Aftereffects Of The Scopes Trial

Although antievolution forces prevailed during the Scopes trial, the aftereffects of the trial of the century were not as clear cut. Antievolution laws continued to be submitted, but few passed. Mississippi and Arkansas passed antievolution bills in 1926, but in 1927 bills were defeated in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, West Virginia, Delaware, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, Minnesota, and California (Holmes 1927). The Supreme Court eventually would have the opportunity to rule on the constitutionality of antievolution laws—but not until the 1960s.

After the Scopes trial, antievolutionism became associated in the popular imagination with conservative religious views—and with the most negative stereotypes of such views. Antievolutionists and fundamentalists in general were portrayed as foolish, unthinking, religious zealots. Particularly effective in contributing to this stereotype were the Dayton dispatches of the acerbic reporter for the Baltimore Sun, H. L. Mencken, but accounts written in the 1930s and afterward also reinforced the view that antievolutionism was a campaign of backward (or at best premodern), uneducated religious fanatics. Although many leaders of the pre-Scopes antievolution movement were from Northern states, after the Scopes trial, antievolutionism became more regionalized, retaining momentum in the South and rural areas of the country, where fundamentalism remained strong. Where fundamentalists held political power, school boards imposed regulations to restrict the teaching of evolution. But the demographics of fundamentalism were changing, as it moved from the cities of its origin to the rural South—where it largely disappeared from the view of the mainstream (East Coast, urban) press (Marsden 1980: 184).

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were inspired by the issues raised in the Scopes trial when writing their 1955 Broadway play Inherit the Wind. This play and the movies based on it have strongly shaped public images of the Scopes trial and contributed to the negative public image of fundamentalists. Although the authors explicitly distanced themselves from the Scopes trial in the introduction of the play ("It is not 1925. The stage directions set the time as 'Not too long ago.' It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow") and argued that their motivation for writing the play was to consider issues of free speech, the closeness of the story line in Inherit the Wind to the events of the Scopes trial was obvious. The play featured a young teacher tried and imprisoned for teaching evolution and thereby violating an antievolution law. Two prominent political figures—one a fundamentalist and one a freethinker— lined up on the prosecution and defense sides, respectively. Issues of fundamentalism and modernism (science) were constantly present. The play even included an H. L. Mencken-like cynical reporter with an acid tongue. The circus atmosphere of the trial in the play certainly paralleled that of the actual trial. The play's strong characters and memorable writing have made it a classic, often read and performed in high schools as a vehicle for discussing issues of free speech and the role in society of minority and majority views.

Of course there were major differences between the Scopes trial and Inherit the Wind; the goal of the playwrights was to present a dramatic narrative rather than a historical account. Modern antievolutionists particularly object to the treatment of the character based on Bryan, who is bombastic and a caricature of a religious bigot. Viewed as history, Inherit the Wind is clearly inaccurate: although the Scopes-like character in the play goes to jail, Scopes himself was never imprisoned, and a fundamentalist minister who rails against evolution and science—and who is the father of the young teacher's girlfriend—did not have a Scopes trial counterpart but was added for plot reasons. Inherit the Wind was intended, according to its authors, as a metaphor for 1950s McCarthyist politics, which threatened free speech and freedom of conscience.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the picture painted by the play and movies and the actual trial was the false image presented in the fictionalized account that "the light of reason had banished religious obscurantism" (Larson 1997: 246). Neither fundamentalism nor the antievolutionist campaign disappeared after 1925, though the latter abated somewhat. This was primarily because antievolutionism became largely unnecessary: evolution remained effectively absent from science instruction until the 1960s.

Scopes lost; the antievolution laws remained on the books, and even increased in number. In the South, states and local school districts restricted the teaching of evolution, and teachers and parents who chose textbooks preferred ones that slighted evolution. The economic pressures were effective: textbook publishers knew they had to remove, downplay, or qualify evolution if they wanted sales, and they did. Books tailored for the Southern markets were of course sold elsewhere, and evolution disappeared from textbooks all over the nation (Grabiner and Miller 1974). Because of the influence textbooks have on curricula, with evolution absent from the textbooks, it quickly disappeared from the classroom. By 1930, only five years after the Scopes trial, an estimated 70 percent of American classrooms omitted evolution (Larson 2003: 85), and the amount diminished even further thereafter. Its return sparked the next chapter in American antievolutionism, as creationists lashed back at the reintroduction of evolution in American schools.

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