The Scopes Trial: Real History or Hollywood Fiction?

by Phoebe Kautt

Court proceedings back in 1925 were quite different from what they are today. For example, people were allowed to chew and smoke tobacco in the court room, and the court opened with prayer. Being that the Scopes Trial took place in mid-July, the temperatures in the court room were over 100 degrees, and therefore the judge allowed the men to remove their coats and ties.1

Before the Trial

William Jennings Bryan had been opposed to the theory of Darwinian Evolution before the Scopes Trial, and the teaching of the theory in the public schools. He said, “I object to the Darwinian theory because I fear we shall lose the consciousness of God’s presence in our daily life, if we must accept the theory that through all the ages no spiritual force has touched the life of man and shaped the destiny of nations.2

After trying several unsuccessful attempts to pass anti-evolution laws in 1923, the Butler Act finally passed in the House of Representatives in January 1925, by a vote of seventy-one to five. Of course, not all were in favor of the bill.

As the fight for the anti-evolution laws raged, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) kept watch on the whole war. And, in 1924, the ACLU issued a statement offering assistance to teachers, “Whenever any such issue arises in any school or college described in this memorandum, those interested should write or wire the American Civil Liberties Union…And aid will be furnished at once either through local correspondents, corresponding attorneys, or direct from the New York headquarters.3

Later, on May 4, the ACLU published a more specific ad in the Chattanooga Times. In it they stated they were looking for a teacher willing to test the Butler Act in court. A local businessman, George Rappleyea4, saw this as an opportunity to put his struggling town ‘on the map’.

Immediately after Rappleyea read the newspaper ad, he went down to the local town meeting place, Fred Robinson’s drugstore, to see if they could round up a local violator of the anti-evolution law. He did this for two reasons: 1) he was opposed to the anti-evolution laws in general, and 2) he wanted to bring some publicity to Dayton. After rounding up a few local people for aid, what they needed to do was pick their guilty defendant. John T. Scopes, a twenty-four-year-old football coach and fill-in biology teacher, was picked as the sufficient candidate.5

On May 25, 1925, the district judge decided to call a special session of the grand jury to indict John Scopes. In this way, the famous Scopes Trial was set to take place in Dayton, Tennessee on July 10, 1925.6

Bearing in mind that this trial would be nationally known, many of the promoters of the trial wanted H.G. Wells to aid the defense, but he declined. William Jennings Bryan offered his services to the prosecution, though he had not practiced law in over twenty-five years. Once Bryan had volunteered, Clarence Darrow decided to join in the action, though he had recently retired from practicing law. Other volunteers in the trial were Arthur Garfield Hayes, an ACLU lawyer, Dudley Malone, a divorce attorney, Ben McKenzie, the Assistant Attorney General of Tennessee, and A. Thomas Stewart, the Attorney General of Tennessee.

The Trial

On July 10, local men and media gathered at the Rhea County Courthouse two hours before the trial was to begin, in order to get a good view during the trial. The expected tourists never showed up.

The indictment was read by Judge Raulston again, and they were dismissed for lunch. After lunch, the jury selection was made. Darrow asked each possible juror the same three questions: 1) Do you know anything about evolution? 2) Did you ever have any opinion…on whether the Bible was against evolution or not? and 3) Would you make up your own mind on these matters based on the evidence presented in court? The jurors gave the answers that would get them on the jury, because it was one of the the best seats in the courthouse.7

As the course of the trial went on, Darrow argued such things as the constitutionality of the anti-evolution law, and he claimed that if you make evolution a crime, men will eventually devolve back to the men of the sixteenth century. On the third day, the defense objected to having prayer at the opening of every trial day, but the judge decided to continue with the practice.

Malone, speaking in behalf of the defense, stated that they were not trying to destroy the authority of the Bible, but simply prove that John Scopes was innocent, and to show that the Bible should be kept in the realm of theology. The prosecution questioned the witnesses, and the witnesses admitted that Scopes violated the statute.

The defense and prosecution argued over the admittance of science into the trial. On the following day, July 17, which was the sixth day of the trial, Judge Raulston excluded expert testimony, and stated, “…under the provisions of the act involved in this case, it is made unlawful thereby to teach in the public schools of the state of Tennessee the theory that man descended from a lower order of animals. If the court is correct in this, then the evidence of experts would shed no light on the issues. Therefore, the court is content to sustain the motion of the attorney general to exclude the expert testimony.8 The sixth day of trial then finished outside, for fear of the floor falling out.

Day 7 of the trial is perhaps the most famous of them all. It was the day that Bryan agreed to be examined as an expert on the Bible. Darrow then proceeded to ask him a whole string of questions, in an endeavor to undermine his literalist interpretation of the Word of God. Bryan faltered in compromise in the interpretation of the days in Genesis 1. He believed that the days were not literal 24 hour days, but instead long eras. In other words, he believed in the Day-age theory.

In the course of the examination, Darrow asked some pretty out-landish questions. For example, “Do you know anything about how many people there were in Egypt 3,500 years ago, or how many people there were in China 5,000 years ago?9 These questions were irrelevant to the issue at hand. Unfortunately, Bryan was not able to answer a couple of the good questions Darrow asked, such as “where did Cain get his wife?”, questions which needed to be answered. As the questions from Darrow ended, so did the next-to-the-last day of the trial.10

As they come back for the last day of the trial, Darrow requested the jury to find Scopes guilty of the crime as charged. John T. Scopes then received his punishment: a $100 fine. Thus ended the famous Scopes Trial.

Only 5 days later William Jennings Bryan passed away.

On January 17, 1927, the Scopes case was dismissed because of a technicality, and was thus never appealed to a higher court.11

I have give you this account of the Scopes Trial to show that this famous event was, in fact, an historical occurrence. I have also written this to clear any misunderstandings which may have been caused by films such as, “Inherit the Wind.”


1 Trial of the Century – Tennessee vs. John Scopes

2 – Revisiting Scopes

3 – The Trial of the Century – Tennessee vs. John Scopes

6 – The Trial of the Century – Tennessee vs. John Scopes

7 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 – The Trial of the Century – Tennessee vs. John Scopes

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