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October 31, 2007

From Scopes to Dover-7: The Scopes trial goes national

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Once Scopes was charged with violating the Butler Act and the event publicized, things started moving extremely rapidly.

On May 9, 1925 "the county's justices three justices of the peace formally held scopes for action by the August grand jury, in the meantime releasing him without bond" (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 95). In mid-May, the 65-year old William Jennings Bryan, who had been campaigning across the nation against the teaching of evolution, volunteered to appear for the prosecution for free, thus guaranteeing the delighted city leaders that the trial would get the national publicity that the instigators eagerly sought. The local civic leaders, eager to get as many headliners as possible involved, even tried to get famous English author H. G. Wells, a supporter of evolution, to make the case for evolution at the trial. They considered that his distinguished literary presence would lend a certain cachet to the proceedings, but Wells declined to get involved (Larson p. 96).

Fearing that other cities, belatedly realizing the business boom that would result in having a nationally prominent trial, would try to take the trial away from Dayton, the local leaders decided not to wait until August for the trial but to move even more quickly. So the district judge, "acting with the consent of both prosecution and defense, called a special session of the grand jury for May 25 to indict Scopes before any other town could steal the show." (Larson p. 96)

When the eventual lead attorney for the defense Clarence Darrow was initially approached about whether he would defend Scopes, he declined the offer because he had just retired at the age of 68 and was not interested in taking on new cases. But when he heard that Bryan was appearing for the prosecution, the agnostic Darrow changed his mind and offered to appear for Scopes for no fee, relishing the chance to argue, on a national stage, against one of the most visible proponents of religion. This caused some dismay to the ACLU that was underwriting the defense case. They wanted to focus the case on the issue of academic freedom and felt that Darrow's militant agnosticism would alienate otherwise sympathetic potential religious allies. But Scopes chose Darrow to be his lawyer and stuck with him, feeling that an experienced defense lawyer was better than the constitutional lawyers that the ACLU wanted (Larson, p. 102).

Clarence Darrow was the perfect foil for William Jennings Bryan. Darrow was famous for his successful defenses of several high profile criminal cases but he also "delighted in challenging traditional concepts of morality and religion." He called himself an agnostic but was effectively an atheist, in which respect he was very similar to Charles Darwin. According to Darrow's biographer "He regarded Christianity as a 'slave religion,' encouraging acquiescence in injustice, a willingness to make do with the mediocre, and complacency in the face of the intolerable." (Larson, p. 71)

Good intentions underlay Darrow's efforts to undermine popular religious faith. He sincerely believed that the biblical concept of original sin for all and salvation for some through divine grace was, as he described it, "a very dangerous doctrine' – "silly, impossible, and wicked." Darrow once told a group of convicts, "It is not the bad people I fear so much as the good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel – he believes in punishment." During a public debate on religion, he added, "The origin of what we call civilization is not due to religion but to skepticism. . .The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry, as the ancient world was the child of fear and faith."
. . .
Darrow readily embraced the antitheistic implications of Darwinism. (Larson, p. 71)

Since both Bryan and Darrow were itching to square off against each other on the grand issue of science and religion, it was almost guaranteed that the trial would extend well beyond issues of free speech. The stage was now set for the 'trial of the century,' which would reverberate and color all future discussions on this topic.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Lewis Black on Biblical literalism

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