Inherit the Wind

Scopes trial artwork

A Lesson in Distorting History

by Dr. Jerry Bergman

The Scopes Trial, often called the Trial of the Century, is the most famous confrontation between creationists and evolutionists. The trial involved a challenge by the ACLU to a law passed in Tennessee that forbid teachers to teach as fact the idea that humans evolved from lower primates (Johnson 2001). The trial challenged the Butler Act which specifically stated that:

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 (Butler 1925).

William Jennings Bryan defended the act, which had passed in the Tennessee House of Representatives by a 71 to 5 vote (Larson 1997, p. 50). Agnostic attorney Clarence Darrow defended John Thomas Scopes who volunteered to test the constitutionality of the act. The Butler Act was named after John W. Butler, a Democrat who believed that public schools should promote citizenship and morality based on Judeo-Christian values. Because Butler believed that Darwinism hurt this goal, the act was designed to forbid only the teaching of human evolution. The Butler Act was just one of many laws attempting to limit or forbid the teaching of evolution. Bryan, on the other hand, saw the law more as a means of dealing with the problem of anti-religious indoctrination (Trial Transcript, p. 323). This is the same concern with the modern creation-evolution controversy.

Critics and supporters both agree that the Lawrence and Lee play Inherit the Wind is the “single most influential retelling” of the Scopes Trial (Alters 1995). Much of the inflammatory rhetoric in the play came from H. L. Mencken, the “most famous newspaperman in American History” whose caustic comments found their way into hundreds of publications, many which are still in print today (Mencken 2007). The play/movie is primarily about the creation versus evolution controversy.

From about the mid-1960s to today, both are used specifically to marginalize a creationist worldview. Putatively written to respond to the “threat to intellectual freedom” that some people believed existed during the so-called McCarthy era, the focus of the play is on mocking creationists (Moore 1998, p. 487). The distorted portrayal of the attorney defending the Butler act, Bryan, and the portrayal of Christians are secondary, but are still important to the implied message that the creation worldview is erroneous, and the evolution worldview valid. Most commentaries on the play/movie make much of this distortion, but few have thoroughly examined its important propaganda use in the creation versus evolution debate.

The Scopes Trial is one of three important perceived clashes between science and religion, the Galileo affair and the Wilberforce versus Huxley debate being the other two. All three have been exploited by opponents of Christianity, and all three events, as commonly presented, are distorted and twisted retellings of the actual events (Bergman 2010). The Scopes Trial is perhaps the most enduring of the three because it occurred more recently than the Galileo and Wilberforce events, and much more has been written about it…

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image credit: Artwork from original 1925 Chicago Tribune photo of Clarence Darrow (left) and William Jennings Bryan (right)