John Scopes Indicted for Teaching Evolution
On May 25, 1925, a thirteen-member grand jury in Rhea County, Tennessee, indicted science teacher John Thomas Scopes for the crime of teaching evolution to his high school biology class. This legal action set in motion one of the most notorious trials of the 20th century, one famously nicknamed the Scopes “Monkey Trial” by the Baltimore Sun’s acerbic journalist, H. L. Mencken. Newspapers across the nation closely followed Scopes’s trial, and thousands of Americans tuned in to hear the first trial in the United States broadcast on national radio.
Scopes was charged with breaking a Tennessee statute, the Butler Act, which was signed into law by Tennessee Governor Peay on March 21, 1925. The law did not actually prohibit the teaching of evolutionary theory in the state’s public schools—it banned the teaching that humans descended from animals, in opposition to the Biblical story of creation. Teaching about the evolution of all plants and animals except humankind was acceptable.
The American Civil Liberties Union wanted to contest the law by having some teacher purposely break it, then defending that teacher in court. Scopes, a 24-year-old teacher, volunteered to be the test case. The highly-publicized trial pitted fundamentalists against modernists, and featured such well-known men as William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution (a famed fundamentalist and three-time presidential candidate for the Democrats) and Clarence Darrow for the defense (one of the most famous lawyers of his day). The presiding judge, John Tate Raulston, carried a Bible into the courtroom, quoted scripture from the bench, started each day’s session with a prayer, and read the Biblical story of creation to the jury at the start of the trial. He also disallowed most of the defense team’s witnesses and ruled most of its evidence inadmissible.
To no one’s surprise, Scopes was found guilty on July 21, 1925, and Judge Raulston fined him $100. However, on appeal the Tennessee Supreme Court threw the case out on a technicality—the jury was supposed to set the fine, not the judge—and the matter ended. However, the Butler Act was not repealed by the Tennessee Legislature until 1967, and the controversy over teaching creationism versus evolution lingers in some parts of the country today.
The following two newspaper articles give an indication of the sort of coverage the trial received. The first, somewhat sarcastic, article describes the indictment of John Scopes. The second article describes some of the support offered Scopes from fellow scientists and academics.
This copyrighted article was printed by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) on May 26, 1925:
Teacher Indicted in Evolution Row
Tennessee Jury Acts after Judge Reads Bible Story of Creation
By Phillip Kinsley
(Plain Dealer Special)
Dayton, Tenn., May 25.—In this green theater of the Cumberland ridge, where once a might battle was fought above the clouds over the principle of human slavery, new lines were drawn today for a historic struggle this summer between the old time religion of the hills and the new scientific liberalism of the colleges.
Most solemnly, earnestly and formally, thirteen of Tennessee’s pure and undefiled Anglo-Saxon citizenry, in grand jury assembled, voted unanimously and promptly today to present a true bill against John Thomas Scopes, Dayton high school teacher, who dared to implant in the minds of his pupils the idea that man’s body is an animal body, related to the ape’s, but it will be evolved through millions of years, and that the Bible story of creation is a myth. On the grand jury were four Baptists, three Methodists and five Presbyterians.
It is to be a battle among the clouds that obscure the origin and destiny of the human race.
Not Coming from Sinai.
The thunder of the new law is coming from the neighborhood of Lookout Mountain instead of Sinai.
The presentment of the grand jury, made up chiefly of grim and aged farmers, is as follows:
“That John Thomas Scopes, heretofore on the 24th day of April, 1925, did unlawfully and willfully teach in the public schools of Rhea County, Tennessee, which said public schools are supported in part and wholly by the public school fund of the state, a certain theory and theories that deny the story of the divine creation as taught in the Bible and did teach instead thereof, that man has descended from a lower order of animals, he, the said John Thomas Scopes, being at the time and prior thereto a teacher in the public schools of Rhea County, Tennessee, aforesaid, against the peace and dignity of the state.”
This was signed by A. T. Stewart, attorney general, who presented the evidence to the grand jury and was returned in the court of Judge John T. Raulston, who congratulated them upon their action.
A special term of court then was set for the trial, which is to begin July 10, in Dayton.
Form of Mental Slavery.
Scopes, a modest, sensitive young man, passionately sincere in his conviction that the anti-evolution law is a form of mental slavery, was not in court, but was found later under the maples of the town square, where the farmers’ mules were hitched, the center of an admiring throng. He was nervous but undaunted.
His counsel is John Randolph Neal of Knoxville, who was dismissed from the University of Tennessee two years ago for a similar liberal teaching.
The main idea of the prosecution is that Scopes was undermining the faith of children in the Bible.
William Jennings Bryan, who is idolized in these parts, and Clarence Darrow, who is known only to the intelligentsia who meet in the drug store, are to face each other, across the lawyers’ tables, on this and other questions involved.
The plans of the defense indicate that millions of words will be spilled on this subject. The most eminent scientists and theologians are to be called to this little city to present their views on the history of the so-called human race. Fundamentalist and modernist are to fight it out here.
Rappleyea Steps Aside.
The character of the prosecution was purged of all friendliness and frame-up aspect today when George W. Rappleyea, manager of a mine here, who was the official prosecutor, withdrew from this role to make way for Prof. Walter White, county superintendent of schools. Rappleyea is a liberal thinker and started this case on the theory that the best way to get rid of an obnoxious law is to enforce it. As the tiny flame grew to forest fire proportions he could not see himself in the attitude of conferring with Mr. Bryan as prosecutor, and withdrew with the consent of the attorney general.
