The twentieth century Scopes trial may have started out as a simple debate between evolutionists and creationists, but quickly escalated to a debate of historic proportions. The 1920s were times of change in the United States, from women getting the right to vote to prohibition to changes in education, such as the Butler Act, which created unease and animosity throughout the country. The Butler Act of 1925 prohibited the teaching of evolution and any other theories that deny the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible in all Universities and public schools in Tennessee. John Scopes, a high-school biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee decided to test this law. He was found guilty of teaching evolution to his high-school students despite the Butler Act, resulting in a court trial that brought strong personalities of both the North and South into one courtroom. These conflicting personalities brought to light the real reasons behind the intensity of the trial.
Fear played a big part in the trial because creationists and traditionalists truly feared the rejection of God, the Divine Creation of man and the Bible because they feared for the morality of civilization. As the times changed there was more pressure for Americans to modernize their ideas but traditionalists believed these changes caused people to stray from the word of God and the Bible and had no desire to change their God-fearing ways. Antipathy was also growing stronger between the North and the South resulting in biased opinions on many subjects. The Scopes trial controversy was more complicated than a simple debate between evolutionists and creationists because of the fear and bias generated in a time of advancement from traditionalism to modernism.
Religious Fundamentalists were outspoken in expressing their approval of the Butler Act. In 1925 many citizens wrote letters to Tennessee’s newspapers in response to the Butler Act, including Mrs. Jesse Sparks, a Tennesseean parent in favor of the act. In her letter to the editor of the Nashville Tennesseean, Mrs.Sparks expressed her fear of materialism and modernism, stating, “But in these times of materialism I am constrained to thank God deep down in my heart for…every…one whose voice is raised for the uplift of humanity and the coming of God’s kingdom.”
This quote voices her genuine fear for humanity if people choose to study science that contradicts the Bible, ultimately opening the doors to evil and bringing an end to civilization. In her opinion, order and law have always been based on the Bible so evolution can not be taught in schools because it rejects the Bible which would ultimately lead to disorder and lawlessness. Jesse Sparks was bias towards all non-fundamentalist, along with many other fundamentalists, because she feels a lot of important matters depend on the literal truth of the Bible. Mrs.Jesse Sparks’ letter showed her anti-evolutionist standpoint was due to her fear that the teaching of evolution and modernism would bring an end to civilization, a fear shared by many at this time.
While many American citizens were in favor of religion over science, others viewed the intolerance in education due to theoretical premises as a danger to the progress of civilization. The American Federation of Teachers released a statement in support of John Scopes in July of 1925, expressing their concern for Tennessee and the effects the Butler Act had on their education system. The federation believed teaching had been threatened by the legislative authority because they were afraid to trust the intelligence of the teachers. Teachers feared this intolerance in education and felt students needed uncensored truth and facts to promote scholarship. Giving students freedom in their academic lives encouraged students to form their own opinions.
Teachers had biased feelings towards those who denied students the right to the whole truth because of specific religions, because it raises an uneducated generation. Fundamentalists needed to realize that as times changed9 modernization of education is necessary, regardless of religious beliefs so students receive the full truth and become liberated people. If students are restricted from certain topics and are only taught one view on a few subjects then there will be no new or different ways of thinking, rendering education pointless. “Without freedom in the intellectual life, and without the inspiration of uncensored discovery and discussion, there could ultimately be no scholarship, no schools at all and no education.” The American Federation of Teachers expressed their fear for the future of education and how it would be constrained due to traditionalism, in contradiction of Sparks and other creationists.
Dudley Field Malone, an attorney on the defense team for the Scopes trial, argued for the importance of teaching science and religion to fully educate the students and allow them to form their own opinions and ideas. Malone made the point that the old generation owes the new generation all the facts and theories acquired by learning, studying, and observing so they have the opportunity to enhance and better the generations to come. He feels adults should allow students access to all the information, whether it be theories or science, to allow them to make their own decisions so they can change the way society is run.
He justified this by saying that the way his generation ran civilization was not a success, as they had lead the country into war, killing millions. The new generation is a chance for the old generation to compensate for their previous failures. Malone wanted to ensure the children’s minds were kept open and suggested schools, “Make the distinction between theology and science. Let them have both.” Dudley Malone’s trial speech brought the audience to an uproar because it showed that traditionalism and modernism can coexist without people having to go against their views and beliefs.
The Scopes trial started as a simple dispute between evolutionists and creationists but escalated into a huge controversy intensified by factors of fear and bias and traditionalism versus modernism. Religious Fundamentalists appreciated the Butler Act because they truly feared the effects materialism and modernism would have on civilization and how some people’s faith in God and the literal truth of the Bible would be altered. Fundamentalists were strongly opinionated and were biased towards those who agreed with evolution and felt they were opening the doors to evil.
Teachers viewed the Butler Act as a restraint on education because the legislative authority did not trust the teachers to guide students in the right direction. This restraint would lead civilization to regress rather than advance. America was torn between creationism and evolutionism and didn’t know that having access to both is exactly what the next generation would need to be successful in changing civilization for the better. The 1920s were times of significant change for America. The pressure to be modern created tension throughout the country so when the Scopes trial came to light traditionalists and modernists were able to express their built up feelings of fear and bias through the trial.