Most of us have heard the story, at least in its bare bones. In 1925 John Scopes, a high school teacher in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, was taken to court for teaching evolution in his biology class. The trial attracted national attention as well as the interest of two high-profile attorneys. Clarence Darrow, an agnostic, worked for the defence while William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist, spoke for the prosecution. Scopes lost the courtroom battle but ultimately won the war; the trial became a watershed case on the path from religious intolerance to intellectual freedom.

So goes the story of the Scopes Monkey Trial, and so it has been retold for decades in classrooms and the media. And in the summer of 2015, commemorations sprung up online and in the press to mark its 90th anniversary. Pity, then, that the public image of the trial owes more to a Hollywood film than to the historical facts of the case.

Hollywood revisionism: Inherit the Wind

The film in question, Inherit the Wind, was released in 1960. It’s based loosely on the events of the trial but with all of the names changed. To add spice to the drama, some wholly fictional characters are tossed into the mix, including the high school teacher’s love interest and her father, a mean-spirited fundamentalist preacher. The townspeople are portrayed as an ignorant mob, ready to lynch the hapless teacher together with his lawyer.

For their part, the two lawyers are each assigned their respective black and white hats. The prosecutor is a cartoonish fanatic who dies in the midst of a railing summation that everyone ignores as the trial ends. Meanwhile, the defence attorney is an enlightened progressive thinker who sagely weighs a copy of the Bible and Darwin’s book in his hands as he exits the courtroom for the final time.

Over the years, the film has been remade several times. It has informed, to a large extent, the public perception of the Scopes Trial and its role in the ongoing debate over science versus religion.

The actual Scopes Trial: a publicity stunt

The truth of the matter, as might be expected, is more complex than the fictional account.

The most surprising fact about the real Scopes Trial is that it was a publicity stunt. The state of Tennessee had passed a law known as the Butler Act, which forbade the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union sought a test case by which to challenge the law on constitutional grounds. They found willing partners in the small town of Dayton, a few prominent businessmen who wanted to put their community on the map. The group approached Scopes and persuaded him to allow himself to be arrested so that the trial could take place in their town.

Nothing was quite as it appeared. Far from being a persecuted martyr, Scopes was a willing participant in the show. He wasn’t dragged from his classroom, tossed in jail, burned in effigy or threatened by the mob, but simply charged and immediately released on bail. He wasn’t even the regular biology teacher but a football coach filling in as a supply. He read from the state-approved biology text and admitted years later that he wasn’t sure he had ever taught the evolution component in his class.

Similarly the two elderly attorneys, persuaded to participate for their name recognition, differed from their cinematic portrayal. Darrow did engage in heated exchanges with the judge, who was admittedly biased in favour of the prosecution. But the tolerant freethinker also made mocking attacks on the faith of his opponent. Bryan, as well, proved far less of a Bible expert than advertised, giving nervous, inconsistent answers to his counterpart’s questions about the Bible’s accuracy. However he did in fact die after the trial, though not ranting in the courtroom but in his sleep, five days later.

In the end, the defence actually sought to lose the trial, asking the jury for a guilty verdict so that the case might go before the Tennessee Supreme Court. The jury complied and the judge fined Scopes $100. However, the high court then reversed the ruling on a technicality and dismissed the case with the words, “Nothing is to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case.”

Despite everything, the show trial accomplished its purposes, to a point. Overnight the little town of Dayton was thrust into the public spotlight, its populace swelled by visiting celebrities, journalists and entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck.

The “Monkey Trial”: atheist spin by H.L. Mencken

The trial itself became a national cause célèbre, covered for the Baltimore Sun by the articulate atheist H.L. Mencken. It was Mencken who coined the name “Monkey Trial” and who spun the story of a town full of ignorant religious yokels persecuting a champion of scientific thought. Mencken’s biased reporting became the basis for Inherit the Wind, which in turn entrenched the tale in the public mind.

In this age of the Hollywood sequel, we might hope for an updated remake of Inherit the Wind. This time the film could focus on a university professor who questions evolution and encourages her students to explore other theories of origins. She loses her tenure and her job and gets savaged by the media for smuggling religion into a science classroom. In the end, however, she’s vindicated for teaching her students to think and for opening the doors to honest intellectual inquiry.

We might indeed hope for such a movie, but we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for it to appear.

Sources and further reading

Carter, Joe, “9 things you should know about the Scopes Monkey Trial,” Gospel Coalition, July 30, 2013.

Cutlip, Kimbra, “The Scopes Trial redefined science journalism and shaped it to what it is today,” Smithsonian, July 10, 2015.

Edwards, Phil, “The Scopes Monkey Trial was one of the greatest publicity stunts ever,” Vox, July 21, 2015.

Luckerson, Victor, “Remembering the Scopes Monkey Trial on its 90th anniversary,” Time, July 10, 2015.

Olasky, Marvin, “Happy birthday, culture war! The 90th anniversary of the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’,” World, July 18, 2015.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox