July/August 2000 Church & State | Featured

In one of the first scenes of the 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, Bertram Cates, a character based on John T. Scopes, explains to his fianc\xe9e from a county jail why he must teach his students evolution and why he refuses to take it back.

"Tell them they can let my body out of jail if I lock up my mind?" Cates asks. "Could you stand that?"

His impassioned plea for understanding gives the audience a clear awareness of the struggle the real Scopes was forced to endure.

There's only one problem with the scene: It never happened.

Scopes issued no plea for empathy, there was no fianc\xe9e and the real Scopes was never arrested. In fact, the popular film that was nominated for four Academy Awards and has helped shape an understanding of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" for decades is an inadequate reflection of history.

Dialogue was created, locations of events were altered, the names of people and places were changed and some characters were invented while real participants disappeared.

Regardless, the real story of the Scopes trial needed little exaggeration as a dramatic episode in American history. The events that unfolded over 11 days in mid-July 1925 were spectacular enough to earn their status as the "Trial of the Century."

The story behind the trial started in January, when the Tennessee legislature passed a law prohibiting the teaching of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible." Immediately after it was signed into law, the American Civil Liberties Union offered to provide representation to any teacher convicted under the statute.

At the time, Dayton, Tenn., was a small town with a struggling economy and a population that had dwindled to 1,800. George W. Rappleyea, a local resident who managed mines in the area, saw mention of the ACLU's offer in a local newspaper and determined that what Dayton needed was some publicity. With all of the national attention surrounding the legislature's passage of an anti-evolution bill, he figured a trial ought to generate at least as much interest.

Rappleyea met with local school officials and convinced them of the benefits that a trial's publicity could generate. He and his friends then asked John T. Scopes if he'd mind doing them a favor.

The film version of the Scopes trial shows the young teacher in class, explaining natural selection to a classroom of interested teenagers. County prosecutors and the local minister stand in the back of the room and when Scopes begins to discuss Charles Darwin, he is promptly taken into custody.

The truth was less exciting. Scopes told Rappleyea he wasn't sure if he ever actually taught the chapter on biological evolution. (The 24-year-old teacher later had to prompt his students on what to say in order to secure his own indictment.) Nevertheless, he acknowledged that he taught from the science text and agreed to allow himself to be used for a challenge to Tennessee's new law. The same meeting saw a local justice of the peace issue a warrant and Scopes get charged. Scopes, instead of going to jail, went to play tennis. With that, one of the most successful publicity stunts of the 20th century was set in motion.

The trial itself generated an incredible amount of media attention in large part because of the lawyers on either side. For the prosecution, William Jennings Bryan, a celebrated religious leader and the Democratic nominee for President in 1896 and 1900, volunteered to take up the cause. For the defense, Clarence Darrow, at the time the most well known defense attorney in the nation, volunteered to take the case.

The trial was played out it what Scopes would later describe as "man-killing" heat. Mid-July in Tennessee routinely saw 100-degree days that summer, and the courthouse did not have working air-conditioning. As the movie accurately portrayed, Judge John T. Raulston allowed the attorneys to ignore traditional attire and appear in court sans jacket and tie.

Darrow's courtroom strategy was clear, and even the movie represented it accurately. The character portraying Bryan at one point argues, "It's obvious what he's trying to do. He's trying to make us forget the lawbreaker and put the law on trial!"

Though fictitious dialogue, the point was true. Early on, Darrow even sought to quash the indictment on the grounds that the anti-evolution law was in conflict with the separation of church and state.

In an account in Summer for the Gods, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Scopes trial, Edward J. Larson detailed one of Darrow's arguments against the law.

"'All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, and that no preference shall be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship,'" Darrow said, reading from the Tennessee Constitution. "Does it? Could you get any more preference, your honor, by law?... [The state law] makes the Bible the yard stick to measure every man's intellect, to measure every man's intelligence and to measure every man's learning."

Raulston rejected Darrow's efforts against the indictment. It was part of a long series of defeats for Darrow.

In contrast, the prosecution laid out a very simple case: state law forbade teaching evolution, Scopes admitted to teaching evolution, so Scopes was guilty of breaking the law. The prosecution rested a mere half-hour after its opening statement.

Darrow's defense was more complicated. It sought to prove that the law was unconstitutional. Moreover, because many religious leaders from a variety of backgrounds agreed that evolution does not have to conflict with the Bible, Darrow argued that Scopes did not technically violate the law.

Darrow, however, was given little opportunity to mount a defense. Raulston ruled that Darrow's expert witnesses were irrelevant as to Scopes' guilt. They could offer written statements for the record, but the jury would not hear from them.

At this point, the trial seemed over to almost everyone. Several reporters, disappointed by what they saw as an anti-climactic end, left Dayton. What they missed became the confrontation that propelled the trial into the history books.

The judge moved the proceedings from the courtroom to the courthouse lawn for what most assumed would be the end of the trial. Instead Darrow called an expert witness to testify about the source of scientific knowledge mandated by state law, the Bible. His witness was William Jennings Bryan.

A reported 3,000 people turned out for the war of words between the two legends. While the movie's version of the testimony was exaggerated, Darrow did question Bryan relentlessly on his literal interpretation of Scripture, asking him to explain what Darrow saw as biblical inconsistencies and oddities such as the existence of Cain's wife, Jonah's three-day visit to the inside of a whale and Joshua's stopping of the sun.

Press accounts were nearly unanimous in declaring Darrow the winner of the rhetorical heavyweight fight. Darrow wrote a note to Baltimore journalist H. L. Mencken, who earned national attention for his coverage of the trial, in which the attorney said, "I made up my mind to show the country what an ignoramus he was and I succeeded."

But for Darrow, even this victory was short lived. The judge ended his examination of Bryan and expunged Bryan's remarks from the record, ruling that his testimony could "shed no light" on the matter at hand.

The defense had no choice but to surrender. Instead of closing arguments, Darrow asked that the jury find Scopes guilty, and after nine minutes they did.

In what seemed then to be a trivial matter, after the verdict was read, the judge imposed a $100 fine on Scopes, despite a state law allowing the jury to decide the amount. When Tennessee v. Scopes ultimately reached the state Supreme Court, the teacher's conviction was overturned because of this procedural error. The court, however, upheld the state's anti-evolution law.

The Scopes trial took a heavy toll on Bryan, and he died a short time afterwards. Mencken joked at the time, "God aimed at Darrow, missed, and hit Bryan instead."

The matter was not permanently resolved for almost another half-century, when in 1967, Tennessee repealed the law that censored evolution from state classrooms.