Center of the Storm: John Thomas Scopes

When a community is in decline and population growth is stagnant, the town fathers look for ways to boost the sagging fortunes. Sometimes, unwitting parties play right into a well-calculated scheme.

“How it Started” Principals of Scopes trial grouped around table in Robinson’s Drug Store (specially posed) Seated – H.E.Hicks, attorney; John T. Scopes; Walter White, Rhea County superintendent of schools; and County Judge J.G. McKenzie; Standing – B.M. Wilber, justice of the peace; W.C. Haggard, an attorney; W.E. Morgan; Dr George W.Rappelyea, chemical engineer, who initiated prosecution of his friend to test the law; S.K. Hicks, attorney and F.E. Robinson, chairman, Rhea County Board of Education

So it was in an East Tennessee community named Dayton on May 5th, 1925 in Fred Robinson’s drugstore a plot was hatched to bring economic prosperity to this town located between Knoxville and Chattanooga. What caught their attention was an advertisement by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) in the Chattanooga Times.

On March 25, 1925 Tennessee Governor Austin Peay  had signed into law House Bill 185 (Butler Act) which prohibited teaching of the Evolution Theory in public schools. The ACLU offered to defend any teacher found guilty of the Butler Act.

24 year-old John Thomas Scopes, assistant football coach and general science teacher, was substituting for the regular Biology teacher who was on sick leave.  There was one sole chapter on evolution in the state approved Hunter’s Civic Biology textbook.

John Scopes reluctantly agreed to be arrested for teaching evolution and would appeal to the ACLU.  What the ACLU did not know was that Scopes had never taught the subject to the students.

In essence Scopes with the town fathers tricked the ACLU in order to make Dayton the “talk of the town” or in this case, the talk of the country. What resulted was a show trial, more theatre than courtroom, and an economic boom for Dayton.

Of course you had a great defense team (Clarence Darrow, Dudley Field Malone, Arthur Garfield Hays, Frank B. McElwee, and John Neal) paid for by the ACLU and the stellar prosecution team (William Jennings Bryan, Tom Stewart, Herbert and Sue Hicks, William Jennings Bryan, Jr., Wallace Haggard, Ben McKenzie and his son, J. Gordon).  WGN radio out of Chicago would broadcast the trial from coast to coast.

Dayton turned into a carnival where stuffed monkeys were a valued prize.  Money rolled in by the truck loads as thousands of people flooded the town in July 1925.  By this time most of the townspeople were enjoying “the circus”.  Unlike the film version, Inherit The Wind, there were no fiery Sunday sermons on evolution and angry mobs.

Dayton basked in its glory.  John Scopes played his part well, but he was troubled by the antics of the whole affair.

The ACLU was disconcerted because they wanted a trial on free speech, but their lead attorney, the 68 year-old Clarence Darrow, had other ideas.  He wanted a verbal boxing match with 65 year-old William Jennings Bryan who represented religious fundamentalism, and Dayton was the arena.  The law and its violation were assigned a back seat to these two old foes as they went at each other. Unfortunately, Bryan lost the fundamentalist argument on biblical literalism to Darrow and on July 26 he died in his sleep in Dayton, six days after the trial ended. “The Great Commoner” is buried in Arlington National Cemetery where his tombstone has “He kept the faith.”

Darrow and Bryan

In the end Darrow asked the jury to find Scopes guilty, and Judge John T. Raulston fined Scopes $100.00, the minimum fine in the Butler Act.  The town fathers got what they wanted; the outsiders went home somewhat bewildered and confused about the whole business.

However, in 1925 there were fifteen anti-evolution bills pending.  Only two passed—Arkansas and Mississippi.

The Tennessee Supreme Court a year later reversed Scopes’ fine of $100.00 on a technicality.  It did not want to prolong “this bizarre case” and dismissed the case against Scopes.

Give Me That Old Time Religion took a back seat to profit.  John Scopes regretted his part in this drama as the trial went on.  He went on to study geology at the University of Chicago and became a geologist. He joined the Catholic Church.

In 1960 he returned to Dayton for the premiere of Inherit the Wind.  He received the key to the city.  In his book, Center of the Storm, Scopes says, “A man’s fate is often stranger than anything the imagination may produce.

However, the debate between the fundamentalist literal interpretation of the Bible and evolutionary theory still wage on without any sign of abating. What began in a small courtroom in 1925 is still being debated in 2011.

The Scopes Trial of 1925 is important regardless of its specious origins.  For what began there is a war between science and religion which Charles Darwin would never have imagined.  Science and religion are two sides of the same coin in many people way of thinking on this planet traversing the cosmos.

And what of Charles Darwin?  In a future post we will examine this man who wrestled with his belief in his God and in his science, especially his scientific findings which disagreed with the teaching that he received at Cambridge about biblical Creation.

G. D. Williams       © 2011


Tennessee Evolution Statutes

State Vs John Scopes

Tennessee State Library and Archives

The Scopes Monkey Trial

God vs Darwin: The Scopes Trial

The Scopes Money Trial

Inherit The Wind Intro: Give Me That Old Time Religion

Dayton, Tennessee Today:


Bryan College