The Scopes Trial

Faithless Fairy Tales Part 2

By Jeff Laird

This is the third in a series articles examining how inaccurate, warped versions of real historical events are misused in order to attack Christianity. These Faithless Fairy Tales may satisfy "once upon a time" appetites, but they don't represent the truth. These are some of the more common anti-religious historical myths thrown at Christians, debunked by means of the actual storylines.

Many have heard of the "Scopes Monkey Trial," but few have a clue what really happened. The case is cited as an example of religious zealots persecuting an innocent non-believer, or of blind religious dogma trampling good science, or a victory of reason over superstition. Fictional portrayals such as Inherit the Wind have gone a long way towards perpetuating the bogus vision many people hold about this event. The Scopes Trial is a rare instance where popular perception and the truth are almost polar opposites. Fiction and myth haven't just obscured the story, they've changed it outright. The average person's understanding of the Scopes trial is about as historically accurate as the movie Gladiator.

What is that typical misunderstanding of the Scopes Trial? Something like this:
Scopes was arrested and thrown in jail for teaching evolution. The prosecution refused to consider Darwin's works or scientific evidence, so Scopes was convicted. However, the defense attorney spontaneously called the lead prosecutor, a backwards preacher, to the stand, and embarrassed him so badly he had a heart attack and died. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that teaching evolution could not be made illegal, and Scopes was set free.
Of course, history teachers at large aren't giving this synopsis...exactly...but general education hasn't done much to counter the myth. In my own case, I remember the film Inherit the Wind being shown in a high school history class, in lieu of a detailed discussion. In other words, it was presented to our class with little commentary, other than an indication that the trial was a historical event. In a very meaningful sense, the stage play has become reality in the minds of most people.

Other sources have discussed the inaccuracies of Inherit the Wind; the reader is encouraged to find and process those on their own. Better still would be to learn more about the trial in and of itself, and see how the pop culture myth fails to fit the bill. Resources are available online, including court transcripts, summary after summary, dedicated pages, detailed analysis, personal opinions, and other helpful points of history. For the time being, consider the following, more accurate examination of the trial.


A group of businessmen and atheists, headed by George Rappleyea, engineered the trial as a publicity stunt and test case. The fledgling ACLU had offered to defend anyone charged under the Butler Act *, but the eventual defense team rejected those intentions by attacking religion, rather than the constitutionality of the law. Rappleyea located a volunteer defendant: John Scopes, an athletic coach who sometimes substituted in the principal's science class. Scopes agreed to be charged, and was, in May of 1925, purportedly for teaching evolution.

Not long after the trial was over, Scopes admitted he couldn't remember teaching, or even mentioning evolution; even later, he denied he actually had. It's possible the trial's architects never knew this, though the defense team wisely kept him from testifying in court. At the same time, Scopes and his lawyers encouraged his students to testify — falsely — that he'd taught evolution. He was never behind bars at any point, nor ever at risk of imprisonment, since the maximum possible penalty for violating the Butler Act was a $500 fine.


Rappleyea sent letters to celebrity religious skeptics, encouraging them to join the defense team, seeking publicity. He got plenty when Clarence Darrow got involved. The combination of Darrow, Dudley Malone, and several law professors created a legal juggernaut.

Darrow was, at least in practice, frequently on the side of minorities and the socially outcast. That being said, all of his clients were generally wealthy, paid enormous legal fees, and were accused of various exploitative behaviors. These included thrill-killing aristocrats, gangsters, fraudulent businessmen, and corrupt business tycoons. Darrow stated that his agreement to take on the Scopes case without compensation was "the first, the last, and the only time" he'd ever do such a thing. It was also the only reason the ACLU allowed Darrow to join the team, out of a concern he would do exactly what he did — make the case more about religion than civil rights.

Darrow's participation caused the ACLU's preferred champions, like Charles Evans Hughes and John W. Davis, to decline involvement, to nobody's surprise. To Darrow, the ends — winning — mattered more than anything else, and he suffered professional consequences for his tactics. He was forbidden from practicing law in California. He was forced to practice only criminal law in his latter years, because the legal union had thrown him out. Darrow was also a vehemently, intolerantly anti-religious man, a view inspired by his father's struggles as an atheist. Historians now believe Darrow's primary motivation for joining the defense team was a desire to confront William Bryan about religion.


In comparison to the high-powered legal expertise of the defense, the Scopes' prosecution was mostly local and unremarkable, with the exception of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan had given up law for politics some thirty-plus years prior. He was a progressive Democrat who campaigned aggressively for the rights of the poor and working class. A former — terrible — Secretary of State, presidential candidate, and prolific orator, he had been involved in promoting the Butler Act which Scopes was "accused" of violating. In truth, he was brought in mostly to deliver closing remarks — which he never had the chance to give.

