Looking Through the Scopes 

Three authors present detailed view of legendary Tennessee trial

Three authors present detailed view of legendary Tennessee trial

The Scopes Trial: A Photographic History

By Edward Caudill, Edward Larson, and Jesse Fox Mayshark

University of Tennessee Press, 88 pp.

Like most states, Tennessee has many claims to both fame and infamy. One of our more embarrassing traits pops up whenever a Bible-waving zealot, or a vote-hungry legislator, begins denouncing the teaching of evolution in schools. That neither the zealot nor the legislator knows anything about biology doesn’t seem to matter. They believe that the idea of an ever-changing nature will somehow lure their children down the road to hell. Few people lobby against teaching about gravity, the digestive cycle, radioactivity, or any other aspect of nature, but the equally well-documented topic of evolution makes them nervous.

Whenever a Tennessean begins blaming Darwin for everything from depression to moral depravity (he has been accused of causing both), you can be certain the national media will remind America that Tennessee was also the home of the Scopes Trial. The celebrated legal battle took place in nearby Dayton in the summer of 1925. It rejuvenated both sides—those denouncing what they saw as scientific atheism and those denouncing what they saw as ignorant attempts to proscribe learning. The trial led to both hilarious tirades by H.L. Mencken and tiresome melodrama such as Inherit the Wind. It has inspired many books and articles. Now, three-quarters of a century after the fact, it has inspired a handsome new oversize paperback, The Scopes Trial: A Photographic History. Appropriately, it is from a Tennessee publisher—the University of Tennessee Press.

The book’s three authors have distinct roles. Edward Caudill is a dean at U.T. Knoxville and author of Darwinian Myths: The Legends and Misuses of a Theory, a fascinating look at how evolution and Darwin have been misrepresented. He wrote the long introduction that sets the stage for the events in Dayton. Edward Larson, who teaches history and law at the University of Georgia, is the author of Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, a comprehensive and well-written history that won a Pulitzer a couple of years ago. He wrote the captions for the many illustrations. Jesse Fox Mayshark, senior editor at the Metro Pulse in Knoxville, wraps up the story with a detailed afterword, which follows the many theological and political battles over evolution in Tennessee since the Scopes Trial.

Early in 1925, the Tennessee Legislature voted to prohibit the teaching of evolution as fact in the state’s schools. This happened partially because the bill’s sponsor hadn’t had a bill passed recently and his colleagues wanted to be cooperative. No one expected the bill to survive long enough to become a law. Then Governor Austin Peay signed it. Immediately the ACLU ran an ad offering free legal counsel to anyone who would challenge the new act.

There were some people in Dayton who were opposed to the anti-science act, and who also wanted to promote their own community. Sitting around the soda fountain in Robinson’s Drug Store, and convinced that there is no such thing as bad publicity, they decided to get someone to challenge the law. They picked John Scopes, a high school science teacher. And Dayton, Tennessee, became the scene of a national wrestling match, with each side proclaiming itself the righteous light battling the other’s evil darkness. The Scopes Trial covers this wide range of material smoothly and clearly, without piling up so much prose it would outweigh the photographs.

From the beginning, the Scopes Trial drew a great deal of national attention. Chicago’s WGN radio station pioneered remote broadcasting in order to transmit the rhetoric to listeners a thousand miles away. It was the only time the rich and famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who was an outspoken agnostic, ever donated his services to any client. William Jennings Bryan, an aging populist speaker and Democratic presidential candidate later dismissed by H.L. Mencken as “a tinpot pope in the Coca-Cola belt,” volunteered for the prosecution. Bryan agreed with the fiery evangelist Billy Sunday’s statement that he did not believe “a man can be both an Evolutionist and a Christian at the same time.”

This book nicely covers the shameless self-promotion of Dayton’s leading citizens (perhaps especially of Fred Robinson, in whose drugstore the idea was hatched). This is a photographic history, and, even though the surrounding text is crucial, the photographs themselves carry the story—the suffocating heat, the ferocious concentration within the courtroom, the carnival atmosphere outside it that attracted drink vendors, street evangelists, and Robinson’s own family with costumed chimpanzees. The photographs are from the W.C. Robinson and Sue K. Hicks collections in the Special Collections Department of the University of Tennessee.

During the proceedings, there was no question that Scopes was technically guilty of violating the law. What was on trial was the question of whether scientists were free to follow evidence in whatever direction it led, or whether they were to be shackled by religious bias. Both sides knew that this was the issue, and both stated it flatly. The anti-evolution faction insisted that scientists had to be shackled for the good of humanity. The scientists disagreed.

Through their introductory and closing essays, and through detailed essay-like captions for the dozens of fascinating photographs, the authors of The Scopes Trial provide a clear and entertaining overview of the trial, its background, and its ramifications. Jesse Fox Mayshark’s wrap-up at the end even goes into detail about the anti-evolution flap in Tennessee as recently as 1996. A conservative farmer and Democratic senator, Tommy Burks, sponsored Senate Bill 3229, instructing teachers to describe evolution as a “theory” rather than a fact. (Of course, he failed to define either term.) The national response to Burks’ proposal was quick and history-minded. Few columnists could resist references to the Scopes Trial.

What this little book reminds us is that the uproar over humanity’s kinship with other primates still goes on all around us. Perhaps it is best summed up by the words attributed to the wife of the Anglican Bishop of Worcester, in response to the controversy surrounding the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859: “Descended from apes! My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”

—Michael Sims

Tribute to a humble poet

Tom C. Armstrong, Nashville’s “Humble Poet,” died at home on Friday, Aug. 11, after a short illness. “Tom aspired to be a writer his whole life,” says his wife, Beverly; he began to dream of a profession in letters when he was 6 years old. His dreams came true: Armstrong went on to write in every conceivable genre, including drama and songwriting. But as his sobriquet indicates, it’s a good bet that Armstrong would most like to be remembered for his poetry, which was selected, according to his widow, for the permanent collections of the James R. Webb Memorial Library of the Writers Guild of America and the Fine Arts Center Research Library of the Tennessee Botanical Gardens at Cheekwood, among others. “One of his poetry books,” Mrs. Armstrong adds, “was placed in the Battle of Nashville Peace Monument’s time capsule,” and “Gov. Ned McWherter appointed him a Tennessee Colonel.” Such rank befits a man who will also be remembered, according to Davis-Kidd’s Angie Howard, who scheduled many readings for Armstrong at the store, for his old-style courtesy, generosity, and warmth.

—Diann Blakely


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