Scopes Trial

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The Scopes Trial, which took place in Tennessee in 1925, was a widely publicized trial that challenged the legality of a state law prohibiting public schools from teaching the theory that man had somehow evolved from more primitive life forms. The willing defendant, John Scopes, was convicted of violating the law, but won on a technicality on appeal.

This case illustrated the problem of fake news, as the atheist, bigoted reporter H.L. Mencken distorted what happened at the trial and misled the world about it. A review of the transcript reveals that William Jennings Bryan got the better of Clarence Darrow, and yet Mencken reported the opposite in an extreme manner. Indeed, Darrow himself gave up and asked the jury to find his client John Scopes guilty, so that the cowardly Darrow could renege on his promise to take the witness stand himself in exchange for cross-examining Bryan. declared: "It is a little known fact that William Jennings Bryan agreed to be interrogated by Clarence Darrow only if Bryan could in turn interrogate Darrow's views of evolution. Darrow agreed, but then right after interrogating Bryan, [Darrow] directed the judge to find Scopes guilty, thereby closing the evidence and thus preventing Bryan from interrogating Darrow."[1] Generally speaking, leading evolutionists generally no longer debate creation scientists as the evolutionists tend to lose the debates.[2]

The trial gained notoriety after it was dramatized in a grossly false manner for both stage (1955) and screen (1960), bizarrely entitled Inherit the Wind. Both of these false dramatizations were promoted to try to smear Christianity.[3][4] In the real trial Bryan made a fool of Darrow, not vice-versa, as demonstrated by the publicly available transcript that includes notations of laughter by the gallery, as quoted below.[5]

Publicity Motivation

The impetus for the Scopes trial began in a meeting among town leaders at a drugstore in Dayton, Tennessee, in response to a newspaper advertisement placed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offering to provide legal services to anyone willing to be prosecuted under the Butler Act.[6] Town leaders agreed that a trial would provide publicity to the town,[7] whose population had dwindled to 1,800.[8] The town leaders found a willing defendant in John Scopes, a gym teacher and football coach who also substituted (sometimes as a biology teacher), though Scopes could not recall ever teaching evolution.[9] John Scopes told the town leaders, "If you can prove that I've taught evolution and that I can qualify as a defendant, then I'll be willing to stand trial."

Fundamentalists took up the challenge, led by theologian William Bell Riley, who signed up Bryan to assist the local county prosecutor. The national media rushed to Dayton.

Grand Jury

Racing other Tennessee towns, Judge John T. Raulston accelerated the convening of the grand jury and "... all but instructed the grand jury to indict Scopes, despite the meager evidence against him and the widely reported stories questioning whether the willing defendant had ever taught evolution in the classroom."[10] He was indicted on May 25, after three students testified against Scopes at the Grand Jury, at Scopes' behest.[11]

The Trial

Darrow brought the Scopes case in the hopes of winning a public relations and legal victory. Historians typically believe in evolution and declare victory for Darrow, but in fact Darrow and the ACLU lost the case badly and Tennessee continued to limit the teaching of evolution in public schools for roughly another 50 years.

The ACLU challenged a Tennessee statute, the Butler Act, that imposed a fine for teaching in government schools that man descended from more primitive life forms. The statute did not prohibit teaching most aspects of evolution. The textbook at issue in the case suggested indirectly (through a tree-like diagram) that man descended from lower life forms.

Bryan attacked Darrow in court, noting how Darrow had previously claimed that murder defendants Leopold and Loeb were driven to crime by what they were taught, which was Nietzsche's atheistic philosophy. Bryan quoted Darrow as saying that "Is there any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life on it? ... The university would be more to blame than he is. ... Your honor, it is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university."

Bryan was an extraordinary speaker, recognized to be among the best in American history. Darrow wanted to prevent Bryan from making a persuasive closing argument to the jury, and Darrow searched for another way to try to score points for his side.

So Darrow stunned the court by requesting to cross-examine Bryan, in the hope that Bryan, like many attorneys, would be a poor witness. Darrow's attempt was unprecedented, because trial attorneys almost never take the witness stand in their own cases. Bryan agreed.

A witness in a trial is always at a disadvantage on cross-examination, because he can only answer questions that are posed by a hostile adversary. On cross-examination, Attorneys are allowed to ask leading(yes or no) questions to force the desired response, unlike on direct examination. Attorneys are particularly vulnerable, because their knowledge of the law and tendency to speak in legalese hinder their performance.

