Scopes Monkey Trial
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth..”
In 1925, the Tennessee State Legislature passed the Butler act which made it unlawful "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 any Tennessee state-funded school or university. The people of Tennessee generally thought that their legislators had taken leave of their senses
In the town of Dayton, which is located in Eastern Tennessee, a group of businessmen wanted to do something to put Dayton on the map, and they thought the controversy of a trial would supply the publicity they needed. A local mine owner named George Rappleyea called in his friend, 24-year-old John T. Scopes, who was the High School football coach, but he also substituted in science classes. It is interesting that Scopes was not the regular science teacher, he was a sub. In any case, Rappleyea asked Scopes to teach evolution. Now it is questionable how much evolution Scopes actually taught. Apparently, he did go through a chart on the evolution of species with his class, and to the authorities that was enough. On 5 May 1925, he was charged with teaching evolution in school.
What followed was one of the most famous trails in American History. It involved two of most famous lawyers in the nation: William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense. William Jennings Bryan had been the Democratic presidential candidate three times, and he was a Presbyterian Elder. Unfortunately, he had not actually tried a case in thirty-six years. Clarence Darrow had just the previous year led the defense in a famous criminal trial, the 1924 Leopold-Loeb murder case.
The trial in Dayton was covered by every newspaper of consequence in the world, including The Baltimore Sun, which was also paying part of the Scope’s expenses—which would be considered unethical today. H. L. Mencken was a famous columnist who worked for The Baltimore Sun. It was Mencken who called it the "Monkey trial." The front pages of newspapers like the New York Times were dominated by the case for days. The Times called it "the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war."
More than 200 newspaper reporters from all parts of the country and two from London were in Dayton. Twenty-two telegraphers sent out 165,000 words per day on the trial over thousands of miles of telegraph wires. More words were transmitted to Britain about the Scopes trial than for any previous American event. Also this was the first ever trial to be covered by radio. Chicago's WGN broadcast it. Two movie cameramen had their film flown out daily in a small plane from a specially prepared airstrip.
Clarence Darrow defended his client by arguing that there was actually no conflict between evolution and the creation account in the Bible. In support of this claim, he brought in eight experts on evolution. The Judge refused to allow the testimony of these experts on the grounds that evolution was not on trial. The only question, the Judge said, was did the defendant violate the Butler Act? In other words, did John Scopes teach evolution in the local High School?
One of the most bizarre moments of the trial was when Clarence Darrow called William Jennings Bryan to the stand to testify as a witness on the Bible. The defense attorney called the prosecutor to be a witness. That is wild.
On the day of Bryan’s testimony the courthouse was so packed they had to move the trial outside. The exchange between Bryan and Darrow was interesting. For example, Darrow asked where Adam’s son Cain got his wife; Bryan answered that he would "leave the agnostics to hunt for her" but eventually it was all for nought because the judge declared Bryan’s testimony irrelevant to the case, and deleted it from the record.
After eight days of trial, it took the jury nine minutes to come to a decision. Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a $100 fine.
After the verdict, Scopes addressed the court. He said, “Your honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating an unjust statute. I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom. I think the fine is unjust.”
Scopes never paid the fine and the verdict was overturned on a technicality. No other cases were ever brought to contest the Butler Act, and Tennessee eventually repealed the law.
The interesting thing about the Scopes trial is that it was a publicity event that got out of hand. And none of the reporters who came at the time seemed to realize this, and even the lawyers, Darrow and Bryan, never seemed to know this. The city of Dayton hoodwinked, bamboozled, the nation, and the world.
The Dayton businessmen succeeded in their aim—which was publicity, but the trial got so out of hand that they were ashamed of what happened for awhile. For years, no one wanted to talk about the Dayton Monkey Trial, but then they regrouped and began to cash in.
Since 1987, Dayton has staged a reenactment of the trial using the original transcripts, performing it in the original courtroom. The annual event occurs during Dayton's Scopes Trial festival with several performances showing over the weekend. So the city of Dayton got its wish. It is on the map. Everyone who reads anything about the history of science and religion in the America reads about Dayton.
Unfortunately, I do not think that has benefited Christianity in America. The Scopes Monkey Trial divided the faith, and caused us to devote ourselves to arguments that have nothing to do with Christianity. On the one hand, most Christians agree with Clarence Darrow, that there is no conflict between Evolution and the Bible. On the other hand, other Christians are afraid that the Bible is being ridiculed and put down.
So, instead of building the kingdom of God, Christians bash away at each other. Instead of working for the unity of the body of Christ, some folks are all too willing to say that if you don’t believe exactly as they do, you are not part of that body. Instead of carrying out the Great Commission, we have embarked on the great division.
But no one asks in these debates what Genesis is actually talking about. Genesis is not talking about science or evolution. It is talking about God, about the character of God, and about the relationship of God to his creation. God is the creator, the first cause, the prime mover, the power behind all things. In the NT, we are told that God is love, and this gives us a motive for creation. Why did God create at all? Out of love. God brought all things to be out of love.
