The Scopes “Monkey” Trial: A Landmark Moment in American Religion

One of the defining features of the United States both historically and today is its unique religious landscape. Particularly prominent in this landscape is the Christian Fundamentalist movement, a movement that has largely taken shape in the United States in the 20th century and has had a major effect on the United States in its political, cultural, educational, and social life during that time. One aspect of the influence that Christian Fundamentalism has had on the United States is in the debate over science education, human origins, and evolution. The so-called “Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’” is a landmark in this debate and an important case study in the ongoing struggles of communities of faith and doubt to define themselves and shape America according to their respective ideals.

While there are certain earlier antecedents in Christian thought that point towards the development of Christian Fundamentalism, its roots are most readily located in the 19th century. The 19th century was a period of rapid and profound change in both Europe and the United States. The rise of the Industrial Revolution brought about a great deal of new technology, which changed the way people lived their daily lives both at work and at home. Simultaneously, new ideas, which had simmered under the surface and had been largely the purview only of certain educated minorities until that point, began to gain popular currency. As A.N. Wilson succinctly states it in his history of doubt in Victorian England, God’s Funeral, “the ideas which undermined nineteenth-century religion took shape in the eighteenth century.”1

Among these ideas were the scathing attacks of Edward Gibbon upon the history of the Christian Church. His Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, especially in its fifteenth and sixteenth chapters, which discussed the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, became infamous for its attacks upon some of the most revered figures and sacred ideals of Christianity.2 In addition to these attacks upon the mythology that had developed around Christian history as a whole, more specific attacks were launched against the sacred center point and beginning of Christian history as it was recorded in the New Testament. David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus, originally published in German in 1835-6 and translated shortly thereafter into English, became a surprisingly popular read in England and the United States.3 Through the book, Strauss was able to popularize the ideas that had been circulating among academic circles in Germany which treated the Gospels and other sacred writings of Christianity the same as any other ancient work and led to the claim that much of the life of Christ as it was recorded in the Gospels was myth, including the miracles and the very central claim of Christianity: the resurrection. Perhaps the biggest shock of all to 19th century Christians was a new scientific theory introduced to the public in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Darwin’s theory of evolution, which posited that all species, including human beings, held common descent and had evolved through the process of natural selection, called into question the account of creation found in Genesis, the idea of a provident creator-god, and the very concept of human uniqueness. Viewed by many in the 19th century and since as “modern science’s culminating triumph over traditional religion, Darwin’s theory of evolution” was the culminating and deepest blow to 19th century Christian faith.4

The responses by Christians to these new challenges were various. The Roman Catholic Church, in an attempt to evade another affair like the 17th century trial of Galileo, a permanent source of criticism and mockery, assumed an officially moderate stance in which it affirmed both the traditional and central claims of Christianity while allowing that modern scientific theory and biblical criticism may be correct within their sphere of concern as well. The Orthodox Church, largely cut off from the currents of Western thought by a combination of geography and historical circumstance, remained largely unaffected by these new ideas and assumed no official stance, though reaction among individual thinkers within the Orthodox Church was largely consonant with the Catholic stance. It was among Protestants that these new ideas made the greatest ripples. Reactions among Protestants generally took one of two forms, either accommodation and adaptation or retrenchment and counterattack.

Those who adopted the former course of action came to be labeled “liberals” or “modernists.” This group accepted the new theories, often in their totality, and altered their central message to fit accordingly. In so doing, according to historian Harold Carl, they “believed they were rescuing religion from doctrinal bondage and obscurity” and making “Christianity palatable to modern people.”5 Many of them abandoned the belief in miracles, even in the resurrection of Christ, and the traditional Christian dogmas of sin, redemption, and salvation, in favor of a version of Christianity in line with modern science and higher criticism of the Bible. They focused instead on the social implications of the message of the Bible, such as egalitarianism and care for the poor and oppressed, often ignoring the dogmatic and doctrinal altogether. In his 1938 book The Kingdom of God in America, Protestant Neo-Orthodox theologian H. Richard Niebuhr satirically summarized the Gospel of the liberals as the belief that “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”6

Those who assumed the latter course of retrenchment and counterattack saw the liberals as traitors to the Christian faith. “It is this group,” says Carl, “—the vocal and the intransigent—who began to publicly attack liberalism in the early 1900s and who eventually took on the name ‘fundamentalists.’”7 Originally emerging from the ranks of clergy of the Presbyterian Church but later encompassing a variety of denominations, this group “would not budge on any point.”8 Even Christians who were not liberals had been willing to concede certain points of modern science and higher criticism as acceptable, but the Fundamentalists would have none of it.

A series of books published in 1910-5 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth provided the name for this movement.9 The books in the series consist of essays written by a large group of theologians, professors, and clergymen aligning themselves with this new conservative movement in Christianity. The included essays addressed such topics as “the Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch,” “Internal Evidence of the Fourth Gospel,” “the Recent Testimony of Archeology to the Scriptures,” and “the Decadence of Darwinism.”10 Nearly any perceived threat, from Darwinism to liberalism to Roman Catholicism, was attacked and the unwavering position of the authors in clinging to Protestant orthodoxy was clearly affirmed; Christian Fundamentalism was born.

