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What is the Scopes Trial?

By Jessica Hobby
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Scopes trial, often called the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” occurred in 1925 when the state of Tennessee prosecuted John Thomas Scopes for violating the Butler Act, which prohibited educators in public schools from teaching human evolution. The Scopes trial had strong political implications, causing it to be widely publicized. Additionally, the trial has been consistently held up as an example of the conflict between science and religion.

The specific teachings in question included the use of George W. Hunter’s book Civic Biology in the high school. The purpose of the Scopes trial and the Butler Act was to protect against teaching “eugenics.” Coined by Charles Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, eugenics was an application of Darwin’s theory of evolution that consisted of active manipulation of the human gene pool based on the assumption that certain races of humans were superior to others. Hitler later used eugenics to justify his extermination of millions of Jewish people.

Scopes taught mathematics and coached football in Dayton, Tennessee. He occasionally substituted for the high school’s biology teacher. He claimed that he never taught a lesson on evolution, but accepted the accusation in order to fight the Butler Act. He was arrested by Sue Hicks, Dayton’s city attorney, who was also his friend. Famous poet Shel Silverstein used Hicks as an inspiration for his poem “A Boy Named Sue” that was later recorded by famous musician Johnny Cash.

Scopes was well-liked in the community and never actually went to jail, as often told in accounts of the Scopes trial. He formed a highly skilled legal defense team including Clarence Darrow, Dudley Field Malone, a law professor and a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Tennessee was represented by William Jennings Bryan, a famous politician who had not practiced law in more than 30 years.

The Scopes trial began on 10 June 1925 and ended on 21 June after all the evidence was presented to the court. In an effort to prohibit Bryan, renowned for his oratory skills, from speaking, Darrow requested that the jury find his client guilty. The jury voted one time and returned a guilty verdict in nine minutes. Scopes was ordered to pay a fine of $100, which he never paid because judges were not permitted to set fines over $50.

Scopes and his team appealed the decision multiple times. The lower court’s decision was upheld each time until the case reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court maintained that the decision was constitutional, but remanded the case to a lower court because the original judge set the fine too high.

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Discussion Comments
By AnswerMan — On Nov 11, 2014

I happen to live in Tennessee, and I can believe a thing like this could happen back in those days. My grandparents still talked about the Scopes monkey trial of 1925 and how they were told to stay away from any of those evil biology books that mentioned the theory of evolution. That was going against the teachings of God, and good church-going children weren't supposed to talk about Darwin and his unbelieving ways. The theory of evolution is still a controversial topic around here, even if a lot more people believe it's the truth.

By Inaventu — On Nov 10, 2014

I always felt sorry for John Scopes, because he was only a substitute biology teacher and probably had no idea what he allegedly taught was wrong. I've been a substitute teacher myself, and a lot of times I just had to make up lesson plans as I went along, or I had to use the textbooks at hand without question.

I didn't realize that the defense in the real Scopes monkey trial decided to ask the jury to find Scopes guilty. The movies and TV shows usually show William Jennings Bryan making a passionate speech about the evils of evolutionary theory and how wrong it was to teach children we weren't created by God in His image. It never actually happened.

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