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The Scopes Trial: A Look Back
By Jordan P. Niednagel
© - 9/05

The Scopes trial, often mockingly referred to as the "Monkey trial," was an event that, for what it's worth, reshaped America. Most people have heard of it, but few people know anything about it. The setting was simple enough ... Dayton, Tennessee, a county seat in the rolling hills of eastern Tennessee where court officials, attorneys, spectators, reporters and photographers sat on wooden benches under tall maple trees and on soft, green grass to witness what had become "a circus" according to some. The July heat was stiffling, and the court had convened outdoors in order to escape it. Not only that, such large crowds had gathered that there were growing concerns the upstairs floor of the courtroom might collapse. It was clear to see that this was no ordinary trial.

How It All Began

Earlier that year (1925) the Tennessee legislature had passed the Butler Act. Simply put, the act made it illegal for public school teachers "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." Little opposition had been raised against the bill, and violators could be fined from one hundred to five hundred dollars, which back then was a considerable amount of money.

The ACLU was just a baby at the time, only some six years old, but already they were using lawsuits to diminish the influence of religion (specifically Christianity) on American public life. When the organization caught wind of the new law, they took quick action by sponsoring a test case, publishing ads in Tennessee newspapers expressing their willingness to cover the expenses of any teacher who would be the defendant. Seeing it as a lucrative opportunity, one particular Dayton businessman presented his plan to a small group of merchants and politicians. They loved it. The only hurdle remaining was to find a teacher who had broken the new law, and they found that man in the person of 24-year-old John Scopes.

John Scopes

Scopes was an interesting character. He was well-liked around Dayton for the most part, with the disapproval of some due to his fondness of smoking and dancing. He taught general science, coached football and basketball at the county high school, and when approached by a young boy who had been summoned by the businessman and 'the group' to discuss their plans for him, he was in the middle of a tennis game. Question is, why John Scopes? The group didn't even know whether he had taught evolution, but he was a perfect candidate because Scopes, unlike other teachers, had virtually nothing to lose since he had only been teaching for a year.

To make a long story short, Scopes, when questioned by the men, could not specifically remember whether he had taught evolution or not, but did remember that he had gone over a certain section of a textbook containing evolution ... "so we must have covered these pages." For the men, that was enough, and so began one of the greatest trials in American history.

William Jennings Bryan

By that time William Jennings Bryan had already established himself as a great speaker who had given what was "probably the most famous oration ever made before a political convention" during his Presidential campaign in 1896. After unsuccessfully running for president two more times in years to follow, he became a champion for a variety of issues, including prohibition and, yes, the breaking down of evolution's teaching and influence in public schools. He had personally seen what Darwin's theories had done to influence Germany in believing that the Aryan race was superior (even though World War II was yet to come), and was troubled by the fact that 40% of American college students considered themselves to be atheists or agnostics. Evolution, therefore, was in his view largely to blame for the moral and spiritual decay of America's youth, and after accepting the invitation to aid Tennessee's attorney general in the landmark case, he quoted, "I am now engaged in the biggest reform of my life. I am trying to save the Christian Church from those who are trying to destroy her faith."

Clarence Darrow

With just a passing glance , one could draw an accurate appraisal of Clarence Darrow. He was not the most affable of people, and there were reasons. His parents never showed he and his siblings any outward affection, and although they sent their children to church, they never went themselves. Clarence grew up to be an agnostic, and as a depressed young man he reverted to poker and drinking to try to overcome his boredom with life. After a few years of teaching he became a laywer, with a particular love for defending the underdog, and he was good at it. He defended over fifty men accused of first-degree murder, and of those only one was executed. He even went so far as to defend two teenagers who had murdered another boy for no other reason than to commit "the perfect crime." Darrow didn't even argue that they were innocent, but instead contended that their actions were based on hereditary and environmental factors beyond their control. Pleading for life imprisonment for the boys instead, the judge accepted, and Clarence won yet another controversial case.

Ironically, Darrow had supported Bryan for president in 1896 and again in 1900, but since that time had radically changed his mind about the famous orator. So much, in fact, that when he heard about the upcoming "Monkey Trial" and Bryan's involvement, he quickly volunteered to defend John Scopes. Although the ACLU had hoped for someone more conservative and less controversial than Darrow, they accepted him, well aware of his courtroom prowess.

