Monkey Business: The Scopes Monkey Trial and its Impact on American Fundamentalism

THE STATE OF TENNESSEE VS. SCOPES

In front of the Rhea County courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee there is a plaque that reads: “Here, from July 10 to 21, 1925 John Thomas Scopes, a County High School teacher, was tried for teaching that a man descended from a lower order of animals in violation of a lately passed state law. William Jennings Bryan assisted the prosecution; Clarence Darrow, Arthur Garfield
Hays, and Dudley Field Malone the defense. Scopes was convicted.”[1]  The case to which the plaque refers is The State of Tennessee vs. Scopes.  The law to which the plaque refers is the Butler Act.  The Butler Act, which was enacted in 1925 (and later repealed in 1968), specifically stated “That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, 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.” [2] The teacher referred to in the plaque, John Thomas Scopes, appealed his conviction to the Tennessee State Supreme Court.  He did not win his appeal case but his conviction was overturned on a technicality, John Thomas Scopes vs. the State on January 17th, 1927.  In both cases, Scopes never denied violating the Butler Act. 

From a legal standpoint, The State of Tennessee vs. Scopes was a simple open and shut case.  The defendant was convicted in slightly less than a fortnight and ordered to pay a $100 fine, which was later rescinded. From a historical standpoint, the case was anything but simple.  It was highly publicized; in fact, it was literally a media circus…over two hundred reporters descended upon the small town of Dayton and trained monkeys actually performed on the courthouse lawn.[3] The reason for the publicity was the controversial nature of the matter being decided at trial; John T. Scopes was put on trial for breaking a law (The Butler Act) which seemingly advocated a religious viewpoint in a public classroom (teaching something other than “Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible”).  Adding to the controversy further was the way in which Scopes violated the Butler Act; he taught the theory of evolution in his classroom.  The theory of evolution was, in 1925, very divisive (and still is today to a lesser extent).

The State of Tennessee vs. Scopes, which has come to be known famously as “The Scopes Monkey Trial,” involved more than the conviction of just one man.  While John T. Scopes was being put on trial in a court of law, the merits of American Fundamentalism were being put on trial in the court of public opinion.  The Monkey Trial, which began as a publicity stunt, resulted in what many consider a serious blow to the American Fundamentalist Movement.  Whatever the result, negative or positive, of the Monkey Trial to the American Fundamentalist Movement; it did not disappear.  Even after the media circus of the Monkey Trial, the American
Fundamentalist movement is alive, though it may not be as well venerated.

THE MONKEY TRIAL: MAY BE BAD FOR FUNDAMENTALISM BUT DEFINITELY GOOD FOR BUSINESS

Business was not good in Dayton in the summer of 1925, but thanks to the Butler Act it was about to get better.  Local mine manager George Rappleyea, a native New Yorker and future member of the First Humanist Society of New York, hatched the idea to bring attention to the small city of Dayton by convincing John Scopes to stand trial for violating the Butler Act.  On the surface it would seem that Rappaleyea’s interest was a matter of economic stimulus (he recruited other local businessmen to participate in his scheme), but given his big city origins and future involvement in a humanist society, one must wonder of Rappaleya’s real motivation was to make the small southern town of Dayton, TN look like a Fundamentalist backwater. 

Whatever his motivations were, his scheme worked.  The American Civil Liberties Union had already pledged to defend anyone accused of violating the act, thus Scopes (who was by all means a willing participant) did not have to worry about financing his own defense…and what a defense it would become.  As the trial gained more and more publicity, Scopes’ defense team grew to include renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow.  Not to be outdone, the partisans for the prosecution enlisted the help of distinguished orator, former Secretary of State, and champion of Fundamentalism William Jennings Bryant.  Rappleyea’s plan to bring attention to Dayton was a success.  The flood of media coverage surrounding The Scopes Monkey Trial cast American Fundamentalism into the spotlight. 

FUNDAMENTALISM IN AMERICA

Typical Fundamentalists (Fundamentalist for this work will be understood to refer to Christian Fundamentalism) views include: the verbal and inerrant inspiration of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, His substitutionary atonement, the physical or bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, the immanent second coming of Jesus Christ, His deity, the depravity or sinful nature of man, the eventual physical or bodily resurrection of believing or regenerate Christians, salvation and justification by faith through the Grace of God, and the Trinitarian nature of God.[4] [5]  These Fundamentalist views remain…fundamental.  That is to say, Fundamentalist beliefs today are much the same as they were in 1925.  What has changed since 1925 is the relationship of Fundamentalist beliefs to more progressive or modernist beliefs (such as acceptance of the theory of evolution, the Big Bang Theory of universe origin, or even Theistic Evolution).

