The Most Important Trial of the 20th Century
(for modern day Christians)
A few years ago as we were traveling through Tennessee, I convinced my wife Amy to allow me to drive a little off course to a little town called Dayton. I had been studying about a famous trial that had taken place over eighty years before, and I wanted to walk around this small town to see some of the history come alive.
In 1859, Charles Darwin wrote Origin of Species. This book and the teachings in it shook the Christian world. By the turn of the century, Christians were scrambling to find out how evolution and religion fit together. Some Christian leaders tried their best to help evolutionary theories coincide with what the Bible taught. On the other hand, many Christian leaders simply spoke out against evolution and taught that faith was based on what the revealed Word of God said, not science. Many Christian leaders concluded that if science seems to contradict the Bible, then science must be wrong because the Bible is infallible.
The world came to a cross roads and it appeared that the two theories would not exist simultaneously. Darwinism was ready to take center stage. Darwinism was shouting to creationism: “Your act is over creationism. You have lasted for centuries, but now it is my turn to shine.” Darwinism received its chance to shine in the summer of 1925.
Darwinism and creationism came to a climatic showdown in the form of one of the most publicized trials in United States history. The trial took place in Dayton, Tennessee from July 10-21 in the year 1925. Public school teacher John Scopes was accused of teaching evolution, which was illegal in the state of Tennessee. Scopes was defended by the ACLU’s Clarence Darrow, a master debater. William Jennings Bryan, a Populist Democrat and former Secretary of State to President Wilson, was the prosecuting attorney.
As I walked into the courtroom on that hot July day a few years ago, I could picture the excitement surrounding the trial. I stood where the lawyers presented their closing arguments. I sat down where the jury would have been seated. In the emptiness of the courtroom, I could envision the crowd waving their fans to keep cool. A thought kept coming to mind: “It was possibly the trial of the century for Christian thought, and almost no Christians know anything about it today.”
I walked around down town (which was only a few blocks), and I tried to have a few conversations with the local folk, but I was amazed at how little even they knew about the trial and all those involved. Maybe that is just the way it is with people. They forget history so quickly and the important lessons these events teach us.
John Scopes, who was merely a substitute teacher and a pawn in the hand of the ACLU, lost the trial and was fined $100. But the creation-believing Christians received a major black eye from the trial. The press depicted Christians as those who were backward, ignorant and certainly not enlightened.
As I was driving away from Dayton, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and what it represented to my faith. It saddened me that Christians were viewed in this manner. Not much has changed, I thought to myself.
After I got home from our trip, I continued to research the trial and the aftermath of it. I came across this fascinating decision by Baptist Pastor William Bell Riley to try and take back every public school system in the United States only months after the Monkey Trial in Tennessee:
Every state in the union will be organized within twelve months to aid in a national campaign for a national law similar to the Tennessee anti-evolution law, Dr. W.B. Riley of Minneapolis, executive secretary of the World’s Christian Fundamentalist Association, declared on arrival here today (Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 9, 1925, 9).
Riley was not successful in making Tennessee’s anti-evolution law nationally enforced, but his determination to fight against Darwinism no matter what the cost shows us that this man had deep convictions.
You might be thinking, Why would you want “creation” taught in public schools? Shouldn’t there be a separation of church and state? But you have to understand that everyone one and every organization has a religion. A religion is a belief system. Therefore, schools cannot be religion neutral. When the “God-based” belief system of the public schools was removed, a different religion took its place. This religion is secular humanism. The United States public school system has traded in the religion of Christianity for the religion of secularism (a disbelief of God and His purpose).
For several months, I was consumed with this trial. I bought and read several books written about the trial. I watched a couple movies based on the trial. I even started reading old newspaper clippings of the trial. I found out that the anti-evolution law in Tennessee was not repealed until 1967. Tennessee was still hanging onto a law that Christians held dear forty-two years after the Scope’s Monkey Trial. Should this teach us something about what public opinion really was back then? Could it be that the media painted a picture that was not entirely true? Could it be that the media has helped to popularize evolutionary theory more than by any other means? On February 17, 1939, The Hammond Times reported:
A bill to repeal Tennessee’s “Monkey Law” was stuffed into a pigeon hole to be forgotten today following its defeat in the state house of representatives. The law, which forbids the teaching of evolution in the schools and has been the subject of controversy for years, precipitated the famed Scopes Trial at Dayton Tennessee in 1925. The late Clarence Darrow unsuccessfully defended the young teacher as William Jennings Bryan acted as special prosecutor on the side of fundamentalism (The Hammond Times, February 17, 1939, 1).
Fourteen years after the trial, it was still clear that Tennessee’s state house of representatives knew that evolution was not simply a theory, but another religion that was not to be tolerated in their school system. This stubbornness to let go of the “Monkey Law” shows us that many Christians were still fighting hard in the state of Tennessee for the right to teach their belief system in school.
Much has changed in the last 90 years (1925 to 2015). It seems that so many of those in academia hold the power to make the public believe that evolution has won. Harvard’s evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr once said that “no educated person any longer questions the validity of the so-called theory of evolution, which we now know to be a simple fact.”
This is why Christians in the 1920s fought so hard to stop Darwinism. It was almost as if they were prophets. They could see the future before them if evolutionary theory won the day. What are the effects of Darwinism? Darwinism is a universal acid that “eats through just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized worldview” (Signs of Intelligence, Dembski, 34).
Christians from yesteryear could not see what specific sins Darwinism would make acceptable in our culture, but they still sounded the trumpet of alarm, warning everyone of the destructive acid evolutionary theory brings to any civilization. Could it be that Darwinism is the foundation of some of today’s greatest sins? I realize that most of these sins have been around for millennia, but we must all ask if the belief in evolution heightened the impact of some of these sins in our culture today?
Racism (some humans have not evolved as much as others; just read Darwin’s writings).
Abortion (life is not sacred because no one is made in the image of God).
Neglect the poor (survival of the fittest teaches us that the poor should fend for themselves).
Homosexuality (marriage between a man and woman was not set up by God).
Situational ethics (the end justifies the means because there is no God to set a standard).
Pornography (nakedness is not shameful).
I am writing this article in a school building. The school building is located in a church. This school is a Christian school. Creationism is taught here. This is our religion. And I am thankful for the freedom I have to send my child to a school that will not just teach about evolutionary theory, but will also be open-minded and teach other ideas as well.
During my junior year in high school, I was scolded by a substitute teacher as I tried to explain my belief in an intelligent designer. He told me to shut up and then explained that evolution is fact and there shouldn’t be any discussion. At seventeen I was shocked and discouraged. Today, I am thankful for that experience because it taught me that everyone has a religion. Everyone has a belief system. Just admit it…go ahead and admit it substitute teacher!