The Monkey Trial
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.
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.