Darrow undoubtedly thought that he could turn Bryan into the proverbial buffoon that liberals wanted. As the transcript reveals, however, Bryan got the better of his accuser. Bryan repeatedly turned the tables on Darrow's questions, which the large courtroom audience found amusing at Darrow's expense. Here is a sample:[12]

Bryan--These gentlemen have not had much chance--they did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it and they can ask me any question they please.
Judge--All right. (Applause in audience.) …
Bryan--Those [the audience] are the people whom you insult.
Darrow--You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does believe in your fool religion. ....
Darrow: Wait until you get to me [N.B. this apparently refers to Darrow's agreement to be a witness]. Do you know anything about how many people there were in Egypt 3,500 years ago, or how many people there were in China 5,000 years ago?
Darrow--Have you ever tried to find out?
Bryan--No, sir. You are the first man I ever heard of who has been in interested in it. (Laughter)
Darrow--Mr. Bryan, am I the first man you ever heard of who has been interested in the age of human societies and primitive man?
Bryan--You are the first man I ever heard speak of the number of people at those different periods.
Darrow--Where have you lived all your life?
Bryan--Not near you. (Laughter and applause).

Darrow tried again and again to trap Bryan, and, from his viewpoint, he sometimes succeeded. For example, Darrow grilled Bryan on the topic of Bryan's literal interpretation of the Bible. Notably, Darrow pressed Bryan on the issue of how the sun stood still for Joshua in the Old Testament. In the end he showed that it could not have taken place through natural causes, which, as an atheist, was all he felt he needed. For those who believed it was a miracle for the sun to stop at all in the sky, as the Bible infers, the concept that it could not have taken place naturally was irrelevant.

Darrow--The Bible says Joshua commanded the sun to stand still for the purpose of lengthening the day, doesn't it, and you believe it?
Bryan--I do.
Darrow--Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?
Bryan--No, I believe that the earth goes around the sun.
Darrow--Do you believe that the men who wrote it thought that the day could be lengthened or that the sun could be stopped?
Bryan--I don't know what they thought.
Darrow--You don't know?
Bryan--I think they wrote the fact without expressing their own thoughts.
Darrow-- Now, Mr. Bryan, have you ever pondered what would have happened to the earth if it had stood still?
Darrow--You have not?
Bryan-- No; the God I believe in could have taken care of that, Mr. Darrow.
Darrow-- I see. Have you ever pondered what would naturally happen to the earth if it stood still suddenly?
Bryan-- No.
Darrow--Don't you know it would have been converted into molten mass of matter?
Bryan--You testify to that when you get on the stand, I will give you a chance.
Darrow--Don't you believe it?
Bryan--I would want to hear expert testimony on that.
Darrow--You have never investigated that subject?
Bryan--I don't think I have ever had the question asked.
Darrow--Or ever thought of it?
Bryan--I have been too busy on things that I thought were of more importance than that.

A later exchange ended, once again, with the audience laughing:

Darrow--I will read it to you from the Bible: "And the Lord God said unto the serpent, because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life." Do you think that is why the serpent is compelled to crawl upon its belly?
Bryan--I believe that.
Darrow--Have you any idea how the snake went before that time?
Bryan--No, sir.
Darrow--Do you know whether he walked on his tail or not?
Bryan--No, sir. I have no way to know. (Laughter in audience).

The conclusion

The next day, it was Darrow's turn to be cross-examined. But Darrow took the public by taking the unprecedented step of asking the jury for a guilty verdict against his client.[13]

After 8 days of trial, and 9 minutes of deliberation, Scopes was found guilty on July 21 and ordered to pay a fine of $100. The conviction was overtuned on appeal by a technicality.[14]


Bryan, a 65-year-old diabetic lacking in modern treatments, died peacefully in his sleep during his afternoon nap after church five days after the conclusion of the Scopes trial.[15] Bryan's victory in the Scopes trial was a fitting end to a principled, illustrious career.[16] Scopes never had to pay the fine - the judge had set the amount but Tennessee law at the time prohibited judges from setting fines over $50.

The law challenged by the ACLU in the Scopes Trial remained in effect for over 50 more years. In 1967, Tennessee repealed the Butler Act, and in 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, that such bans on teaching are unconstitutional if they are primarily religious in intent.

