The Gospel Truth
A new book rethinks the central conflict of the infamous Scopes Trial.
The Scopes Trial: An Encyclopedic History, by Randy Moore and Susan E. Brooks.
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the authors of the play Inherit the Wind, said that their play was about individual freedom and “the right to think.” However, its staying power and the popularity of the 1960 film version derive from its thinly disguised attacks on McCarthyism, creationist Christianity, and “the South that New Yorkers love: the South of tapeworms, ignorance, and bigotry,” as the Dallas Morning News put it in a review of the 1955 stage version.
The story is a fictional version of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in sleepy Dayton, Tennessee. Translated into thirty languages and classroom reading for countless students (I remember reading it in a Canadian high school many years ago), the play is now the basis for most people’s knowledge of that trial. But as Lawrence and Lee freely concede, Inherit the Wind is not historically accurate. In The Scopes Trial: An Encyclopedic History, Randy Moore and Susan E. Brooks show just how inaccurate the play is.
The basic storyline of the Scopes Trial is straightforward. In 1925, a grand jury indicted John Thomas Scopes, a substitute high school biology teacher in Dayton, for breaking Tennessee’s Butler Act that banned the teaching of evolution in state classrooms. The midsummer trial lasted six days and featured a courtroom showdown between the controversial defense lawyer Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the thrice-defeated Democratic Party nominee for the presidency of the United States. The jury duly convicted Scopes and the court ordered Scopes to pay a $100 fine. Within days of the trial’s conclusion, Bryan died in Dayton during an afternoon nap at the age of 65.
According to Moore and Brooks, the latter the great grand-niece of Scopes, Inherit the Wind took these elementary facts and spun the trial into a fable. For example, the play and movie added a fictitious love story between the Scopes character and the daughter of a stern fundamentalist minister. Scopes’s grandson used to complain that moviegoers frequently asked him if his grandfather ever married that nice preacher’s daughter.
The fictional courtroom confrontation between Darrow and Bryan suggests a cataclysmic battle along the lines of Galileo versus the Church, but the trial’s origins had more to do with Barnum and Bailey than “the freedom to think.” The genesis of the trial took place in a Dayton drug store where local civic leaders and American Civil Liberties Union officials met to discuss a test case of the Tennessee Butler Act. The ACLU, then little known outside New York City, saw a test case as a way of winning some badly needed publicity, while Dayton’s elites thought a big show trial would help to boost a depressed local economy. They all needed a willing client, so Scopes, a substitute teacher, was summoned from a nearby tennis match.
When Bryan arrived in Dayton on July 7, 1925, and Darrow two days later, the stage was set for what Bryan himself called “a duel to the death” between Christianity and Darwinist evolution. Dayton got the spectacle it had hoped for, as 200 journalists from around the country descended on the small town to cover the trial, including H. L. Mencken, a well-known syndicated newspaper columnist credited with dubbing the proceedings “the Monkey Trial.”
Mencken helped to turn the Scopes Trial into a major national news story, complete with a carnival-like atmosphere including a chimpanzee performer named “Jo” who delighted the townspeople by wearing tailored suits, posing for pictures, playing piano, shaking hands, and sipping cokes at Dayton’s drug store.
Mencken was fully aware of his influence as a journalist and predicted that the trial would affect Americans for years to come—“and he was right,” Moore and Brooks note. To this day, “people from around the world come to Dayton to learn about the Scopes Trial and photograph the Rhea County Courthouse where the trial occurred.” Scopes later said that the trial was “Mencken’s show.” Mencken called himself the defense team’s “consulting man of vision.”
The passage of time has not been kind to Mencken’s reputation. Moore and Brooks describe him as a “strident racist.” Race was a central issue of the whole trial, though most attention then and since has focused on the debate over the evolutionary ancestors of human beings. When he was not lambasting Christian preachers, Mencken declared that “the educated Negro of today is a failure.” Jews, in his opinion, were “the most unpleasant race ever heard of.”
