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Christian History Home > 1997 > Issue 55 > The Monkey Trial


The Monkey Trial
The first trial of the century revealed a great divide separating American Christians.
David Goetz | posted 7/01/1997 12:00AM

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The court will come to order," said the Honorable John T. Raulston. "The Reverend Cartwright will please open the court with prayer."

It was Friday, July 10, 1925, 9 A.M., in Dayton, Tennessee, a small mountain community of about 2,000. It was the State of Tennessee versus John Thomas Scopes, the first American trial to be nationally broadcast on radio.

It should have been an open-and-shut case: did a high school mathematics-turned-biology teacher teach evolution in class? If yes, Scopes was guilty of violating a new Tennessee law.

But the case ballooned into one of the great media events of the twentieth century. Like the O. J. Simpson trial in our day, the case itself set no significant precedents, but it revealed a widening chasm in America, and in American Christianity.

Media circus


In January, about six months prior to the "monkey trial" (as it came to be known), the lower house of the Tennessee legislature passed the Butler bill:

"It shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the universities, normals, and all other public schools of the State … 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." Any teacher found guilty of the misdemeanor would be fined between $100 and $500.

The bill created a national buzz, and immediately the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) advertised to pay the costs to test the statute in court. A mining engineer in Dayton, Tennessee, George W. Rappelyea, convinced John Scopes to admit to violating the statute to become a test case.

When nationally known Clarence Darrow joined the defense team and William Jennings Bryan, the prosecution, the made-for-radio trial was set.

Both men were in the twilight of their careers. Almost 70 years old, Darrow had just come off a highly publicized trial in Chicago, in which he saved two admitted murderers (Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) from capital punishment with an insanity defense. Darrow was widely known as a defender of "radicals" and an outspoken agnostic.

Bryan had been a three-time presidential candidate and secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. Though he had not practiced law in more than 30 years, he was the author of a syndicated weekly column on the Bible and was recognized as a leading spokesman for emerging fundamentalism.

When the trial began, more than 100 journalists—including sardonic H. L. Mencken—descended on tiny Dayton. The press had its angle from the outset. To them Darrow symbolized objectivity, tolerance, and forward thinking—clear-headed modernity at its finest. Bryan symbolized narrowmindedness, tribalism, and social backwardness —tendentious Christianity at its worst.

Also from the beginning, the prosecution and defense understood the media circus being created, and each side choreographed its part, playing not only to a jury but to a nation at attention.

Did Scopes break the law?


On day one of the trial, as many as a thousand people crammed into the 700-seat courtroom. After a new indictment was returned (to ensure no mistrial), the selection of the jury began.

An early exchange revealed the partisan nature of the trial. Defense attorney Darrow, wearing purple suspenders, a white shirt, and a white string necktie, was examining a prospective juror, an itinerant preacher. Darrow asked, "What is your business?"

"I am a minister," J. P. Massingill replied.

"Ever preach on evolution?"

"I don't think so, definitely," the minister said, "that is, on evolution alone."




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