A 1925 trial against a small-town substitute teacher in Tennessee shouldn't have made national news, but this battle between science and faith quickly became one of the most sensationalized debates of the century.

John T. Scopes

Wikimedia Commons

John Scopes was a football coach and substitute teacher at a high school in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, but in 1925 he quickly became wrapped up in one of the most publicized controversies the United States had ever seen.

Challenging The Butler Act

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Earlier that year, Tennessee had passed the Butler Act, a law which prohibited public school teachers from denying the Biblical account of humankind's origin by teaching the theory of evolution.

In response to the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union looked to support a case, any case, which would challenge its constitutionality. Hearing of the ACLU's intentions, a group of Dayton residents thought that such a trial could bring their tiny town valuable publicity. They quickly singled out Scopes, who had filled in occasionally as a biology teacher, as a possible defendant. Scopes reluctantly agreed to stand trial as a defendant if he were accused of teaching evolution.

Symbolic Showdown

US News

John Scopes' specific guilt or innocence mattered little compared to the symbolic showdown that his trial represented. The idea of religious values facing off against scientific theories quickly attracted massive publicity, and the prosecution and defense teams pulled in prominent figures.

William Jennings Bryan

Associated Press

Three-time presidential candidate and popular orator William Jennings Bryan, right, argued for the prosecution. Bryan opposed the teaching of Darwinism in schools and his argument represented religious fundamentalism.

Clarence Darrow

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Learning that William Jennings Bryan had joined the prosecution convinced the ACLU to bring zealous civil libertarian Clarence Darrow on to the defense. Close to 70, Darrow was known for winning many prominent civil liberty cases, and his presence turned the symbolically-charged trial into an even bigger circus.

Growing Publicity

The Daily Beast

Word had spread about what would come to be known as the "Scopes Monkey Trial," and by its first day on July 10, 1925, nearly a thousand people crammed the small courthouse. The public saw the debate as more than a challenge to the Butler Act, but as an argument that would lead to a vital answer as to what role religious traditions played in public education. 

Flooding The Streets

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Invested parties flooded the Dayton streets. Vendors sold lemonade, while fundamentalist supporters set up stands selling anti-evolution books and even jokingly brought in chimpanzees to "testify for the prosecution."

Evolving Arguments


The defense team's argument soon evolved from what the ACLU's original planned as a defense. Rather than argue that the Butler Act was unconstitutional because it infringed on teachers' academic freedom, Clarence Darrow claimed that both evolution and Biblical teachings were compatible in the classroom. William Jennings Bryan challenged this claim by illustrating what he perceived as the harmful implications of evolutionary theories.

Final Verdict


In total, the trial lasted eight days, but it was easy for the jury to come to a verdict. Despite its symbolic weight, the real deliberation was only over whether Scopes should be found guilty of teaching evolution, which he had admitted he'd done. Scopes was convicted and fined $100, but his conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

Symbolic Battle

Chicago Tribune

The Scopes trial didn't quite lead to the resolution the public was looking for in terms of the symbolic battle of science versus religion. However, it succeeded in launching the debate to wider national attention, intensifying the weight of a debate which continues today.