During the time when the Butler Act was passed, modernist views were an emerging threat to long accepted Fundamentalist standards.  Today, the inclusion of the theory of evolution in a science book is typical and generally accepted by society.  The attitude of 1920s era society, especially 1920s era Tennessee is perhaps best summed up by the Butler Act’s author, John Washington Butler, who (in reference to his act) said, “No, I didn’t know anything about evolution when I introduced it. I’d read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mothers that the Bible was all nonsense.”[6]  Butler’s Fundamentalist perspective was at odds with a modernist perspective that was growing both among church-goers and non believers alike.  The Monkey Trial pitted these opposing perspectives against one another for the entire nation to see.

MONKEY TRIAL

From a factual perspective, the Monkey Trial was an open and shut case.  Scopes had all but volunteered himself to stand trial and did not deny violating the Butler Act.  The defense, therefore, did not object to the charges but rather the merits of the Butler Act.  The defense argued that the Butler Act gave preference to a religion and thus violated the constitution of Tennessee which forbade doing so.  The presiding Judge, John T. Raulston, did not buy the argument.  Raulston asserted that the act did not give preference to a particular religion. Judge Raulston, who was himself very likely partisan to the Fundamentalist viewpoint, struck down any objection to the law on constitutional grounds.  In fact, the judge instructed the jury to ignore all defense testimony regarding the merit of the law and focus on the violation of the Act itself.  The defense, realizing that no judicial rejection of the Butler Act on constitutional grounds would take place in Raulston’s courtroom encouraged the jury to convict Scopes in the hopes of having the conviction overturned on appeal.  The jury did just that; as previously mentioned, Scope’s appeal to the Tennessee State Supreme Court to have the law declared unconstitutional failed. However, the $100 fine imposed by Judge Raulston upon Scopes’ conviction was over the $50 maximum that Tennessee judges were allowed to issue; because of this Scope’s conviction was overturned.  He was never retried.  The Tennessee State Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Scopes conviction not only spared Scopes, but perhaps the Butler Act itself.  The constitutionality of the act could not be challenged at the federal level because Scopes’ conviction had been overturned. 

The Fundamentalist law was persevered.  However, the Fundamentalist viewpoint took a beating publically.  In a strange turn of events during the trial, Darrow called on Bryan to testify for the court as a “bible expert.”  Bryan really never claimed to be such an expert, but he was a national figurehead of the Fundamentalist movement.  Darrow and Bryan had been publically feuding over progressive views for some time.  At the monkey trial, the feud came to a head.  William Jennings Bryan, special prosecutor for the state, took the stand.  Up until that point, the lead prosecutor, Tom Stewart had successfully kept the trial focused on the violation of the law itself and limited the defense’s ability to present scientific evidence against the merit of the law.  While that strategy (along with Judge Raulston’s apparent biblical bias) helped win the case, it did not prevent Darrow from attempting to make Bryan and the Fundamentalist viewpoint look foolish.

In the opinion of many in the media covering the trial, which was broadcast on the radio nationally, Darrow did just that.  As one reporter put it,” Let there be little doubt about that Bryan was broken, if ever a man was broken. Darrow never spared him. To see him humbled and humiliated before the vast crowd which had come to adore him, was sheer tragedy, nothing less.”[7]   Of course, in the opinions of others, Bryan’s actions at the trial were nothing short of heroic.  In eulogizing Bryan, Fundamentalist leader W.B. Riley stated that Bryan, “won the judgment of the intelligent world,” at the trial.[8]  Given that evolution is such a controversial topic, even today, it is difficult to gage from Darrow and Bryan’s contemporaries who really won the philosophical debate.  When it comes to contentious topics, especially ones regarding religious beliefs, an objective opinion is a hard thing to find.  Darrow’s opinion was clear.  He belittled Bryan’s views as foolish and unbelievable to intelligent Christians.  Bryan, in later statement, stated that the real threat of evolution was not to Christianity, but to religion itself.

AFTERMATH OF THE MONKEY TRIAL

Bryan did not live to see the result of Scope’s appeal.  He died in his sleep after attending a church picnic in Dayton less than one week after the trial ended.  After the trial, Darrow effectively retired from practicing law.   Scopes left the teaching profession and became a geologist.  As it turned out, Scopes may not have been without religious belief himself.  He was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church while working in Venezuela.  The Butler Act stayed on the books in Tennessee until its repeal in 1968.  That same year, the US Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas statute similar to the Butler Act.  The Butler Act’s repeal assured that it would never be struck down in the courts the same way.  After the trial, other states considered passing similar laws.  Some states did so (such as Arkansas), but none of these laws are still valid today as they have been struck down by the judicial process.  The controversy of teaching evolution in schools lingers on presently.  As late as 2005, a federal court decided a case concerning the teaching of intelligent design (the theory that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection[9]) as an alternative to teaching evolution in school. 

