The American fundamentalist and Pentecostal religious movements began shortly before the turn of the twentieth century. Protestant fundamentalism was much stronger in the South while the earliest Pentecostals, in addition to their southern origins, also had roots in California.
The term “fundamentalist” can have both positive and negative connotations. The negative aspects of fundamentalism became crystallized in the infamous Scopes (Monkey) trial in Dayton, Tenn., in the hot summer of 1925.
Tennessee had passed a law, the Butler Act, forbidding the teaching of evolution and natural selection theory in the public schools. Many southerners believed that if the Bible’s creation story in Genesis were called into question the entire basis for our morals and ethics would be undermined.
On the other side the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) determined to challenge the law. They recruited John Scopes, a substitute teacher in the Dayton, Tenn., school system, to ignore the law and teach evolution in the classroom. They hoped to create a test case. Scopes taught evolution and was arrested, as planned, and was put on trial. He even encouraged some of his students to testify against him.
National newsmen and gawkers of every description descended on Dayton like flies to honey, turning the legal proceedings into a virtual circus. The trial itself attracted an all-star cast of legal, political and news media personalities: Senator William Jennings Bryan, three-time unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate and President Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, headed the prosecution team. Noted liberal attorney and admitted agnostic Clarence Darrow defended Scopes. H. L. Menken, controversial columnist of the Baltimore Sun, daily wrote biting commentaries on the goings on in the court house and the town of Dayton. The circus atmosphere surrounding the trial was augmented by several monkeys and chimpanzees on leashes parading on the courthouse lawn, dramatizing Dayton’s “Monkey Trial.” It must have been some show.
The courtroom drama climaxed when Darrow summoned Bryan to the witness stand as an expert on the Bible and Christian theological assumptions in general. Darrow’s crafty line of questioning made Bryan’s defense of a literal interpretation of the Bible appear weak, particularly to the northern press. But in my opinion, the biggest blooper of the entire trial was made by the judge in allowing Darrow to follow a line of questioning that challenged certain Christian religious dogma. It was a good show, but neither Christianity nor the Bible were on trial. It was all about whether John Scopes had violated the Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of evolution theory in the public schools. While it was the crescendo moment of the trial, the Darrow-Bryan confrontation scene should have never taken place. The legitimacy or constitutionality of the law was not in question. John Scopes’ violation of the Butler Act was. And he was found guilty and fined, a decision later reversed on a technicality.
The constitutionality of the Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution should have been a question for the appellate court process. It was outside the Rhea County, Tennessee Circuit Court’s purview. But it was all a good show and it inspired the highly-successful book, Broadway play and movie “Inherit the Wind.” It is also quite frustrating, I think, that after almost one hundred years the evolutionist-creationist controversy is still with us and shows few signs of resolution anytime soon.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.