Religious reaction

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Key events, concepts & details

  • Fundamentalism & Creationism
  • The ‘Bible Belt’
  • The Scopes Monkey Trial
  • World Christian Fundamentals Association
  • The Butler law
  • Evolution
  • William Jennings Byan – former Secretary of State (under Woodrow Wilson), and counsel for the Prosecution
  • Clarence Darrow
  • John T. Scopes, biology teacher volunteer
  • Dayton, Tennessee
  • Billy Sunday

What was the significance of the Scopes trial?

Walsh, p. 205;
SHP, pp. 56-57;
Edexcel, pp. 186-7.

One of the most famous incidents of the 1920s was the so-called ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ named after a high school biology teacher from Dayton, Tennessee, who was accused of breaking the Butler law, against teaching evolution in Tennessee schools. The ‘Monkey’ in the title was the popular assumption that evolution held that human beings were related to monkeys.

Fundamentalist church groups believed in accepting every word of the Bible as the word of God, and therefore objected to the theory of evolution and felt threatened by its teaching in schools. State House Representative John W. Butler, a Tennessee farmer and head of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, lobbied state legislatures to pass anti-evolution laws. He succeeded when the Butler Act was passed in Tennessee, on March 25, 1925.

Butler later stated, “I didn’t know anything about evolution… I’d read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mothers that the Bible was all nonsense.”

Three-time presidential candidate, former secretary of state and prohibition supporter William Jennings Bryan thanked Governor Peay enthusiastically for the bill: “The Christian parents of the state owe you a debt of gratitude for saving their children from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis. Bryan would go on to represent the case for the prosecution when Scopes was brought to trial.

The ACLU (The American Civil Liberties Union) wanted to test the new law and persuaded John T. Scopes, a high-school biology teacher from Dayton Tennessee, to submit himself to trial. His students were encouraged to testify against him. The ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow, defended Scopes.

The ACLU was unsuccessful in the case itself. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 (equivalent to $1,349 in 2015), but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Nonetheless, the trial served its purpose of drawing intense national publicity, as national reporters flocked to Dayton to cover the big-name lawyers who had agreed to represent each side.

The trial publicized the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy, which set Modernists, who said evolution was not inconsistent with religion, against Fundamentalists, who said the word of God as revealed in the Bible took priority over all human knowledge. The case was thus seen as both a theological contest and a trial on whether modern science should be taught in schools.

The trial revealed a growing chasm in American Christianity and two ways of finding truth, one “biblical” and one “evolutionist”. The majority of Christians denounced evolution at the time. The Trial was significant because it highlighted the argument between modernists who argued that evolution was not incompatible with religion, and fundamentalists who held that the bible held precedence over all human knowledge.

    See HipHughes on the Scopes Monkey Trial – a neat 5 minute summary:

    See contemporary newsreel about the Scopes Monkey Trial:
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