“If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind. “
– Defense Attorney Clarence Darrow, Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 in Dayton, TN
The Scopes Festival in Dayton, TN occurred on July 19th & 20th of 2013, commemorating the Scopes ‘monkey trial’ of 1925, in which substitute teacher John T. Scopes challenged the Butler Act – a Tennessee law which had just been passed in the Tennessee General Assembly amidst a wave of religious fervor that was sweeping over the state at the behest of such evangelizing revivalists as Rev. Billy Sunday. Although capturing much attention for the otherwise quiet and hard-working but struggling mining town nestled somewhat obscurely in the Tennessee wilderness, the story of the evolution-teaching man of science standing against the ill-contrived Butler Act was only a portion of what was happening on a national scale in America as men such as former Secretary of State and perennial Democratic U.S. presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan led a holy crusade to stamp out the teaching of the science-based theory of evolution wherever it threatened to pollute the impressionable minds of public school students and other people of learning and knowledge everywhere. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had offered to represent any teacher brave enough to challenge the uninformed and draconian law, and local opportunist George Rappelyea hatched the idea to set in motion what he hoped would become a publicity stunt that would bring some economic activity to a town that had very recently been devastated by mass layoffs at the local mine. Not only was it a smashing success, although a somewhat double-edged phenomenon, people still gather once a year around the time of the anniversary of the trial to review the lessons of history in Dayton, TN. Such was the scene for 2013’s “25th Annual Scopes Festival.”
The fanfare in Dayton was modest, but charming for this year’s festivities. The weather was a bit hot and humid for outside activities such as the booths that lined the sidewalks leading to the Rhea County Courthouse and Scopes Trial Museum, but that only made the authentic fresh-squeezed lemonade served by some of Dayton’s friendly free enterprisers just that much more perfect for quenching the parched mammal’s thirst. Many vendors made various trinkets and wot-nots for sale at their temporary make-shift booths, and a tent had been erected with sound equipment and seating furnished for some of the folksy singing that took place over the weekend. Workers at the courthouse talked about the days of painting that they had put in to make the place presentable for the big show, and even fresh vegetable and fruit sellers had taken advantage of the chance to hold a sort of farmers’ market on the town square. The scene was set with all sorts of people from many walks of life who brought themselves to this little scene of political, religious, mountain, and American culture.
Much interest and publicity has taken place on a much larger scale than just in Dayton over these last 88 years since the Scopes trial. The star-studded but mostly historically inaccurate films entitled Inherit The Wind have introduced many audiences to the ‘monkey trial’ history via award-winning celebrities like Spencer Tracy, George C. Scott, and Jack Lemmon. A movie was even made in 2010 entitled Alleged, which featured among others former Tennessee Republican Senator and once presidential candidate Fred D. Thompson to reprise the roll of the famed religious statesman William Jennings Bryan, although the movie is a drama which is only set against the backdrop of the goings on around the Scopes trial (and for some strange reason attempts to interject the topic of eugenics into an already confused landscape of issues relevant to the Scopes trial). Documentaries and other publications and historical records still exist in fairly abundant quantity for the inquisitive mind. As entertaining as H.L. Mencken’s account of the happenings around the ‘monkey trial’ may be in the book, A Religious Orgy In Tennessee, a much more scholarly and exhaustive work was published in 1997 by noted scholar and author Dr. Edward J. Larson. Although I wasn’t able to surmise if Dr. Larson attended any of this year’s festivities (as I hoped to possibly get my copy of his book autographed), his book, Summer for the Gods is a studious and readable account of much of the Scopes trial history.
And for those who find this case in Americana as infinitely intriguing as I, there are the 2 live theatrical performances of “And On The Eighth Day” and “Front Page News,” which were open to the public this last weekend at $10 per ticket per show, and performed in the actual courtroom (which has been impressively preserved as much as possible) in which the Scopes trial took place in the Rhea County Courthouse in 1925. And On The Eighth Day was a new production of The Brown-Ullstrup Performing Arts Foundation, starring Gary Stamm & Alex Campea. In this no-frills act, most of the presentation centers around exchanges of dialogue between the opposing celebrity counsels Clarence Darrow of the Scopes defense team and William J. Bryan of the prosecution and advocate of the Butler Act. Showing at 5pm on Saturday, this was a good warm-up to whet the taste for the larger-scale showing of Front Page News at 8pm. Sponsored by the Rhea County Historical Society among others, this play by Deborah DeGeorge Harbin featured Wes Byrd as the presiding Scopes trial Judge John T. Raulston, Dakota McClellen as John Scopes, Rick Dye as Clarence Darrow, and a convincing George Miller as W.J. Bryan. H.L. Mencken barely gets a nod (although played as part of a generic reporter part by Jamie McIntosh), and the opportunistic George Rappelyea was played by a talented Rick Bartolomucci who along with Dye as Darrow really seemed to accomplish taking seriously the effort to look the part of their character. Front Page News was about as enjoyable of a live performance as I think I’ve ever seen (reminding me of one of my favorites by Agatha Christie known as Ten Little Indians or And Then There Were None), and I have the smiling and very neighborly cast member, Bailey Hufstetler (Juror Gentry/Stephan) to thank for affording this author the thrilling opportunity when he selected me as a juror for this re-enactment of the Scopes trial. From the perspective of the jury box, I have to admit to feeling like a kid in a candy store as I watched this first year’s showing of Front Page News with my official Scopes Trial Juror pin fastened securely to my shirt. If only it had been the real trial, and I had the ability to engage in some jury nullification; but, at least the padded rocking chairs in the jury box felt like a far superior seat to have to the respectable but uncomfortable old wooden seating provided to the rest of the audience. If you ever have the inclination and opportunity, I highly recommend attending the Scopes Festival in future years with a doubly enthusiastic encouragement not to miss Front Page News. Atheist, agnostic, faithful believer, religious fundamentalist, scientist, civil libertarian, journalist, and history buff alike would not be wasting time to take in this event in the future. To this observer, the relevance of the ‘monkey trial’ of 1925 to the philosophical battles of today is enough reason to hope that future Scopes Festivals will be packed to capacity.