It was hard to realize that this was the new age of science as the stage was arranged for this proceeding.
The old red brick court house was the center of the activities. Men gathered there early, but the judge was late. He was reported as having been seen on the street with three Bibles under his arm.
Judge Carries Bible.
Investigation compels the statement that this was one Bible (King James Version) and one dictionary, for there are some words that even a judge can’t sling around offhand.
The court room is a bare white structure about large enough for the lawyers and newspaper reporters who will attend this trial. There are four stoves in the room, their bases encrusted with tobacco juice of ages. The electric lights seem out of place.
Judge Raulston decided to open this very special session of court with prayer and called in the Rev. H. G. Byrd, of the Methodist church, North.
At the state’s table sat Attorney General Stewart, and Special Assistants S. K. Hicks, Herbert Hicks, Gordon McKenzie and Wallace Haggard, all young men.
Judge Raulston’s attitude on the situation was expressed as follows:
“It has always been and is now, one of the greatest passions of my life to ascertain the truth about all matters, especially matters relative to God, and man’s proper relation to Him, but I’m not so much exorcised over the question as to whence man cometh, as I am as to whither he goeth.
Destiny of His Soul.
“I’m not so much concerned about the origin of my body as I am to the destiny of my soul.”
In his instructions to the jurors, Judge Raulston said:
“Since the act involved in this investigation provides that it shall be unlawful to teach any theory that denies the creation of man as taught in the Bible, it is proper that I call your attention to the account of man’s creation as taught in the Bible, as it is found in the first chapter of Genesis.”
Then the judge read the story that every man present had learned at his mother’s knee.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”—down to “and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good and the evening and the morning were the sixth day.”
The jurors looked as though they were in church. They proceeded to go to their jury room and vote a true bill, which was a way of saying “amen” to the sermon.
Problem Staggers Them.
The jurors retired at 10:30 and were back at 11:30 with their verdict. Both sides at once went into conference in preparation for the [trial], staggered by the immensity of the problems presented.
What is evolution?
The American Medical Association and university men must answer.
What is the correct interpretation of the first chapter of the Bible?
A dozen learned men are to be called upon to answer that.
Judge Raulston is inclined to give the lawyers full latitude.
“It is big doings for Dayton and Tennessee,” is the verdict of the town.
The question where to get a place big enough to house the people who want to attend is causing debate.
The issue of church and state looms large.
Are the fundamentalists to be permitted to dictate to science?
It is suggested that James Harvey Robinson, author of “The Mind in the Making,” Hendrick Van Loon, H. G. Wells, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick and others foregather here, and that Voliva, who is said to hold that the earth is flat, be sent for. This entire controversy is referred to frequently as more suitable to the time of Galileo, who had difficulty in teaching his discovery that the earth is a sphere.
This copyrighted article was printed by the Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington) on May 25, 1925:
Scientists to Aid of Scopes
Support Teacher of Evolution
American Association Joins Actively in Defense of Tennessee Educator on Trial as Violator of Law
By Associated Press.
Dayton, Tenn., Monday, May 25.—John T. Scopes, high school science teacher, was indicted by a Rhea County grand jury here today on a charge of teaching evolution in a public school in violation of the Tennessee law.
By Associated Press.
Dayton, Tenn., Monday, May 25.—The American Association for the Advancement of Science has joined actively in the Tennessee evolution case, it was announced today as a Rhea County grand jury assembled to determine whether John T. Scopes, science teacher, should be indicted for violations of the state law prohibiting teaching of evolution in the schools.
Dr. George W. Rappleyea, who instigated the court test, announced that Prof. H. I. Pupin, president of the association and member of Columbia University faculty, had pledged support to the defense, promising a “scientific expert advice” for the trial.
The presence of large crowds in Dayton to attend today’s preliminaries has brought the suggestion that a temporary courtroom should be erected on the baseball park site. The proposed building would seat 20,000 persons.
Scopes was held for action by three magistrates at a preliminary hearing two weeks ago. He expects to be indicted.
Bryan Sees Danger in Science Controlling Schools
By Associated Press.
Columbus, O., Monday, May 25.—The pending test of the Tennessee law against the teaching of evolution in the public schools is not so much a question of correctness of the theory of evolution as it is of the right of a people to control the schools which they create and support, William Jennings Bryan declared in an address here last night.
Mr. Bryan has volunteered to assist in the prosecution of John T. Scopes, Dayton, Tenn., teacher charged with violating the new law.
“If the people are not to control the schools,” Mr. Bryan asked, “who shall control them—the scientists, who amount to about 1 to 10,000 in our population, or the teachers?”
Sixteen Accusations Are Hurled at Bryan
By Associated Press.
New York, Monday, May 25.—The Rev. Dr. James S. Williamson, pastor of Kings Highway Congregational Church, Brooklyn, who last week mildly interrupted William J. Bryan’s speech in support of fundamentalism, yesterday vigorously denounced Mr. Bryan in a sermon.
Dr. Williamson hurled sixteen accusations at Mr. Bryan, beginning with “religious brawler” and ending with “abysmal ignorance.”