Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion

In the spring of 1924, John Washington Butler, a representative in the Tennessee legislature, took the occasion of his forty-ninth birthday to write a bill designed to prohibit the teaching of human evolution in the state’s public schools. Butler had heard a preacher tell of a girl who had gone to college, learned about evolution, and lost her faith. Like many of his contemporaries, Butler believed that this trend of agnosticism was increasing and had to be stopped in order to preserve the soul of America and the faith of its citizens. Since Darwinian evolution—particularly the doctrine of natural selection—was thought to be behind this trend, ceasing to teach it would renew the faith of the young and ease the minds and spirits of their parents. Furthermore, as the tax money of those very parents provided funds for Tennessee’s public schools, the law was not only a moral imperative, but it was in perfect accordance with America’s civic religion: the rule of the majority. The substance of the statute read 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 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.” The bill passed through the state legislature overwhelmingly in early January 1925, and Governor Austin Peay signed the bill into law, stating, “Right or wrong, there is a widespread belief that something is shaking the fundamentals of this country, both in religion and morals.” Peay signed the bill into law in the name of politics, not God. From the beginning the issue was political.

Anyone interested in how Peay’s political pragmatics backfired is advised to read Edward J. Larson’s new book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. Larson revitalizes the seventy-year-old “Monkey” trial and shows that the antievolution controversy was not merely a conflict between science and “fool religion” to use Clarence Darrow’s slur. On the contrary, the debate between science and religion was more complicated, more entrenched socially, and more profoundly felt than the historical memory of the Scopes Trial suggests. That memory, Larson argues, was generated not so much by the trial itself as by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s play, Inherit the Wind, which opened on Broadway in 1955. The play, and subsequently the movie, was “the single-most influential retelling of the tale” (239). “During the fifties,” Larson writes, “McCarthy-era assaults on individual liberty heightened liberal interest in fundamentalism and the Scopes trial.” The trial “came to symbolize a moment when civil libertarians successfully stood up to majoritarian tyranny” (238). Lawrence and Lee took advantage of the renewed interest and exploited the symbolism to make a point about McCarthyism. The point stuck to the Scopes trial.

This legacy is problematic for Larson because the play distorted the facts, characters, and tenor of the trial, foreclosing on its continued application to American social and political debates. The popular image of Bryan at Dayton is of a buffoon, “a mindless, reactionary, creature of the mob” (241). Darrow is equally transformed for the drama. He loses his hard-edged materialism and becomes a sympathetic crusader for liberty and progress. Larson’s understated revisionism corrects this misrepresentation and fleshes out the historical actors, giving them personal as well as historical depth.

Larson spends less time on the actual trial than he does with its background, preliminaries, and aftermath. He puts the main actors into context and deftly shows their relationships to one another. His efforts produce not only a history of American religious and scientific thought but a history of the American Civil Liberties Union, the organization that abruptly challenged Tennessee’s statute, paving the way for the “trial of the century.” Larson details the legal strategies of both sides—from the prosecution’s early solicitation of expert witnesses and their later attempts to bar them from the court, to the divergent opinions regarding God and evolution on the defense. In so doing he sheds light on the complexities of the case and the issues it raised: the validity of creationism and higher criticism of the bible; the rights of the tax-paying majority and the provenance of experts; the role of education and the moral and intellectual obligations of the state.

Scopes’s defense team wanted to show the law’s absurdity by arguing that there was no conflict between science and religion, properly understood. The problem with their logic, however, was that to Bryan, Butler, Peay, and scores of other, nameless, Americans, there was a conflict. Larson clearly shows that this conflict was real and rooted historically, but he does not sufficiently elaborate the social effects of evolutionary theory, and so we are hampered from fully grasping the context in which Bryan and Darrow argued their cases.

In the introduction to Social Darwinism in American Thought, Richard Hofstadter claimed that Darwinism had a greater impact on ways of thinking and being than any other scientific theory. I would like to have seen more on how Darwin’s theories caused a revolution in intellectual life and spawned countless social and political theories concerning women, sexuality, race, reform, capitalism, and the role of government that affected people in ways beyond the sphere of religion. Bryan worried that teaching evolution would not only destroy faith in God but would also divert attention from spiritually and socially useful pursuits and that “its deterministic view of life undermined efforts to reform society” (198). In short, Bryan failed to distinguish between the science and its social effects. And unless we understand this we cannot fully comprehend the meaning of the trial.

Larson draws on the work of previous historians of the trial, particularly Ray Ginger and Lawrence Levine, to good effect, without getting bogged down in historiographical disputes. While for an academic audience this approach may be a bit frustrating, this is clearly an important book. Larson shows that the Scopes trial is still relevant, perhaps more now than ever. Summer for the Gods is accessible to a wide audience and a must read for scholars interested in the trial and its multiple resonances.




By Edward J. Larson