The Scopes Trial Preliminary

Folks came from miles away to witness what would come to be known as the Scopes trial, including journalists, preachers, peddlers, and scam artists. Dayton's usual population of 1,800 soared by the thousands, and lemonade and hot dog stands could be seen lining the streets with posters and placards on the walls, the most notable and popular of which read "Read Your Bible." One historian put it best: "A stranger trial there probably never was." During a dinner given in his honor just a few days before the trial, William Jennings Bryan said to his large audience:

"The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death . . . If evolution wins in Dayton, Christianity goes - not suddenly, of course, but gradually - for the two cannot stand together. They are as antagonistic as light and darkness, as good and evil."

The first few days were of little significance, with the selection of the jury and the reading of the formal indictment. The only occurence worth mentioning was Darrow's objection to the court beginning with prayer every morning, which the judge allowed to be noted in the record but overruled. After this, one defense lawyer muttered to his colleague a frighteningly accurate prediction, "This is going to be a scrap from now on - a knock-down and drag-out - and we might as well prepare for it."

What few people know is that John Scopes was never even called to take the stand throughout the whole trial. Why? Even Scopes himself wasn't exactly sure, but he had a good idea why. Clarence Darrow was probably afriad that his testimony would show his lack of scientific knowledge because Scopes wasn't an actual biology teacher at all. Whatever the case, the man around whom everything revolved never said a word.

The Scopes Trial Begins

Some students were first called in as witnesses to testify to the fact that John Scopes had indeed taught that all life evolved from a single cell. The final witness, a school board chairman and owner of the local drugstore, testified that for years his store had sold the same biology textbook that Mr. Scopes used in class. What followed was laughable if hadn't been so absurd. Clarence Darrow, in attempting to discredit Bryan's claims that evolution was detrimental to society, asked him whether he had noticed any moral decay in the community during that time. The druggist said no, which rightly drew laughs from the crowd. This clever tactic was a way to side step the real issue.

It would be this strategy that Darrow would stick to, primarily due to the advice of H.L. Menchen, a newspaper columnist who was know for his cynicism. "The thing to do," he said, "is to make a fool out of Bryan."

And that he did.

Bryan Takes The Stand

On Monday morning of the next week, the crowds were as large as ever, with everyone anticipating final arguments as the trial drew to a close. A lawyer rose and read the affidavits, and then, casually, announced to the court that he desired to call Bryan as a witness. There was silence for a moment, and then all the prosecuting attorneys quickly jumped to their feet in heated objection. Not only that, the judge himself was hesitant in allowing such an unusual procdeure to take place. It went through, however, because one man allowed it to ... William Jennings Bryan ... and would prove to be disastrous mistake. Not only was he willing, he was eager, and the next hour and a half would prove to be the climactic apex of the eight day trial.

The following is what was said, word for word, as Mr. Darrow began questioning in his calm, cool, killer manner.

Darrow: You have given considerable study to the Bible, haven't you?
Bryan: Yes, sir, I have tried to.
Darrow: Well, we all know you have; we are not going to dispute that at all. But you have written and published articles almost weekly, and sometimes have made interpretations of various things?
Bryan: I would not say interpretation, Mr. Darrow, but comments on the lesson.
Darrow: If you commented to any extent, could those comments have been interpretations?
Bryan: I resume that any discussion might be to some extent interpretations, but they have not been primarily intended as interpretations.

Various comments will be added during the discussion. At this point, it is clear to see where Darrow is going. He is trying to point out that Bryan must make interpretations of Scripture when teaching it, and that such is no different than when one endeavors to interpret Genesis.

Darrow: Then you have made a general study of it (the Bible)?
Bryan: Yes, I have. I have studied the Bible for about fifty years. . . .
Darrow: Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?
Bryan: I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there. Some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance, "Ye are the salt of the earth . . ." I would not insist that man is actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people.

If one thinks about it, "literally interpreted" is a contradiction in terms. A text can either be taken literally where no interpretation is needed, or it needs to be interpreted because its meaning is figurative rather than literal.

