In a July 3, 1925 editorial entitled “The Circus Comes to Dayton,” the Temple Daily Telegram criticized the carnival atmosphere surrounding the Scopes “Monkey Trial” and dismissed the emotion-charged debate over evolution as a “useless discussion.”
The new law that high school biology teacher John T. Scopes intentionally broke made it “unlawful for any teacher in any of the universities, normals and all other public school schools of the State of Tennessee 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 part-time legislator and full-time farmer who wrote the controversial statute explained his reasoning: “The teaching of this theory of evolution breaks the hearts of fathers and mothers who give their children the advantages of higher education in which they lose their respect for Christianity and become infidels. The evolutionists deny the immortality of the soul, the virgin birth of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.”
If any case in the 1900s deserved to be called “The Trial of the Century,” it was the courtroom tug-of-war in Dayton, Tennessee. And to think the trial might have taken place in Texas had legislators not rejected a similar law in 1923 and again in February 1925!
Clarence Darrow, the foremost criminal attorney in the country and an avowed agnostic, was retained by the American Civil Liberties Union as defense counsel. William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate and an outspoken fundamentalist, agreed to act as prosecutor at the request of the World’s Christian Fundamental Association.
“If evolution wins, Christianity goes,” Bryan warned ominously on the eve of the trial. “They are as antagonistic as light and darkness, as antagonistic as good and evil.”
Darrow argued in his motion to dismiss the indictment, “If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church.”
Urban newspapers in Texas had trouble taking the Tennessee tempest seriously. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a cartoon under the heading “Playing It for All It’s Worth” that showed Dayton merchants making a killing off the horde of reporters, true believers and curiosity seekers. The Morning News in rival Dallas pronounced the proceedings “a spectacle for the delectation of the flippant and the consternation of the saints,” while the Austin American called the proceedings “too ridiculous for words.” The correspondent for the Houston Post-Dispatch described the surrealistic scene as a combination of “law, ballyhoo, religion and photography.”
The Galveston Daily News joined small-town weeklies in rallying around the beleaguered Bryan, who came off as a bewildered buffoon in his battle with the razor-sharp Darrow. The island paper also expressed the opinion held by many Texans that the northern press and eastern intellectuals were using the trial as a convenient excuse to ridicule all southerners as Bible Belt bumpkins.
Religious leaders throughout Texas were nearly unanimous in their opposition to the Darwin doctrine. The pastor of the First Methodist Church in Austin attacked evolution on scientific grounds by contending that its supporters would have to “take a horse, lift it out of its species and make it a cow, bridging the gap between the two species in development.” The Catholic bishop of San Antonio repeated the same theme with his insistence that evolution was not a fact but an hypothesis.
A Baptist minister in Dallas warned that acquittal for Scopes would produce “a generation of infidels” in 20 years. “Evolution is a tool of the devil spewed up from out of the bottomless pit to destroy the Bible and drag God’s people down to destruction.”
J. Frank Norris, the fundamentalist firebrand from Fort Worth expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1924, pledged not to stand idly by while the ungodly tried to “ram down the throats of Southern Baptists that hell-born, Bible-destroying, deity-of-Christ-denying, German rationalism known as evolution.”
Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. His conviction was reversed on a technicality, but the Genesis law stayed on the books until 1967.
Despite their announced intention to strike while the iron was hot, evolution foes did not introduce a Tennessee-type bill in the Texas legislature until 1929. The third time was not the charm, however, and the measure failed to pass.
But Darwin’s die-hard detractors did not need a law to achieve their objective. Three months after the Scopes trial, the Texas State Textbook Commission voted to ban the theory of evolution from every classroom in the Lone Star State. One zealous member went so far as to call for the removal of the word “evolution” from the dictionary.
The censors merely followed the governor’s lead. “I’m a Christian mother,” Miriam Ferguson declared, “and I am not going to let that kind of rot go into Texas textbooks.”
Pre-orders now being taken for autographed copies of Bartee’s new book “Unforgettable Texans.” Mail your check for $28.80 to “Bartee Haile,” P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.