Undelivered Closing Statement from the Scopes Trial
Published in 1925
The 1920s was a period of great change in the United States, and the changes made some people uncomfortable. The clash between traditional values, especially religious fundamentalism (a strict form of Christianity based on the belief that the events in the Bible are true, rather than stories told to illustrate moral lessons), and modern trends was perhaps never more apparent than during the Scopes trial. This widely publicized, much discussed courtroom drama took place in the summer of 1925. It featured two figures already famous in public life: Chicago defense attorney Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) and longtime political leader William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925). In fact, the man who gave his name to the trial, defendant John Scopes, seemed to play only a minor role.
The Scopes trial began with the passage of Tennessee's Butler Act in January 1925. People who disapproved of the theory of evolution passed the law. This idea was closely associated with the work of naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), who outlined the progressive development of human beings and other species over millions of years. The Butler Act made it illegal to teach in public schools any theory that contradicted the story of divine creation found in the Bible. This is the theory of human origin upheld by creationists (people who believe that all living things were created by God and not through evolution). Between 1921 and 1929, thirty-seven bills similar to the Butler Act were introduced in twenty states.
Soon after the passage of the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to assist any Tennessee teacher willing to go to court to test the constitutionality of the act (that is, whether it would be found acceptable under the rules set down in the U.S. Constitution). Urged on by several friends, who disapproved of the law and wanted to bring some attention to their small town, high school science teacher John Scopes accepted the ACLU's offer. Scopes was not even his high school's regular biology teacher; in the spring of 1925, he was substituting for another teacher. In any case, using the same textbook that had been used by the school district before the passage of the new law, Scopes gave his students a lesson on Darwin's theory of evolution. Two weeks later he was arrested and charged with violating the Butler Act.
The case almost immediately attracted nationwide attention, as many people realized its social and legal importance. The prosecutors accepted an offer of assistance from William Jennings Bryan, a former Nebraska congressman, secretary of state, three-time unsuccessful presidential candidate, and devoted fundamentalist (a person who believes the Bible is a complete and accurate historical record). Hearing that Bryan would be involved, the well-known attorney Clarence Darrow volunteered his own services to the defense team. Along with a host of reporters from newspapers around the country, the key players gathered in Dayton during a week of sweltering July heat.
The courtroom proceeding that would come to be known as the "Monkey Trial" (in reference to Darwin's theory about the common ancestors of primates and humans) opened on July 12. Rather than defending Scopes, who openly admitted to violating the law, Darrow planned to prove that the Butler Act was unconstitutional. He never got a chance, failing in his attempt to bring in scientists as expert witnesses to show that there need be no contradiction between religious faith and belief in scientific truths. On July 17 the judge ruled that the expert opinions were not relevant to the question at hand, whether Scopes had broken the law, and were thus inadmissible.
Disappointed and desperate, Darrow decided to put Bryan himself on the witness stand as an expert on the Bible. Despite the objections of the other prosecutors, Bryan readily agreed. Darrow then spent an hour and a half grilling Bryan about his religious beliefs. The exchange made Bryan look foolish, confused, and intellectually shallow.
The following excerpt is from a closing statement that Bryan hoped to make. He was denied the opportunity because Darrow's team chose not to make a closing statement. In the end, in fact, the defense asked the jury to find Scopes guilty so that they could appeal the case to a higher court. The jury obliged, taking only nine minutes to reach a guilty verdict. Scopes was fined one hundred dollars.
Things to remember while reading this excerpt from Bryan's closing statement …
The Scopes trial highlighted the 1920s conflict between old and new, between traditional beliefs and values and the modern world, where science seemed to be more influential than religion. Ironically, the man who represented the fundamentalist viewpoint had spent his whole career as a champion of progressivism (the belief that society can and should be changed for the better). William Jennings Bryan had long fought for such liberal reforms as outlawing child labor, regulating businesses, and giving women the right to vote.
According to historian Lynn Dumenil in The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s, the Scopes trial was significant because, "despite the image of the roaring twenties and the media hype surrounding the trial, it suggests that religion was a deeply contested issue that mattered to millions of Americans."