Re-enactment of examination by defense attorney Clarence Darrow (Rick Dye) of prosecuting attorney W.J. Bryan (George Miller)
Unfortunately for Scopes, the Bible-thumping mob got their victory, albeit a short-lived and incomplete one, on that hot summer day in an upstairs courtroom surrounded by god’s faithful crusading partisans in 1925. Of course, over time, the decision was basically null and void as a matter of law as enforcement of the Butler Act was relegated to the ash-heap of history’s embarrassing discarded legislation. Although fairly quiet throughout the proceedings, Scopes’ testimony in open court in response to the verdict and his sentencing to a $100 fine for his act of daring to accurately educate fresh young minds in the intellectual discipline of science rings to this day as a sincere appeal to all who wish to protect the sanctity of human intelligence from the unthinking collective rabble which endlessly roams the earth seeking what potentially reasonable minds may be sabotaged with the cancer of proud ignorance and intolerant rigid fundamentalist dogmas:
“Your Honor, I feel that I have been convicted of 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.”
– John T. Scopes, in response to being convicted of violating the TN Butler Act of 1925
It had only taken the jury 9 mins of deliberations out in the open hallway of the Rhea County Courthouse which served home to this trial where the religious sentiments of the majority had forced John Scopes to answer for his crime of scientific educating. As no females were allowed to sit on the jury in those days, the verdict of the 12 male peers was the climax of this – the first trial in American history to be broadcast all across America. That bit of public service and new-found sensation brought to you by the ambitious WGN Radio.
The pious Bryan would be a tragic subplot to this case in history, as he would boldly and ignorantly rail against the idea that humans are mammals in open court, find himself mocked by intelligentsia the world over for his unrepentant ignorance, die at the end of the whole ordeal while still visiting Dayton (and still under the critical eye of H.L. Mencken who wrote a scathingly irreverent obituary), and ironically have a statue of his likeness erected in front of the Rhea County courthouse and an institution of higher learning built bearing his name in Dayton. The hero of science, intellect, reason, civil liberties, and conscience in this courtroom drama – Clarence Darrow – has no such memorial built to him in Dayton for his efforts, nor for his brave and principled stand for human freedom and progress against the tyranny of the superstitious mob and their statist attempt to enforce ignorant dogma with the long arm of the law. Darrow had objected to the charges against Scopes on constitutional grounds, voiced disapproval of the big banner which hung at the entrance of the courthouse for everyone entering to see which said “READ YOUR BIBLE,” brought many expert witnesses in various professional scientific fields to shed light on the ignorance of the Butler Act, become so blunt about what he perceived as the court attendee prayer-leading and devout church-attending presiding Judge Raulston’s bias for the prosecution that he was held in contempt of court, and even fought Bryan in a shouting match which took place when Darrow made the unconventional move of calling the defense team’s own attorney Bryan to testify on the stand as an expert witness on the Bible (KJV).
“I think this case will be remembered because it is the first case of this sort since we stopped trying people in America for witchcraft.”
– Clarence Darrow, Summer for the Gods by Dr. Edward J. Larson
In the never-ending struggle to overcome human ignorance with the lamp of knowledge, surely the Scopes case stands as a warning from history that the witch-hunt fever of the 16th century to which Darrow referred is still a danger of which to be cognizant. Surely, it is good work that all those involved in making the Scopes Trial & Festival possible every year are doing by preserving and passing on this important historical event in American political and religious lore. Surely, it would be great to see all interested parties working together to see this yearly event in Dayton, TN continue to grow, keep alive, and spread the important debate and open-minded curiosity which is represented by the Scopes ordeal. Surely, we may be able to prevent some tragedies by learning and teaching the lessons of history. Surely, I’m going to have to try to go back next year.
A.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 of gardening, creative writing, playing drum set, and other forms of artistic expression.