Scopes trial: The trial of the century and why it still matters today

by guest columnists Gwen Pirtle and Jerry Coryell, New Mexico, USA

A momentous trial—some say a major turning point in US history—occurred 80 years ago this month.

In 1925, George Rappleyea, a Dayton, Tennessee coal plant manager, read an article in the Chattanooga Daily Times, in which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated that it was looking for a Tennessee teacher willing to accept the ACLU’s services to challenge the recently passed Butler Act. The Act forbade public education institutions from teaching that man was descended from a lower form of life.

The next day, at a gathering of Dayton town leaders at Robinson’s Drug Store, Rappleyea proposed holding a trial that would test the constitutionality of Tennessee’s new anti-evolution law as a public relations ploy, intended to boost Dayton’s ailing economy.   

The town leaders agreed and asked 25-year-old John T. Scopes, who was in his first year as a science teacher and football coach at Dayton High School, if he would be willing to volunteer as the defendant in a test case of the Butler Act. Scopes agreed. At the time, Dayton’s leaders didn’t know that the trial would turn out to be one of the most important court cases of the 20th century.

It is not commonly known that Scopes was not even a biology teacher and he had never taught evolution. Scopes had filled in for the regular biology teacher for two weeks during an illness and used the state-approved biology text, which contained a section on human evolution. The town leaders decided it was enough for the trial.

In mid-May, William Jennings Bryan, a Christian and former presidential candidate who believed in the revealed Word and who was perhaps the greatest orator of the day, telegraphed local prosecutors and expressed his willingness to be a member of the prosecution team, which the prosecutors accepted.

It was at this stage that Clarence Darrow, a self-professed agnostic and probably the best-known trial lawyer in America at the time, heard about the case and volunteered his services for the defense for free. The involvement of the national figures of Bryan and Darrow placed what otherwise could have been an obscure trial into the national spotlight. Reporters from all over the country traveled to Dayton to cover the trial, and the trial was broadcast live on radio.

So what was the Scopes trial about? The defendant, his local counsel and Dayton’s businessmen were eager for the publicity. Suddenly their small town was in the national news, and the local businessmen expected the visitors to boost revenue considerably. For his part, Bryan considered the trial to be mainly about majority rule and democracy. The ACLU saw it as a matter of freedom of speech and intellectual freedom. It was said that two models of democracy were clashing.

Darrow saw a chance to ridicule Christianity on a scale previously unforeseen. He shifted the focus of the trial away from the democratic issues to a debate about creation and evolution.

On July 10, 1925, the Scopes trial opened in the Rhea County Court House in Dayton and dragged on for 12 days in the sweltering heat. The Scopes trial’s significance is that it fueled the public debate over creation and evolution that has continued into the 21st century. The debate has far-reaching implications in our increasingly secular society, since evolution has helped undermine: the validity of the Declaration of Independence that asserts our Creator has endowed men with certain inalienable rights—i.e., life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; our system of government; our civil rights; sanctity of human life; and whether absolute truth exists as the basis of our legal system.

The debate is just as relevant today as it was 80 years ago since America’s broad acceptance of the theory of evolution has brought the country to a crisis. Symptoms of this crisis are abortion on demand; the debate over human embryonic stem-cell research; the removal of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Supreme Court House and other places; and the death of Terri Schiavo.

To dispel the many myths surrounding the Scopes trial and to educate the public about the creation-evolution debate, Creation Science Fellowship of New Mexico is sponsoring the re-enactment of the Scopes Trial titled “Monkey in the Middle” by Gale Johnson, which uses the verbatim transcript of the trial. The performance will be held in the historic KiMo Theatre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on July 29 and 30, 2005.

The performance also will be produced in Dayton, Tenn., on July 15–17 as part of the Scopes Festival.

Published: 1 July 2005