Dayton, Tennessee, is a quiet town. But there was one summer when it was anything but quiet.
In 1925, Dayton was the scene of the “Scopes Trial” — one of the most famous trials of all time. Today there is a small museum there that tells you all about what happened.
This is what the trial was about: Way back in 1859 an English scientist named Charles Darwin came out with what is known as “the theory of evolution.”
It’s pretty complicated stuff. Among other things, Darwin argued that human beings slowly descended from another species of animals over a long period of time – like millions of years. In other words, our ancestors – way, way back – might have looked sort of like apes.
Some people didn’t, and don’t, believe Darwin’s theory. They prefer other explanations of the origins of the human race, such as the idea that human beings in their present form were created by God a few thousand years ago.
Darwin’s theory has been controversial ever since it came out, and the idea of it being taught in public high schools even more controversial.
In the spring of 1925, the Tennessee legislature passed a law (called the Butler Act) making it illegal to teach evolution in the public schools. The law said it was illegal 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” in a Tennessee public school. A few weeks later, the American Civil Liberties Union offered to pay the legal expenses of anyone willing to challenge the law.
George Rappleyea, superintendent of the Cumberland Iron and Coal Company’s operation in Rhea County, learned about the ACLU’s offer in the May 4, 1925 Chattanooga Daily Times (click on the photo of the article to enlarge it),
During a meeting at Robinson’s Drug Store in Dayton a few days later, Rappleyea and several other businessmen from Rhea County talked about something. If there is going to be a trial challenging the law, and it’s going to be big news, then why not have it in Dayton? After all, it would be good publicity for the town, and it would help the hotels and restaurants.
The business leaders asked John Scopes, a 24-year-old coach and substitute teacher, to agree to challenge the law. Scopes agreed, even though he wasn’t absolutely certain whether he had actually taught anything about evolution when he substitute taught a science class at Dayton High School.
Before long, the trial of State of Tennessee v. Scopes was on, and the whole country was following it. Scopes’ lead attorney was Clarence Darrow of Chicago, Illinois. Darrow was famous mainly because of his defense of two University of Chicago students who murdered a 14-year-old boy in 1924.
After the pending case received publicity in the newspapers, attorney William Jennings Bryan made it clear that he would be glad to speak on behalf of the state in the case. Bryan was nationally famous at the time for several reasons, including the fact that he had been the Democratic nominee for president three times. He also spoke and wrote a lot about religious matters and about the debate between science and religion. The state agreed.
National newspapers and radio stations descended on Dayton. The small town took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with people selling souvenirs, refreshments, Bibles and toy monkeys.
The trial took place in July 1925. It was hot and crowded in the courtroom — so hot, in fact, that one day the judge moved the trial to the lawn outside of the courthouse. While a national radio audience listened on, attorneys Darrow and Bryan focused the trial not on Scopes’ actions, but on evolution itself. It was almost as if Charles Darwin was on trial. At one point, Darrow put Bryan on the stand, asking him questions about the validity of the Bible.
Scopes lost the case and was fined $100. His team of attorneys later appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which threw out his conviction on a technicality.
William Jennings Bryan died only a few days after the trial. A few years later, the Calvinist denomination started a college in Dayton with the idea of teaching from a Christian worldview, and named the college after William Jennings Bryan.
All of these events are detailed at the Scopes Trial Museum, located in the basement of the old courthouse in Dayton. We recommend you visit and take some time to look at the wonderful displays.
After you’ve had a chance to take in the exhibits, take the stairs up to the second floor. You will find that the courtroom looks exactly the way it did way back in 1925. If you sit down on the front row and close your eyes, you might be able to hear Clarence Darrow arguing with William Jennings Bryan.
Also… every July, Dayton hosts a Scopes Festival which includes (among other things) a short and accurate reenactment of the Scopes Trial.