It wasn’t until 2021 that creationism would become a minority opinion in America. One hundred years ago, creationism was the dominant belief in America. Exhibit A: Tennessee banned the teaching of evolution in 1925.
— The New York Times Archives (@NYTArchives) March 23, 2015
In April, a Dayton, Tennessee, businessman saw an American Civil Liberties Union ad promising legal assistance to anyone challenging the Butler Law which banned teaching evolution. This could be an opportunistic way to put Dayton on the map, he thought.
On 10 July 1925, John Thomas Scopes went on trial in Dayton for assigning “readings on evolution for a 10th grade biology class.”
The State of Tennessee v. John T. Scopes would feature two of the most well-known lawyers in America.
- For the prosecution: William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), who had not practiced law in 30 years but who was known as a “leader in the anti-evolution movement.” He had sought the nomination for president in 1896, 1900 and 1908.
- For the defense: Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), a nationally known labor and criminal lawyer. After the Scopes trial, Darrow would successfully defend “a black family that had fought against a mob trying to expel it from its residence in a white neighbourhood in Detroit.”
The Scopes Trial ended on 21 July 1925. It was the first American trial to be broadcast live over the radio.
On day six of the trial, Judge John Raulston had ruled that Clarence Darrow could not call scientific witnesses to testify as to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Expressing concern that the courtroom floor might collapse from the weight of the many spectators, Judge Raulston transfers the proceedings to the lawn outside the courthouse. There, facing the jury, hangs a large banner–attached to the courthouse wall. Three words are on the banner: “Read Your Bible.” Darrow asks either that the sign be removed or that a second sign of equal size saying “Read Your Evolution” be put up along with it. Raulston orders the sign removed.
Before a crowd–minus the jury–that has swelled to about 5,000, the defense reads into the record, for purpose of appellate review, excerpts from the prepared statements of the eight scientists and four experts on religion who had been prepared to testify. The statements of the experts are widely reported by the press. Darrow has turned the trial into a national biology lesson (emphasis added).
The next day, 20 July 1925, the New York Times described events thusly:
William Jennings Bryan, Fundamentalist, and Clarence Darrow, agnostic and pleader of unpopular causes, locked horns today under the most remarkable circumstances ever known to American court procedure (emphasis added).
The examination of Bryan by Jennings is a classic of court room drama and antagonism between two individuals of different views and ideologies. Darrow begins by questioning [Bryan] as to his view of the literal truth of the Bible, and then continues to examine a wide range of Bible stories: Jonah swallowed by a whale, Joshua and the sun standing still, Noah and the Flood… they also debate such general questions as The antiquity of man, The age of the earth… This verbatim testimony is a fascinating example of an encounter between a literalist and a critic.
Darrow’s having called Bryan to the stand shocked those present and anyone following the trial. Darrow “cornered him into admitting that he didn’t know much about science since the Bible didn’t provide any answers.”
The next day, the judge ruled that Bryan’s testimony be stricken from the record.
Darrow suggested that to save time his client should be found guilty. This prevented Bryan from making a closing statement.
The judge directed the jury to consider only the technical question: had Scopes, in fact, taught evolution? He ruled that the question of whether the law was constitutional was off the table.
Not surprisingly, the jury quickly found Scopes guilty; his fine, $100. In response to the verdict, Scopes told the judge:
“Your honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideals of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth, as guaranteed in our Constitution, of personal and religious freedom. I think the fine is unjust.
Because the judge set the fine, not the jury, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the verdict while determining that the Butler Act was constitutional. In 1968, the US Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Epperson v. Arkansas, due to its violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Five days after the trial ended, Bryan died of a heart attack.
The anti-evolution effort outlived him. That year, Mississippi would pass a similar law; Texas “banned the theory of evolution from high school textbooks.” Reason prevailed in 22 other states where similar legislative initiatives failed to become law.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. In 2005, the constitutionality of requiring that “intelligent design” be paired with evolution came to a head in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. The York County, Pennsylvania, school board had defined intelligent design thusly:
Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.
As with Epperson v. Arkansas, the Court found the Dover School Board action a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Only about 2-in-3 American adults believe in evolutionary development, according to the 2020 report from Pew Research. Among those who self-identified as Christian, belief in evolution dropped to about half.
Never mind that it’s been more than 160 years since Charles Darwin conducted the research that led to a scientific understanding of how life on Earth has evolved over millions of years.
Part 1 of the Scopes Trial, 10 July 2022.
Part 2, 20 July 2022.