John Scopes was charged with violating Tennessee law by teaching evolution in a public school. His trial transfixed the nation

1925: the ‘monkey trial’: John Scopes was charged with violating Tennessee law by teaching evolution in a public school. His trial transfixed the nation

Sam Roberts


To help students understand the Scopes trial, a landmark legal battle between science and religion.

CRITICAL THINKING: Note Darrow’s unusual move of calling prosecution attorney Bryan as a defense witness. Should the judge have allowed a prosecution lawyer to appear as a defense witness? Was Darrow trying to elicit expert information from Bryan or was he ridiculing him?

CHALLENGING THE SYSTEM: Ask students to think about how and why teacher Scopes and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law in Tennessee, rather than abide by it.

In particular, ask students why they think the ACLU wanted to force a court fight over teaching evolution. (To this day, the ACLU has both staunch supporters and vocal critics, but students should understand that its self-described function is to defend civil liberties protected by the Constitution.)

Whatever students think of the ACLU or evolution, they should recognize Scopes’s courage. Would students take a stand to defend a practice, policy, or cause they believe in? Remind students of other Americans who stood up against popular opinion. Oliver and Leola Brown, parents of Linda Brown (Brown v. Board of Education), and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are examples of courageous people who stood up against social and legal constraints.


* Do you believe the Tennessee law violated the First Amendment bar against “establishment of religion”?

* Why do you think disagreement over teaching evolution still rages, 80 years after the Scopes trial?

EXTRA CREDIT: You might rent the video of the 1960 film Inherit the Wind (PG; 128 min.) for showing in or out of class. Students can either write a brief analysis of the film or use it as the foundation for further class discussion.

FAST FACT: Scopes went on to receive a master’s degree in geology from the University of Chicago and later worked as a petroleum engineer in Venezuela. WEB WATCH: /faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/scopes .htm, a University of Missouri, Kansas City, site provides 22 links to extensive background on the Scopes trial.

Eighty years ago this summer, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher in a tiny town in Tennessee became the focus of a landmark confrontation between science and devout religious belief.

The teacher, John T. Scopes, was charged with violating a Tennessee law that made it illegal to teach in public schools “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.” Scopes’s trial in July 1925 attracted celebrity lawyers for the prosecution and defense and was conducted largely outdoors before thousands of impassioned spectators.

Several agendas converged in Dayton, Tenn., to bring about what was popularly called the “monkey trial.” Supporters of the evolution ban, enacted earlier that year by the state legislature, argued that Darwin’s theory of natural selection undermined biblical teachings and religious faith because it was at odds with Genesis.


The five-year-old American Civil Liberties Union, seeking to challenge the law on grounds that it violated the First Amendment ban against any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” advertised for a teacher willing to defy it. Dayton’s city fathers, sensing an opportunity to put their town on the map, quickly recruited Scopes, who believed in evolution, and in his right to teach it.

If Dayton officials craved attention, they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. The city was transformed into a carnival, a cartoon version of the profound issues and deep-seated beliefs behind the trial. “Two months ago the town was obscure and happy,” H.L. Mencken, the acerbic Baltimore Sun columnist wrote. “Today it is a universal joke.”

William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate for President in 1896, 1900, and 1908, and a religious fundamentalist, volunteered for the prosecution and traveled to Dayton from his home in Florida. Clarence Darrow, the country’s best-known defense attorney, came from Chicago to defend Scopes.


That Scopes had, in fact, violated the law was never in doubt. Neither was the outcome of the case. But nobody could have foreseen what happened in between.

In a highly unusual move, Darrow called Bryan as a defense witness. The trial was moved outdoors to accommodate the crowds of spectators, and the two lawyers locked horns, as The New York Times reported, “under the most remarkable circumstances ever known to American court procedure.”

Attempting to argue against a literal interpretation of the Bible, Darrow demanded to know whether Bryan really believed that Joshua made the sun stand still (it was one of those things, Bryan replied, that “anybody can put his own construction upon”) and whether the days described in Genesis were actually 24 hours long. (Bryan acknowledged that “days” could probably be defined as “periods” that might have lasted millions of years.)

