1925 Scopes Trial Pits Creationism Against Evolution

To understand the significance of the so-called Monkey Trial, one must try to imagine the America of 1925; specifically, the southern state of Tennessee. 

Under pressure by a coalition of strict Christians, Tennessee became the first state in the United States to pass a law — the Butler Act — that deemed it illegal 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 animal.”

The act alarmed many in the legal community, including the recently formed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which persuaded John Scopes, a 24-year-old high school science teacher and football coach from Illinois, to test the constitutionality of the law in what became known as “The Monkey Trial.” 

The trial also attracted intense media attention, including live radio broadcasts of the trial for the first time in history, according to an award-winning documentary by PBS’s American Experience on the trial.

Attorney Clarence Darrow represented Scopes; William Jennings Bryan, a Democratic conservative, represented both Tennessee and the fundamentalists who were deeply opposed to Charles Darwin’s theory.

“I knew, sooner or later, that someone would have to stand up to the stifling of freedom that the anti-evolution act represented,” Scopes wrote in his 1967 book Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes.

The trial ended on July 21 with a guilty verdict and $100 fine.

A year later, the ACLU issued its appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which upheld the law, but overturned the conviction of Scopes on a legal technicality.

Decades later in 1967, Tennessee repealed the act and teachers were free to teach the theories of Darwin without breaking the law.

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