Scopes Monkey Trial

From Ohio History Central

The Scopes Monkey Trial was a nationally-famous Tennessee court case that upheld a state law banning the teaching of evolution in public schools in that state in 1925.

During the Roaring Twenties, some in the United States were concerned about the supposedly immoral lifestyle that their neighbors were pursuing. Many opponents of this more open and less conservative lifestyle were followers of the Progressive Movement. Many of these people were religious fundamentalists, people who believe that the Bible is the truth and that it must be taken literally. To deal with the supposedly increasing immorality of the U.S. populace, these people sought to instill in their neighbors a renewed commitment to God.

One way religious fundamentalists and Progressives tried to force their neighbors to become more moral was to enact laws requiring public schools to teach the theory of creationism. People who believe in creationism usually contend that God created human life, Adam and Eve, and that all people are descended from these two humans. Tennessee was one of the states in which the religious fundamentalists had success. In 1925, the Tennessee government enacted a law that made it illegal "for any teacher in any of the universities, normal and all other public schools of the state to teach any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."

In 1925, John Scopes, a biology teacher in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, disobeyed the law. He taught the theory of evolution, which states that human beings evolved from lesser life forms. To defend Scopes, the American Civil Liberties Union hired Clarence Darrow, one of the nation's most famous defense attorneys during this period. The World Christian Fundamentalist Association hired William Jennings Bryan to assist the prosecutor in the case. Bryan was a former secretary of state and a presidential candidate. Many people acknowledged Bryan to be one of the foremost experts on the Bible in the United States.

During the trial, Darrow, in a surprise move, called Bryan to testify. Darrow hoped to disprove the Bible and used Bryan, a supposed expert on the religious text, to do so. During the questioning, it became obvious to people in attendance that Bryan could not explain much of the Bible, including how God could have created Eve from Adam's rib. Once Darrow rested, the jury quickly found Scopes guilty, because he had clearly violated the Tennessee law against the teaching of evolution. Scopes lost his job and was forced to pay a one hundred dollar fine. The Tennessee Supreme Court eventually overturned the verdict on a technicality. Darrow, however, appeared to have won the larger battle, that people could not take the Bible literally. Newspapers across the country declared that Darrow had proven religious fundamentalists wrong. Adding further to this belief was Bryan's death just five days after the trial. Not only was religious fundamentalism dead; so, too, was its greatest defender.

While the Scopes Trial (also known as the Scopes Monkey Trial) occurred in Tennessee, it had an impact on life in Ohio. Reporters from across the country reported on the case, and Ohioans knew of the trial. Ohioans were also very interested in the case because Clarence Darrow was originally from Ohio. Like some people in Tennessee, some Ohioans were concerned about the supposedly declining morality of some of their neighbors. A movement to ban the teaching of evolution occurred in the state, but this debate did not go as far as the one in Tennessee. By the 1930s and 1940s, the two sides of this issue in Ohio had more pressing concerns, namely the Great Depression and World War II. Since these two events, the debate over the teaching of creationism versus the teaching of evolution has arisen on a few occasions. As the United States courts have attempted to create a complete separation of church and state, most public schools across the nation have prohibited the teaching of creationism. At the start of the twenty-first century, Ohio approved the teaching of multiple theories on the origins of human beings, including evolution and a theory titled "intelligent design." The intelligent design theory contends that some higher power—perhaps some sort of god—created human life. The theory does not endorse a specific religious belief, but it does allow for the teaching of another theory beyond evolution.

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