The Scopes Trial

Faithless Fairy Tales Part 3

By Jeff Laird

Faithless Fairy Tales:
Part 1: Galileo
Part 2: The Scopes Trial
Part 3: The Crusades
Part 4: The Spanish Inquisition

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This is the third in a series articles examining how inaccurate, warped versions of real historical events are misused in order to attack Christianity. These Faithless Fairy Tales may satisfy "once upon a time" appetites, but they don't represent the truth. These are some of the more common anti-religious historical myths thrown at Christians, debunked by means of the actual storylines.

Many have heard of the "Scopes Monkey Trial," but few have a clue what really happened. The case is cited as an example of religious zealots persecuting an innocent non-believer, or of blind religious dogma trampling good science, or a victory of reason over superstition. Fictional portrayals such as Inherit the Wind have gone a long way towards perpetuating the bogus vision many people hold about this event. The Scopes Trial is a rare instance where popular perception and the truth are almost polar opposites. Fiction and myth haven't just obscured the story, they've changed it outright. The average person's understanding of the Scopes trial is about as historically accurate as the movie Gladiator.

What is that typical misunderstanding of the Scopes Trial? Something like this:
Scopes was arrested and thrown in jail for teaching evolution. The prosecution refused to consider Darwin's works or scientific evidence, so Scopes was convicted. However, the defense attorney spontaneously called the lead prosecutor, a backwards preacher, to the stand, and embarrassed him so badly he had a heart attack and died. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that teaching evolution could not be made illegal, and Scopes was set free.
Of course, history teachers at large aren't giving this synopsis...exactly...but general education hasn't done much to counter the myth. In my own case, I remember the film Inherit the Wind being shown in a high school history class, in lieu of a detailed discussion. In other words, it was presented to our class with little commentary, other than an indication that the trial was a historical event. In a very meaningful sense, the stage play has become reality in the minds of most people.

Other sources have discussed the inaccuracies of Inherit the Wind; the reader is encouraged to find and process those on their own. Better still would be to learn more about the trial in and of itself, and see how the pop culture myth fails to fit the bill. Resources are available online, including court transcripts, summary after summary, dedicated pages, detailed analysis, personal opinions, and other helpful points of history. For the time being, consider the following, more accurate examination of the trial.


A group of businessmen and atheists, headed by George Rappleyea, engineered the trial as a publicity stunt and test case. The fledgling ACLU had offered to defend anyone charged under the Butler Act *, but the eventual defense team rejected those intentions by attacking religion, rather than the constitutionality of the law. Rappleyea located a volunteer defendant: John Scopes, an athletic coach who sometimes substituted in the principal's science class. Scopes agreed to be charged, and was, in May of 1925, purportedly for teaching evolution.

Not long after the trial was over, Scopes admitted he couldn't remember teaching, or even mentioning evolution; even later, he denied he actually had. It's possible the trial's architects never knew this, though the defense team wisely kept him from testifying in court. At the same time, Scopes and his lawyers encouraged his students to testify — falsely — that he'd taught evolution. He was never behind bars at any point, nor ever at risk of imprisonment, since the maximum possible penalty for violating the Butler Act was a $500 fine.


Rappleyea sent letters to celebrity religious skeptics, encouraging them to join the defense team, seeking publicity. He got plenty when Clarence Darrow got involved. The combination of Darrow, Dudley Malone, and several law professors created a legal juggernaut.

Darrow was, at least in practice, frequently on the side of minorities and the socially outcast. That being said, all of his clients were generally wealthy, paid enormous legal fees, and were accused of various exploitative behaviors. These included thrill-killing aristocrats, gangsters, fraudulent businessmen, and corrupt business tycoons. Darrow stated that his agreement to take on the Scopes case without compensation was "the first, the last, and the only time" he'd ever do such a thing. It was also the only reason the ACLU allowed Darrow to join the team, out of a concern he would do exactly what he did — make the case more about religion than civil rights.

Darrow's participation caused the ACLU's preferred champions, like Charles Evans Hughes and John W. Davis, to decline involvement, to nobody's surprise. To Darrow, the ends — winning — mattered more than anything else, and he suffered professional consequences for his tactics. He was forbidden from practicing law in California. He was forced to practice only criminal law in his latter years, because the legal union had thrown him out. Darrow was also a vehemently, intolerantly anti-religious man, a view inspired by his father's struggles as an atheist. Historians now believe Darrow's primary motivation for joining the defense team was a desire to confront William Bryan about religion.


In comparison to the high-powered legal expertise of the defense, the Scopes' prosecution was mostly local and unremarkable, with the exception of William Jennings Bryan. Bryan had given up law for politics some thirty-plus years prior. He was a progressive Democrat who campaigned aggressively for the rights of the poor and working class. A former — terrible — Secretary of State, presidential candidate, and prolific orator, he had been involved in promoting the Butler Act which Scopes was "accused" of violating. In truth, he was brought in mostly to deliver closing remarks — which he never had the chance to give.

Continue to Page Two

* "The Butler Act 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." — Wikipedia

Image Credit: Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) and Fredric March as Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind

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Published 7-1-2014