The Scopes Trial, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth

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This week in 1925, the Scopes “Monkey Trial” began in Dayton, Tennessee. It became a show trial for debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools. Several states prior to Tennessee had banned the teaching of evolution, but the cause of science teacher John Scopes became nationally known when the American Civil Liberties Union arranged for the notorious skeptic lawyer Clarence Darrow to represent him. The scene went stratospheric when William Jennings Bryan, multi-time presidential candidate and prominent Presbyterian, agreed to help represent the state of Tennessee against Scopes.

There was never any question that Scopes had violated the anti-evolution law, so the publicity over the trial focused on the pre-planned showdown between Bryan and Darrow. In an unusual move, Bryan agreed to take the stand to answer questions about the reliability of the Bible. While pro-evolution skeptics have always portrayed Bryan as a floundering buffoon, in some sections of his testimony he bested Darrow, at least in the courtroom, if not in media opinions.

Clarence Darrow, bust portrait, at Dayton, Tennessee, during the Scopes Trial, 1925, Library of Congress, public domain.

In some of his most famous exchanges with Bryan, Darrow grilled him about the sun standing still in the book of Joshua, the date of Noah’s flood, and the age of the earth.

Q–The Bible says Joshua commanded the sun to stand still for the purpose of lengthening the day, doesn’t it, and you believe it?
A–I do.
Q–Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?
A–No, I believe that the earth goes around the sun.
Q–Do you believe that the men who wrote it thought that the day could be lengthened or that the sun could be stopped?
A–I don’t know what they thought.
Q–You don’t know?
A–I think they wrote the fact without expressing their own thoughts…

Q–When was that Flood?
A--I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed, as suggested this morning.
Q–About 4004 B.C.?
A–That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today. I would not say it is accurate.
Q–That estimate is printed in the Bible?
A–Everybody knows, at least, I think most of the people know, that was the estimate given.
Q–But what do you think that the Bible, itself says? Don’t you know how it was arrived at?
A–I never made a calculation.
Q–A calculation from what?
A–I could not say.
Q–From the generations of man?
A–I would not want to say that.
Q–What do you think?
A–I do not think about things I don’t think about.
Q–Do you think about things you do think about?
A–Well, sometimes.

Those last few lines would, for skeptics, fatally reveal Bryan as an utter bumpkin, who only ‘sometimes’ thought about things he thought about!

But pro-evolutionists and twentieth century Progressive historians blew the Scopes Trial’s significance out of proportion, as historian Lincoln Mullen explained in reviewing Edward Larson’s brilliant book Summer for the Gods, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is the best book we have on the Scopes Trial.

Mullen notes that “the Scopes trial was not the defeat for fundamentalists that historians have portrayed it as. Indeed, fundamentalists won the trial and took it as encouragement in their crusade. On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court used a technicality to avoid fining John Scopes but also to avoid striking down the anti-evolution law, which remained on the books for decades. The rewriting of the history of the Scopes trial into a victory for modernism did not occur for decades, most notably in the writings of Charles Beard and in the Broadway play and film Inherit the Wind, produced in the 1950s as a fictionalized critique of McCarthyism.

Larson’s book makes it possible to write a history of fundamentalism that could escape the undue influence of the Scopes trial. For too long, historians have relied on the trial as a milestone marking the periodization of religious history. Because it was extraordinary, the trial is a useful lens for studying American religion, but because it is extraordinary, the trial cannot be taken as typifying the course of fundamentalism. What is needed is a history of fundamentalism that takes the trial into account, yet which refuses to periodize the history of fundamentalism around the mistaken notion that it was a turning point.”

One other surprising nuance about the Scopes Trial: Bryan (as you can inuit from his fumbling comments about the date of the flood) was not a “Creation Science” advocate along the lines of Answers in Genesis and similar groups of more recent vintage. Bryan accepted the day-age interpretation of Genesis, and accordingly believed in the evidence for an old earth. He was even open to some forms of evolutionary development, as long as they did not undercut the special creation of Adam and Eve, and the idea that humans are uniquely created in God’s image.

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