Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

July 5, 2007

YESTER YEARS: The Scopes Trial

By J. Harry Sutherland / Sun columnist

There are many versions of this trial, but this story came from John Scopes himself. The Scopes "Monkey" Trial began July 10, 1925, or 81 years ago, and pitted Clarence Darrow vs. William Jennings Bryan, a creationist. John Scopes, a physics teacher, who had substituted as a biology teacher, volunteered to test the Tennessee Legislature when it passed its anti-evolution law in March 1925.

While doing graduate work at NE Louisiana University in 1959, one of my professors was an active member of the Little Theatre Group and was to play the role of Clarence Darrow. Dr. Christian, my professor, invited me to attend this production and I sat next to John Scopes.

He and I talked at length about the trial. What really provoked the trial was a bet made in a local drugstore during morning coffee. A group of citizens who disagreed with the law, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, chose the volunteer, John Scopes, to be the test subject. John was assured that he would not be sent to jail or have to pay a fine. There was no provision in the law for imprisonment. Newspapers, citizens and evolution supporters had agreed to pay his trial cost and fine if there was one. He told me that the Tennessee law required the jury to assess the fine, but the judge did so and it was never paid. Scopes was fined $100.

The trial provided William Jennings Bryan a platform to expound on creationism and his belief there was no such thing as evolution. Clarence Darrow put Bryan on the stand and tried to make a mockery of Bryan's lack of knowledge about science. It worked and didn't work. Most writers have stated it was a draw simply because Mississippi and Arkansas enacted similar laws at the end of the decade. Creationists thought Bryan won, evolutionist (scientists) thought Darrow won. Nevertheless, Tennessee repealed the law in 1967, but it had been widely ignored for years.

What was the basis of the law? The exact wording of the law was, "it shall be unlawful ... to teach any theory that denies the story of Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." The law applied to public schools and public colleges. The two clashing men argued about Cain's wife, Jonah and the whale, or fish, that the sun stood still during the battle of Jericho, and quibbled about how long the tower of Babel had been built. Bryan did admit that 'six days' in which God created the earth could have been geological eras. Later, the judge, having heard the arguments, dismissed the proceedings and found Scopes guilty.

Historical: In 1927 the Tennessee Supreme Court voided the fine, but not the conviction. The movie Inherit the Wind was not based on actual facts Scopes told me, but some of the parts were true. William Jennings Bryan died five days after the trial from a heart attack; his was a hefty girth, poor health and age 65. The day before his death he made a speech to 8,000 supporters.

Clarence Darrow returned to Chicago to practice law. Who won? Even John Scopes told me that it was a tie. Bryan established his creationism and Darrow won the scientists' debate. This trial is one of the most revisited events in American history. I still have his autograph on the program for the production we attended in Monroe, LA. John Scopes was a geologist for the Louisiana Light and Power Company until his death.

Sources: Interview with John Scopes Library of Congress American Heritage - Fred Schwarz