The 1920s were a decade largely marked by conservatism in American politics and culture. Following the brutality and upheaval of World War I and the Progressive politics of the previous two decades, Americans longed for a simpler time. According to historian John Milton Cooper, Jr., President Warren G. Harding was elected on a platform that promised a return to the “normalcy,” a word he coined, of “pre-war quiescence and detachment in foreign policy, and of calmer times at home.”11 Manipulating the same distant memories of a better past, the Ku Klux Klan gained enormous popularity. As many as 40,000 members demonstrated in front of the White House in 1925. Christian Fundamentalism found a natural home in the minds of many American Christians of this era, including many in positions of power and influence.

Through the combination of popular conservatism and those adherents to Fundamentalism who were in positions of power, Fundamentalism was able to begin making a major effect on American culture and politics from a very early date in its history. On 13 March 1925, the state legislature of Tennessee passed a law, the Butler Act, ordering

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.12

John Washington Butler, a Christian Fundamentalist and Tennessee legislator who had introduced the law and for whom the law was named, knew very little about the science behind evolutionary theory but was influenced to oppose it by the work of William Jennings Bryan, an influential politician who had been a presidential candidate as well as a secretary of state. Bryan, a conservative Presbyterian who aligned himself with the Fundamentalist movement, had supported a number of conservative Christian causes throughout his career in politics, including prohibitionism and pacifism; he had now turned his sights on Darwinism.

Following the passage of the law, the American Civil Liberties Union set out to challenge it. In May 1925, John T. Scopes, a high school sports coach who sometimes acted as a substitute teacher for a biology class, agreed to be charged with violating the law in order to bring it to court. Scopes, however, quickly took a backseat in his own trial. Two other very imposing figures took center stage. William Jennings Bryan agreed to participate in the trial on behalf of the prosecution and Clarence Darrow, a famous trial lawyer and self-identified agnostic, agreed to enter on behalf of the defense. Media across the country began following the trial and reporting on it if it were an epic battle between faith and disbelief; poised on one side was Bryan, the man of faith and an emerging spokesman for the Fundamentalist movement, and on the other was Darrow, the rationalistic freethinker and opponent of biblical faith.

In spite of all else that occurred during the course of the eight days of the trial, “it was a heated, two-hour exchange” between Darrow and Bryan “that, in the end, did not affect the case as much as it did the nation” that has been remembered.13 The 1955 play, made into a film in 1960, Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized dramatization of the trial, particularly worked to crystallize this exchange as the defining moment in the trial, as it portrayed the confrontation between the two as the climax of the trial. The popular record has also remembered Darrow as outsmarting Bryan during their exchange and Bryan as being narrow-minded and ignorant. This is the version of events that is presented in Inherit the Wind and it is certainly the image that Darrow sought to create in the debate.

The actual exchange, however, indicates a more nuanced and complex picture. In fact, Darrow often appears to be the narrow-minded bigot whereas Bryan appears more ready for compromise and dialogue. Darrow returns, for example, several times over to the question of the age of the earth in spite of Bryan’s willingness to concede that he does not know the age of the earth and that it may in fact be “six million years or … six hundred million years” old.14 Similarly, Darrow seems at several points in their exchange to insist that the Bible be interpreted even more literally than Bryan interprets it. For example, he questions Bryan concerning the length of the days of creation found in the opening chapter of Genesis in the Bible several times, seeming to insist that Bryan interpret them as literal days and ignoring Bryan’s clear statements that he does not believe them to be literal days. One example of this recurrent line of questioning is in this bizarre exchange:

MR. DARROW–Do you think those were literal days?
MR. BRYAN–My impression is they were periods, but I would not attempt to argue as against anybody who wanted to believe in literal days.
MR. DARROW–Have you any idea of the length of the periods?
MR. BRYAN–NO, I don’t.
MR. DARROW–Do you think the sun was made on the fourth day?
MR. BRYAN–Yes.
MR. DARROW–And they had evening and morning without the sun?
MR. BRYAN–I am simply saying it is a period.
MR. DARROW–They had evening and morning for four periods without the sun, do you think?15

The perception of the cross-examination of Bryan by Darrow as one in which the unbeliever outsmarted the believer, as oversimplified as this is shown to be when compared to the actual content of the trial transcript, is one that has colored subsequent understandings of the trial as well as subsequent debates between believers and unbelievers. In many ways, this misunderstanding of the exchange between Bryan and Darrow has come to characterize the entire debate between Fundamentalists and other conservative believers on the one hand and unbelievers and liberal Christians on the other hand. It has also colored subsequent debates over religion’s place in American society, politics, and especially education. The view of Bryan as simpleminded and backwards has become a caricature applied to Christian Fundamentalists in general.

