Historical Resources

Brief history of the Scopes Trial

 

A decades-long controversy over “fundamentalist” and “modernist” interpretations of the Bible came to a head in the Rhea County Courthouse in July 1925. From today’s perspective, this religious debate seems limited in scope, but in the 1920’s, the argument spilled over to touch virtually all areas of public life.

 

In January 1925, Representative John Washington Butler introduced a bill in the state House of Representatives to prohibit teaching, in any public school, any theory of human origin that contradicted the account of creation as recorded in the Bible. Despite some misgivings, Governor Austin Peay signed the bill into law on March 21 with a comment to the effect of “The legislature has had its say; we’ll never hear of this again.”

 

But when the American Civil Liberties Union in New York learned of the law, they decided to challenge its constitutionality. They advertised for a Tennessee teacher to support the challenge, and on May 4, after the school year had ended, civic leaders in Dayton learned of the request. They recruited first-year teacher John Scopes to be the defendant, even though he said he did not remember teaching the Darwinian theory.

 

William Jennings Bryan, one of the most prominent figures in America at the time, and unquestionably the country’s foremost orator and one of the leading spokesmen for “fundamentalist” Christianity, was speaking in Memphis, Tenn., about this time. He was asked by a reporter if he would be willing to prosecute the case. He responded that he would, if invited. He also was invited by the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association to represent their interests in the case.

 

Attorney Sue K. Hicks in Dayton issued a formal invitation to Mr. Bryan, and he accepted.

 

With Bryan’s entry into the case, Clarence Darrow, America’s premier defense attorney and a noted agnostic, volunteered to defend Scopes. Mr. Darrow, who campaigned for Bryan during his first presidential campaign, offered his services to the defense without charge, viewing the case as an opportunity to challenge Bryan’s religious beliefs.

 

On July 10, Judge John Raulston called court into session in a packed courtroom. More than 100 reporters covered the trial, the first American trial broadcast live over a national radio network.

 

The state maintained that the only issue at bar was whether Scopes broke the law, but the defense argued the law was unconstitutional. After several days of argument over the law and whether experts could testify, the judge ruled in favor of the state. He said appellate courts would be a more appropriate venue to determine the law’s constitutionality.

 

Blocked from offering expert testimony on science and religion, the defense called Bryan to testify as an expert on the Bible. On the next-to-last day of the trial, Darrow realized his opportunity to challenge Bryan’s religious and scientific views. For about two hours, Darrow offered what has been described as “the village sceptic’s” questions: Where did Cain get his wife? How many people were on earth 3,000 years ago? How many languages are there?”

 

As tempers flared, Judge Raulston cut short the examination and adjourned court until the next day.

 

On July 21, the defense asked that Scopes be found guilty, to allow an appeal of the case. Scopes was convicted, but the Tennessee Supreme Court in January 1927 overturned the conviction because the judge – rather than the jury – had set the fine. The court also upheld the law’s constitutionality.

 

The law remained on the books until 1967 when it was repealed, although no prosecution was attempted after 1925.

Biographies and Pictures

William Jennings Bryan

He was the 65-year-old guest attorney assisting the prosecution. He was a three-time candidate for President, former member of Congress, former Secretary of State, and one of the best-known orators of his day. The noted Christian championed a traditional understanding of the Bible, and was examined for his beliefs on the next-to-last day of the Trial. He died five days after the trial ended.

Arthur Garfield Hays

He was a 44-year-old attorney whose career to this point involved international and corporate law. He was the chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union at the trial, and architect of the defense’s legal strategy. After the trial he continued his legal support for society’s underdogs.

Clarence Darrow

He was a 68-year-old attorney, arguably America’s most prominent defense lawyer, who had made his name as a champion of the underdog. The noted agnostic volunteered to defend John Scopes, with the intention to “focus the attention of the country on [Bryan] and the other fundamentalists.” He participated in only a few more trials before his death in 1938.

Sue K. Hicks

He was a 30-year-old attorney, practicing law with his older brother, Herbert, in Dayton at the time of the Scopes Trial. On behalf of trial organizers, he invited William Jennings Bryan to assist the prosecution. After the trial, he practiced law in Florida for four years before returning to Tennessee. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1936, and later served as a circuit court judge.

Sheriff Robert "Bluch" Harris

He was the 49-year-old Rhea County sheriff, the office which he held from 1922 to 1928. He had been a machinist at Dayton Coal and Iron Company until it closed, then became a deputy sheriff in 1912.

Nellie Kenyon

She was a 26-year-old reporter for the Chattanooga News who received “Press Pass No. 1” to cover the Scopes Trial. She interviewed most of the principals of the case, including John Scopes, Clarence Darrow, and William Jennings Bryan. She eventually moved to Nashville, where she became one of the most respected reporters of her day.

Dudley Field Malone

He was a 43-year-old divorce lawyer, who represented the American Civil Liberties Union during the Trial. He had served as William Jennings Bryan’s undersecretary of state during the Wilson administration. After retiring from his legal practice in 1932, he became an actor.

