The trial began on Friday, July 10, 1925. It was held in the Rhea County Courthouse, Dayton Tennessee. The presiding judge was John T. Raulston (a conservative Christian). The primary members of the prosecution team were Tom Stewart (Attorney General), William Jennings Bryan, and Bryan's son. The principal members of the defense team were John Neal (former Dean of the University of Tennessee law school), Clarence Darrow, Arthur Hays (ACLU representative), and Dudley Malone (international Divorce Lawyer). The strategy for the prosecution was simple: stay away from peripheral issues relating to the wisdom and constitutionality of the law and emphasize that Scopes had broken the law. The defense strategy is more complicated. They wanted to challenge the constitutionality of the law. They knew that the chances of this challenge succeeding in this trial were small, but they wanted to establish a case for appeal to a higher court. The secondary strategy was to show that evolution was consistent with a non literal reading of the Biblical creation account, and therefore the law was not broken. Much of the material in this section is from the book Creation & the Courts by Norman Geisler (2007).
Day 1, Friday July 10
The session opened with prayer and the charges were then read. Since the law in question involved teaching a theory of creation contrary to the Biblical account, the first chapter of Genesis was read as background. As the defense wanted to bring in scientists to discuss evolution and its compatibility with Christianity, the competency of scientists as witnesses was discussed. The rest of the day was spent interviewing potential jurors. Eight potential jurors were excused prior to selection of the final twelve. The jurors selected were all men, ten were farmers, and eleven were regular church-goers. After the jury selection court was adjourned until Monday.
Day 2, Monday July 13
The session was opened with prayer. The defense made a motion to quash the indictment. They argued that the Butler Act violated the defendants rights both under the Tennessee constitution and the Federal constitution. The also argued the charges in the indictment were not clear. The prosecution presented counter arguments. In particular, Stewart cited a precedent in Meyer v. State of Nebraska where the court stated “Nor has challenge been made to the state's power to prescribe a curriculum for institutions which it supports.” Darrow gave a very long speech. In it he frequently used terms such as ‘bigotry’, ‘bigoted’, ‘fundamentalist’, and ‘ignorant’. He argued that the Bible should not be given special status in the law over other books such as the Koran or Book of Mormon. He also argued that there are many denominations and sects within Christianity, each having their own interpretation of Scripture. Yet the law demands adherence to one interpretation, and considers anyone who breaks it a criminal.
Day 3, Tuesday July 14
The third day began with Darrow objecting to opening the session in prayer on the grounds that it might bias the case. The judge overruled Darrow's objection on the grounds that it was a well established custom to open the court in prayer. The defense asked that other groups such as Jews and Unitarians be allowed to present some of the prayers. The judge gave the local pastor's association the job of choosing who would give the prayers. There was also a discussion of press leaks where some of the major newspapers published what was alleged to be the judge's opinions prior to their being given in court.
Day 4, Wednesday July 15
The judge rejected the defense motion to quash the indictment. He stated that
The courts are not concerned in questions of public policy or the motive that prompts passage or enactment of any particular legislation.
He also stated that
there is no law in the state of Tennessee that undertakes to compel this defendant, or any other citizen, to accept employment in the public schools. … The relations between the teacher and his employer are purely contractual and if his conscience constrains him to teach the evolution theory, he can find opportunities elsewhere …
The defense entered a plea of ‘not guilty’ on behalf of the defendant. Attorney Malone outlined the case for the defense. In it he stated
The defense contends that to convict Scopes the prosecution must prove that Scopes not only taught the theory of evolution, but that he also, and at the same time, denied the theory of creation as set forth in the Bible.
He also said that the defense believes that “there is no branch of science which can be taught today without teaching the theory of evolution.”
Next the prosecution called their witnesses. The first witness was Walter White, superintendent of the Rhea County School District. He verified that Scopes was a science teacher and that he taught out of the textbook A Civic Biology by G.W. Hunter. He also stated that Scopes had told him that “he couldn't teach biology without violating the law …” A student, Henry Morgan, testified that Scopes had taught them evolution. Another student, Harry Shelton, confirmed that Scopes had taught them evolution. The next witness, Fred Robinson, testified that Scopes had told him that “any teacher in the state who was teaching Hunter's Biology was violating the law; and that science teachers could not teach Hunter's Biology without violating the law.” The prosecution had a third boy who was ready to testify, but the defense said it would not be necessary since his testimony would be the same as the others. The prosecution rested its case.
The defense had assembled eight scientists and theologians that they wanted to call as expert witnesses. The judge agreed to hear the testimony of one of these experts before deciding whether to allow all the defense experts to testify. Professor Maynard Metcalf, a zoologist, took the stand. The jury was not present for most of Professor Metcalf's testimony. Professor Maynard Metcalf was the former head of the department of zoology at Oberlin college. He was presently a researcher at Johns Hopkins University. He also was a member of a Congregational church and had taught Bible classes. Near the beginning he made the statement
I am acquainted with practically all of the zoologists, botanists and geologists of this country who have done any work; that is, any material contribution to knowledge in those fields, and I am absolutely convinced from personal knowledge that any one of these men feel and believe, as a matter of course, that evolution is a fact, but I doubt very much if any two of them agree as to the exact method by which evolution has been brought about, but I think there is — I know there is not a single one among them who has the least doubt of the fact of evolution.
In answering the questions presented to him, he gave a general description of evolution, but presented little in the way of evidence. When asked about the age of the earth, he said that 600 million years would be a modest estimate. Following Metcalf's testimony court was adjourned.
