The (In)Significance of the Scopes Trial

It’s time to retire the myth that fundamentalists retreated from cultural engagement.

The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes was, in every sense of the term, a media sensation. Conceived and planned by leaders in Dayton to bring publicity to the city, it featured the hot-button issue of evolution and attracted both former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan to prosecute and renowned labor attorney Clarence Darrow to defend. Newspapers around the nation, even around the world, covered the event closely.

At the conclusion, a jury convicted Scopes of teaching evolution, following a deliberation of just nine minutes, and the science teacher was fined the minimum $100 allowable under state law.

Yet the trial’s hold on the popular imagination extended far beyond the verdict. The play and movie Inherit the Wind later portrayed it as a Pyhrric victory for McCarthyite fundamentalists—they had won in the courtroom but lost in the court of public opinion.

Some historians of evangelicalism concluded that the trial had shamed fundamentalists and propelled them into an extended period of retreat from social issues. As George Marsden wrote in Fundamentalism and American Culture, “It would be difficult to overstate the impact of ‘the Monkey Trial’ at Dayton, Tennessee, in transforming fundamentalism. . . . [The movement] quickly lost its position as a nationally influential coalition.”

Other historians echoed this conclusion in their depictions of fundamentalism in the 1930s, portraying it as bereft of a social vision and focused instead on spiritual reawakening. For a time, this interpretation of the trial’s effect on fundamentalism became a kind of standard account. It is now being reconsidered. Scholars of fundamentalism, including Barry Hankins and Matthew Avery Sutton, have challenged it.

My study of newspaper reporting before, during, and after the trial supports their challenge and reveals an alternative story.

My study of newspaper reporting before, during, and after the trial supports their challenge and reveals an alternative story.

First, media coverage of fundamentalists was consistently mixed throughout the trial, never uniformly critical. Second, no decline in fundamentalists’ public engagement can be discerned. Indeed, the trial seemingly had the opposite effect. Fundamentalists left Dayton with a renewed enthusiasm to oppose teaching evolution in public schools.

Why Does It Matter?

Interpreting the trial is important because of its place in a larger narrative. One common summary of evangelical history says: the movement was born and shaped by the First and Second Great Awakenings; achieved broad cultural influence during D. L. Moody’s era; faltered and retreated after fundamentalists’ early 20th-century defeats, especially the Scopes Trial; and returned after World War II under leaders like Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga.

If this narrative is correct, the period of retreat would represent an anomaly in evangelical history. One of David Bebbington’s four hallmark commitments of evangelicalism is activism, within which he includes both evangelism and attempts to “enforce the ethics of the gospel in the world.” But if fundamentalists abandoned cultural engagement after the Scopes Trial, they severed an otherwise consistent tradition of evangelical social action.

They were, in short, insufficiently evangelical.

Why Doesn’t It Matter?

Yet newspaper articles throughout the 1920s and early 1930s reveal that the Scopes Trial was not a turning point. Newspapers were the dominant medium of the era, at a time when radio had not yet penetrated most households and magazines and books reached far fewer readers. A credible case that the Scopes Trial embarrassed fundamentalists and prompted a public retreat can’t therefore be made apart from newspapers.

Further, reporters in the 1920s covered fundamentalists and evolution regularly. Any defeat or wide-scale disengagement that left no trace in newspaper coverage couldn’t be considered consequential.

As part of my recent dissertation, I reviewed articles on the Scopes Trial in every newspaper cataloged within the NewspaperArchive.com database for New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio—the four largest states in the nation at the time—from 1920 to 1933. These states represented nearly a third of the U.S. population and supported hundreds of newspapers. Fundamentalism made headlines throughout the decade.

Fundamentalists in the News

Shortly before the trial, Pennsylvania’s Chester Times ran an article that claimed “a tremendous wave of fundamentalism is sweeping the country. . . . Legislatures, school boards, college faculties, prominent attorneys, free-thought leagues—all these have been brought into the controversy, with the anti-evolutionists crying ‘God or gorilla?’”

