The Scopes Trial, Part I

Leading scientists and political figures, who were deeply religious themselves, got involved in the debate over the teaching of evolution, and took it to the public. In 1924, William Jennings Bryan transformed this religious dispute into a major political crusade. At age 62, William Jennings Bryan was a living legend, and America’s most famous orator. He had been nominated for President by the Democratic Party at age 36, the youngest presidential nominee of any political party ever. He was nominated again two times after that.

Following his narrow defeats, he remained in the public eye as a speaker and writer for progressive political causes. He served as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, until he resigned that post in protest over Wilson entering World War I. Bryan was almost a pacifist.

His progressive politics and his antimilitarism always had a moralistic religious basis. By the 1920’s, he led the fundamentalists forces within the mainline Presbyterian Church. In 1921, Bryan heard of an attempt by Kentucky Baptists to politicize the anti-evolution movement by seeking to outlaw the teaching of Darwinism in public schools.

As a political progressive, Bryan instinctively welcomed legislative ways to deal with social problems. As a political conservative, Bryan deplored Darwinism as corrosive of religion. As a leftist, he opposed militarism, imperialism and laissez-faire capitalism. As a populist, he was suspicious of the leading institutions, such as science, and believed that people has a right to control public education. He saw this Kentucky proposal as a solution to what he perceived to be an important social problem.

In 1922, Bryan went to Kentucky to support the Baptist proposal of outlawing the teaching of evolution. He then carried his crusade for such laws nationwide. Kentucky turned to be a narrow defeat, the proposal lost by one vote in the legislature. After that, Bryan took the crusade around the country. He spoke in State after State. In this way, these issues started coming up and being debated in State legislatures.

If you look at his speeches, you can see that Bryan objected only to the Darwinian theory of human evolution. He actually viewed the days of creation as vast geological ages. He acknowledged that “lower forms of animals”, as he called them, may have evolved over time. His concern was always with people. In this particular case, he was concerned with the belief that a brute ancestry for humans might undercut human morality and religious faith. It was important for him to believe that humans are special and divinely created.

The crusade went on for several years, and after many losses and a few partial victories, in 1925, Tennessee became the first State to outlaw the teaching of human evolution in public schools. Under the new Tennessee law, teaching evolution was a misdemeanor punished by a maximum fine of 500$. The law exceeded Bryan’s proposal, because it covered all theories of human evolution, and not just Darwinism. Bryan didn’t want to impose a criminal penalty, neither.

This was a national event. This was in the front-page news around the country. Religious conservatives backed it, but most people, such as President Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, denounced it. No one expected, however, that any teacher would ever be prosecuted under this law.

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