Day 5, Thursday July 16
Day 5 was devoted to discussing the merits of expert testimony. Bryan's son gave a speech opposing expert testimony. He said that it was the weakest and most dangerous form of testimony as there is no was to contradict it since it is only an opinion. There is also the danger that the jury might substitute the expert's testimony for their own, even though it is largely speculation. He continued with the statement “It is generally safer to take the judgment of unskilled jurors than the opinions of hired and generally biased experts.” The defense agreed that Scopes taught evolution, but whether this is contrary to the Bible should be a matter of evidence. How can the jury make this judgment without knowing what evolution is? Furthermore, they questioned which Bible and whose interpretation does evolution contradict. William Jennings Bryan gave an hour long speech opposing expert testimony. In this speech he said
Mr. Scopes knew what the law was and what evolution was, and knew that it violated the law, [and] he proceeded to violate the law. That is the evidence before this court, and we don't need any expert to tell us what the law means
He went on to say
The question is can a minority in this state come in and compel a teacher to teach that the Bible is not true and make the parents of these children pay the expenses of the teacher to tell their children what these people believe is false and dangerous? … And the parents have a right to say that no teacher paid by their money shall rob their children of faith in God and send them back to their homes, skeptical, infidels, or agnostics, or atheists.
Following Bryan's speech, Malone gave probably the best received speech at the trial. Malone complimented his old boss at the State Department: “Probably no man in the United States has done more to establish certain standards of conduct in the … world of politics” But Malone reminded the crowd that Bryan “is not the only one who believes in God.” He argued that now was not the time to fear truth. “The children of this generation are pretty wise,” Malone observed.
If we teach them the truth as best we understand it, they might make a better world of this than we have been able to make of it … . For God's sake let the children have their minds kept open — close no doors to their knowledge; shut no door from them. Make the distinction between theology and science. Let them have both. Let them both be taught.
There was sustained applause after Malone's speech. Bryan told Malone, “Dudley, that was the greatest speech I ever heard.” “Thank you, Mr. Bryan,” Malone replied. “I am terribly sorry that I was the one who had to do it.”
Day 6, Friday July 17
The session was opened with prayer. The judge ruled on expert testimony as follows:
In the final analysis this court, after a most earnest and careful consideration, has reached the conclusion that under the provisions of the act involved in this case, it is made unlawful thereby to teach in the public schools of the state of Tennessee the theory that man descended from a lower order of animals. If the court is correct in this, then the evidence of experts would shed no light on the issues. Therefore, the court is content to sustain the motion of the attorney general to exclude the expert testimony.
The defense insisted on having the evolutionist's testimonies read into the record. The judge agreed providing that it is done without the jury present. These testimonies could prove to be important in an appeal. Since the expert's testimonies were not allowed, most of the journalists, including H.L. Mencken, left Dayton. They felt the trial was essentially over. Ironically, they missed the most memorable part of the trial.
Day 7, Monday July 20
The session opened with prayer. The defense experts testimonies were read into the record. In a surprise move, the defense called William Jennings Bryan as a witness. Ben McKenzie, one of the prosecutors, objected, but Bryan said that he was willing to take the stand provided that he would have an opportunity to question the defense attorneys afterward. The judge reluctantly allowed it. Darrow questioned Bryan on a number of controversial topics such as the whale swallowing Jonah, Joshua commanding the sun to stand still, Adam being tempted by a snake, the flood in the time of Noah, and the creation story in Genesis. Near the beginning of the testimony Darrow asked Bryan, &dquo;Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?” Bryan replied,
I believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: “Ye are the salt of the earth^rdquo;. I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people.
This indicates that Bryan was not a strict literalist. Later he testified that he believed Jonah was swallowed by a great fish. He also said that he believed that the sun stood still at Joshua's command, although he didn't believe that this contradicted the scientific belief that the earth orbits the sun. It was a miracle that was stated in a manner that would be understood by the people of that time. He accepted the historicity of Noah's flood, but he denied that the earth is only 6000 years old and that the ‘days’ of Genesis were only 24 hours long. Throughout the testimony it was apparent that the main point of contention was that Bryan believed in miracles and Darrow didn't. A transcript of this examination can be found in the Appendix.
For many years the prevailing opinion has been that Darrow exposed the ignorance of Bryan during this exchange and severely embarrassed him. This opinion is probably due to a great extent on the influence of the play and movie Inherit the Wind that bears little resemblance to the actual trial. As we will see in the next section, many modern historians have a more balanced view of this examination. Readers should also keep in mind the following points when looking at Darrow's examination of Bryan:
- Although the prosecution was taken by surprise when the defense called Bryan to the stand, this was not a spur of the moment decision by the defense. The defense had carefully planned and rehearsed this examination. Bryan, on the other hand, had to answer off the top of his head as best he could.
- Bryan never claimed to be an expert on Biblical interpretation.
- Bryan was under the impression that he would have an opportunity to question the defense attorneys afterward (this never happened).
The reader can form his own opinion by reading the transcript in the Appendix.
Day 8, Tuesday July 21
As usual the session was opened with prayer. The judge expressed regret that he had allowed Bryan's testimony, and he struck it from the record. He said that he had allowed the testimony in a desire to be absolutely fair to all parties. Darrow then entered a plea of guilty and waived his right to closing arguments. He said, “we have no witnesses to offer, no proof to offer on the issues that the court has laid down here. … I think to save time we will ask the court to bring in the jury and instruct the jury to find the defendant guilty.” Because of this move, Bryan did not have an opportunity to question Darrow or to give closing arguments. It took the jury only nine minutes to find Scopes guilty. The judge set a fine of $100. After the sentence Scopes made his only statement in the trial.
Your honor, I feel that I have been convicted of violating 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. I think the fine is unjust.