The Most Important Legacy of the Scopes Trial

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Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, 1925

Matthew Avery Sutton, in his impressively researched American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), argues that the primary legacy of the 1925 Scopes trial was not how it changed the law, or how it changed education or the perception of Darwinian evolution, or even how it led to a retreat by the Fundamentalists. Rather, he argues as follows:

Perhaps the most important legacy of the Scopes trial was not its impact on American education but its central role in facilitating the redefinition of fundamentalism.

Before Scopes, “fundamentalism” referred to a well-defined, close-knit radical evangelical apocalyptic movement. [Note: Sutton argues more expansively that “fundamentalism” in the interwar period referred to “the interdenominational network of radical evangelical apocalypticists who joined together to publicly and aggressively herald the imminent second coming while challenging trends in liberal theology and in the broader American culture” (p. 103).]

Thanks to the work of Bryan, Darrow, Mencken, and many others during the antievolution crusade and Scopes trial, “fundamentalism” was transformed for many into a pejorative term. The press, liberal intellectuals, and theological modernists began using it generically to refer to all socially conservative, antimodernist, antiscience, antieducation Christians, whether they had any relationship to the fundamentalist movement or not.

Because many southerners seemed to fit the new, broader definition of the term, “fundamentalism” evolved from an apt characterization of a relatively small network of Christians based primarily in the North and West, with some key players in the South, into a more stereotypical term applied to expressions of Christianity that appeared anti-intellectual, antiprogressive, rural, and intolerant (and often southern-based). The faithful spent the next decade and a half trying to reclaim the term before realizing that their efforts were futile.

Sutton’s overall argument in this book may not convince every reader, but his book is one of the most important to be published in years on the history of evangelicalism, reviving and building upon Ernest Sandeen’s argument about the central role of premillennial eschatology in the fundamentalist identity, in contrast to the work of George Marsden and Joel Carpenter.

{Quotes are from pp. 176 to 177; italics are mine.}

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