In March 1925, Tennessee outlawed the theory of evolution in its public schools. Officials in tiny Dayton tested the new law by arresting, with his consent, biology teacher John T. Scopes.
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Former Democratic presidential candidate and secretary of state William Jennings Bryan headed south to prosecute Scopes. Attracted by Bryan’s notoriety, Chicago’s famed trial lawyer and avowed agnostic Clarence Darrow joined the defense.
Dayton got its 15 minutes of fame; Scopes was convicted and fined $100. A higher court denied his appeal, but advised Tennessee not to prosecute further violations of that particular law, which was repealed in 1967.
Baptist fingerprints were on this case from start to finish. Illinois Presbyterian layman Bryan had adopted his particular political goal—legislation against teaching evolution in public schools—from Baptists. In 1921, the Kentucky State Board of Missions passed a resolution calling for a state law against teaching evolution in state schools. Bryan credited this resolution for his strategic campaign to see that school children learned more about “the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks.”
The Tennessee law’s passage and defense owed much to Baptists, directly and indirectly.
Minneapolis Baptist pastor W.B. Riley founded the first explicitly fundamentalist organization in America, the interdenominational World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. Riley and his cause had splintered the Northern Baptist Convention by 1925, but failed to control its denominational machinery.
The WCFA and its allies turned to the political front. Baptists John Roach Stratton lobbied in New York, J. Frank Norris in Texas and evangelist T.T. Martin throughout the South for legislation barring the teaching of evolution in public schools. They lost in Kentucky by one vote, but won in Tennessee.
Stratton, Norris, Martin and Riley were the most prominent religious figures supporting the prosecution in the Scopes trial. To counter what they considered the liberal bias of the press, they offered a series of columns to national papers. Martin held rallies in Dayton.
Before the campaigns for legislation, little organized fundamentalist activity occurred in the South. As George Marsden wrote, “In the South … fundamentalism, as an organized movement was redundant.”
The anti-evolution controversy sounded the alarm against modernism for most Southern Baptists and wakened fears of lost Baptist freedom among others. Norris led the first group and E.Y. Mullins, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, championed the second.
Mullins fought a losing defensive battle against coerced religious beliefs in the realm of religion and science. He wrote in 1924, “Nothing could be more ill-advised than for Americans to attempt to employ legislative coercion in the realm of scientific opinion.” Shailer Matthews, Baptist dean of the divinity school at the University of Chicago, asked Mullins to give a deposition in defense of Scopes, but Mullins declined.
From within the Southern Baptist Convention, Norris and C.P. Stealey sought to build a creedal firewall against modernism. In 1924, their forces seemed poised to pass a clear and binding statement opposing evolution. Mullins’ side managed to postpone its victory by calling for a committee to present a statement of faith at the Memphis meeting in 1925.
May 7, 1925, the day Scopes was arrested, the Southern Baptist Convention was in session in Memphis. In an effort to influence the SBC proceedings, the WCFA was also meeting at the same time in the same town. Its keynote speaker was William Jennings Bryan.
Mullins and his allies produced the first SBC statement of faith in Memphis in 1925, but avoided directly addressing evolution.
The disappointed anti-evolutionists looked for a new battlefield, and they found it down the road in Dayton. Bryan eagerly led the fight before photographers and reporters attending the sensational “Monkey Trial.”
The anti-evolutionists won the legal battle, but lost the war of public opinion. Most Americans and some Baptists accepted the judgment of the New York Times, July 19, 1925, that the trial was a triumph for the same “attitude which resisted the Copernican theory, which put a new world discoverer into chains, which has treated the greatest philosophers with contempt and sent renowned inventors to their graves in penury.”
Loyd Allen is professor of church history and spiritual formation at the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology, a graduate school of Mercer University.