Legally, Bryan was committed to the idea of a state's right to choose their educational curriculum; see his quote later on. At least in theory, and as a theory, Bryan was not opposed to discussions about evolution. In a newspaper editorial, Bryan had said:
The only part of evolution in which any considerable interest is felt is evolution applied to man. A hypothesis in regard to the rocks and plant life does not affect the philosophy upon which one's life is built. Evolution applied to fish, birds, and beasts would not materially affect man's view of his own responsibilities…
Bryan's primary, and most serious objection to Evolution was its use in justifying eugenics and social Darwinism. This was the root motivation for his very public, very passionate campaign against it. This was not without reason; the very textbook Scopes supposedly used to teach evolution, Civic Biology by George W. Hunter, told students there were five separate races of men, describing white Caucasians as the "highest type," the top of the evolutionary ladder. The textbook also stated that the disparity between monkeys and the more evolved apes was the same as the disparity between apes and the "lower" human races.

In particular, Bryan was appalled by statements such as the one made by none other than Clarence Darrow himself, seven years earlier in the Washington Post: "Chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live."

To be fair, if unflattering, Darrow was a renowned flip-flopper who routinely changed his stance on issues, depending on who he was representing and how obstinate he felt at a given moment. Whether he actually believed the statement above or not, it was precisely the kind of attitude Bryan feared becoming mainstream.


The prosecution's goal and strategy were both simple: provide evidence Scopes had violated the Butler Act by teaching evolution in a public school. This, one has to remember, was the sole legal basis for the trial, and should have been the only subject under discussion. So the prosecution made no attempt to disprove or even discuss the scientific theory. As Bryan noted beforehand:
…I am perfectly willing to go into the question of evolution, [but] I am not sure that it is involved. The right of the people speaking through the legislature, to control the schools which they create and support is the real issue as I see it.
Darrow, however, characterized the Butler Act in trial as, "foolish, mischievous, and wicked brazen and bold an attempt to destroy liberty as ever was seen in the Middle Ages." As a result, the trial essentially became a shouting match over religion and religious interpretation.


Despite the typical assumption that Darrow was a well-read skeptic exposing Bryan as a religious bumpkin, Bryan was far more versed in the actual science involved with Darwin's theory. Darrow was a voracious reader, and a brilliant man. Yet, he confessed he hadn't read any further than 50 pages into Darwin's Origin... because he found it overly difficult to understand. Bryan had read Darwin's books decades before the trial, and quoted them during his discussions. While he seems to have misunderstood some of what Darwin implied, he was much more astute in his awareness of evolutionary theory than insulting depictions, such as Inherit the Wind, would lead one to believe.

The jury was, in truth, forbidden to hear expert testimony about evolution. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, though, evolution was not on trial, Scopes was, for (purportedly) violating a law. Presiding judge John T. Raulston did ask for considerable volumes of scientific testimony to be submitted in written form, so it would be useable in a future appeal.


The trial moved from spectacle to legend when the prosecution called for Bryan to appear as a witness. Though he was neither a preacher, a priest, nor a theologian, he was ostensibly requested as an expert on the Bible. Inherit the Wind depicts this as a last-minute flutter by a defense attorney forbidden to discuss actual evidence. In reality, it was a well-planned trap. Darrow held mock examinations, and spent the nights before the summons preparing his questions. His questioning had little to do with the law, and everything to do with deriding religion, the Bible, and fundamentalism.

When called, Bryan repeatedly stated his understanding that he was going to be offered an equivalent opportunity to call Darrow to the stand in regards to Darwinism. With that promise in mind, he agreed to speak as an expert on the Bible. This was in no small part Bryan's attempt to counter Darrow's constant courtroom insults against all things Christian. And, as Bryan would state several times, to show that he was neither afraid nor ashamed to discuss what he believed, and why, under any circumstances.

Bryan was elderly, out of shape, and a week from his own natural death, being interrogated outdoors in brutal heat by an infamous, experienced trial lawyer. Yet, transcripts and other accounts clearly refute the idea that Darrow out-smarted, out-dueled, or otherwise destroyed Bryan, in dramatic or mundane fashion. Many legal experts who examine the transcripts, in fact, agree that Darrow came across as petty and shallow; Bryan confident, but increasingly defensive and angry. Some, like famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz, think Bryan won the exchange outright.

Darrow's real intent was to erode Bryan's popular support, and to get in his digs at religion. He did this using a tactic the internet turned into an epidemic: blitzing an opponent with shallow questions, without leaving any room for actual discussion; that is, seeking a popularity-based win via arrogance and derision. Ironically, most of the damage to Bryan's popularity came not because Bryan was outed as a simplistic literalist, but because he was outed as a non-simplistic, non-literalist. His stance was more reserved, and more nuanced, than some of his less sophisticated supporters might have preferred.

Bryan freely testified to his view: the Bible was not meant to be read absolutely literally in all parts, but rather was to be understood in proper context. This is actually how most "fundamentalists," even of that day, would characterize their position, but such things don't play out well in courtroom exchanges or hostile newspaper accounts. During his testimony, Bryan avoided dogmatism on a 6,000-year-old figure for the age of the Earth, considering it only a human calculation, and thus potentially in error. He accepted that the "days" of creation might well have been long periods of time. This was not under pressure, or a backtrack, but his first and repeated answer to that question from Darrow.

