Revisiting An Orgy


A Reflective Stroll With H.L. Mencken

In the humid summer days of middle Tennessee, in the year of someone’s lord or some such commonly known as the year 1925, a grand charade which surely would’ve rivaled the likes of Shakespeare was planned and conducted for publicity which still manages to drive economic activity in the town of Dayton for a few days about this time of year some 88 years later. Dayton, Tennessee is the home of the (in)famous ‘Scopes Monkey Trial,’ in which Tennessee substitute teacher John Thomas Scopes challenged the newly-passed ‘Butler Act,’ which made it illegal to teach the scientific theory of evolution in Tennessee public schools.

BUTLER ACT

It shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, 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.” Misdemeanor punishable by a fine in range between $100 & $500.

Before people got too tightly wound over the subject matter raised in the first paragraph, one thing you must understand about this story is that it is one of those that keeps getting better. It just can’t go without saying that the whole thing was essentially a ‘setup:’

In early May 1925, the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union publicized its’ eagerness to find a test case against the newly minted Butler Act by offering to defend any teacher accused under it. George Rappelyea, a manager of the Cumberland Coal & Iron Co. in Dayton, Tennessee, saw notice of that in the Chattanooga Daily Times, and, sensing opportunity, brought it to the attention of Franke Earl Robinson, proprietor of a local drug store but also chair of the Rhea County School Board. Before another day had elapsed, a meeting was arranged that included Rappelyea, Robinson, school superintendent Walter White, a pair of the city’s lawyers (Sue Hicks and his brother Herbert Hicks), and John Scopes, an athletic coach and substitute teacher who agreed to be the defendant to test the law. Scopes was not the school’s designated biology teacher, but he had filled in and perhaps even taught evolution in a way that contravened the law (the defense did not contest the matter at trial).

Generation of publicity was the primary motivation.”

– Art Winslow, A Religious Orgy In Tennessee (Introduction)

H.L. Mencken

Enter Henry Louis Mencken, one of the most widely known names in journalism in America at the time, and writer for The Baltimore Sun. The actual author of the book, A Religious Orgy In Tennessee, by way of a collection of his writings of daily coverage of the trial on the scene. Mencken makes no pretense to feign the objective observer w/ no committed opinion whose highest virtue is not offending anyone. In just the reverse, the edge of Mencken’s cynically irreverent sarcasm is as surgical as it is dubiously entertaining. Mencken’s coverage of the setting for this all too human monkeyshine story is one of the most colorfully entertaining pieces of political theater in Americana. It’s like P.T. Barnum Does Jesus – original, fantastic, and total bullshit. I can almost hear Mencken sarcastically quip, ‘move over Don Quixote, the Ku Klux fundamentalists are taking us all on a whole crusade to purge the earth of windmills.’

A former Secretary of State, two time congressman from Nebraska, and three time Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, came in to represent the interests of upholding the Butler Act. Not to slight a messiah in need of a good ole’ fashioned devil to put asunder, a suspected agnostic northerner with a reputation for being one of the best trial lawyers in the country, by the name of Clarence Darrow, was set in this small town epic.

In reading what Mencken and others have said about this tale in history, it seems that the hype around this trial set the tone that this was to be like the final battle in which truth would finally reveal who was right and put down all the lies of any other viewpoints. It was atheist and agnostic against Bible believer, it was anarchist against the religious state, it was the scientist against the meta-physicist, it was the secular against the sanctified, and it was being played for keeps on a grandiose scale. The whole country was talking about the Monkey Trial in Tennessee, and the local economy was booming with trial tourists. This story of politics, religion, and journalism has something for everyone.

Inherit The Wind

A movie was made which was loosely based on the Scopes Trial, but the names and many pertinent facts were changed to tell a somewhat different Hollywood version of the story. Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, & Dick York were some of the famous actors of the time who helped round out the star-filled cast in the 1960 version of the Stanley Kramer directed, “Inherit The Wind.” I must pause for an authors’ note here of encouragement to see this solid classic if

Inherit the Wind IIyou’ve never yet. A remake of the film directed by Daniel Petrie in 1999 features Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, and Beau Bridges. While both of these movies are enjoyable films each in their own right, they are neither to be considered accurate as a portrayal of the actual events around the Scopes Trial.

Ultimately, for all its’ pomp and pretense at being the trial of the century, the final verdict was a resounding ‘guilty’ for the teacher Scopes, and a penalty of a $100 fine. The verdict was appealed by Darrow and the fine was never paid. Maybe another excerpt from H.L. Mencken’s, A Religious Orgy In Tennessee, could hold the key to why the story of the Scopes Trial captured so many people’s attention, and even continues to draw enough attention that the Scopes Festival (July 19th & 20th, 2013) is still held almost every year in Dayton:

True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge. Did Darrow, in the course of his dreadful bombardment of Bryan, drop a few shells, incidentally, into measurably cleaner camps? Then let the garrisons of those camps look to their defenses. They are free to shoot back. But they can’t disarm their enemy.”

– H. L. Mencken, A Religious Orgy In Tennessee

It seems that we still grapple with some of the same sentiments in public discourse today. In revisiting Mencken’s religious orgy some 88 years later, there are still fundamentalist Christians who would insist on the infallibility of the literal Genesis story of divine creation over a scientific explanation. 88 years after the orgy Mencken witnessed, there are still plenty of christian fundamentalists like the Westboro Baptist Church to keep the ole’ Ku Klux witch hunt fires stoked and hungry. 88 years after the Scopes Trial, we still have to guard the Constitution from being stripped and twisted by those who would bring down the force of government to compel the pious behavior they’ve sanctimoniously prescribed for the human race. 88 years later, George Rappelyea’s hair-brained publicity stunt is still generating revenue for Dayton, Tennessee as people gather in Dayton for plays such as “And On The 8th Day,” & “Front Page News,” to see the Scopes Museum & courtroom, and take in other happenings geared around the yearly Scopes Festival. 88 years later, I’m on my way to see for myself this setting of Inherit The Wind’s inspiration and Mencken’s fundamentalist dystopia. As I pray to my atheist’s god for safe passage in what Mencken termed the buckle of the Bible Belt, I am still reviewing the books and media about the Scopes trial, and enjoying every minute of revisiting an orgy.

Scopes Festival

http://www.amazon.com/Religious-Orgy-Tennessee-Reporters-ebook/dp/B004G8P2Q4/ref=sr_1_cc_2?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1374224857&sr=1-2-catcorr&keywords=a+religious+orgy+in+tennessee

http://www.bryan.edu/historical.html

Paul FestA.G. House is an Afghanistan war veteran and former licensed minister (UPCI), who has become an outspoken skeptic, peace activist, and involved himself in many other issues which he believes affect the individual freedoms of the people whose Constitutional Rights he took an oath to defend. He currently resides in the heart of Tennessee with his companion dog ‘Liberty,’ where he is recovering from PTSD and enjoys the therapeutic activities ofgardening, creative writing, playing drum set, and other forms of artistic expression \m/

 

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One thought on “Revisiting An Orgy

  1. Pingback: Historian’s Almanac for August 4, 2013 | Paul R. Waibel Official Home Page

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