The Scopes Trial

Faithless Fairy Tales Part 3

By Jeff Laird

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Continued from Page Two

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.

In the next installment of Faithless Fairy Tales, I'll take a closer look at the infamous Crusades, commonly used as example of bloodthirsty Christianity and the evils of religion.

Faithless Fairy Tales:
Part 1: Galileo
Part 2: The Scopes Trial
Part 3: The Crusades
Part 4: The Spanish Inquisition

Image Credit: Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial in 1925.

TagsControversial-Issues  |  History-Apologetics  |  Science-Creation
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Published 7-1-2014