MC students travel to site of famous Scopes Trial

Students mill about the courtroom where William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow fought the famous "Monkey Trial." The SRS 480 class visited Dayton, Tenn, April 1 and 3. Photo Courtesy of Joshua Dickson.
Students mill about the courtroom where William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow fought the famous “Monkey Trial.” The SRS 480 class visited Dayton, Tenn, April 1 and 3. Photo Courtesy of Joshua Dickson.

Trip challenges popular belief of conflict between science and religion.

Less than a two-hour drive to the southeast of Maryville, lay the sleepy little town of Dayton, Tenn., which was the site of one of the most famous misdemeanor trials to take place in the past century. It was also the setting for one of the most publicized debates between science and religion in modern history.

The Scopes Trial, given the nickname, “The Monkey Trial,” by journalist H.L. Mencken of The Baltimore Sun, took place in mid-summer of 1925, and challenged the constitutionality of The Butler Act passed earlier that same year. The Butler Act made it illegal to teach anything that denied the Biblical account of human creation in public schools.

Some estimate that up to 1000 observers would pack into the second-floor courtroom at Rhea County Courthouse each day during the much publicized trial, causing interior temperatures to push past 100. It was the first trial to be broadcast nationally on the radio and it drew the attention of the nation’s top journalists.

Students in Dr. Drew Crain’s senior seminar course “Science and Religion” had the privilege to travel to this National Historic Landmark on April 1 and 3. During the trip, students were able to see firsthand the courthouse that played such a huge role in the development of public discourse on the many issues in the modern debate between science and religion.

The courthouse itself stands virtually unchanged since those hot July afternoons when Clarence Darrow, the nation’s top defense lawyer, and William Jennings Bryan, the nation’s beloved fundamentalist spokesperson, stood toe-to-toe and fought for their beliefs. The only alteration to the space occurred in 1979, with a $1 million renovation intended to restore the second-floor courtroom’s 1925 appearance.

The original judge’s bench, railing, jury seats, spectator seats and tables are still in place today. The history in the space is rich and one can almost imagine hearing the great speeches of Dudley Field Malone, Bryan and Darrow. The courthouse sits in the center of a dilapidated square in the middle of Dayton’s sleepy downtown.

The railroad tracks that transported coal to the North and created a boom in the Dayton economy at the turn of the twentieth century can be seen out the courtroom windows. During the course of the famous 1925 trial, the heat became too unbearable and the number of observers became so large that the floors in the courtroom sagged, causing Judge John T. Raulston to move the proceedings outdoors to a makeshift stage constructed along the outer wall of the courthouse. The stage remains standing on the courthouse lawn today.

As with many of the highly publicized skirmishes between science and religion throughout the ages, there were many political and economic undercurrents that led to the formation of the trial and that strongly influenced the public perception of the events that unfolded.

Dayton was a struggling town in 1925, suffering harshly from a decline in the coal market. Town leaders planned for the trial with the goal of boosting the economy and bring needed publicity to the town. Similarly, the ACLU planned to contest the Butler Act by placing an advertisement in the Chattanooga Times for a teacher to take their case. It was a staged trial from the beginning.

While Scopes was indeed found guilty, the verdict was far from the central point of the case. The defense had accepted the distinct likelihood of defeat from the beginning. The case was not about Scopes, as defendant Malone famously pointed out during the trial, but rather it was a forum to discuss the constitutionality of making laws based on biblical belief.

For the journalists and the national public, the real verdict of the 11-day trial was a resounding defeat of fundamentalist belief due to Darrow’s thorough undoing of lead prosecutor Bryan during the trial’s final days. Darrow unexpectedly called Bryan to the stand and Bryan refused to back down from the challenge. Darrow, however, cleverly pointed out flaws in Bryan’s literalist interpretation of the Bible, asking questions such as how Noah got the animals onto the Ark from across the continents, and whether or not Bryan believed in the “days” of Genesis being 24 hour periods. While typically a fantastic orator, when forced to answer such questions without being able to pose questions of his own for Darrow, Bryan floundered in many of his responses.

“I do not think about things I don’t think about,” Bryan said towards the end of Darrow’s questioning about his Biblical belief. This comment epitomized Bryan’s failure to provide a strong argument for a literalist interpretation of all scripture. Bryan passed away five days later in his sleep.

For many, the Scopes trial seemed to show that religion and science were diametrically opposed once and for all. As with many events in the history the convergence of science and religion, from Galileo’s trial with the Inquisition to Hypatia of Alexandria’s supposed martyrdom for science to Darwin’s own true beliefs, the Scopes Trial has been over-sensationalized to bring out conflict between the two fields of study.

There were strong ideals on both sides of the debate to be sure, with neither side interested in a truly honest conversation of the issues of evolution and Christian belief. It was, first and foremost, a legal trial and as such, the victory was likely to fall to the shrewdest lawyer, and in this case Darrow and evolution ruled the day despite the official verdict.

This trial was not simply a sound intellectual defeat of religion at the hands of science, however, as the popular notion holds. It did, however, establish the need for twentieth century Christian believers to truly evaluate their faith and the principles of evolutionary theory. Simple denial or dismissal of the theory on the basis of Biblical literalism would no longer stand as an intellectually honest belief after Darrow’s exchange with Bryan.

Even today, the issue with evolution and faith is not as simple as merely picking a side. Acceptance of evolutionary theory does not disallow Christian faith and belief in the Bible does not preclude acceptance of evolutionary theory. What is important is a realization of the interpretation required in understanding both evolutionary theory and Christian faith. It is impossible to accept either without also forming interpretations of the evidence available. Christian faith requires a belief in the principle of God as creator, but the details of this creation do require interpretation, as do all passages of scripture.

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one,” Darwin said in the second edition of “On the Origin of Species.” “And that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

There are limits and holes to be filled in both evolutionary theory and Biblical literalism that require interpretation. Neither has the evidence to disprove the other and defeating the opponent should not be the goal of either side. Instead, constructive dialogue between theological and scientific study are needed to construct understandings of faith and science that are both intellectually and spiritually honest.

The trip to Rhea County Courthouse reinforced just how easy it is to fall into the false trap of conflict in the discussion of science and religion. It is easy to pick sides and dig in to fight a political or legal battle, as Bryan and Darrow did some 90 years ago. It’s much more difficult to give honest reflection to issues of faith and science and engage in open dialogue with other views.

Maryville College’s fifth president, Samuel Tindall Wilson, who held the position of president from 1901-1930, explained the need to maintain both strong faith and scientific study in a statement on the Scopes trial, in 1925.

“Polemic extremists on both sides… greatly embarrass many of us educators who believe in both of God’s gracious voices-that of nature and that of revelation-and who rejoice in their unison and harmony,” Wilson said.

The trip to the courthouse in Dayton, while on the surface a fun educational excursion, begged students to think on “both of God’s gracious voices” and how important it is to rise above the simplicity of conflict between science and religion.

One thought on “MC students travel to site of famous Scopes Trial

  • April 16, 2014 at 10:19 am

    I am so happy that you had the opportunity to make this pilgrimage. I trust as a result of it and the course of which it was a part, you have returned with gems sewn into your garments as did Marco Polo. I am speaking figuratively of course.


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