Not Even from American Monkeys, but from Old World Monkeys!

Today in 1925, tradition and modernity ended their run in court with end of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

In March 1925, Tennessee passed a law that forbade the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of Man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals” in any state funded institution. Immediately the Butler Law, as it was known, faced opponents, namely the ACLU.

The ACLU found John T Scopes, a high school science teacher, willing to challenge the legality of the new law. At only 24, Dayton county authorities arrested him for teaching evolution. Both Scopes and the ACLU expected that at the very worst, Scopes would face a minor fine for breaking the new law. Instead, they endured a lengthy and well publicized trial.

Clarence Darrow, a well-known¬†defense lawyer, represented Scopes and the ACLU. William Jennings Bryan (three-time presidential nominee, former Secretary of State, leader of the Populist movement, and an intensely faithfully man) led the prosecution. From the beginning, the judge displayed bias against Darrow and Scopes. He refused to allow most of Darrow’s witnesses to testify on evolution or the Bible. He declared the defense’s expert witness on the Bible to be unfit and Bryan volunteered to serve as an expert on the Bible, to which the judge consented! After intense questioning, Bryan finally consented that the 7 days referenced in Genesis did not represent the literal definition of days but instead alluded to a longer period of time.

At one point during the trial, in an exasperated response the defense’s scientific claims, Bryan declared that scientific theory was neither competent nor proper and criticized evolution for teaching children that humans were one of 350,000 types of mammal and that they descended “not even from American monkeys, but from Old World monkeys.”

Due to the defense’s inability to present most of its information, the jury had no choice but to find Scopes guilty. Later the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the ruling. However, public opinion made the more important decision in this case. Most Americans found the prosecution and fundamentalism’s literal interpretation of the Bible antiquated and found that they identified more strongly with the defense and modernity. In response, fundamental Christianity fell out public sphere, not to reappear until the 1970s.

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About Meg G.

I am a PhD candidate studying US History. I am interested in gender, children, and religious history in the 19th-century US. I love running. I have a pretty cool husband and family. View all posts by Meg G.

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