A recent example of this recurring caricature and the continuation of some the themes present in Darrow’s cross-examination of Bryan, even outside of the United States, is in the recent debate between Richard Dawkins, a scientist and prominent atheist, and Archbishop Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church. The article published on the website of The Independent, a popular London newspaper, about the event is indicative of this caricature. The very title of the article, “God vs Science: Richard Dawkins takes on Archbishop of Canterbury,” implies that the Christian participant stands opposed to scientific ideas.16 During the course of the debate itself, Dawkins seemed surprised that Williams, who is neither a Fundamentalist nor a modernist, was willing to state that he did not believe in a literal Adam and Eve and that humans had non-human ancestors. Dawkins admitted that he was “baffled by the way sophisticated theologians who know Adam and Eve never existed still keep talking about it,” to which statement the Archbishop countered that the Genesis narrative is not about scientific theories but about deeper truths about God and man.17 Such an exchange is highly reminiscent of Darrow’s adoption of and insistence upon a more literal understanding of Genesis than that of Bryan and his subsequent bafflement at Bryan’s refusal to adopt that narrow, literalistic understanding.

The stereotyping of each side by the other in debates over faith and doubt continues to fall into the narrow categories represented by Darrow and Bryan in the popular remembrance of the Scopes Trial and presented by each in their accusations hurled at the other. Bryan’s claim that skeptics “have no other purpose than ridiculing every person who believes in the Bible” remains a refrain of many on the side of faith and especially in the Fundamentalist camp today, whereas Darrow’s characterization of Bryan and his party as “bigots and ignoramuses” remains the common view of many unbelievers of all believers generally but especially of Fundamentalists.18 Just as in the Scopes Trial, however, the reality is never so simple. On the contrary, as was exhibited by the remarkably cordial and thoughtful nature of the exchange between Dawkins and Williams, which nearly every media outlet that reported on the debate expressed surprise at, there are clearly intelligent and well-meaning people on both sides of the issues. As this debate which began in the Enlightenment and has run through Western popular thought and culture for nearly two centuries continues and as each side in it attempts to reshape culture according to its own view, overcoming the legacy of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial and remembering that the other side does not consist of “bigots and ignoramuses” but others who have simply reached different conclusions may be the most important thing any participant can do.

Notes

1 A.N. Wilson, God’s Funeral(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999), 19.

2 Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1(Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 179-234.

3 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 187.

4 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View(New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 284.

5 Harold Carl, “User-Friendly Faith,” Christian History, “Issue 55: The Monkey Trial & the Rise of Fundamentalism,” accessed 17 October 2012, http://www.christianhistorymagazine.org/wp-content/wS8wVsy62N/chm55-bTjfN.pdf.

6 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 193.

7 Carl, “User-Friendly Faith.”

8 Ibid.

9 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 118.

10 A.C. Dixon, R.A. Torrey and Shaun Aisbitt, “The Fundamentals of the Christian Faith” (1 January 2003) accessed 17 October 2012, http://web.archive.org/web/20030101082327/http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Parthenon/6528/fundcont.htm.

11 John Milton Cooper, Jr. Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1990), 366. 

12 University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law, “Tennessee Anti-evolution Statute,” accessed 17 October 2012, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/tennstat.htm.

13 David Goetz, “The Monkey Trial,” Christian History, “Issue 55: The Monkey Trial & the Rise of Fundamentalism,” accessed 17 October 2012, http://www.christianhistorymagazine.org/wp-content/wS8wVsy62N/chm55-bTjfN.pdf.

14 Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, “Between the Wars: The Monkey Trial,” accessed 17 October 2012, http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/hist409/scopes.html.

15 Ibid.

16 Tim Walker, “Science vs God: Richard Dawkins takes on Archbishop of Canterbury,” The Independent(24 February 2012), accessed 17 October 2012, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/science-vs-god-richard-dawkins-takes-on-archbishop-of-canterbury-7440051.html.

17 Ibid.

18 Roy Rosenzweig Center, “Between the Wars.”
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One comment

  1. David,

    Although this is generally a reasonably fair summary of fundamentalism and the Scopes trial, I do take issue with your concluding remarks that both sides are guilty of stereotyping the other side. Of course, it wouldn't be hard to find some on each side who do this, but I dispute that each side does it anything like equally.

    Indeed, your example from the “fundamentalist” side is misrepresented. Bryan was not referring to “skeptics” generally, but to Darrow and his team in particular.

    More specifically in the creation/evolution/ID debate, leading anti-creationists repeatedly resort to mockery, ridicule, and outright insult, seemingly as a debating tactic. In fact anti-IDer Larry Moran, a University of Toronto professor, has attempted to justify calling his opponents “IDiots”. I document this and other examples at http://www.astorehouseofknowledge.info/w/Creation-evolution_controversy#Ridicule_and_vilification and http://www.astorehouseofknowledge.info/w/Suppression_of_academic_dissent#Vilification.

    In contrast, I would challenge you to find anything as abusive from any spokesman for any of the leading creationist or ID groups. You won't find it. In fact, even the anti-creationists/anti-IDers agree. As is cited at http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/03/jason_rosenhous058021.html, the critics admit that the creationists behave civilly.

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