Mon­key busi­ness


The Amer­i­can fun­da­men­tal­ist and Pen­te­costal re­li­gious move­ments be­gan shortly be­fore the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. Protes­tant fun­da­men­tal­ism was much stronger in the South while the ear­li­est Pen­te­costals, in ad­di­tion to their south­ern ori­gins, also had roots in Cal­i­for­nia.

The term “fun­da­men­tal­ist” can have both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions. The neg­a­tive as­pects of fun­da­men­tal­ism be­came crys­tal­lized in the in­fa­mous Scopes (Mon­key) trial in Day­ton, Tenn., in the hot sum­mer of 1925.

Ten­nessee had passed a law, the But­ler Act, for­bid­ding the teach­ing of evo­lu­tion and nat­u­ral se­lec­tion the­ory in the pub­lic schools. Many south­ern­ers be­lieved that if the Bi­ble’s cre­ation story in Ge­n­e­sis were called into ques­tion the en­tire ba­sis for our mo­rals and ethics would be un­der­mined.

On the other side the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union (ACLU) de­ter­mined to chal­lenge the law. They re­cruited John Scopes, a sub­sti­tute teacher in the Day­ton, Tenn., school sys­tem, to ig­nore the law and teach evo­lu­tion in the class­room. They hoped to cre­ate a test case. Scopes taught evo­lu­tion and was ar­rested, as planned, and was put on trial. He even en­cour­aged some of his stu­dents to tes­tify against him.

Na­tional news­men and gawk­ers of ev­ery de­scrip­tion de­scended on Day­ton like flies to honey, turn­ing the le­gal pro­ceed­ings into a vir­tual cir­cus. The trial it­self at­tracted an all-star cast of le­gal, po­lit­i­cal and news me­dia per­son­al­i­ties: Sen­a­tor Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan, three-time un­suc­cess­ful Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son’s sec­re­tary of state, headed the pros­e­cu­tion team. Noted lib­eral at­tor­ney and ad­mit­ted ag­nos­tic Clarence Dar­row de­fended Scopes. H. L. Menken, con­tro­ver­sial colum­nist of the Bal­ti­more Sun, daily wrote bit­ing com­men­taries on the go­ings on in the court house and the town of Day­ton. The cir­cus at­mos­phere sur­round­ing the trial was aug­mented by sev­eral mon­keys and chim­panzees on leashes parad­ing on the court­house lawn, dra­ma­tiz­ing Day­ton’s “Mon­key Trial.” It must have been some show.

The court­room drama cli­maxed when Dar­row sum­moned Bryan to the wit­ness stand as an ex­pert on the Bi­ble and Chris­tian the­o­log­i­cal as­sump­tions in gen­eral. Dar­row’s crafty line of ques­tion­ing made Bryan’s de­fense of a lit­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Bi­ble ap­pear weak, par­tic­u­larly to the north­ern press. But in my opin­ion, the big­gest blooper of the en­tire trial was made by the judge in al­low­ing Dar­row to fol­low a line of ques­tion­ing that chal­lenged cer­tain Chris­tian re­li­gious dogma. It was a good show, but nei­ther Chris­tian­ity nor the Bi­ble were on trial. It was all about whether John Scopes had vi­o­lated the Ten­nessee law that for­bade the teach­ing of evo­lu­tion the­ory in the pub­lic schools. While it was the crescendo mo­ment of the trial, the Dar­rowBryan con­fronta­tion scene should have never taken place. The le­git­i­macy or con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the law was not in ques­tion. John Scopes’ vi­o­la­tion of the But­ler Act was. And he was found guilty and fined, a de­ci­sion later re­versed on a tech­ni­cal­ity.

The con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the Ten­nessee law for­bid­ding the teach­ing of evo­lu­tion should have been a ques­tion for the ap­pel­late court process. It was out­side the Rhea County, Ten­nessee Cir­cuit Court’s purview. But it was all a good show and it in­spired the highly-suc­cess­ful book, Broad­way play and movie “In­herit the Wind.” It is also quite frus­trat­ing, I think, that af­ter al­most one hun­dred years the evo­lu­tion­ist-cre­ation­ist con­tro­versy is still with us and shows few signs of res­o­lu­tion any­time soon.

Ge­orge B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at [email protected]­


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