In 1922, John Washington Butler, campaigning for a seat in the Tennessee house, made opposition to evolutionary theory the main plank of his campaign. After he won election, he introduced a law that made it illegal to "teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."
"Ninety-nine people out of a hundred in my district thought just as I did," he said later. On this day, March 13, 1925, Tennessee's governor, Austin Peay signed the Butler Bill into law. This started a train of events that led to the so-called "Trial of the Century."
The American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, DC ran an ad, offering to pay the expenses of any teacher who would test the law. Business leaders in Dayton saw this as a chance for free publicity, which they hoped would attract industry to their town. John T. Scopes, a mathematics teacher, who could not remember ever having taught evolutionary theory, was enlisted to test the law. He never took the stand during the trial.
Two of the best-known lawyers of the day were coaxed into the fray. Clarence Darrow took the pro-evolution side and William Jennings Bryan the creation case. Although a fundamentalist, Bryan did not hold to a literal six-day creation; He believed that each of the days was an age. The earth may well have been created before 4004 BC, he believed. In fact, he was not even opposed to the teaching of evolution, as long as it was presented as theory and creation was taught alongside it.
The jury found Scopes guilty. Darrow actually tried to get the conviction; he hoped that the case might go to a higher court where the Tennessee law could be ruled unconstitutional. This did not happen, and the law remained on the books for forty more years. Bryan, always on the side of the little man, offered to pay Scopes's fine.
Many Americans know the story from the film Inherit the Wind, which blatantly misrepresented the facts. Bryan is made to appear a jerk. Fundamentalists are shown as frenzied fools. In actuality, Bryan was a progressive politician who fought for fair wages, short work weeks, graduated income tax and a host of other reforms which became law. In addition to his political action--he was three times the Democrat nominee for US President--he wrote widely-used Sunday school lessons.
Asked how he could be a progressive in politics and a fundamentalist in religion, Bryan replied, "Government is man-made and therefore imperfect. It can always be improved. But religion is not a man-made affair...I am satisfied with the God we have, with the Bible and with Christ.
- Glimpses # 119. Worcester, Pennsylvania: Christian History Institute.
- Russell, Charles Allyn. Voices of American Fundamentalism : seven biographical studies. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.
- When Science & Christianity Meet; edited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles of which "The Scopes Monkey Trial." (www3.mistral.co.uk/bradburyac/tennesse.html) presents perhaps the most careful analysis from a Christian perspective.
Last updated May, 2007.