Trip Back In Time: Scopes Monkey Trial

Seventy-five years ago a trial began in Tennessee that became one of the best-known trials in history (even OJ does not compare).

On January 21 1925, State Rep. John Butler introduced House Bill No. 185 to the Tennessee House of Representatives. The Bill would make it unlawful “for any teacher in any of the 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.” The Tennessee House agreed with Butler and approved the Bill by a vote of 24-6. Tennessee’s governor signed the law into effect on March 21 1925.

Blair Scott at the historical marker at the old Rhea County courthouse, whcih is now a Scopes Trial Museum.

Almost immediately after the signing of the bill, the ACLU decided to test the law. The ACLU posted ads in newspapers across Tennessee looking for a teacher to volunteer to participate in the case. F. E. Robinson and G. Rappleyea discussed the case in Robinson’s Drug Store after reading such an ad in the Chattanooga Times.

The next day Mr. Robinson, Mr. Rappleyea, Rhea Central High School teacher John T. Scopes, and the Rhea County School Superintendent Mr. Walter White, met with city officials and lawyers and decided to test the law. Mr. Scopes agreed to be the defendant and they served him with a warrant. Dayton citizens had set the stage for one of the biggest cases in criminal, religious, and scientific history.

William Jennings Bryan was able to influence himself onto the prosecution (partly because he was involved in passing the original Bill). Upon learning of Bryan’s involvement, H. L. Mencken persuaded Clarence Darrow to join the defense. Darrow and New York lawyer Dudley F. Malone volunteered to assist the Spring City, Tennessee attorney, John R. Neal.

The trial immediately caught the attention of the world because of the expected clash between Darrow and Bryan (ironically, Darrow had helped Bryan during his run for President a few years before the trial), and the clash between fundamentalist religion and more modernistic views.

On Sunday, July 16 2000, I and three other freethinkers took a trip to Dayton to see the reenactment of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Bryan College, the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, the City of Dayton, and Rhea County put on the play. They perform the reenactment in the original Rhea County Courthouse where the original trial took place.

We expected the play to have a creationist slant to it because of the heavy involvement of Bryan College. Bryan College is an evangelical college named after William Jennings Bryan. Bryan College’s mission statement is, “Educating students to become servants of Christ to make a difference in today’s world.” Based on this we did not expect to see an Evolutionist-friendly play.

The conversation on the way up to Dayton was incredible. Four freethinkers in a small airplane with nothing to do but talk provided some intelligent and remarkable conversation. I often find it amazing how I take for granted the conversations I have with fellow freethinkers. The four people in the plane were a biologist, an engineer, an expert on Robert G. Ingersoll, and me. We talked about the historicity of Jesus, the symbiotic process of bacteria to mitochondria, the origins of morality, the history of the Bible, Fundamentalism, the Theory of Evolution, and much, much more.

Upon arrival at the tiny airport, we picked up our courtesy car and headed to the courthouse. As we drove through the outskirts of Dayton, we knew we were in Creationist Country. The atmosphere of the area was antique, as if we had stepped back in a time and suddenly found ourselves driving along in 1925. If it were not for the A/C blowing, the radio playing, and the asphalt road, it might have fooled us.

Concession stands selling souvenirs filled the front of the courthouse. The Green Party was trying to sell Ralph Nader to folks who would not be likely to vote for him, much less heard of him. Most of the stands were pro-Creationist with anti-Evolution and pro-Christian paraphernalia. Even the booths that were pawning Scopes items were not discernable from the others as being anything but pro-Creationist.

Regardless of the pro-Creationist atmosphere, everyone was friendly, quick with a smile, and had the well-known small town hospitality air about them. We felt welcomed the entire time we were there and never once felt an “evil eye” for our conversation, which was obviously audible to those standing around us.

There was a big sign on the front of the courthouse with a hand pointing to the words, “Read Your Bible”. This was a reproduction of a sign hanging on the courthouse in 1925, which Darrow protested. Judge John T. Raulston agreed to have the sign removed after much debate between Bryan, Darrow, and the rest of the defense and prosecution team members.

As we sat in anticipation of the play beginning, we discussed just how much of a creationist slant we would see. There were four different opinions on the matter (a phenomenon common among freethinkers): mild, medium, well, and overkill.

Darrow asked Bryant to read a passage from the Bible.

The play began with the director, Gale Johnson, stating that all of the dialogue came directly from the transcripts of the trial and that they wanted to reproduce the “facts” of the trial and not the make-believe seen in movies like Inherit the Wind. We would learn that her “facts”, while they were factually from the transcript, did not present all of the facts.

The actors were all locals, with the exception of the actor playing Bryan, who was a professional actor from Florida. We later found it somewhat odd that the only professionally paid actor was the one playing the local “hero”. The actor from Florida was incredibly good; there is no denying that. He played the part well and played a convincing Bryan. The play went without incident or problem.

They left the best Darrow dialogue out of the play. They left out the exchanges between Darrow and Bryan that embarrassed Bryan, except one. They left in the part where Bryan was misquoting Darrow and Darrow showed him his mistake. Bryan made the rousing speeches and we did not hear Darrow’s speeches. Bryan had most of the witty remarks and the reenactment portrayed Darrow as hostile by leaving out most of his humor. The crowd erupted in applause after each of Bryan’s speeches and the few of us there that were “rooting” for Darrow offered our simple applause after his mediocre words.

The one part that not edited out was the prayer said each day before the trial began. A local preacher read the parts as they appeared in the original transcript. The crowd bowed their heads and squinted their eyes, praying right alongside the actors. Do these people pray whenever they see someone on TV or in a movie pray? Why pray to the lines of a play? This was not church we were attending or grace we were saying; these were lines from a play.

The play ended as the original Scopes trial ended, with Darrow changing his plea to guilty and waiving his closing statements (denying Bryan the right to make his). Scopes was charged $100 for the crime, which a higher court overturned on a technicality.

We left feeling that the play had a “medium-to-well” Creationist slant because it did at least provide one of Bryan’s embarrassing moments and Darrow said some of his quick quips. During the “prayers,” the Director seemed to be squeezing her eyes the hardest and bowing her head the lowest. That was a good indicator as to how much of a slant the reenactment had – the director was a Fundamentalist.

We enjoyed ourselves and had a wonderful time visiting Dayton and watching the play. At the end of the day as we tucked ourselves into our beds and reflected the day, we decided that the conversations between us had been the best part of our day. We became closer friends and allies in Freethought. Dayton, the play, Creationists, and Christians helped unite us in Freethought and sealed our convictions, our friendship, and our realization that you cannot take a freethinker’s conversation for granted.

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