The creation accounts are found in the opening chapters of Genesis, as you probably know. But exactly what went on is rather confused. We have verse one and that is clear enough: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” but then v2 says, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Wait a minute. Did we not just read in v1 that God created everything, and then v2 says nothing is created. What is going on here? Then in v3, Genesis begins to talk about a week of creation.
First day: God creates light
Second day: God creates a firmament. That is the sky.
Third day: God separates the sea from the land. God commands the earth to bring forth plants.
Fourth day: God creates the sun and the moon and the stars.
Fifth day: God creates birds and sea creatures.
Sixth day: God makes wild beasts, livestock and reptiles. He then creates humankind
Seventh day: having completed the heavens and the earth, God rests from His work.
There are a number of problems with this process of creation. How could God create light on the first day, when he does not create the sun and stars until the fourth day? Does the author of Genesis not know that light comes from the sun?
But that is not all. Beginning in Genesis 2:4 we have what is called the second creation account. In this account, Adam is created before anything else, and placed in the garden of Eden, then the birds and animals are created in a sort of a comical, failed attempt to find a companion for Adam, then finally Eve is created.
What are we to conclude from all this? First of all, we have to say that Genesis 1-2 were never intended to be read as a scientific account of creation. Science as we know it today did not even exist until about A.D. 1600, so we should not try to make Genesis explain things that it is not explaining. Genesis is a poetic and mystical account of God’s action in creation. Genesis tells us that God was working in His creation through the processes that our modern science describes.
The fear that many devout Christians have is that science is steadily reducing the presence of God in our lives. The more we can explain by science, they say, the less we need God. Actually, what is happening is just the opposite. Our continually developing understanding of the size and the age of the universe has vastly increased our understanding of the power and glory of God. The God whom we worship exerts creative power over distances so great that light requires billions of years to traverse them, and the God to whom we pray has actively molded and directed his creation for billions of years.
When God sought to communicate His transcendence, power and authority to Job (Job 38-41), He instructed Job to contemplate the universe. When we contemplate the universe today we, even more than Job, are overwhelmed by God's greatness. The immensity of the universe in space and time emphasizes the astounding magnificence of God.
Furthermore, some folks, when they think of God’s creative activity, think that God made all things at the beginning of time and he has not done much since. Such a view belittles God. Creation is not merely a past historical event but a present and continuing reality. Scripture declares that all things are brought into existence and sustained by God's present creative activity. The Psalm reads, "When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth" (Psalm 104:29-30).
God works behind and through what we call natural causes. In the OT, the history of Israel is presented both as a series of cause and effect historical events, and as a direct manifestation of divine power. For example, the rise to power of the Persian king Cyrus who allowed the exiled Jews to return to their homeland from Babylonian exile is seen in the OT as work of God, but it can also be explained as a historical event just like any other. Cyrus was a military conqueror who hacked and slashed his way around the ancient world. He was outwardly not much different from a dozen other conquerors we could name--Nebuchadnezzar, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, and Cyrus. They were all military thugs who used brute force to get what they wanted. The Bible does not deny that, but the Bible says that God was still working to bring about his plan, and the rise of Cyrus did result in the return of the Jews from Exile. Did Cyrus believe in the God of the Jews? No, but that did not matter, God worked in history to bring his will to pass.
That same principal applies to the history of the universe. God used what we now call the laws of nature to produce life on this planet and eventually human life.
Life evolved over the last 4 billion years. It begin with simple cells that gradually learned to do photosynthesis. Then about 600 million years ago simple animals began to appear. they were followed by more complex creatures--fish and land plants, insects and seeds, amphibians, and reptiles. About 300 million years ago, the age of the dinosaurs began. You know I have been amazed to hear some good Christian folks argue that because the Bible does not mention dinosaurs, there could not have been any such thing. Well, we found the bones, folks. Bones are facts. Not theories. There is no question that for millions of years, dinosaurs were the dominant species of this planet. Then about 65 million years ago, they died out. Then the mammals began to come on the scene. What about us? From a scientific point of view much remains unknown about our heritage. Modern human beings have been around for less than a million years. That is a blink on the evolutionary time scale.
But let us go back to our original question. Does science contradict Genesis? They have different purposes. Evolution is telling us about what happened in the history of the universe. Genesis is telling us about how it happened, or the motive force behind what happened. A God of love worked through these processes to create what is.
God has always worked through evolutionary methods. In the Bible, we see that first God made a covenant with Abraham, then God revealed the law to Moses, then the prophets called Israel to repentance, then God sent Jesus to us. Jesus told us that God loves us and went to the cross for us. God’s creative activity leads straight to Jesus.
Thus, God calls us to believe in Jesus, to see his love on the cross, and to work out his love in our own lives. God’s message of love was present in the very beginning of creation. That is what Genesis is saying. That is what we need to hear, and that is what we need to apply where we live today.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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