“The traps of logic fell from Mr. Darrow’s lips as innocently as the words of a child,” the Times reporter wrote, “and so long as Mr. Bryan could parry them he smiled back, but when one stumped him he took refuge in his faith and either refused to answer directly or said in effect: ‘The Bible states it; it must be so.'”

Darrow, himself an agnostic but not an atheist, tried to suggest that Bryan was disregarding scientific evidence that contradicted his faith, as summed up in this exchange:

“I do not think about things I don’t think about,” Bryan said. “Do you think about the things you do think about?” Darrow asked.

“Well,” Bryan replied, “sometimes.” Finally, the judge called a halt to the exchange–before Bryan could retaliate by calling Darrow as a witness.


Darrow virtually invited the jurors to convict Scopes, explaining that the case could only be resolved by a higher court. Jurors obliged, finding Scopes guilty after eight minutes of deliberation. The judge fined him $100. (Five days later, Bryan died while napping in his hotel room in Dayton. “Honor must be paid to Mr. Bryan for his fearless stand on issues that he thought were right,” Scopes said at the time.)

A year later, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict, not on constitutional grounds but because of a technicality–that the jury, rather than the judge, should have set the fine. But instead of ordering a retrial, the court dismissed the charges entirely, concluding, “Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”

Even so, Scopes, who left Tennessee shortly after the verdict and became a geologist for oil companies, said that challenging the statute had been worthwhile. He later recalled that coverage of the case (including the first live radio broadcast from a trial) “made a tremendous impact on the science education of the country and the world.”

“But most importantly,” Scopes would write in 1965, five years before he died, “I feel that restrictive legislation on academic freedom is forever a thing of the past, that religion and science may now address one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect and of a common quest for truth.”

In 1967, the Tennessee statute was repealed. The next year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas law that banned the teaching of evolution. In 1987, the Court declared unconstitutional a Louisiana law that required public schools teaching the theory of evolution to also teach creationism as science.


Scopes’s optimism notwithstanding, the evolution debate continues, with lawmakers and school boards in a number of states attempting in recent years to limit the teaching of evolution in schools.

And 80 years after the Scopes trial, some observers believe the case actually prolonged the debate, rather than resolving it. Susan Jacoby, director of the Center for Inquiry-Metro New York, a group that promotes the separation of church and state, wrote on the Op-Ed page of The Times in January that “the trial undermined the merging accommodation between religion and science by intensifying the fundamentalists’ conviction that acceptance of evolution would inevitably weaken any type of faith.”


1925: ‘Monkey Trial’

1. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the Tennessee Law barring the teaching of evolution on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment’s ban against

a the free exercise of religion.

b the abridgement of free speech.

c the right of the people to peaceably assemble.

d the establishment of religion.

2. One issue that was never in doubt during the trial of biology teacher John T. Scopes was that

a people’s faith in religion was being attacked.

b people’s faith in science was being attacked.

c Scopes had violated the law.

d the process of lawmaking in Tennessee was under fire.

3. The best description of the tactics of defense attorney Clarence Darrow is that he

a set out to prove that God does not exist.

b tried to advance doubts about the literal. truth of the Bible.

c demonstrated the certainty of science.

d portrayed his client as the unwitting dupe of civil-liberties activists.

4. Years later, John Scopes attributed the trial’s “tremendous impact on science education” to

a the persuasive arguments of Clarence Darrow.

b news coverage of the case.

c the Tennessee Supreme Court ruling in his case.

d the rewriting of biology texts to include presentations on evolution.

5. Some people believe that the Scopes trial actually prolonged the evolution debate by

a failing to present credible scientific testimony.

b giving a public forum to the dispute between supporters and opponents of evolution theory.

c intensifying fundamentalists’ conviction that acceptance of evolution weakens religious faith.

d its disparagement of religious dissenters.

Answer Key

1. (d) establishment of religion.

2. (c) Scopes violated the law.

3. (b) tried to advance doubts about the literal truth of the Bible,

4. (b) news coverage of the case.

5. (c) intensifying fundamentalist convictions that accepting evolution weakens religious faith.

Sam Roberts k urban affairs correspondent for The New York Times.

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