The Monkey Shines in Tennessee

John T. Scopes

John T. Scopes

On a warm day in June, 1925, in the little Tennessee town of Dayton, a young schoolteacher by the name of John Scopes picked up his copy of Hunter’s Civic Biology and read to his class, “… we have now learned that animal forms may be arranged so as to begin with the simple one-celled organisms and culminate with a group which includes man himself.”

Scopes was immediately arrested under the provisions of a newly-passed law making it a crime to teach the theory of evolution in the public schools.


Under the sponsorship of the Fundamentalists, this legislation was being pushed in eight states, and at the time Scopes was arrested it was already law in Tennessee and Mississippi. Scopes thought the law was an affront to education and resolved to test its constitutionality. He couldn’t possibly have imagined the Pandora’s Box which would soon be opened.

Wire services picked up the story and within hours it spread across the country. One of the places it spread was Florida, where William Jennings Bryan was dabbling in real estate. Bryan realized at once what a golden opportunity the Fundamentalists were being given. Like all Fundamentalists, The Old Warrior considered the Theory of Evolution to be a “… program of infidelity masquerading under the name of science …”, and he immediately journeyed to Tennessee to volunteer his services as prosecutor.

Clarence Darrow (l) and Wm. Jennings Bryan

Clarence Darrow (l) and Wm. Jennings Bryan

When Clarence Darrow heard that Bryan was going to prosecute, he, under the auspices of the ACLU, offered his services as defense counsel, thus setting the stage for one of the most spectacular trials of the 20th century. On the one hand was The Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential contender, noted orator, Fundamentalist leader, and “The Man With the Golden Voice.” On the other was Clarence Darrow, master jury manipulator, noted agnostic, and champion of unpopular causes. The story became page one news.

By the time the trial was ready to get underway, Dayton’s original population had swelled to almost three times its original 1500. Streets were bedecked with banners reading READ YOUR BIBLE, GOD IS LOVE, and SWEETHEART COME TO JESUS, and underneath the signs bible sellers competed with hot dog vendors and purveyors of ice-cold lemonade. (If you knew where to look, you could also get corn squeezin’s.)

The trial galvanized Dayton

The trial galvanized Dayton

The trial began on Friday, July 10th. Little happened that day, save for the selection of a jury, and the court recessed until the following Monday. On Sunday, Bryan stood in the middle of town and addressed an overflow crowd. He bellowed that he “…welcomed the opportunity to bring this slimy thing, this evolution out of the darkness. Now the facts of religion and evolution will at last meet in a duel to the death.” It was the Bryan of old and fervor swept the crowd.

Court opened on Monday with a prayer from a local clergyman in which he urged God to protect his Holy word against attack. The prosecution produced a score of students to testify that, yes, indeed, Mr. Scopes did do what he was being tried for, and finally offered a copy of the King James version of the bible as evidence. With that the prosecution rested. Darrow’s cross-examination was limited to proving that the Board of Education supplied the book that Scopes used.

The defense began by attempting to introduce a team of well known scientists, beginning with a zoologist. To each request the prosecution screamed, “Irrelevant! The only question is did Mr. Scopes violate the law.” Ultimately, Judge John Raulston, self-described as “jist a reg’lar mountaineer judge,” found in favor of the prosecution and ruled that the scientists’ testimony was inadmissible.

As far as the Fundamentalists were concerned, the following Monday, July 20th, was a day to be circled in mourner’s black. It was on that day that Darrow, having been told that all his other witnesses were irrelevant, called Bryan to the stand as an expert on the bible. Pandemonium erupted in the courtroom, and in order to handle the number of spectators the trial was moved outside. There, in the broiling afternoon sun, the two giants faced each other.

Bryan’s answer to almost every question could be reduced to “… if the bible says it, it must be true.” As far as the Great Commoner was concerned, Darrow’s questioning bordered on the sacrilegious. “The purpose of these questions,” he thundered, “is to cast ridicule on everyone who believes in the bible, and I am perfectly willing that the world should know that these gentlemen have no other purpose than ridiculing … every Christian who believes in the bible.”

“We have the purpose,” Darrow snapped, “of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education in the United States.”

Continuing, Darrow asked if Bryan believed that for giving Eve the apple the snake was forever damned to slither around on his belly. “If the bible says it, it must be true.” “Then how,” Darrow drawled, “do you suppose the snake got around before that?”

Darrow then asked where Cain got his wife; Bryan answered that he would “leave the agnostics to hunt for her”

The day ended with both men yelling and shaking fists at each other.

The next morning Judge Raulston put an end to the encounter, saying that no purpose was being served by it. And, indeed, there could be only one verdict: guilty as charged.

Scopes was fined $100, later overturned on appeal. Darrow went up into the Great Smokies for some fresh air, and Bryan retired to the home of a friend to savor the delights of victory. He didn’t savor them long. Within a week he was dead of a stroke. When Darrow got the news he uttered the expected public niceties, then, to a friend, said, “now wasn’t that man a Goddamned fool?”

Scopes gave up teaching, and ended up as a research geologist with the United Gas Company, finally retiring in 1963. He died in 1970.

For more info:

  • An In-depth Look at The Monkey Trial
  • The Creation vs. Evolution Argument is Still Going Strong.
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