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What was the Scopes Monkey Trial?

Scopes Monkey Trial
Question: "What was the Scopes Monkey Trial?"

The Scopes Monkey Trial took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. The trial is formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes. The state accused Mr. Scopes, a public high school teacher, of teaching human evolution against state law. Although this case was purposefully staged to attract publicity for the town of Dayton, it had repercussions for the creation vs. evolution debate and the future of teaching Darwin’s theory in public schools.

Tennessee’s Butler Act, a law passed in March 1925, prohibited teachers in state-funded schools from teaching human evolution. In July 1925, John T. Scopes was accused of doing just that. The American Civil Liberties Union arranged for an agnostic lawyer, Clarence Darrow, to represent Scopes in the upcoming “Monkey Trial.” William Jennings Bryan, three-time Presidential candidate and Presbyterian, agreed to represent the state of Tennessee. The lines were drawn, the public’s attention was engaged, and a media circus began.

From the start, those involved had questionable motives, and the trial was held under dubious circumstances. For example, Mr. Scopes, who was only a substitute teacher in the science classroom, did not even know if he had taught evolution, but he incriminated himself so the case could have a defendant. The judge presiding over the “Monkey Trial” case was accused of favoring the prosecution. Although Scopes was found guilty, the verdict was eventually overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on a technicality. The justices declared in their ruling that “nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”

The verdict in the Scopes Monkey Trial took nine minutes to reach, but the impact it had, especially on the creation versus evolution debate, was significant. The trial revealed a growing separation between the biblical view of creation and the theory of evolution. It was clear that Scopes’ guilt or innocence was not the real issue. Instead, the trial became a political and legal contest to test the legality of the Butler Act and to see which side would influence the extent to which creation or evolution would be taught as science in public schools.

During the trial, William Jennings Bryan allowed himself to be put on the witness stand to defend the Bible and represent Christianity. Unfortunately, Bryan could not adequately or knowledgeably answer the questions given to him. Bryan faltered in answering questions regarding whether Eve was actually created from Adam’s rib, where Cain got his wife, and how many people lived in Ancient Egypt. Bryan also admitted that he did not believe in a literal six-day creation. By doing so, he undermined the Bible’s authority, especially on creation. By lacking understanding, Bryan opened himself to ridicule in the press and allowed for people to doubt whether science and the Bible are compatible.

After Scopes was found guilty, several states tried to pass laws similar to the Butler Act but failed. For a while, it seemed that a majority of the nation was holding on to anti-evolution laws. In actuality, the concept of evolution was still taught in schools, even if the exact terminology was not used. It would take several decades to see the full effects that the Scopes Monkey Trial had on the nation and on the creation versus evolution debate.

Thirty years later, a fictionalized version of the Scopes Monkey Trial appeared in the form of a play, Inherit the Wind. In that play (and in the 1960 movie), the prosecutor is depicted as a raging, narrow-minded, uninformed Christian Fundamentalist, and the defendant as a gentle, broad-minded, intelligent agnostic. The popularity of the play and movie has widened the perceived gap between science and the Bible and has ensured that a whole generation of Americans have a faulty view of the facts surrounding the case.

In the aftermath of the Scopes Monkey Trial, many people still believe that the Bible and science contradict. Bryan and the state of Tennessee may have legally won the Scopes Monkey Trial, but, unfortunately, by not giving a good defense for how the biblical account of creation and science work together, they lost the greater cultural battle.

Recommended Resource: Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design edited by Stump & Gundry

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