Review of Jeffrey Moran's "The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents"


Bernard von Bothmer is an adjunct professor of history at the University of San Francisco and Dominican University of California. He is the author of "Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush" (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

The Scopes "Monkey" Trial has a great deal to tell us today, as so many of the cultural and political tensions surrounding the Scopes Trial are still clearly very much with us. The fault lines regarding a whole host of issues–be it the past presidential election(s), climate change, or immigration–are quite similar to those during the Scopes Trial over 90 years ago, such as the rural versus urban divide, between churchgoers versus non-churchgoers, and anger at so-called "elites" and "experts" as well as anger at Washington, DC. It is thus a topic in need of re-examination, in light of our current national mood.


One place to turn to is Professor Jeffrey P. Moran's outstanding text, The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents. This book, part of the delightful Bedford Series in History and Culture series, succinctly elucidates the key issues surrounding the trial. Moran was faced with a difficult task, as it was indeed a challenge to narrow and categorize the enormous amount of ink that has been spilled on commentary on the trial. But he succeeds magnificently in giving the reader the essential components of what has been come to be known as "The Trial of the Century."

Moran, a Professor of History at the University of Kansas, is also the author of American Genesis: The Antievolution Controversy from the Scopes Trial to Creation Science (Oxford, 2012), and Teaching Sex: The Shaping of Adolescence in the Twentieth Century (Harvard University Press, 2000). He is well steeped in his subject matter, and his curiosity regarding the topic shines through in each of the book's three sections.


"The only real victors in the Scopes antievolution trial of 1925 were the monkeys" (1), Moran writes at the start of the book. Part One, the book's Introduction, is an overview of the background surrounding the case, looking at the history of evolution before the 1920s, the subject of "modernity," and a section on the Butler Bill, Tennessee's 1925 law that prohibited the teaching of Evolution. There are also elegant profiles of William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow and John Scopes. Among the highlights of Moran's first section is his analysis of regionalism in the conflict; academic freedom; the issue or race and evolution; gender and the trial; as well as nine terrific photographs from the period.

Moran eloquently describes the complexity of the arguments for both sides. For example, each presented evidence and reasoning that could be used either in favor or against a push for equal rights for African-Americans.

In sum, according to Moran, "The case erupted out of tectonic shifts in American culture" during the 1920s" (2). He summarizes the case by writing that "Culture, urbanism, regionalism, religion–all of these issues became entangled in the struggle over evolution at Dayton, Tennessee" (3).

Among the key topics raised in the Introduction that might be unfamiliar to some, even those with a passing knowledge of the details of the case, is the role that hopes for tourism due to the publicity played in moving the case forward, as well as the fact that, for the defense, "a mere acquittal would have been disastrous. The ACLU needed Scopes to lose in order to be able to appeal the case to a higher court. Only there, at the level of the state or federal Supreme Court, could the ACLU actually get the Butler law overturned" (33).

Moran also emphasizes that "the antievolution crusade would survive the battle of Dayton by many decades, and along the way would prove more successful and more adaptable than the majority of historians suspected" (50), noting that "the forces that gave birth to the antievolution reaction–biblical modernism, a materialistic culture, a seeming decline in public morality–did not simply disappear after 1925 " (55).

Geography was central to the movement. "Although fundamentalism originated with conservative theologians in the American North, only in the South did it truly flourish. Isolation and poverty fed it," (57) he notes.

The trial also shed light on tensions within education policy. Should not a public school's teachings reflect the will of the community, in this case one that overwhelmingly supported creationism?

And hiding in the background, though not brought up in the trial itself, was the issue of race, as this was of course an era that saw the Harlem Renaissance, along with the rise of the modern Ku Klux Klan. But the interplay between the debate over teaching evolution and the movement in favor of progress for African Americans revealed several gray areas. If all races were linked by a common ancestor, then there were no differences among races, right? But if we evolved, could it not also be said that some races evolved differently than others, and that there were in fact racial hierarchies?

Moran is especially astute in noting the intriguing role that gender played in the conflict. "Women as activists were affiliated almost solely with the antievolutionary movement," he writes, observing that "70 percent of antievolutionists were women" (70). The effort to teach Darwin was viewed as a threat to how they wished to raise their own children. "As with prohibition," Moran argues, "antievolutionism was a female-dominated reform movement that invoked a mother's duty to protect her children and make the state an extension of maternal moral influence" (71).


In Part Two, Moran proceeds to the trial itself. Key sections include the Butler Law and its implications; jury selection; commentary on the trial, including that from H.L. Mencken; the indictment itself; Clarence Darrow's defense of religious liberty; the extensive debate over the use of admitting expert testimony; and the riveting performance of William Jennings Bryan (who had not spoken during the first four days of the trial) during the fifth day of the trial.

The highlight of the seventh day is Darrow's intensive questioning of Bryan. Among the topics debated include: Did a whale actually swallow Jonah? Did Joshua actually command the sun to stand still? Did a great flood wipe out civilization? Is the book of Genesis literally true?

On the eighth and final day of the trial, June 21, 1925, the court struck Bryan's testimony, and of course, Scopes is found guilty. Bryan and Darrow give their final remarks, and the section concludes with acerbic commentary from Mencken.


Part Three holds special interest to teachers eager to include primary source documents in their lesson plans. The text has terrific seven newspaper cartoons from the Scopes Trial. This is followed by a very insightful section looking at the topic of race and the trial, with commentary from the African-American newspaper the Chicago Defender; from W.E.B. Du Bois; and sections on the notion of racial hierarchy and on eugenics.

The subject of educational freedom was also an essential part of the Scopes Trial. Bryan's essay "Who Shall Control our Schools" dovetails with his passion for democracy. Moran also includes commentary from the American Civil Liberties Union; the American Federation of Teachers; and the American Association of University Professors.

Moran's text is also quite strong in examining how issues of gender interplayed with the trial, looking at such topics as the Scopes Trial and the "New Woman;" the perception of the "moral duty" of women at the time; and Flappers. The book concludes with sections on Religious Alternatives in the 1920s and a group of documents under the heading "An Invasion of 'Outsiders.'"


For the past five presidential elections, ever since George W. Bush narrowly defeated Al Gore in the Electoral College, our Nation's electoral map has mirrored sentiments towards the Scopes Trial had there been Gallup Polling back in 1925. In 1992 and 1996, the Clinton/Gore team picked off many southern states. But ever since then, most states that defended Scopes have voted Democratic, whereas most states where a majority would oppose the teaching of evolution have gone Republican.

The Scopes "Monkey" Trial has much to teach us about the political, cultural, social, and economic divide of our own time. Jeffrey P. Moran's The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents is a terrific place to start one's inquiry as to the origins of these divisions.

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