What Was the Scopes Monkey Trial?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Scopes Trial of 1925, also called the Scopes Monkey Trial, was a challenge to the constitutionality of laws dictating that evolutionary theory could not be taught in schools. The Scopes Trial has become a famous case and an emblematic example of the changing morals and ideas in America in the early 20th century. The teaching of evolution in schools is still challenged in parts of the American South, suggesting that the issue has hardly faded to the background.

William Jennings Bryan wanted to stop the teaching of evolution.
William Jennings Bryan wanted to stop the teaching of evolution.

The stage was set for the Scopes Trial in early 1925, when the Tennessee legislature passed the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. Representative Butler was inspired by a speech given by William Jennings Bryan, an ardent anti-evolutionist who wanted to stamp out the teaching of “monkey theory” in schools. After the passage of the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) became concerned about its constitutionality and placed advertisements in several major newspapers looking for a test case. The ACLU wanted to bring a case to trial and was willing to defend a Tennessee teacher against charges of violating the Butler Act.

George Rappleyea, a recent transplant to Tennessee from New York, noticed the advertisement and brought it to the attention of several civic leaders in his new home of Dayton. Dayton, Tennessee, had fallen upon hard times, with a declining population and economic struggles. In addition to being an evolutionist, Rappleyea wanted to invigorate Dayton and thought that setting a groundbreaking trial there would put Dayton back on the map. Others agreed, and the men recruited John Scopes to be the test case.

John Scopes was actually a physical education teacher who filled in for the biology teacher when he was ill. Scopes had assigned a section of the textbook dealing with evolutionary theory at one point, however, and this was cause enough to prosecute. Several prominent local lawyers agreed to prosecute, and the ACLU came through on its promise to give a test case representation. The most famous member of the defense team was Clarence Darrow, who delivered several stirring speeches during the course of the case. Other members of the team included Arthur Garfield Hays and Dudley Field Malone.

The Scopes Trial was more of a public exhibition than a trial, with thousands of spectators milling around outside the courthouse and live trial updates being broadcast on national radio. The trial itself was relatively brief, marked by Darrow's ringing speeches. Darrow felt that in the Scopes Trial, American civilization itself was on trial. He felt strongly that the Butler Act should never have been passed.

At one point, Darrow called William Jennings Bryan to the stand, interrogating him about the Bible and suggesting that the man was a fool for believing in the creation story. Much of the defense's evidence was not permitted in court, despite Darrow's lineup of prominent scientists. The judge argued that the Scopes Trial was about John Scopes, not evolution.

In his closing speech, Darrow asked that the jury find Scopes guilty, so that the case could be appealed at a higher level. The jury agreed, finding John Scopes guilty, and the judge fined him 100 US Dollars (USD). When Darrow appealed the case, it was thrown out of court on a technicality, because the jury should have found the amount of the fine, not the judge. The appeals court clearly wanted to end the farce that the Scopes Trial had become and was pleased to overturn the conviction.

Although the Scopes Trial was largely an elaborately staged event, it raised public awareness about evolutionary theory and the right to teach it in schools as part of scientific training, preparing the nation for future challenges regarding the issue. Clarence Darrow's speeches have also been frequently assigned to young law students for study.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments



I think another aspect of this trial was the fact that the Southern US saw evolutionary theory as an intellectual infringement from overseas, seeking to dominate the American people. Such defensiveness is not uncommon. Unfortunately, much of the Western world has reacted to this reaction with an excessive liberalism. In my opinion, both sides of this angry debate are symbiotic, thriving off of the mutual rage of the other party.


The Scopes Trial was a travesty. It was a self-destructive parading of super-conservative ideals, which made all of the relatively middle ground proponents of Intelligent design look like blowhards. Today, honest people who doubt the complete viability of Evolution and Darwinist thinking are lumped together into a category of "fundamentalist creationists" when this is simply not the case. Evolution explains barely anything and has little data to back it up. But picking petty fights like this one is a sure way to harm your own side.

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