In the summer of 1925, a small town in Tennessee became a hub of intense international interest when famed defence lawyer Clarence Darrow squared off against progressive politician William Jennings Bryan over a Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools. Here, in summary, are the often-distorted facts of the case.
Held in Dayton, Tennessee the Trial began July 10, 1925, and ended on July 21, 1925
- John Scopes, a 24 year-old science teacher and football coach, was the defendant, accused of violating a Tennessee law which forbade the teaching of evolution in state supported schools
- William Jennings Bryan, 65, joined the attorneys for the state (prosecution)
- Clarence Darrow, 68, joined the attorneys representing Scopes ( defense )
- Judge John T. Raulston presided over the trial
- Scopes was convicted and fined $100 by Judge Raulston
- Conviction was appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee
- In January 1927, Scopes' conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court on a technicality
The Tennessee Law
- Introduced in the Tennessee House of Representatives in March 1925 by Representative Butler (hence the name the Butler Act)
- Passed the Tennessee legislature on March 13, 1925
- Signed into law by Tennessee Governor Austin Peay on March 21, 1925
- Made it unlawful for any teacher in a state funded school to "'teach any theory the denied 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."
- Decreed that violation of this statute was a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of from $100 to $500
- Robert Bald director of the ACLU in New York, sent a press release to Tennessee newspapers offering legal support to any teacher willing to challenge the law
- George W. Rappelyea, a 31 year-old mining engineer in Dayton who opposed the Tennessee law, saw the ACLU offer and decided that it would be good publicity for Dayton to have the court challenge happen there
- On May 5, 1925, in a meeting at E. F. Robinson's drug store, Rappelyea persuaded Mr. Robinson (who was head of the County Board of Education) and the school superintendent to agree to a test case
- John Scopes was telephoned and asked to come to the meeting where he was asked if he could teach biology without breaking the Tennessee law
- Scopes replied that every teacher in the state was breaking the law because evolution was mentioned in the state approved biology textbook (Hunter' s Civic Biology)
- Scopes, though originally reluctant, was eventually persuaded to cooperate
- Rappelyea wired the ACLU, collect, saying, "The stage was set and...the play could open at once."
- Rappelyea swore out the warrant that had Scopes arrested for teaching the theory of evolution on April 24, 1925
- The local Attorney General, A. T. Stewart, was the lead prosecutor and invited William Jennings Bryan to join his team
- ACLU defense lawyers were Arthur Garfield Rays and Dudley Field Malone
- Clarence Darrow joined the team (in his only known pro bono case) because of his personal animosity toward Bryan
Darrow's strategy for the defense was to force the case to be decided on the constitutionality of the law and the merits of evolution he wanted a guilty verdict to force the case into appeal
- he had 15 experts lined up to testify for evolution and against "fundamentalism"
- he strove to avoid all technical issues that would interfere with his goal to put the law on trial
- Darrow had no intention of trying to get Scopes acquitted; in fact, he refused to allow Scopes to take the stand because Scopes would have had to testify that he was absent from school on April 24, 1925 (the day named on the indictment) and so could not have taught evolution on that date in short, Scopes was innocent of the specific charge for which he was being tried and Darrow knew it
Bryan's strategy for the prosecution was designed to crush Darwinism
- he called the trial "a duel to the death" between evolution and Christianity
- he had spent weeks preparing a summation speech to deliver at the end of the trial which he called "the mountain peak of my life's efforts"
- he also did not raise the issue of Scopes' innocence on the particular charge before the court because if the charge was dismissed he would not be able to give his speech
- Judge Raulston spoiled both strategies he disallowed all of Darrow's witnesses.
- about evolution itself, ruling that the case was only about whether John Scopes had broken an existing statute
- after Darrow' s cross-examination of Bryan, he allowed Darrow' s motion for an immediate directed verdict of guilty, which kept Bryan from giving his summation speech
- the jury returned with a guilty verdict in 8 minutes
- Judge Raulston imposed a $100 fine, which was the minimum provided by the law
Aftermath of the Trial
- William Jennings Bryan died on July 26, 1925, five days after the verdict, of diabetes, in Dayton
- In June 1926, the appeal of Scopes' conviction came before the Tennessee Supreme Court
- On January 14, 1927, Scopes' conviction was overturned on a technicality a fine of more than $50 must be levied by a jury and not a judge
- The constitutionality of the Butler Law was never tested
- The trial did not ever deal with the amount or lack of scientific merit in evolution's teachings at all
Robin Bernhoft. "Study guide for Scopes Trial." From Is Evolution Fit to Survive? (National Parents Commission, 2001).
To order Is Evolution Fit to Survive? please call (1-877-852-2595) or e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information. The National Parents Commission is at 206 1/2 Habicht St., Johnstown, PA 15906.
Peg Luksik co-hosts the radio program Welcome Home with Dr. Bernhoft.
Dr. Robin Bernhoft, M.D. graduated from Harvard College with a degree in British History before going on study medicine at Washington University, St Louis. He did a residency in General Surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, and a fellowship in liver and pancreatic surgery at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, London, England. In 1991 he was asked to lead medical opposition to the initiative which would have legalized euthanasia in Washington state. His campaign was successful. The following year, he helped craft another come-from-behind victory over a euthanasia initiative in California. Dr. Bernhoft practices medicine in Ojai CA. Bernhoft is the author, with Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J. and Camille DeBlasi, of Healing the Culture (Ignatius Press, 2000). Bernhoft is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2001 National Parents Commission
back to top