The Scopes Trial and the Political Temptation of Fundamentalists

The most celebrated and controversial episode in the history of American fundamentalism came in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, at the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” As I have written before, liberals and evolutionists blew the significance of the Scopes Trial out of proportion. But with the play and 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, American pop culture fixed upon the Scopes Trial as the ultimate disaster for rural Southern bumpkins, all grouped under the (now pejorative) label “fundamentalists.”

Whether this stereotype was fair or not, the Scopes Trial was certainly damaging for the fundamentalist movement, which had originated in concern over higher biblical criticism and the influence of modernist theology in American churches and seminaries. Since the advent of debates over Darwinian evolution, conservative Protestants were never totally unified about just how damaging evolutionary theory was to traditional Christian beliefs. From the outset, many had seen evolution as a fatal compromise of the plain teaching of Scripture about the process of creation and God’s means of creating humankind through Adam and Eve.

Other Christians believed that the churches could fold evolution into traditional theology, but they rejected secular evolutionists’ contention that evolution was not directed by God’s providential hand. Until 1920, however, evolution had been just one among many fundamentalist concerns. That year, William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic nominee for president, embraced the anti-evolution cause and took it to new levels of prominence. As George Marsden explained in his classic history Fundamentalism and American Culture, the effort to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools, championed by Bryan, gave the fundamentalist movement a new political focus.

In the Scopes Trial, Bryan took on liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow in a great showdown over the teaching of evolution in America’s schools. As Edward Larson detailed in his wonderful book Summer for the Gods, many figures in the trial, from Bryan, to the American Civil Liberties Union, to the leaders of the city of Dayton, had vested interests in turning the trial into a media spectacle. Dayton’s boosters had even encouraged John Scopes, a local teacher and hardly a militant evolutionist, to violate Tennessee’s 1925 state law against teaching evolution, in hopes that the great national show trial would happen there and bring publicity to the sleepy town. National and international journalists depicted the trial as a clash between rural Southern religion and cosmopolitan northern progress.

Smithsonian Institution archives, public domain, Wikimedia Commons.
William Jennings Bryan (seated at left) being interrogated by Clarence Darrow. Smithsonian Institution archives, public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

There was no question about Scopes’s guilt—he readily admitted that he had violated the law and was convicted, though the decision was later reversed for technical reasons. But Scopes was not really the focus of the trial. The battle between Darrow and Bryan over evolution was. Bryan was one of America’s greatest orators, but he was no match for Darrow in a courtroom debate. Nevertheless, Bryan himself took the stand in defense of the Bible against evolution. Bryan’s health was failing anyway, so he came off as overwhelmed and confused. It became clear that he really did not have much expertise in refuting higher criticism of the Bible.

Darrow unleashed a fusillade of questions about Jonah being swallowed by the great fish, the sun standing still in the Book of Joshua, and the date of Noah’s flood. Bryan actually believed in a very old earth, unlike many conservative Christians who held that the earth was no more than 10,000 years old. Still, their exchange on Noah’s flood was devastating for Bryan:

Darrow–You believe the story of the flood to be a literal interpretation?

Bryan–Yes, sir.

Darrow–When was that Flood?

Bryan–I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed, as suggested this morning.

Darrow–About 4004 B.C.?

Bryan–That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today. I would not say it is accurate. . .

Darrow–But what do you think that the Bible, itself says? Don’t you know how it was arrived at?

Bryan–I never made a calculation.

Darrow–A calculation from what?

Bryan–I could not say.

Darrow–From the generations of man?

Bryan–I would not want to say that.

Darrow–What do you think?

Bryan–I do not think about things I don’t think about.

Darrow–Do you think about things you do think about?

Bryan–Well, sometimes.

The audience exploded in laughter at Bryan’s puzzled statement, and ever since fundamentalists became tarred as the epitome of rural ignorance and buffoonery. In a conclusion that no one could have scripted, Bryan died just days after the trial, worn out from the experience and marking the supposed national vanquishing of fundamentalism.

Obviously, there was and is a great deal at stake for churches on the issue of evolution, especially on the question of how to interpret the accounts of creation. But I am also struck by the way that fundamentalists eagerly attached their cause to Bryan, and to the political campaign to ban the teaching of evolution from public schools. That took the evolution issue from one of a number of internal concerns about teaching in churches and seminaries, to a singular issue outside of the churches, in the political sphere. Anti-evolution also became tied inextricably to the personality of just one politician.

Bryan was undoubtedly one of the most devout Christians who has ever run for president. Nevertheless, there are decided risks to attaching the fate of a church-focused Bible movement to any politician or political party. When Bryan floundered and then died in Dayton, the public reputation of fundamentalism suffered a devastating blow from which it has never really recovered.

[Some of the material in this post is derived from my forthcoming American history textbook from B&H Academic.]

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