Scopes Trial

[The 20th century had already proved to be a losing contest between faith and science with the ascendancy of Einstein's theory of relativity. Not just time and space but all things--- even "values"--- somehow became unanchored as basic givens were challenged. The theories of Sigmund Freud, which made mankind out to be in the sway of uncontrollable psychological urges, led people to question even the most fundamental tenets. But the Darwinian theory of evolution, which appeared to undermine the very bedrock of the Bible and its account of the creation of the universe, was too much for many Americans. The state of Tennessee, for one, passed a law making it a crime to teach evolution in the public schools, and in 1925 one John Scopes was duly indicted for doing it anyway.

It was the trial of the decade, with the waning William Jennings Bryan (who died while the case was being argued) undergirding the prosecution in support of traditional values, and Clarence Darrow, wily trial lawyer, heading Scopes's defense.]

(JULY 20, 1925)

About 8 o'clock, dusty wagons, gigs, buggies and small automobiles come jogging in along the country roads. In them are gaunt farmers, their wives in gingham and children in overalls, who crowd toward the court house to get seats for the day's proceedings in the trial of Teacher John Thomas Scopes, alleged violator of the state's anti-evolution law, bewildered instrument of Science and Faith which have accidentally chosen Dayton as their battleground and in whose wake has come the usual camp-following of freaks, fakes, mountebanks and parasites of publicity.

Such was the scene. Two days before the trial, Lawyer William Jennings Bryan, chief of the prosecution, lumbered off a train from Florida. The populace, Bryan's to a moron, yowled a welcome. Going to the house he had rented, Bryan took off his coat, wandered the streets in his shirt sleeves, a panoramic smile of blessing upon his perspiring countenance, and impressive pith helmet covering the bald, pink dome of his head.

Slouching Lawyer Darrow, defense counsel, arrived. Finding shy young Scopes in the crowed, asked Darrow: "Is Bryan here? Is he all right? It would be very painful to me to hear that he had fallen a victim to synthetic sin." Fumbling his soiled lavender galluses, slowly masticating a quid of tobacco, Darrow squinted across at Lawyer Bryan, rather voluptuous in a black mohair suit, surrounded by assistant counsel.

(JULY 27, 1925)

Maintaining that the farmer-jurors, admittedly unfamiliar with the theory of Evolution, were unfit to decide whether or not it "denies Genesis" until they had heard an explanation of the theory, the defense sought to put scientific experts on the stand for the farmer-jurors' instruction. At once the prosecution objected. The jurors, who had so far spent most of their time wandering around outside the court house, trying to avoid hearing the loud-spoken radio echoes of arguments within the court over what was and was not fitting for them to hear, were again banished from the scene.

William Jennings Bryan, grim, impassioned, breaking a silence of four and a half days with theatrical effect: "The people of this state passed this law, the people of this state knew what they were doing...The moment that law became a law anything in these books (indicating the Biology text used by Teacher Scopes) contrary to that law was prohibited...The facts are simple, the case is plain, and if these gentlemen (counsel for the defense) want to enter upon a larger field of educational work on the subject of Evolution, let us get through with this case and then convene a mock court, for it will deserve the title of mock court if its purpose is to banish from the hearts of the people the Word of God as revealed."

After drowsing through these speeches, His Honor held with Lawyer Bryan that the only question before the court was to decide whether Teacher Scopes had taught Evolution.

The afternoon's session was held out-of-doors and a great crowd gathered. A treat was had by all. Mr. Darrow called the opposing counsel Mr. Bryan as a witness to prove that the Bible need not be taken literally, questioned him about Jonah and the whale, Joshua and the Sun, whence Mrs. Cain, the Deluge, the Tower of Babel. Mr. Darrow bellowed his purpose to "show up Fundamentalism, to prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling education in the U.S." Mr. Bryan shook his fist, roared back his purpose "to protect the Word of God from the greatest atheist and agnostic in the United States."

(AUGUST 3, 1925)

The pens and tongues of contumely were arrested. Mocking mouths were shut. Even righteous protestation hushed its clamor, as when, having striven manfully in single combat, a high-helmed champion is stricken by Jove's bolt and the two snarling armies stand at sudden gaze, astonished and bereft a moment of their rancor.

The death of William Jennings Bryan furnished Tennessee's anti-Evolution case with a climax. In the trial itself there remained nothing but the bald testimony of two schoolboys that Scopes had "taught Evolution." Though the trial lasted a fortnight, costing over $25,000, the schoolboys' testimony was practically all the farmer-jurors were permitted to hear in the courtroom. It alone constituted the basis for their verdict of "Guilty."

Copyright (c) TIME Magazine, 1995 TIME Inc. Magazine Company; (c) 1995 Compact Publishing, Inc.

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