Excerpt from undelivered closing statement from the Scopes trial
Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endangers its cargo. In war, science has proven itself an evil genius; it has made war more terrible than it ever was before. Man used to be content to slaughter his fellowmen on a single plane—the earth's surface. Science has taught him to go down into the water and shoot up from below and to go up into the clouds and shoot down from above, thus making the battlefield three times a bloody as it was before; but science does not teach brotherly love. Science has made war so hellish that civilization was about to commit suicide; and now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future. If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings, alone, can solve the problems that vex heart and perplex the world. …
It is for the jury to determine whether this attack upon the Christian religion shall be permitted in the public schools of Tennessee by teachers employed by the state and paid out of the public treasury. This case is no longer local, the defendant ceases to play an important part. The case has assumed the proportions of a battle-royal between unbelief that attempts to speak through so-called science and the defenders of the Christian faith, speaking through the legislators of Tennessee. It is again a choice between God and Baal; it is also a renewal of the issue in Pilate's court. …
Again force and love meet face to face, and the question, "What shall I do with Jesus?" must be answered. A bloody, brutal doctrine—Evolution—demands, as the rabble did nineteen hundred years ago, that He be crucified. That cannot be the answer of this jury representing a Christian state and sworn to uphold the laws of Tennessee. Your answer will be heard throughout the world; it is eagerly awaited by a praying multitude. If the law is nullified, there will be rejoice wherever God is repudiated, the savior scoffed at and the Bible ridiculed. Every unbeliever of every kind and degree will be happy. If, on the other hand, the law is upheld and the religion of the school children protected, millions of Christians will call you blessed and, with hearts full of gratitude to God, will sing again that grand old song of triumph: "Faith of our fathers, living still, In spite of dungeon, fire and sword; O how our hearts beat high with joy Whene'er we hear that glorious word—Faith of our fathers—Holy faith; We will be true to thee till death!"
What happened next …
Despite the guilty verdict, public opinion declared Darrow the trial's winner. Bryan died in his sleep only five days after the end of the trial, suggesting to many that the stress of the event and especially his ordeal on the witness stand had taken a heavy toll on his health. Darrow went on to achieve more courtroom victories before his death in 1938. Scopes left Tennessee to attend graduate school and, after becoming a geologist, never returned. In 1927 the Tennessee State Supreme Court overturned the Scopes verdict on a legal technicality (the lower court judge had not had the authority to impose a fine). The Supreme Court did not, however, find the Butler Act unconstitutional, and it remained in effect in Tennessee until 1967.
Did you know …
- The Scopes trial was the first to be broadcast on the new medium of the radio. Print reporters also brought the U.S. public the news from Dayton. Foremost among them was H.L. Mencken (1880–1956), a Baltimore, Maryland, journalist known for his biting social commentary. He took a strong interest in the trial and its outcome—his newspaper paid both Scopes's bail and the fine he eventually received—and he is credited with coining the term "Monkey Trial."
- The small town of Dayton, Tennessee, was turned into a carnival during the trial, complete with street-corner preachers and prophets, hot dog and soft drink vendors, gospel singers, and monkeys both real and stuffed. One souvenir seller offered buttons that read, "Your Old Man's a Monkey."
- Despite his reputation as a great orator, Bryan's simple religious faith proved no match for Darrow's relentless questioning. At the end of their exchange, Bryan asked the judge to censure, or reprimand, Darrow for his slurs against the Bible. Darrow responded, "I object to your statement. I am examining you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes."
Consider the following …
- How does the Scopes trial contradict the image of the Roaring Twenties as a sunny, fun-filled period in U.S. history?
- Journalist H.L. Mencken was on hand for most of the trial and wrote a series of articles describing it. Read these articles and give your impression of Mencken's views of the event.
- Do you think that creationism should be taught in the public schools along with the theory of evolution? Write an editorial defending your views.
For More Information
Anderson, David D. William Jennings Bryan. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
De Camp, L. Sprague. The Great Monkey Trial. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.
Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.
Ginger, Ray. Six Days or Forever: Tennessee Versus John Thomas Scopes. Chicago, IL: Quadrangle Books, 1969.
Hanson, Erica. The 1920s. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.
Larson, Edward J. Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Perret, Geoffrey. America in the Twenties. New York: Touchstone, 1982.
Scopes, John Thomas, and James Pressley. Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., 1967.
Tompkins, Jerry R., ed. D-Days at Dayton: Reflections on the Scopes Trial. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
"Famous Trials in American History: Tennessee versus John Scopes, the Monkey Trial." Famous Trials by Doug Linder. Available online at http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/sco... . Accessed on June 20, 2005.