Darrow: But when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale - or that the whale swallowed Jonah, excuse me, please - how do you literally interpret that?
Bryan: When I read that a big fish swallowed Jonah - it does not say whale...
Darrow: Doesn't it? Are you sure?
Bryan: That is my recollection of it, a big fish; and I believe it; and I believe in a God Who can make a whale and can make a man, and make both do what He pleases.
Darrow: Doesn't the New Testament say whale?
Bryan: I am not sure. My impression is that it says fish, but it does not make much difference. . . .
Darrow: But in the New Testament it says whale, doesn't it?
Bryan: That may be true. . . .

Darrow was attempting to reveal Bryan's ignorance of the Bible, but the attempt backfired because he couldn't remember the facts himself. While the book of Jonah does say "a great fish," Jesus did use the Greek term for "whale" in Matthew 12:40. The two can be interchangeable.

Darriow: You believe that the big fish was made to swallow Jonah?
Bryan: I am not prepared to say that. The Bible merely says it was done.
Darrow: You don't know whether it was the ordinary mine-run of fish or made for that purpose?
Bryan: You may guess; you evolutionists guess.
Darrow: But when we do guess, we have the sense to guess right.
Bryan: But you do not do it often.

This wasn't exactly the wisest reply made by Bryan. Personal attacks don't accomplish much, nor are they tactful, obviously.

Darrow: But you believe that He made . . . such a fish and that it was big enough to swallow Jonah?
Bryan: Yes, sir. Let me add: One miracle is just as easy to believe as another.
Darrow: It is for me?
Bryan: It is for me.
Darrow: Just as hard?
Bryan: It is hard to believe for you, but easy for me. A miracle is a thing performed beyond what man can perform . . . and it is just as easy to believe the miracle of Jonah as any other miracle in the Bible.
Darrow: Perfectly easy to believe that Jonah swalled the whale?
Bryan: If the BIble said so. The Bible doesn't make as extreme statements as evolutionists do.
Darrow: You believe the story of the Flood to be a literal interpretation?
Bryan: Yes, sir.
Darrow: When was that Flood?
Bryan: I wouldn't attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed as suggested this morning.
Darrow: About 4004 B.C.?
Bryan: That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today. I would not say it is accurate.

It's clear to see that neither man had a clue what they were talking about. They both had confused the creation date with the date of Noah's flood (the creation date had been hypothesized by Archbishop Ussher at 4004 B.C.)

Darrow: That estimate is printed in the Bible . . . but what do you think that the Bible itself says? Don't you know how it is arrived at?
Bryan: I never made a calculation.
Darrow: A calculation from what?
Bryan: I could not say.
Darrow: From that generations of man?
Bryan: I would not want to say that.
Darrow: What do you think?
Bryan: I do not think about the things I don't think about.
Darrow: Do you think about thing that you do think about?
Bryan: Well, sometimes.

Everyone erupted in laughter at Bryan's response, including the judge. As humorous as it was, however, a change was happening, and Bryan could sense it. The crowd, most of whom had supported him in the beginning, were slowly withholding that once vigorous support. Even the attorney general saw this, and again tried to stop the examination, but to no avail, as Bryan again objected.

Bryan: I want him to have all the latitude that he wants, for I am going to have some latitude when he gets through.
Darrow: You can have latitude and longitude.
Bryan: (pointing to the defense attorneys) These gentlemen . . . did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it, and they can ask me any questions they please.
Darrow: How long ago was the flood, Mr. Bryan?
Bryan: Let me see Ussher's calculation about it.

Darrow: (handing the witness a Bible) Do you remember what book the account is in?

We continue to see Clarence Darrow trying his best to reveal Bryan's ignorance of the Bible. Keep in mind throughout this discussion the whole point of the trial in the first place . . . that John Scopes had broken the written law of Tennessee.

Bryan: Genesis. It is given here as 2348 years B.C.
Darrow: You believe that all the living things that were not contained in the ark were destroyed?
Bryan: I do. I accept that as the Bible gives it, and I have never found any reason for denying, disputing, or rejecting it.
Darrow: Let me make it definite - 2348 years?
Bryan: I didn't say that. That is the time given, but I don't pretend to say that is exact.
Darrow: You never figured it out - those generations - yourself?
Bryan: No, sir, not myself.
Darrow: But the Bible you have offered in evidence says 2340 something, so that 4,200 years ago there was not a living thing on earth, excepting the people on the ark and the animals on the ark. . . .
Bryan: There had been living things before that.
Darrow: Don't you know there are any number of civilizations that are traced back to more than five thousands years?
Bryan: I know we have people who trace things back according to the number of ciphers they have, but I am not satisfied they are accurate.
Darrow: Do you say that you do not believe that there were any civilizations on this that reach back beyond five thousand years?
Bryan: I am not satisfied by any evidence that I have seen -
Darrow: I didn't ask you what you are satisfied with. I asked if you believed it.
Bryan: Will you let me answer it?
Judge Raulston: Go right on.
Bryan: I am satisfied by no evidence that I have found that would justify me in accepting the opinions of these men against what I believe to be the inspired Word of God.

