for science in the modern world: few anticipated that nearly 100 years later, debates over the teaching of evolution and creationism would still be raging in schools across America.
Tennessee and the Butler Act
Tennessee was a strongly evangelical state, part of the so-called ‘Bible Belt’ states in the South. In March 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act, which forbade evolution to be taught in state-funded or state-run schools. Whilst many of the more conservative Christians in the state were thankful for this intervention, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was perturbed.
They offered to defend anyone found in defiance of the Butler Act because they’d taught evolution in a school environment. Dayton, Tennessee, where Scopes taught was a small town and the publicity of such a watershed trial, it was hoped, would put the town on the map.
John T. Scopes
24 year old Scopes was a high school science and maths teacher in Dayton, Tennessee. Substituting for the regular biology teacher, Scopes had taught evolution using a chapter in a 1914 textbook, Civic Biology: Presented in Problems, which detailed race theory, evolution and eugenics.
Scopes was eager to stand trial: he later confessed to not actually remembering whether or not he had in fact taught evolution theory that day after the trial but nonetheless urged his students to testify against him so that he could be indicted.
A national event
Both the prosecution and the defense hired big names in the legal world for the trial: Scopes was represented by hotshot defense attorney Clarence Darrow, whilst the prosecution was led by William Jennings Bryan, who ran for President as Democratic nominee 3 times. Whilst it may technically have been a trial on a particular piece of anti-evolution legislation in small town Tennessee, many saw it as representing a wider divide between traditional America and modern science. A victory would be much bigger than just this case: particularly if it resulted in a Supreme Court verdict on the subject.
In an effort to generate as much publicity as possible, both sides began contacting major players in the debate – known orators whose interest in the case would help fuel media attention and drive the eyes of America, and the world, to Dayton, Tennessee. Over 200 newspapers (including 2 from London) ended up gathering in Dayton in order to report the trial in as much detail as possible.
When proceedings opened in July 1925, it had already been dubbed the ‘trial of the century’. This wasn’t simply a trial surrounding the violation of law, but putting the authority of the Bible and Christianity on trial against Darwinian science.
The trial of the century?
Despite big claims and lots of publicity, the trial wasn’t quite the event that many had hoped. It took only 8 days in court, and the judge was unsympathetic to the wider arguments that were taking place in his court surrounding the historical validity of the Bible and the accuracy and morality of modern science.
It took the jury a speedy 9 minutes to determine that Scopes was guilty, and was ordered to pay a $100 fine as punishment.
This was not the end of the story, however. Scopes challenged the verdict on four counts: that the statute was too vague, violated the right to free speech, violated the Tennessee State Constitution and violated some of the state constitution’s provisions. Each of these arguments was thrown out by the court.
Despite this, the court ended up overturning the conviction on a legal technicality: judges could not issue more than fines of $100 in the state of Tennessee.
A deepening divide
The trial did not make the definitive headlines that many had looked for. It did, however, reveal the widening gulf between creationism and evolution debates in 1920s America. After Scopes’ conviction, states across America tried to push through anti-evolution legislature en masse – prior to this, only South Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma and of course Tennessee had had legislature in place.
Anti-evolution legislature wasn’t seriously challenged again until 1965, and any mention of evolution virtually disappeared from school textbooks. Whilst hardly a victory, the ACLU had succeeded in publicizing evolution in national and international media, and it would slowly but steadily gain a serious following over the course of the mid-20th century.
The trial made Scopes’ life in Tennessee unsustainable. Jobs dried up and it became clear he would never teach again in the state. As a result, he and his wife moved to Kentucky and later Texas, when he began working as an oil expert.
Even today there remains tension between creationism and evolution in public education in the United States: creationism is no longer legally allowed to be taught as a science, but it can crop up in all manner of other subjects. IIn particular, the closely associated theory of ‘intelligent design’ continues to cause a stir in legislation across the Bible belt states.