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Tennessee v. Scopes


The trial checked the influence of Fundamentalism in public education and stripped William Jennings Bryan of his dignity as a key figure in American political history. It also marked the displacement of religious faith and rural values by scientific skepticism and cosmopolitanism as the dominant strains in American thought.

Rarely has the American psyche been so at odds with itself as in the early 1920s. In the cities, Americans were dancing to the opening bars of the Jazz Age, debating Sigmund Freud's theories and swigging bootleg liquor in defiance of Prohibition. In the rural heartland, particularly in the South, believers in old-fashioned values were caught up in a wave of religious revivalism. Preachers damned modern scientific rationalism in all its guises and upheld a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible as the only source of truth. A showdown between modernists and traditionalists to decide which would dominate American culture seemed inevitable. Both sides itched for a decisive battle.

Fundamentalists were particularly galled by the gains modernism had made in public schools, where the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection had supplanted the Biblical story of creation. To them, it seemed their tax dollars were being spent to turn their own children against---even to scoff at---the religion of their parents. Led by William Jennings Bryan, the thrice-defeated presidential candidate of populism, the Fundamentalists tried to drive the Darwinian "heresy" out of the schools by legislative fiat.

In Tennessee a bill sponsored by John Washington Butler was enacted in February of 1925, declaring it unlawful for a teacher in any school supported by state funds "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." Fearful that if the Tennessee law went unchallenged other states would soon pass similar bills, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) immediately announced it would defend any teacher charged with violating the Butler Act.

A few weeks later, in the little town of Dayton, a transplanted New Yorker with Darwinian views got into a debate at the local drugstore soda fountain with two Fundamentalist lawyers. However much they fought over evolution and whether mankind and monkeys were close relatives, they quickly agreed that a trial to test the law would do wonders for Dayton's commerce. The 24-year-old science teacher of the local high school, John Thomas Scopes, was recruited that very afternoon to be the legal guinea pig. Just as quickly, the ACLU confirmed it was prepared to defend Scopes.

Using a state-approved textbook, Scopes taught a lesson on evolutionary theory on 24 April to his Rhea County High School science class. Arrested on 7 May, Scopes was quickly indicted by the grand jury, setting the stage for what newspaper headline writers were already calling the "Monkey Trial."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Tennessee v. Scopes - Significance, The Circus Comes To Dayton, Evolution On Trial, Darrow Deflates Bryan, Teaching Evolutionism