Tennessee continued to downplay evolution in its schools until 2005.[17]

Image and memory

The trial gained renewed attention after it was dramatized for both stage (1955) and screen (1960). Titled Inherit the Wind, both dramatizations distorted the facts of the case and were promoted to harm Christianity.[18][19]

The movie and play

The play Inherit the Wind, and the adapted movie, were fictional accounts of the Scopes Trial.[20] Several modifications were made; characters names were changed, and many crucial facts were changed. The authors have said that the play was really an attempt to mock Senator Joseph McCarthy, and to equate anti-communism with anti-intellectualism.[21] The movie featured the popular Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow, and even garnered a few Academy Award nominations.

The movie features an angry mob trying to lynch a jailed teacher; in fact, the ACLU ran advertisements with offers to pay expenses for a teacher to volunteer for the case, and Scopes was never jailed and never paid even a fine.

The movie version heaped mockery on any argument that teaching evolution could be socially harmful.

The movie portrayed the character based on Bryan as a complete buffoon. Bryan's death was also portrayed as happening in the courthouse, when in fact he was an elderly man suffering from diabetes who died peacefully in his sleep.

American history books usually describe this case as a major defeat for Fundamentalists.[22] In fact, the successful defense of the law enabled Tennessee to keep the racist evolutionary textbook out of its schools, to avoid teaching the falsehoods of evolution (such as the Piltdown Man featured in the trial textbook) to schoolchildren, and to permit the State (which still rejects a state income tax) to grow in conservatism to this day. Liberals Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama all failed to carry the state in recent presidential elections.


  3. "'Inherit the Wind' relentlessly distorts what happened in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925."[1]
  4. As recently as April 17, 2007, the Village Voice endorsed a new Broadway rendition of Inherit the Wind as "a dramatization of the 1925 [Scopes] trial."[2]
  6. Larson 2006, Linder 2002. See also Coulter 2006
  7. Larson 2006
  8. Linder 2002
  9. Larson 2006. See also Coulter 2006
  10. Larson 2006, p. 108
  11. Larson 2006, p. 89, 107
  14. The Tennessee Constitution had a clause that any fine that high must be set by a jury, not by the judge. The state's Supreme Court vacated the verdict due to that, and then ruled that because Scopes no longer lived in the state, the case was moot.
  15. Larson 2006, p. 199
  18. "'Inherit the Wind' relentlessly distorts what happened in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925."[3]
  19. As recently as April 17, 2007, the Village Voice endorsed a new Broadway rendition of Inherit the Wind as "a dramatization of the 1925 [Scopes] trial."[4]
  22. The trial "marked a decisive setback for fundamentalism," says The Enduring Vision, Fifth Edition, Chapter 23: The 1920s: Coping with Change, Paul S. Boyer, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Carleton College; et al. (a commonly used American history textbook for Advanced Placement US History classes).


  • Clark, Constance Areson. "Evolution for John Doe: Pictures, The Public, and the Scopes Trial Debate." Journal of American History 2000 87(4): 1275-1303. in JSTOR
  • Conkin, Paul K. When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals. (1998). 185 pp.
  • Coulter, Ann (2006), Godless: The Church of Liberalism, Crown Forum., ISBN 978-1400054206
  • Edwards, Mark. "Rethinking the Failure of Fundamentalist Political Antievolutionism after 1925". Fides Et Historia 2000 32(2): 89-106. 0884-5379
  • Folsom, Burton W., Jr. "The Scopes Trial Reconsidered." Continuity 1988 (12): 103-127. 0277-1446, by a leading conservative scholar
  • Gatewood, Willard B., Jr., ed. Controversy in the Twenties: Fundamentalism, Modernism, & Evolution (1969)
  • Harding, Susan. "Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other." Social Research 1991 58(2): 373-393.
  • Larson, Edward J. (2006), Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial And America's Continuing Debate over Science And Religion, Basic Books, ISBN 978-0465075102 online edition
  • Lienesch Michael. In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement. University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 350pp
  • Linder, Douglas (2002), The Scopes Trial: An Introduction, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law
  • Moran, Jeffrey P. The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002. 240pp
  • Moran, Jeffrey P. "The Scopes Trial and Southern Fundamentalism in Black and White: Race, Region, and Religion." Journal of Southern History. Volume: 70. Issue: 1. 2004. pp 95+. online edition
  • Smout, Kary Doyle. The Creation/Evolution Controversy: A Battle for Cultural Power. (1998). 210 pp.