The Scopes Trial: The Barrier For Teaching Evolution Theory

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One small town. Two beliefs. Three people. This was the Scopes Trial. The year was 1925. John Butler gave the idea of a law that prohibits the teaching of evolution- that man is rooted from monkey, an original theory from Charles Darwin. The state, with the help of governor Austin Peay, made this education barrier.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) thought this law was unconstitutional so they then put up ads and got the word out they needed someone to fight the law. John Scopes and a few friends saw this as an opportunity to draw attention and money to their small shrinking city. About 10 years prior to the trial, Dayton was a semi-large mining city. the mines closed causing 10% of the population to leave. John Scopes contacted the ACLU and came out saying he may have taught evolution while acting as a substitute biology teacher. Tennessee put him on trial at the Rhea County Courthouse. It gained even more traction when William Jennings Bryan, a famous lawyer, and presidential candidate, took the spot of the prosecutor.

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One source says, “William Jennings Bryan was instrumental in getting the resolution passed in his adoptive state.” When Clarence Darrow, an atheist lawyer, found out, he volunteered to be John’s defendant free of charge. The trial began on July 10, 1925 -the middle of the summer. Everyone attending the first day, the bailiff, judge, jury, Darrow, Scopes, and Bryan took their seats. The first-ever radio broadcast trial was opened with a prayer. This right angered Clarence as it was known by all that he did not believe in a higher power. He once said ‘The fact that my father was a heretic always put him on the defensive,” and later, “We children thought it was only right and loyal that we should defend his cause.’ The ego-filled opening statements began followed by the witnesses. Darrow had scholars on evolution take the stand for his case, Clarence brought them in until the judge, John Raulston, stopped them and said otherwise. Bryan chuckled at the fact that Clarence’s defense was crumbling from beneath him. Darrow quickly became even more angry and tense. Suddenly he was not so mad, he had thought of a mischievous plan. If he could not put up his scholars he would put up his client’s prosecutor. Once on the stand, he began asking questions to Bryan about the Bible and the basic physics of our solar system.

According to transcripts, Darrow asked- “Have you ever wondered what would naturally happen to the earth if it stood still suddenly?” Bryan answered with a simple “No.” Darrow continued- “Don’t you know it would have been converted into a molten mass of matter?” This continued with many questions earning sarcastic answers with applause and cheering from the courtyard. He proved William’s beliefs do not line up and made a fool of him.

The trial continued. In and out of the courtroom, Bryan and Darrow had very heated arguments. Speaking of heated the old courthouse did not have Air conditioning. With the fear of the floors buckling due to how many visitors and reporters were in attendance, the Judge moved the trial outdoors. Bryan spent his free time writing a perfect closing statement to win the case. Darrow got word through the grapevine and again made a fool of William. “Darrow suggested that to save time his client should be found guilty. This prevented Bryan from making a closing statement.” says one source. Though the defendant put much effort into this trial Bryan still won the case and John Thomas Scopes was fined $100, although it was later redacted on a technicality. Sadly, about a week after the trial concluded, William Jennings Bryan passed away. Although the death certificate said he died from diabetes. Many believe he died of stress and embarrassment during the trial.

As I mentioned earlier, The small town was shrinking, until the trial. The small town’s economy started booming and a steady influx of people took their temporary residence at the Aqua Hotel, with a room full of telegram machines and multiple beds in all rooms, reporters, and citizens from all over the country came to see this trial. The town was described as a circus by many reporters and locals. This trial got so big it brought light to the barrier of the Butler Act, while it was not broken, a large crack to the other side of education was made. Forty years later, another man advanced his trial so far that the Butler Act was found unconstitutional of the 1st amendment and repealed. Today, high school teachers spend a piece of a unit teaching evolution theory, science teachers must take lessons on how to make all students feel comfortable in the environment of a secular subject.


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