Though Bryan's replies are admittedly general in nature, so are Darrow's statements. He doesn't state what civilizations, what artifacts and dating methods prove such, etc. The topic is indeed a debatable one.

Darrow: Do you know of any record in the world, outside of the story of the Bible, which conforms to any statement that it is 4,300 years ago or thereabouts that all life was wiped off the face of the earth?
Bryan: I think they have found records . . . reciting the Flood, but I am not an authority on the subject.
Darrow: Mr. Bryan, don't you know that there are many old religions that describe the Flood?
Bryan: No, I don't know. The Christian religion has satisfied me, and I have never felt it necessary to look up some competing religion.
Darrow: Do you know . . . (Confucianism and Zoroastrianism) are both more ancient that the Christian religion?
Bryan: I am not willing to take the opinion of people who are trying to find excuses for rejecting the Christian religion.
Darrow: You don't know how old they are, all these other religions?
Bryan: I would attempt to speak correctly, but I think it is much more important to know the differences between them than to know the age.
Darrow: Not for the purpose of this inquiry.

Darrow continued questioning Bryan regarding the population of the world in ancient times, the Tower of Babel, etc, with the purpose of, again, revealing to the audience Bryan's overall ignorance of the issues. What's sad is Bryan refusal to put down his foot about the earth's age. He was too afraid, which would reveal itself again and again. Also ironic were Darrow's comments about various religions and their flood stories. Cultures all around the world have global flood legends, often times with striking similarities (though being separated by vast oceans or thousands of miles). If Bryan had studied the subject more thoroughly, he would have been able to jump on this.

Darrow: Would you say the earth is only four thousand years old?
Bryan: Oh, no, I think it is much older than that.
Darrow: How much?
Bryan: I couldn't say.
Darrow: Do you say whether the BIble itself says it is older than that?
Bryan: I don't think the Bible says itself whether it is older or not.

Again we see Darrow getting his facts wrong, asking Bryan whether the earth is four thousand years old (when he meant six thousand). Next followed the clincher for Darrow, where he caught Bryan off-guard and in the heat of the moment.

Darrow: Do you think the earth was made in six days?
Bryan: Not in six days of twenty-four hours.
Darrow: Doesn't it say so?
Bryan: No, sir.

Bryan's supporters were appalled, as he was seemingly allowing ample room for the day-age theory, where "day" can be translated to mean an indefinite period of time. By giving ample time, Bryan was also seemingly giving ample room for the idea that God might have used evolutionary processes to create the universe. Sadly, this was coming from the same man who wrote in 1923 that theistic evolution "deadens the pain while the Christian religion is being removed." Clearly, then, it seemed that Bryan had succumbed to the pressure and had not sufficiently thought through the implications of his statements. Tom Stewart had, however, who was the head of the prosecution, and he immediately stood up and shouted at the judge.

Stewart: What is the purpose of this?
Bryan: The purpose is to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible, and I am perfectly willing that the world shall know that these gentlemen have no other purpose.
Darrow: We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and you know it, and that is all.
Byran: I am simply trying to protect the Word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States. I want the papers to know that I am not afraid to get on the stand in front of him and let him do his worst.

What followed were some arguments about the admissibility of Bryan's testimony. Things were heated. Interestingly, some sources describe the above photograph of Clarence Darrow and William Bryan as "friendly." The truth was far different. When asked to pose together, they reluctantly agreed, and only after a good amount of coaxing would they even look at each other. This was during the early stages of the trial, and had they been asked to do so later would likely have been an exercise in futility.

In any case, the cross-examination continued.