A version of the same article in a Sandusky, Ohio, newspaper listed 14 states in which anti-evolutionist efforts were underway, including Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Illinois, Minnesota, Oregon, Arkansas, Iowa, West Virginia, and North Dakota.

Coverage of the trial was so intense that it could be expected newspapers would devote less attention to evolution and fundamentalists when it concluded. Indeed, no year matched 1925 for headlines related to the issue. Yet subsequent years saw the publication of many more articles on evolution and fundamentalists than at any time before the trial. The debate had become big news.

Subsequent years saw the publication of many more articles on evolution and fundamentalists than at any time before the trial. The debate had become big news.

Immediately after the proceedings ended, the Canton Daily News speculated that Bryan might run for president and write fundamentalism into the Democratic Party platform. The article suggested he could even “attract independent and Republican fundamentalists to the Democratic banner of the new [anti-evolutionist] crusade.”

Bryan died the very day of this article, so his potential run at the White House—which would have been his fourth attempt—never occurred. A number of fundamentalist leaders emerged to continue the fight.

A newspaper in Indiana, Pennsylvania, reported in April 1926 that a wealthy Florida businessman named George Washburn had arisen as a standard-bearer for the cause. Washburn, described in another article as an “enormously rich descendant of the Mayflower Puritans,” donated $1 million to a new anti-evolution organization. His aim: to “save the orthodox Bible from the onslaughts of modernism.”

Marginal figures occasionally made common cause with fundamentalists. For example, one article about Washburn featured him alongside E. Y. Clarke, a former Ku Klux Klan organizer who had started an organization called the Supreme Kingdom. This organization sponsored an exhibit of a live monkey inside an Atlanta street-front window, with a sign nearby: “He May Be Your Grandfather—But Not Ours!”

Still another new, anti-evolutionary organization, launched by the Chicago fundamentalist Paul Rader, garnered a report in a Freeport, Illinois, newspaper in January 1929. Called Defenders of the Christian Faith, the organization offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could disprove through science a single fact of the Bible. Rader said his organization was populated not by “bigots,” but by people exercising simple “horse sense.”

Minnesota fundamentalist William Bell Riley’s efforts against evolution also captured headlines. A short piece about his World Christian Fundamentals Association reported that the organization planned to begin its fight against evolution in Georgia and then go to neighboring states, the rest of the nation, and finally to “France, England, China, South America, and Australia.”

Numerous other articles tracked post-Scopes conflicts over evolution in states and denominations. In Mississippi, legislators decided against passing a law to oppose evolution, even though the state’s population was considered largely fundamentalist, because of the volatility of the issue. Meanwhile, an organization founded in Wilmore, Kentucky—home of Asbury College—announced it would seek to pass such a bill, with an eye toward eventually achieving the aim nationwide.

By far the most covered fundamentalist leader post-Scopes was New York City pastor John Roach Straton. A 1927 profile article highlighted his views and effectiveness and speculated about whether he would take up Bryan’s political mantle. Another newspaper printed his rebuttal of a book written by well-known fundamentalist opponent Albert Dieffenbach. Yet another reported on him swapping pulpits with the pastor of First Baptist Church of San Jose, California, during which Straton announced he would “attack evolution, the present trend of public school education, and modern religious tendencies.”

Resistance to Fundamentalist Efforts

Just as fundamentalists generated news, so too did their opponents. Many newspapers seemed to enjoy stoking the conflict.

During the trial, the Canton Daily News reported on a group of French scientists who had released a statement in defense of Scopes. Notable among the group was Marie Curie. The article quoted the two-time Nobel Prize winner as saying, “Among the forms of oppression, those which tend to limitations of the rights of thought are the most horrible and also useless. . . . We protest with indignation against the Dayton lawsuit.”

Just as fundamentalists generated news, so too did their opponents. Many newspapers seemed to enjoy stoking the conflict.

The year after the trial, a number of newspapers printed an interview with Thomas Edison, the celebrity inventor, who dismissed Bryan’s fundamentalism as “obsolete long ago.” “There is more truth to be found in nature than in the Bible,” Edison said, “for nature never lies.”