The textbook Scopes used to teach biology was George Hunter’s 1914 A Civic Biology, a triumphalist account of the theory of evolution. Darwinian natural selection, Hunter wrote, had culminated in “the highest type” of human beings, “the Caucasians.” Hunter’s book also revealed how at the time belief in Darwinism went hand in hand with eugenics. A Civic Biology is full of statements about the alleged dangers to society of “parasitic” families of criminals, alcoholics, prostitutes, epileptics, and such. Hunter called on governments to prevent the “possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.”
If Hunter’s A Civic Biology was rife with eugenic references, it was hardly surprising, given that the 1920s were the heyday of the American eugenics movement. Many scientists like Hunter drew connections between faith in Darwinist evolution and belief in eugenics. In the post–World War I years, numerous American state governments passed legislation permitting the forced sterilization of men and women with disabilities. In 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell ruled that involuntary sterilization was constitutional. By 1928, 350 American universities were teaching eugenics. By World War II, biologists had rejected much of eugenic theory, but some state laws continued to function into the 1970s.
Darrow himself was no fan of eugenics, but some of the scientists he brought to Dayton for the defense team were staunch supporters. One wrote that society should engage in “eliminating the unfit by refusing them birth.” For his part, Darrow held blunt views about the lives of people with disabilities. “Chloroform unfit children,” he advised elected officials. Fifteen years later Nazi Germany did just that.
Mention of medical murder also recalls that another key figure in Dayton during those steamy summer days in 1925 was the clergyman Charles Potter, at the time a Unitarian minister. Darrow invited Potter to be the defense team’s religious advisor, but Potter proved to be a wild card, even disagreeing with the defense’s position that evolution and Scripture were compatible. Darwinist evolution, Potter asserted, invalidated just about everything in Scripture and orthodox theology, including the existence of God. As a result, he was never called as an expert witness. Potter’s headline-seeking did not escape Mencken’s sharp eye. “There is a Unitarian clergyman here from New York,” Mencken wrote, “trying desperately to horn into the trial. He will fail. If Darrow ventured to put him on the stand the whole audience, led by the jury, would leap out of the courthouse windows, and take to the hills.”
By the end of the 1920s, Potter had resigned from preaching altogether, and in 1938 he helped to found the Euthanasia Society of America. Until the organization changed its name in the 1960s, the ESA tried unsuccessfully to convince state legislators to pass laws removing legal penalties for physicians who killed their patients in the name of mercy. The ESA insisted it supported only voluntary requests for medical assistance in dying, but its members often admitted that they sympathized with people like Darrow who backed the killing of children with disabilities, as well as people with mental illness. Potter’s association with the defense reveals that the social Darwinist policies favored by Darrow’s legal team contrasted sharply with their stated goal of defending Scopes’s individual freedom.
Last but not least, one of the biggest misconceptions about the trial is that Scopes and his defense team won the day. It is true that the fine imposed by the judge was laughably nominal, but statutes outlawing the teaching of evolution in numerous states continued to be passed over the next forty years. As two researchers wrote in Science in 1974, “As far as teaching evolution in the high schools was concerned…not only did they lose, but they did not even know they had lost.”
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This encyclopedic history of the Scopes Trial is a persuasive reminder that most everything Americans think they know about the trial is wrong. What was it really about? The freedom to teach evolution in schools? Even Mencken conceded that taxpayers like Tennessee’s should be able to dictate what is taught in their public schools and teachers like Scopes should bow to the wishes of voters. The book’s contents suggest that beneath all the fanfare surrounding the trial, it remains difficult to say who was or was not on the right side of history.
In the shadow of the widespread censorship and false messaging around the Covid-19 pandemic, the history of the Monkey Trial is a valuable corrective to the fashionable mythology that science is a bulwark against ignorance and superstition. When the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control, in an effort to censor opposing views, wrap themselves in the mantle of science, we need to ask the questions that William Jennings Bryan should have asked more persistently: What “science” are we talking about? Which scientists are we deferring to? Experience teaches us to be skeptical when we are ordered to accept the doctrines of “science” as a cudgel against dissenters from government policy.
We should try to remember that lesson next time we watch Inherit the Wind on TCM.