After all the hoopla associated with the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, what was the actual verdict and who really won and lost, the evolutionists or the creationists? ♦
The crowds were large, the media was abuzz. The people across the country debated the issues in their homes, neighborhoods, offices and on shop and factory floors. It was the first great mass media event in history, like an early version of the OJ Simpson trial. Everyone had an opinion and was glued to the daily newspaper reports and the nationwide radio hookup from tiny Dayton, Tennessee.
The year was 1925.
The Trial of the Century was actually between a young science teacher, John Scopes, and the State of Tennessee. In truth, the trial was really between forces supporting the teaching of evolution in the public schools and those supporting the teaching of the Bible’s account of divine creation.
The results had broad implications across the nation and the world. One side won legally; the other side won publicly.
And one key figure was dead within a week.
Darwin on Parade
Over half a century earlier, in 1859, Charles Darwin had published his Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. By the 20th century the issue of evolution had become more and more divisive and controversial. Liberal and conservative Christians alike were divided on whether evolution contradicted the biblical viewpoint of creation. The debate included those that held to the inerrancy of the Scriptures though open to the possibility that God may have used a limited means of evolution in his creation activity (see Succumbing to Evolution). Others were fiercely adamant that evolution and the Biblical creation account were diametrically opposed.
The skeptics relished the opportunity to see the Bible take a hit across a growing secular culture trending toward “enlightened” scientific reason.
Christians on Fire
After World War 1, a new movement of Fundamental Christians went on the attack against evolution, believing it undermined the authority of the Scriptures. One of the leading figures speaking out boldly against evolution was a nationally known politician, William Jennings Bryan. A three-time Democratic nominee for president, he was defeated by William McKinley in 1896 and by Teddy Roosevelt in 1900 and 1904. He became US Secretary of State in 1912 in Woodrow Wilson’s administration.
He resigned in 1915 and became a national leader of the Christian movement in America. With the moral standards of American collapsing all around him, he became convinced that the prime cause was Darwin’s view of the origin of man. Speaking boldly on the “menace of Darwinism,” he spearheaded a national movement against evolution in the 1920s.
A number of Southern states passed laws outlawing the teaching of evolution in the public schools. The law in Tennessee was one of the strongest, making it illegal “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 animal.”
Within two weeks of the law’s signing, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that they would test the law and offer free legal counsel to any teacher in Tennessee willing to be a defendant in the case.
Tried, Tested, and Found Wanting
A young science teacher, John Scopes, was persuaded to break the law and allow himself to be arrested. The ACLU provided him with a rock-star defense team headed by Clarence Darrow, a religious skeptic and the nation’s most famous trial attorney (like OJ’s Johnny Cochran). The attorney for the prosecution asked William Jennings Bryan to become their lead attorney.
Though Bryan gave an impassioned speech for the prosecution, the climax of the trial came when Darrow called Bryan as an expert witness on the Bible for the defense. Bryan’s difficulty in answering many of Darrow’s questions brought him ridicule from the press. He stumbled very badly on the question Where did Cain get his wife? (See Biblical Viewpoint 8-24-14 post for how he should have answered that question.)
A tired old man at this point, Bryan’s testimony consisted of more fervor than fact. The following day the judge struck all of Bryan’s testimony as a defense witness from the record.
When the verdict came in, the jury found Scopes guilty in just a few minutes. He was fined $100, but the Tennessee Supreme Court threw out the conviction on a technicality. Most noted that the biggest story nationally was that the most famous trial lawyer of the day had humiliated the nation’s greatest Christian orator. Yes, the Bible had won in Dayton, but in the eyes of the nation’s media evolution had clearly won.
William Jennings Bryan died in his sleep the following Sunday.
Does losing a battle, in any sense, constitute losing the war?
If you are asked about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. – 1 Peter 3:15