The Monkey Trial

Emily Larson

The Theory

When Charles Darwin announced his theory that humans had descended from apes, he sent shock waves through the Western world.
In the years that followed his 1859 declaration, American churches hotly debated whether to accept the findings of modern science or continue to follow the teachings of ancient scripture. By the 1920's, most of the urban churches of America had been able to reconcile Darwin's theory with the bible, but rural preachers preferred a stricter interpretation.
With all of the dizzying changes brought up by the roaring decade, religious followers saw the Bible as the only way to save people from the materialistic civilization. In 1925, the Tennessee legislature they passed the Butler Law, which forbade the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in any public school or university. The other southern states followed as well.

Civil Liberties Union

The American Civil Liberties Union led the charge of evolution's supporters. It offered to fund the legal defense of any Tennessee teacher willing to fight the law in court. Another showdown between modernity and tradition was unfolding. The man who accepted the challenge was John T. Scopes, a science teacher and football coach in Dayton, Tennessee, part of a chapter on evolution of humankind and Darwin's theory of natural selection. His arrest soon followed, and a trial date was set.

Darwin VS. Bryan

Bryan was a Christian who lobbied for a constitutional amendment banning the teaching of evolution throughout the nation.Representing Scopes was the famed lawyer Clarence Darrow. The prosecution was led by William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and former secretary of state. The "Great Commoner" was the perfect representative of the rural values he dedicated his life to defend.


Media Circus with the Monkeys

The trial turned into a media circus. When the case was opened on July 14, journalists from across the land descended upon the mountain hamlet of Dayton. Preachers and fortune seekers filled the streets. Entrepreneurs sold everything from food to Bibles to stuffed monkeys. The trial became the first ever to be broadcast on radio.

Scopes himself played a rather small role in the case: the trial was reduced to a verbal contest between Darrow and Bryan. When Judge John Raulston refused to admit expert testimony on the validity of evolutionary theory, Darrow lost his best defense.

He decided that if he was not permitted to validate Darwin, his best shot was to attack the literal interpretation of the Bible. The climax of the trial came when Darrow asked Bryan to take the stand as an expert on the Bible. Darrow hammered Bryan with tough questions on his strict acceptance of several Bible's stories from the creation of Eve from Adam's rib to the swallowing of Jonah by a whale.

In the following famous excerpt from the trial transcript, Darrow questions Bryan about the flood described in the Bible's book of Genesis.