The Scopes Trial

In mid-July 1925 much of the nation’s attention was focused on the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, where John T. Scopes was on trial for teaching about evolution. Four months earlier, the Tennessee General Assembly had overwhelmingly passed a bill introduced by Representative John W. Butler of Macon County which made it illegal to teach “any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” Governor Austin Peay quickly signed the measure, but stressed that he interpreted the Butler Act as a protest against irreligious tendencies in modern America and doubted that it would be an active statute.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) viewed the Butler Act as unconstitutional and offered to represent a Tennessee educator in a test case of the statute. Learning of this offer, civic leaders in Dayton decided to pursue such a case in an effort to draw publicity to their community. They approached Scopes, a football coach and science teacher at the local high school, and asked him if biology could be taught without mentioning evolution. Scopes replied that he did not think that was possible, especially as the state-approved biology text discussed evolution. Scopes also told the Dayton boosters that he had conducted a biology review session the previous April and had used the textbook. Presumably, although he could not remember this for certain, he had also discussed evolution. By the end of May, Scopes had been indicted for violating the Butler Act by a special grand jury called by local judge John T. Raulston.

When the Scopes trial opened on July 10, 1925, the ACLU defense team included noted attorney John Randolph Neal of Knoxville and, as outside volunteers, Clarence Darrow, Dudley Field Malone, and Arthur Garfield Hays. Assuming that Scopes would be convicted, the ACLU planned to appeal the verdict to higher courts to determine the constitutionality of the Butler Act. The prosecution included Tennessee Attorney General Thomas Stewart and a local lawyer S. K. Hicks, but the most famous member of the team was William Jennings Bryan, who had been invited as a special prosecutor. Although a circus atmosphere surrounded the Dayton proceedings from the beginning, the Scopes trial highlighted issues of national and state significance. Was the Butler Act, as the defense maintained, an attempt to establish the religion of Protestant Fundamentalism and thus a violation of the First Amendment? Was the act a vague statute that did not clearly define what it meant to “teach” evolution? Or was the prosecution correct in its argument that the Butler Act was a legitimate effort by the legislature to control the public school curriculum?

Such issues, however, were largely ignored during the trial, as Judge Raulston ruled out expert testimony concerning the scientific status of evolution and its harmony with the Bible, and the prosecution focused on Scopes’s violation of the act. The dramatic climax of the Scopes trial took place on July 20, when Darrow called Bryan to the stand as an expert witness on the Bible. Despite its irrelevance to the case at hand, Bryan welcomed the opportunity (as he viewed it) to defend traditional religion against the forces of atheism. During the ninety-minute examination, Darrow showed that Bryan’s knowledge of the Bible was imperfect and that the Great Commoner did not believe that every passage in the Bible could be taken literally. Although Bryan’s faith had never been based on a rigid Biblical literalism, his testimony disappointed many of the most extreme fundamentalists.

The exchange between Darrow and Bryan convinced both prosecution and defense that the substantive aspects of the trial had been exhausted. When court reconvened on July 21, therefore, Darrow made a few brief comments to the jury, urging them to convict Scopes and outlining the defense plan for appeal. The jury returned a guilty verdict in less than ten minutes. Judge Raulston levied the minimum fine of one hundred dollars against Scopes, explaining that the local custom in other cases was for the jury to consider fines only if they wished to impose more than the minimum.

Although Bryan’s death in Dayton five days later removed an important symbolic force from the antievolution crusade, the campaign actually gained strength from the Scopes trial. Not only did the trial provide publicity for the movement, but Scopes’s conviction showed that an antievolution statute could be upheld in court. Over the next few years, antievolution bills were introduced in legislatures throughout the United States and were passed in Mississippi and Arkansas. Even in states without antievolution statutes, however, the place of evolution in the biology curriculum remained ambiguous. Local school boards and individual teachers backed away from teaching the concept, while publishers deleted the topic from their biology texts.

As Scopes began graduate study in geology at the University of Chicago, the ACLU appealed his conviction to the Tennessee Supreme Court. A divided court issued its decision in January 1927, announcing that nothing in the Butler Act violated either the state or the federal constitution. Because the statute did not require the teaching of anything, it could not be seen as an attempt to establish religion. Yet Scopes’s conviction could not be upheld. The Tennessee Constitution clearly stated that any fine over fifty dollars was to be levied by the jury. By imposing a higher fine, Judge Raulston had violated the constitution. The court not only reversed Scopes’s conviction, but strongly recommended that the state not retry the case.

The Butler Act remained on the statute books for the next forty years, until the legislature repealed the measure in 1967. Even after repeal, however, the ghost of the Scopes trial continued to haunt the state. As was the case elsewhere, various attempts to eliminate or compromise the teaching of evolution emerged in Tennessee. Such attempts attracted local, national, and international media attention to the state, always identified as the site of the Scopes trial decades earlier. In their campaign to gain publicity, the Dayton boosters of 1925 succeeded better than they could possibly have anticipated.

Suggested Reading

Ray Ginger, Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (1958); George E. Webb, The Evolution Controversy in America (1994)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title The Scopes Trial
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018