Darrow: Does the statement "The morning and the evening were the first day" and "The morning and the evening were the second day" mean anything to you?
Bryan: I do not think it means necessarily a twenty-four-hour day.
Darrow: What do you consider it to be?
Bryan: I have not attempted to explain it. The word "day" there in the very next chapter is used to describe a period. I do not see that there is necessity for construing the words "the evening and the morning" as meaning necessarily a twenty-four hour day.
Darrow: You think these were not literal days?
Bryan: I do not think they were twenty-four-hour days . . . but I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in six million years or in six hundred million years. I do not think it is important whether we believe one or the other.
Darrow: Do you think those were literal days?
Bryan: My impression is that they were periods, but I would not attempt to argue against anybody who wanted to believe in literal days.

It's clear to see Bryan's true heart. He did in fact believe in 6 literal days, but didn't want to be pinned down, and so acted as if he wasn't sure. Deep down he knew that God, in creating the earth in 6 days and resting the 7th, was setting forth a pattern for man to follow that has lasted to this very day.

Darrow: Do you think the sun was made on the fourth day?
Bryan: Yes.
Darrow: And they had evening and morning without the sun?
Bryan: I am simply saying it is a period.
Darrow: They had evening and morning for four periods without the sun, do you think?
Bryan: I believe in Creation, as there told, and if I am not able to explain it, I will accept it.
Darrow: Then you can explain it to suit yourself . . . If you call those periods, they may have been a very long time?
Bryan: They might have been.
Darrow: Then Creation might have been going on for a very long time?
Bryan: It might have continued for millions of years.

After a series of other questions from Darrow, Bryan finally addressed the court.

Bryan: Your Honor, I think I can shorten this testimony. The only purpose Mr. Darrow has is to slur at the Bible, but I will answer his questions. I will answer it all at once, and I have no objection in the world. I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee ...
Darrow: I object to that ...
Bryan: slur at it, and, while it will require time, I am willing to take it.
Darrow: I object to your statement. I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.

What a profound statement from Clarence Darrow. He saw how absolutely ridiculous it was for a Christian to reinterpret Genesis in light of evolutionary theory, something that so many Christians today still cannot see themselves. In any case, both men were on their feet shouting and shaking their fists as the judge slammed his gavel to maintain order and called for the court to adjourn till the next morning. Scores of people flocked around Darrow with congratulations and praise, while Bryan sat fanning himself with only a few of his supporters standing by. It was clear to see who had won the day.

Thoughts & Conclusions

William Jennings Bryan was was out of his league, plain and simple. He humiliated himself by his own pride, and paid the consequences dearly. Although John Scopes was still found guilty the following day, the conviction was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on technicality, and the charges were dropped entirely.

Bryan was left a broken and defeated old man, and the ridicule of the nation's newspapers only accentuated those feelings. The trial was a victory for evolutionists, even though, ironically, they lost. With the help of the media, Christianity looked like a fool's belief in the eyes of the nation. That is, not true Christianity, but Christianity as William Jennings Bryan sadly portrayed it.

Granted, Bryan didn't have all the materials available to creationists today, and yet he didn't need them. By just sticking to the plain teaching of Genesis and the Bible as a whole, he could have withstood Darrow's attacks with confidence and courage. Adam and Eve's children did marry each other (little to no defective genes), a global flood did occur roughly 4,000 years ago, and the sun really was created on the 4th day (there was light at the very beginning, just not the sun).

If the tables had been turned for Darrow to answer questions regarding his religion of evolution, he likely would have faired no better than Bryan. Such was Bryan's intention, in fact, as he had made preparations to put Darrow on the stand the following morning. It wasn't allowed, however, to Byran's utmost dismay, and this deep dismay eventually lead to his death in just less than a week. While Bryan was a diabetic and overweight, the stress of the trial clearly played a contributing factor. When Clarence Darrow heard of Bryan's passing, and that he was likely the cause of it due to a broken heart, he replied cynically, "Broken heart, nothing! He died of a busted belly."

It was a trial of tragedy, and something for all Christians to learn from. Know your Bible, and believe your Bible. Man's fallible ideas and interpretations will only lead you to sandy ground, and when the storm comes and the winds blow, you surely will fall as Bryan did, and fall hard.



1. The information for this article comes from Wisdom Book 46, Law Resource, How Did A Famous Christian Suffer Destruction When He Cast Pearls To "Legal Dogs"? p. 2484-2500. Institute For Basic Life Principles.

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