FUNDAMENTALISM TODAY

Although there are no longer laws such as the Butler Act on the books to support their views, Fundamentalists are still an influential part of American culture.  Fundamentalist political organizations such as the Christian Coalition (to name one) have been influential in American politics.  There are also a large number of thriving Fundamentalist denominations in America.  For example, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the world’s largest Baptist denomination and the largest Protestant body in the US with over 16 million members and more than 42,000 churches.[10]  While the SBC doesn’t officially label itself a “Fundamentalist” organization, (likely because many view the term pejoratively) it does hold very conservative views that many consider to be Fundamentalist.  There are currently twenty seven member churches of the Southern Baptist Convention affiliated Tennessee Valley Baptist Association which is headquartered in Dayton, TN.  It is probably safe to say, that Fundamentalist beliefs are still the norm in Dayton some 82 year later, even in the wake of national reaction to the monkey trial which wasn’t necessarily positive.  There are certainly some who hold the viewpoint that, “The Scopes trial discredited Fundamentalism as the belief system of uneducated, hayseed chewing, southern hicks.”[11]  In fact, this view point accurately sums up the views many who covered the Monkey Trial in the (non-southern) press.  Fundamentalists still adhere to their biblical belief that people must, as Jesus states in Matthew 18:3 “become as little children”[i] to follow the Christian path.  Progressives and Modernists, on the other hand, prefer to believe less by faith and rely more on the scientific method to draw their conclusions.

After arriving in Dayton, William Jennings Bryan made this pretrial comment: “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death.  If evolution wins, Christianity goes.”[12]  Bryan had legitimate concerns that the teaching of evolution in educational institutions was negatively affecting the Christian faith of students.  However, the merits of Christianity (both fundamental and progressive) over agnosticism or atheism cannot ultimately be decided on a court of law, but rather the heart (or mind) of an individual man.  The outcome of each trial (the trial of John T. Scopes in a court of law and the trail of Fundamentalist beliefs in the court of public opinion) was ultimately decided by jurisdictional prejudice.  In Dayton, Tennessee a jury of Southerners presided over by a bible-quoting judge convicted Scopes.  In the court of public opinion, a jury of big-city newspapermen convicted Fundamentalism.  The Scopes Monkey Trial, while historic, did not ultimately do any significant damage to either the progressive or Fundamentalist movement.   The highly publicized arguments of the trial rather drew a line in the sand for those who disagreed or agreed with Fundamentalist principals.   Although Bryan believed the trial was a duel to the death, over 85 years later evolution and Christianity (both fundamental and progressive) are very much still alive.


[1]  (Scopes Trial)

[2]  (Tennessee Anti-Evolution Statute – UMKC School of Law)

[3]  (Larson, 1997)

[4]  (Wilson)

[5]  (Robbins, 1995)

[6]  (Allen, 1925)

[7]  (Anderson, 1925)

[8]  (Trollinger, 1991)

[9]  (Center, 2004)

[10]  (Horton)

[11]  (Espín, 2007)

[12]  (Linder, 2004)

[i] All Scripture quotations in this paper, unless noted otherwise, are from the Holy
Bible, New International Version
(New York: International Bible Society, 1984).

WORKS CITED

Allen, L. (1925). Bryan and Darrow at Dayton. New York: Arthur Lee and Company.

Anderson, P. Y. (1925). St. Louis Labor .

Butler Act . (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2010, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butler_Act

Center, I. D. (2004). Primer: Intelligent Design Theory in a Nutshell. Retrieved July 8, 2010, from http://www.ideacenter.org/stuff/contentmgr/files/393410a2d36e9b96329c2faff7e2a4df/miscdocs/intelligentdesigntheoryinanutshell.pdf

Clarence Darrow. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2010, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarence_Darrow

Epperson vs. Arkansas. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2010, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epperson_v._Arkansas

Espín, O. O. (2007). An introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies. Liturgical Press.

Fundamentalist Christianity. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2010, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamentalist_Christianity#cite_note-0

George Rappleyea. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2010, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Rappleyea

Gibson, A. H. (20 08). Confronting the Tree of Life: Three Court Cases in Modern American History .

Horton, R. (n.d.). “Christian Education at Bob Jones University”. Retrieved July 10th, 2010, from Bob Jones University. : http://www.bju.edu/academics/christian-education.php.

Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2010, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitzmiller_v._Dover_Area_School_District

Larson, E. J. (1997). Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion .

Linder, D. (2004). William Jennings Bryan. Retrieved July 10, 2010, from http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/bryanw.htm

Robbins, D. A. (1995). What people ask about the church: answers to your questions concerning today’s church. Victorious Publications.

Scopes Trial. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2010, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scopes_Trial

Tennessee Anti-Evolution Statute – UMKC School of Law. (n.d.). Retrieved July 5th, 2010, from http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/tennstat.htm

Trollinger, W. V. (1991). God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism (History of American Thought and Culture). University of Wisconsin Press.

Warner, D. (2002, January 30). In the Beginning….Genesis 1-11 “Prehistory”/”Proto-History”.

Wilson, W. P. (n.d.). Legalism and the Authority of Scripture. Retrieved July 7th, 2010, from http://www.ovrlnd.com/Apologetics/Liberalism_and_Scripture.html

 

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2 thoughts on “Monkey Business: The Scopes Monkey Trial and its Impact on American Fundamentalism

  1. Pingback: CMI has Answers…and Merchandise |

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