Dieffenbach was a Unitarian minister and journalist at The Christian Register and then The Boston Evening Transcript. He appeared regularly in newspaper articles, with the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune reporting in 1927 that he was “gathering modernistic forces to combat the alleged onslaught of the fundamentalists.”

Dieffenbach foresaw a fundamentalist state church in America’s future and portrayed fundamentalists as destroyers of religious liberty. In one of his books, reported on by the Washington Court House Herald, he accused other modernist leaders of failing to oppose fundamentalists effectively, naming Harry Emerson Fosdick, Henry Sloane Coffin, and the deans of Harvard’s and Yale’s divinity schools among the vanquished.

Most famous among fundamentalist opponents, perhaps, was the Baltimore columnist H. L. Mencken. In one of his pieces, reprinted by the Syracuse Herald, he described fundamentalists as “Homo boobiens”: “Half educated themselves, [fundamentalists] have sought to crowd an impossible education upon their victims.”

Still, despite opposition, fundamentalist efforts to defeat the teaching of evolution could not be doubted. After the Scopes Trial, Straton, Riley, Rader, and Washburn emerged as leaders in the anti-evolutionist movement, as did organizations like the World Christian Fundamentalist Association, Defenders of the Christian Faith, and William Jennings Bryan University.

Fundamentalists engaged other issues after the Scopes Trial as well, particularly Prohibition. Their active campaigning for Herbert Hoover—the dry candidate in the 1928 presidential election—typified this anti-alcohol commitment.

Carl Henry and Neo-Evangelicals

If fundamentalists did not withdraw from cultural engagement after the Scopes Trial, then the overarching narrative of evangelicalism is in need of revision. But one question remains. Why did neo-evangelical leaders accuse their fundamentalist predecessors of withdrawing from the public square if they never did?

Carl Henry leveled such a critique at fundamentalists in his 1947 book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. In it he accused fundamentalists of having “no social program calling for a practical attack on acknowledged world evils. . . . The great majority of Fundamentalist clergymen, during the past generation of world disintegration, became increasingly less vocal about social evils.”

One possible explanation is that Henry was simply wrong, perhaps purposefully so. As Sutton concluded in his book American Apocalypse, “Henry did bad history. He mischaracterized pre–World War II fundamentalism in order to give his generation a fresh start and a clean slate in the postwar period.”

Alternatively, Henry may have been employing rhetoric, overstating his case in order to call fundamentalists to a broader vision of cultural engagement. Or he may have been focused on fundamentalists’ theology, as many were dispensational and certain tenets of dispensationalism undermined confidence in what Christians could expect to achieve in the public square.

Most likely, however, Henry was focused on the fundamentalism of the years immediately preceding him. His sweeping denouncement of fundamentalist disengagement was flawed, but fundamentalists were likely stymied in their social efforts after the failure of Prohibition in 1933. Historian John Woodbridge has suggested that the defeat of Prohibition represented a greater turning point for fundamentalists than the Scopes Trial, and I tend to agree. Fundamentalists may never have lost their desire to “enforce the ethics of the gospel,” but they did lose momentum. The campaign against alcohol had been broader, longer-lasting, and more successful than their anti-evolution efforts. Its defeat left them diminished.

Historian John Woodbridge has suggested that the defeat of Prohibition represented a greater turning point for fundamentalists than the Scopes Trial, and I tend to agree.

Their retrenchment was temporary, though. Nine years after Prohibition’s demise, the National Association of Evangelicals was founded, and several years later Billy Graham and Carl Henry would begin to lead theological conservatives back to public prominence.

The efforts of neo-evangelical leaders launched a new era in evangelical history, one that continues to wield influence today. Like many others, I owe much of my spiritual development to institutions founded by such leaders. Yet they did not rescue fundamentalists from irrelevance. Fundamentalists were never insufficiently evangelical. They had sought to engage the culture for Christ just as American evangelicals did before them and continue to do now. Whether successful or unsuccessful in our causes, we evangelicals have always shown this is part of our DNA.

Editors’ note: 

This article is adapted from portions of Madison Trammel’s dissertation.