Reading the transcripts, one gets the sense Bryan realized the trap he'd fallen into, but too late. The courtroom setting made it easy for Darrow, an experienced and manipulative attorney, to bring up issues which could easily be misunderstood or misconstrued, and to switch subjects before Bryan could really answer fully. One-sided cross-examination is not the same thing as thoughtful discussion. Bryan's increasingly short temper on the stand seems to confirm his dawning realization. The manipulative way in which Darrow prevented Bryan from making any further statements in the trial all but cements his intent in calling Bryan to the stand.

Unfortunately, Darrow's trap had his desired effect. Most press on the case was based on hearsay and spin, such as from anti-theist H.L. Mencken, whose reports were more satirical snipes than factual reports. In fact, Mencken had left Tennessee, along with most of the press corps, once Judge John Raulston disallowed testimony about evolution in front of the jury. Whereas those present had a more favorable view of Bryan's performance than Darrow's, the hostile perspective of the national media cemented the widespread misconception that Bryan had been embarrassed.

Bryan certainly stumbled at times, at least in his oration, if not in his principles. But commentators who claim Bryan looked foolish do so from a backwards perspective: they read the biases of pop culture back into what they see in the historical record. For instance, one famous quote from Bryan's testimony is this:
DARROW: What do you think?
BRYAN: I do not think about things I don't think about.
DARROW: Do you think about things you do think about?
This is usually presented as if Bryan were making ignorance a point of pride, or stammering in confusion. In reality, Darrow was asking Bryan if he'd personally calculated the lengths of genealogies in Genesis, a point Bryan had said was not of particular importance to him, given his approach to the Bible. When Darrow insisted on asking Bryan his opinion on them, Bryan simply stated, as a truism, that he could not have an opinion on something he had not considered. Those who spin this exchange otherwise are betraying a serious prejudice.

After two hours of questioning, Raulston struck Bryan's testimony from the record and declined him the chance to cross-examine Darrow. With witnesses and evidence accounted for, all that was left were closing statements. However, according to Tennessee law, the prosecution could only make a final statement if the defense did so as well. So, Darrow cleverly waived his summary statement at the end of the trial. The net effect was to make Bryan's testimony — with no chance of rebuttal or counter-questioning — his last appearance in the case.

It's common knowledge in sports, debate, politics, and martial arts that defense is never perfect; offense has to be part of the battle plan. The inability of Bryan to return fire at Darrow was a major factor in the perception that he'd been beaten. Darrow's trickery allowed him to throw stones without having to dodge any of his own. Bryan's death a few days later was unrelated to the trial, but it did prohibit him from clarifying his remarks, countering his critics, or regaining his standing.


At the end of the trial, Darrow specifically asked the jury to find Scopes guilty, so the case could be taken to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The jury returned a "guilty" verdict after only a few minutes' deliberation, and the judge imposed a $100 fine. Bryan, who had actually argued against there being any monetary penalties in the Butler Act in the first place, offered to pay the fine for Scopes. After appeal, the state supreme court dismissed the fine on a technicality, as only juries could impose fines greater than $50. The same court refused to hear an appeal of the case, out of exasperation with its theatrics, but did not strike down the Butler Act, citing the state's right to control education curriculum. The court also noted that no real purpose would be served by pursuing the specific instance on trial.

Bryan died in his sleep a few days after the trial; he had been traveling and delivering speeches up to the night of his death. Over-eating and poorly managed diabetes are generally blamed for this. Bryan was not driven to his death by the stress of the trial, though Mencken was reported to have bragged "we killed the bastard," to Darrow.

Tennessee repealed The Butler Act in 1967, one year before the US Supreme Court declared such bans unconstitutional.


The Scopes Trial was more or less forgotten by the public until Inherit the Wind was published thirty years later. Inherit the Wind was intended to oppose McCarthyism; it was styled in much the same way as The Crucible: history used as loose inspiration for a very non-historical theme. Unfortunately, most people's perception of the trial comes from these fictional portrayals. The play was made into Hollywood and made-for-TV movies, and before long it had displaced factual history as the common assessment of the Scopes trial.

More than anything else, the Scopes Trial was grandstanding of the highest order. The issue in question — did Scopes violate the Butler Act or not? — hardly came up at all. The defense used duplicitous tactics to bait the prosecution into defending the Bible, rather than the law, and to evade any threat of being similarly questioned. Scopes isn't an example of religion trampling science, or of heroic reason conquering superstition, but one of attention-seeking publicity stunts taking advantage of the legal system.

All in all, the Scopes Trial was a chance for anti-religionists to smear Christianity without having to contend on equal terms. Sadly, what's happened in the blurring of history and Hollywood since then has really accomplished more of the same. Accepting the mythical version of the Scopes Trial doesn't just make a mockery of the truth, it makes a monkey out of history.

* "The Butler Act provided: "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." — Wikipedia

Published 7-1-14