Sunday, July 26, 2009


Rhea County Courthouse
The Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee, home of one of the Scopes trial of 1925.

The Missus and I have just returned from a brief mini-vacation in the wilds of Tennessee, where we enjoyed the hospitality and company of Eric - the Straight White Guy hizzownself - and his lovely bride Fiona.

Eric is a brave man, and I say this without reference to his experience as a United States Marine. He is a brave man because he is willing to put up with my company for days on end, allowing himself to be inveigled into drinking Bizarre Concoctions and partaking of Strange Adventures.

One such Strange Adventure was our trip to Dayton, Tennessee, site of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, a trial loosely dramatized in the various stage, film, and television productions of “Inherit the Wind.”

Rhea County Courtroom
The second-floor courtroom, restored to its appearance during the Scopes trial. Imagine this room packed with over 600 people.

Rhea County Courtroom Seats
Hard seats made for little comfort during the sweltering July trial.

Scopes vs Tennessee was, at its core, a publicity stunt financed by the ACLU and promoted by a group of local businessmen who saw possibilities in the attention a controversial trial would bring the town of Dayton. John T. Scopes, a local high school teacher, was a friend of one of those businessmen, who asked Scopes to teach evolution in violation of Tennessee’s just-enacted Butler Act, which provided
“That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, 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.”
Interestingly enough, the state-mandated biology textbook described and even endorsed Darwinian theory... which meant that pretty much every teacher in the state was violating the Butler Act anyway. But Scopes happily offered himself up as a test case.

The trial turned out to be the publicity bonanza its planners had envisioned, and then some. It was huge, on a scale not to be seen again until the Lindbergh kidnapping trial almost a decade later. Atheist Clarence Darrow - the man who had saved thrill-killers Leopold and Loeb from the death penalty - was on the defense team; meanwhile, noted populist Democrat, three-time Presidential candidate, and Fundamentalist orator William Jennings Bryan was on the prosecution team. With these two facing off against each other, you had all the ingredients of a Flapper-Era Media Circus. It was the first trial broadcast nationwide on radio, an early example of the power of a mass medium to blow a minor event all out of proportion. It would not, as we know, be the last.

There was never really any issue over Scopes’s guilt: He was convicted, fined $100, and subsequently had the conviction overturned on appeal on a minor technicality. The jury deliberated all of nine minutes after an eight-day trial. Even Darrow, in an address to the jury, acknowledged that, because the court had held any evidence he had planned to offer inadmissible, that he could not in fairness ask them to return a verdict of not guilty.

But the case was really never about Scopes. It was a landmark clash between anti-evolutionists and evolutionists, between Biblical fundamentalism and modern scientific thought, and the echoes of that clash still resound today, more than four decades after the Butler Act was repealed by the State of Tennessee. It was a battle between the Urbane versus the Homespun, with H. L. Mencken, famously venomous columnist for the Baltimore Sun, excoriating the locals and calling them “yokels” and “morons.”

The Bible vs Darwin controversy is still with us today, despite the increased emphasis on science education driven by the National Defense Education Act in the late 1950’s. We’ve dealt with it here in Cobb Country, Georgia in recent years, with stickers proclaiming that evolution was merely a theory, not scientific fact - stickers that had to be removed months later after yet another court case.

Me, I'm not a Biblical literalist, and so I have no problem reconciling Darwinian views of evolution and natural selection with my belief system. I look at evolution as the way God manages the business of Creation... and the Biblical story of Genesis as allegory and myth, our ancestors’ attempt to explain where they came from. Faith and Science can coexist, as long as you recognize that the two do not necessarily have much to do with one another.

A Paul Harvey-esque sidebar - Five days after the Scopes trial ended, William Jennings Bryan had the opportunity to find out whether his religious beliefs were sound by direct observation. He died in his sleep on July 26, 1925 - exactly eighty-four years ago today - leaving a void in the Fundamentalist movement that would never again be filled.

William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan, preserved in bronze.

After our jaunt to Dayton, we returned to the happy climes of McMinn County, where we had a fine feast - Eric’s Tennessee ’Taters, by the way, are Da Bomb - and spent many happy hours stuffing ourselves, drinking, and teaching the ladyfolk the finer points of Texas Hold-’Em. My advice? Watch out for that Fiona... to beat her you’re gonna need a bigger boat.

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