In the spring of 1925 a young science teacher and football coach John Scopes found himself in a court of law. He had been called to account because it was alleged he broke the Tennessee law about teaching evolution to schoolchildren. He faced public humiliation and a fine of $100. The trial attracted huge interest not just in America but throughout the world. There was even a reporter from Hong Kong present at the trial.
John Scopes was defended by Clarence Darrow, a famous criminal lawyer. He had an interest in cases in which the freedom of speech was violated. The prosecution was led by a well-known lawyer and politician, William Jennings Bryan. He was a leading member of a religious group who did not want to see the Bible challenged in any way whatsoever. Scopes and Darrow clearly came from different backgrounds and this was one factor that contributed to the public interest in the trial.
There is some evidence that a group of people backing Scopes saw this trial very much as a test case. They were extremely hostile to the law banning discussion of Darwin’s evolutionary theory in state schools and were determined to challenge it. Scopes’ bravery in standing against the State of Tennessee brought the debate into the public arena in a very dramatic way which this group welcomed and perhaps even did their best to stir up even more.
Darrow, John Scopes’ defence lawyer called William Bryan to the stand and questioned him closely about his beliefs about the Bible. Bryan, who was regarded as something of an expert, told the court that he believed everything in the Bible as it was written. But, by the end of the questioning, Bryan had admitted that he did not believe that the world was created in six days of twenty four hours. This was decisive because it showed that even Bryan was having to interpret the Bible rather than taking each word literally. The court was won over to Scopes and his case for teaching evolution to schoolchildren. As it turned out, the jury found Scopes guilty of breaking the state law and fined him $100. After an appeal, the verdict was overturned because of a technicality.
Questions to consider about the Scopes trial:
What is freedom of speech? Can you explain by giving some examples?
What was the law that Scopes had allegedly broken?
How were the two lawyers in the case different?
Why do you think Tennessee had initially passed the law forbidding the teaching of evolution in state schools?
Although there was a great deal of support for Scopes, he was still found guilty. Why was this?
It has been suggested that this case was really all about publicity for the group who wanted to teach evolution in schools. Explain what this means.
Why was this court case called the ‘Monkey Trial’?
Many of the people in the courtroom were Christians and also supported Scopes. Explain how they could do this.