An Insensitive Word

It all started with an insensitive comment from a supposed Christian. Let me tell you how the famous Scopes Trial, better known by de Camp’s title, The Great Monkey Trial, came to the quiet community of Dayton, Tennessee.(1) Most people know of this famous trial today and its memory lives on through the movie Inherit the Wind (1960) starring Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly.

In 1925, the opponents squared off. At the prosecuting table sat the folksy William Jenning Bryan, a three-time presidential loser, whom the Christian Fundamentalists enlisted to defend the cause of Christianity against the onslaught of evolutionary theory. At the table of the defendant, waited Clarence Darrow, famous trial lawyer and skeptic, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union. Finally, to complete the cast of characters, the irreligious H. L. Mencken, reporter for the Baltimore Sun, who, in this event, gave the first nationally radio broadcasted trial. Mencken had little love for religious people and once said, “Heave an egg out of a Pullman [train car] window and you will hit a fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today.”(2)

Near the end of the fight, Bryan made his crucial error: he accepted Darrow’s challenge to take the stand as an expert on the Bible. Within minutes the defense attorney had him, and, for many, Christianity was to sustain a debilitating loss.

The following dialogue actually occurred at this trial:

DARROW: When was that flood?
BRYAN: I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed as suggested this morning …

DARROW: What do you think that the Bible itself says? Don’t you know how it was arrived at?
BRYAN: I never made a calculation.
DARROW: A calculation from what?
BRYAN: I could not say.
DARROW: From the generations of man?
BRYAN: I would not want to say that.
DARROW: What do you think?
BRYAN: I do not think about things I don’t think about.
DARROW: Do you think about things you do think about?
BRYAN: Well, sometimes.(3)

Before Bryan left Dayton, Tennessee, he died. The symbolism of Christianity’s defeat was complete. However, what set this course of events in motion? How did this famous court case get started. Surprisingly, it was not John T. Scopes teaching evolution in school.

It all started when the manager for Cumberland Coal and Iron Company, George Washington Rappleyea, though a native New Yorker and except for Scopes the only evolutionist in town, attended the funeral after a worker lost his six-year-old son in a car-train accident. Here he heard the child’s mother moan, “Oh, if I only knew he was with Jesus! If I only knew that!” To this, Rappleyea heard the preacher reply, “I’ll not lie to you even to bring you peace. The ways of the Lord are His. You know and everybody here knows that this boy had never been baptized. He never confessed Christ. There can be no doubt but that at this moment, he is in the flames of Hell.”

Rappleyea—though not generally hostile towards religion, became incensed at the minister’s coldness—brought the ACLU’s offer to underwrite a test case against Tennessee’s anti-evolution law to the attention of other local people.

Now as Paul Harvey would say, you have the rest of the story.


1 L. Sprague de Camp, The Great Monkey Trial (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968).
2 Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, Mencken: The American Iconoclast (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 293.
3 The Most Famous Court Trial: State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes: Complete Stenographic Report (New York, 1971 [Cincinnati, 1925), 287, as cited in George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evagelicalism, 1870-1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 187.


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