The Scopes Monkey Trial
Frequently, new ideas have required considerable time to gain public approval. For example, six hundred years ago the geocentric theory of Ptolemy placed earth and its human inhabitants at the center of the universe. As a result, the sun, as if showing devotion to man, rotated around the earth. Even after Galileo proposed his "heliocentric" theory citing that the earth revolved around the sun, the Catholic Church, among others, refused to reject the geocentric theory.
Due to his beliefs, Galileo was placed under house arrest, declared a heretic and very nearly burnt to the stake. Similarly, on July 25, 1925, John Scopes was placed on trial in Dayton, Tennessee, for teaching the principles of evolution. Probably considered equally heretical by many Fundamentalist Christians. The teaching of evolution in public and private schools then became an important issue. The Scopes Monkey Trial served as an examination of American values because it considered the issue of the separation of church and state. It examined the restrictions on freedom of speech, and because it encouraged a more critical view of established Christian Dogma. It must be admitted that some, including Fundamentalists and Creationists, typically have not supported the teaching of any "Darwinian" evolution in public schools. After all, any teaching that included other than a strict Biblical interpretation constituted heresy. Although Fundamentalist and Creationists might admit that they would not approve of government interference with their beliefs, they nevertheless have repeatedly challenged science curricula, especially in the areas of the teaching of evolution.
Unquestionably, those who have supported the literal interpretation of the Bible may be alarmed by some of Darwin's teachings. For example, Darwin's suggestion that all life forms, including man, evolved from more primitive life forms. This appeared to lower the significance of man in the great scheme of things. How was it possible for a perfect God to create less than perfect organisms in a quest to produce man in his own image? The ideas that organisms evolved may have suggested that God was subject to mistakes and therefore not perfect. The last thing that one who relied unconditionally upon his religion would want to hear would be the invalidity of his God. Suggesting that man evolved from "a lower form of animal"(Blake 550).
Anything contrary to the creation story of Genesis was considered an attack on not on only the power of God but also the credibility of Biblical teachings. The residents of Dayton, Tennessee, considering themselves god-fearing and ardent supporters of the literal interpretation of the Bible were prepared to do battle against the godless evolutionists. Reinforced by the law passed by the Tennessee legislature in March, 1925 stating that; "any teacher in any public school of the State, which are supported by public funds... could not teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine creation of man and to instead teach that man has descended from a lower order of animals"(Blake 550).
As a sign of their support, hanging outside the courtroom door was a sign that read "Sweethearts, come to Jesus" as well as "Read your Bible daily"(Larson 148). Indeed, the scene was set in 1925 when the ACLU commissioned Clarence Darrow to defend John Scopes while the Fundamentalists were led by the famous orator, William Jennings Bryan. History would be made in the tiny town of Dayton, Tennessee as the significance of personal freedoms and rights became issues of note. The Scopes Monkey Trial was important to democratic principles because it encouraged the separation of church and state. The First Amendment to the US Constitution, states that people have the "right to practice their religion as they wish"(US Constitution). This implied that any aspect of a single religion would not be forced upon members of society. In the rural areas of the South and the Midwest, "Americans turned to their faith for comfort and stability in a literal interpretation of the Bible, viewing Darwin and the theory of evolution as the most present threat to the truth, they were certain that they alone possessed" (Lloyd 1).
As a result, many state laws including the Butler Law promoted the teaching of religious principles in public schools. Further, any view considered contrary to that of the primary religion of the state was considered illegal to teach. The teaching of evolution by John Scope in his Biology class therefore constituted an illegal act, punishable by fine and loss of his job. The trial ended with a verdict of guilty for John Scopes and he was fined $100, only to have the verdict overturned the next year by the State Supreme Court in Nashville. Ironically, the Butler Law remained on the books in the State of Tennessee until the 1960's but its foundation as a credible law was certainly shaken by the proceedings of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Further, the Scopes Monkey Trial reinforced the importance of freedom of speech to all Americans. Granted to Americans in the First Amendment to the Constitution, all "people have the right to speak, publish, and express their views"(US Constitution).
Although not specifically stated in the Constitution that one has the right to teach ones views, it is to be implied. Following his conviction, Scopes stated to the judge that "I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue to oppose this law and any other action that would be in violation of my idea of academic freedom"(Lloyd 3).
Blake, Nelson Manfred. A History of American Life and Thought. NewYork: McGraw- Hill Book Company, 1963.
Cherney, Robert W. A Righteous Cause. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1985. Coletta, Paolo E. William Jennings Bryan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.
Larson, Edward. Summer of the Gods. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Lloyd, Jeff. "The Scopes 'Monkey Trial'." Http://www.xroads.virginia.edu/