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Was William Jennings Bryan a monkey?

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(Submitted as a research project for a college liberal arts class)

December 8, 2009

The Scopes Evolution Trial better known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial” which took place from July 10-21, 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee was held in regard to the teaching of evolution per the Butler Act.  It is regarded as one of the most famous trials in American history and many people are familiar with the name of the case itself.  But beyond that, very little factual information is available about the trial and what facts are generally public knowledge are often misconstrued due to false impressions.

The conventional view is that in the wake of the Scopes trial, a humiliated fundamentalist movement retreated into the political and cultural background, a viewpoint evidenced in the movie “Inherit the Wind” and the majority of contemporary historical accounts. “Inherit the Wind” itself while on the surface was about the Scopes Trial, it was in actuality a commentary on McCarthyism.

The Scopes Trial neither fully settled the issue of evolution nor creation.  However, the true purpose of the trial wasn’t even for the purpose of settling the issue, but merely to generate publicity and tourism dollars.  It speaks to how news is often generated for such purposes and not merely to inform the public.

The Butler Act which passed on March 13, 1925 read:

AN ACT prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, 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.

Section 2. Be it further enacted, That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act, Shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred $ (100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($ 500.00) Dollars for each offense.

Section 3. Be it further enacted, That this Act take effect from and after its passage, the public welfare requiring it.1

By the terms of the statute, it was not illegal to teach that apes descended from a previous species, to teach the mechanisms of natural selection, or to teach the prevailing scientific theories of the age of the Earth. It did not even require that the Genesis story be taught.   It prohibited only the teaching that man evolved, or any other theory denying that man was created by God as recorded in Genesis.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to defend anyone accused of teaching the theory of evolution in defiance of the Butler Act.  They placed an ad in a Chattanooga area newspaper that George Rappleyea, a Dayton businessman and mine owner was reading.  He convinced a group of businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee that the controversy of such a trial would give Dayton much needed publicity. With their agreement, he called in his friend, 24-year-old John T. Scopes, who was Clark County High School’s football coach and had substituted for Principal Ferguson in a science class. Rappleyea asked Scopes to teach the theory of evolution.  Rappleyea pointed out that while the Butler Act prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution, the state required teachers to use a textbook, which explicitly described and endorsed the theory of evolution, and that teachers were therefore effectively required to break the law.  Scopes mentioned that while he couldn’t remember if he actually taught evolution in class, he did however go through the evolution chart and chapter with the class. Scopes added to the group “If you can prove that I’ve taught evolution and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I’ll be willing to stand trial.”2

While the trial has been portrayed as a victory for teaching of evolution and a defeat of fundamentalism, the cause of fundamentalism’s retreat was the death of its leader, William Jennings Bryan.  In fact, most fundamentalists saw the trial as a victory and not a defeat, but Bryan’s death soon after created a leadership void that no other fundamentalist leader could fill. Bryan, unlike the other leaders, brought name recognition, respectability, and the ability to forge a broad-based coalition of fundamentalist and mainline religious groups to argue for the anti-evolutionist position.3 Several magazines of the time such as the New Republic and Life took a very low view of Williams Jennings Bryan and Tennessee in particular stating that the state was “not up to date in its attitude to such things as evolution.”4 H. L. Mencken, whose syndicated columns from Dayton for the Baltimore Sun drew vivid caricatures of the “backward” local populace apparently were very effective in negatively portraying the residents of Dayton and Tennessee.5

Since William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor in the case died just five days after the trial ended, there wasn’t much of a chance to get his perspective on the trial or why he decided to take the case.  Perhaps one reason for taking the case was that he worried that Darwin’s theories were being used by supporters of a growing eugenics movement that was advocating Social Darwinism.6  More likely, the “Great Commoner” came to view his participation in the trial both out of concern that the teaching of evolution would undermine traditional values as well as the view that eugenics if allowed to go unchallenged would be used to eliminate “inferior stock” which was a buzz word for the types of people he had long supported such as the poor and outcasts in society.

The highlight of the trial was Clarence Darrow questioning Bryan on the stand on the seventh day. A number of questions were posed by Darrow to Bryan such as how Eve was created, how old the Earth was and the population of Egypt in ancient times.  Ultimately, Scopes never testified since there was never a factual issue as to whether he had taught evolution. Scopes later admitted that, in reality, he was unsure of whether he had taught evolution (another reason the defense did not want him to testify), but the point was not contested at the trial.

After eight days of trial, it took the jury only nine minutes to deliberate. Scopes was found guilty on July 21 and ordered to pay $100.00 fine (approximately $1,150 when adjusted for inflation). Judge Raulston imposed the fine before Scopes was given an opportunity to say anything about why the court should not impose punishment upon him and after Neal brought the error to the judge’s attention. The case was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court due to this technicality since only juries can levy fines.7

The trial escalated the political and legal struggles between strict creationists and evolutionists to influence the extent to which evolution would be taught as science in Arizona and California schools. Before the Dayton trial, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Kentucky had dealt with anti-evolution laws or riders to educational appropriations bills.

After Scopes was convicted,creationists throughout the United States sought similar anti-evolution laws for their states.8

By 1927, there were 13 states that considered some form of anti-evolution law. At least 41 bills or resolutions were introduced into the state legislatures, with some states facing the issue repeatedly. While most of these efforts were rejected, both Mississippi and Arkansas put anti-evolution laws on the books after the Scopes trial that would outlive the Butler Act.  The Butler Act ended up serving as a model for the anti-evolution crusade, and the ACLU could not find a teacher to volunteer for another test case.  The Butler Act itself remained on the books until 1967 until it was repealed by an act of the Tennessee legislature. 9

It read: Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee:

Section 1. Section 49 – 1922,Tennessee Code Annotated, is repealed.

Section 2. This Act shall take effect September 1, 1967.

Passed : May 13, 1967.

Works Cited

1. Tennessee Evolution Statutes: PUBLIC ACTS OF THE STATE OF TENNESSEE


Accessed October 15, 2009

2. Linder, Douglas O. Statev. John Scopes (“The Monkey Trial”)

Accessed October 15, 2009

3. Cornelius, R.M. Bryan and the Scopes Trail,

Accessed October 15, 2009

4. Hollister, Howard K. “TennesseeGoes Fundamentalist,” New Republic 42 (April 29, 1925): 258–60

5. Mecklen, H.L. “A Religious Orgy in Tennessee A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial”, 2006

6. Coletta, Paolo E., William Jennings, Bryan 3rdvolume, 1964

7. Decision on Scopes’ Appeal to the Supreme Court of Tennessee


Opinion filed January 17, 1927

8. Anti-Evolution and the Law

Accessed November 30, 2009


Accessed November 30, 2009

Written by chrisforliberty

August 25, 2010 at 12:21 am

Posted in U.S. History

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