Maynard M. Metcalf

Age 57, he was a zoologist from Johns Hopkins University and the only expert witness allowed to testify for the defense. His testimony emphasized the compatibility of evolution with Christianity. Following the Trial, he chaired a group of scientists who raised money to help John Scopes attend graduate school.

Ben McKenzie

He was the 59-year-old former district attorney general who assisted the prosecution. Known for his wit and folksy humor, he and Clarence Darrow struck up a friendship that lasted until Darrow’s death in 1938, three months before his own passing. His son, Gordon, also assisted the prosecution.

John R. Neal

He was the 49-year-old lead defense attorney who, by some accounts, appointed himself to defend John Scopes. He was a former state representative and law professor at the University of Tennessee, and operated his own law school for more than 20 years. He was perennial candidate for governor and the United State Senate, but never won election.

Gordon McKenzie

He was a 32-year-old attorney and county judge (today’s title would be county executive) who assisted with the prosecution. He was responsible for securing funds to “spruce up” the courtroom before the trial, and issued press passes to reporters covering the event.

George Rappleyea

GEORGE RAPPLEYEA He was the 31-year-old manager of the failing Cumberland Coal & Iron Co., who saw the announcement of the ACLU’s interest in challenging the anti-evolution statute. His efforts lay the groundwork in Dayton for the Scopes Trial. He went on to become involved in the construction and boating industries, including working for Higgins Boat Co., which built landing craft used by U.S. forces in World War II.

John Tate Raulston

He was the 57-year-old judge for the Trial. He was roundly criticized for his conduct of the case, but in later years John Scopes acknowledged that Raulston “was trying to do what he believed was right.” He ran for re-election in 1926 and was defeated.

John Thomas Scopes

Age 24, he was the defendant in the Trial, although his only statement on the record was his declaration at the end that he believed the anti-evolution statute was unjust and he would continue to oppose it. Following the trial, he left teaching and eventually made his career working in the petroleum industry.

Quin Ryan

He was a 27-year-old news and sports reporter for Chicago’s WGN Radio, which had gone on the air in 1921. The station sent Ryan to broadcast from Dayton, and leased phone lines at a reported cost of $1,000 per day to make possible this first live broadcast of an American court trial. Ryan went on to a distinguished career as a news and sports broadcaster in Chicago.

Tom Stewart

He was the 33-year-old district attorney general during the trial, and earned the respect of the opposing defense lawyers for his legal skills. His predecessor as district attorney, Ben McKenzie, assisted with the prosecution. In 1942, General Stewart was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Frank Earle (F.E.) Robinson

He was the 44-year-old “Hustling Druggist” owner of Robinson’s Drug Store, where the local plans for the Trial were developed. He was chairman of the Rhea County school board, a correspondent for several Tennessee newspapers, and a great promoter of the community. Following the Trial, he led efforts to establish Bryan College and served many years on the college board of trustees.

Walter White

He was the 45-year-old superintendent of schools and the first witness to testify at John Scopes’ trial. In the 1930’s and early 1940’s he served as a state representative and later began practicing law. His business cards proclaimed him “Prosecutor of John T. Scopes.”

Bibliography

 

Allem, Warren. “Backgrounds on the Scopes Trial at Dayton, Tennessee.” Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1959. (Includes valuable interviews with trial participants, background on the community and trial.)

 

Bryan, William Jennings, and Mary Baird Bryan. The Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan. Philadelphia, Winston, 1925. (An overview of Bryan’s life, completed by his wife, including a section on the trial.)

 

Darrow, Clarence. The Story of My Life. New York: Scribner’s, 1932. (Contains valuable insights to Darrow’s perspective of the trial.)

 

de Camp, L. Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. New York: Doubleday, 1968.
(Thorough treatment of the trial, with numerous illustrations.)

 

Ginger, Ray. Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. London: Oxford University Press , 1958. (The first comprehensive examination of the trial.)

 

Larson, Edward J. Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 1997. (Won the Pulitzer Prize for History, setting the standard for research, documentation, and description of the trial.)

 

Mencken, H. L. A Religious Orgy in Tennessee. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2006. (Opinion pieces by one of America’s leading writers at the time of the trial.)

 

Moore, Randy. The Scopes “Monkey Trial”—America’s Most Famous Trial and Its Ongoing Legacy. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers, 2023. (A detailed, thoroughly researched and documented investigation of the trial and its legacy.)

 

National Book Company. World’s Most Famous Court Trial: Tennessee Evolution Case. Dayton, TN: Bryan College, 1990 [1925, 1978]. (Transcript of the trial, with introductory notes and records of the case’s appellate record.)

 

Scopes, John T., and James Presley. Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967. (Includes Scopes’s account of the trial.)

 

Tompkins, Jerry R., ed. D-Days at Dayton: Reflections on the Scopes Trial. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965 (essays about the trial).

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