Setting The Record Straight

Author’s Note: This is the fourth and last post in a short series on Fundamentalism.

John 8.31-32

In 1925, John Thomas Scope, a biology teacher, was brought to trial in Dayton, Tennessee, for teaching evolution in his classroom. The trial was to determine whether Scope had broken the state law which prohibits the teaching of evolution in any public classroom. But for many others it became a question of the authority of the Bible, and by extension, the authority of the church.

The trial was not a defeat for the fundamentalists as it is portrayed today. The law was upheld. However, this proved to be a small victory for the fundamentalists, because, in the national media, the town of Dayton was portrayed as backwoods, and “fundamentalism as a know-nothing absurdity, and the trial itself as part carnival and part farce.”[1] Plus the liberals maintained their control of “denominational seminaries and colleges, most publishing boards, most prestigious pulpits, and most endowed funds.”[2]

In a survey of thirteen textbooks written between 1986 through 1993, it is found that eleven of the textbooks devote major space to the 1925 Scopes trial. Almost all of the textbooks surveyed portrayed fundamentalism “as either unscientific or anti-intellectual in nature.”[3] The survey also found that the views of fundamentalism as “rural-urban” and “anti-intellectual” are the two top views held in American history textbooks.

Views such as, “fundamentalists were anti-intellectuals whose lack of education and stubborn resistance to modernity merit their treatment as ‘extremists’ out of touch with mainstream America”[4] dominate American history textbooks. Part of the reason for this is because of the treatment that the famous Scopes trial received by the media some thirty years after the trial that put evolution against the authority of the Bible.

In 1955 there was a play which later became a film in 1960 called Inherit the Wind. This film was the most influential media production that shaped popular conception of the Scopes trial.

In this film, the town of Dayton was portrayed as “half circus, half revival meeting.”[5] A scene in the film showed the townspeople marching through the city en-route to the jail where Mr. Scopes was being held singing a song set to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with lyrics that said that they were going to hang Mr. Scopes. The truth is that Mr. Scopes was never held in jail and the townspeople offered their homes to visitors who came to town for the trial because all of the hotels were full; a generous gesture far removed from the scene portrayed by the film.

Second, the film portrayed the prosecuting lawyer first as a buffoon and then as a wicked manipulator. In the film he is shown making an argument wherein he “claims that sex is the original sin and that the world was created in October 4000 B.C.”[6] After being defeated in court, he is ignored by the people in the courtroom as he attempts to give a summation speech. In the play he is shown as a defeated idiot and he is being rocked by his wife while she is cooing and holding his head to her breasts. The truth is that the real prosecuting attorney was not feeling defeated and he was ramping up his efforts in a crusade to defeat evolution in future court room battles when he died of a stroke six days after the trial ended.

Third, the defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, was portrayed as a “genial, wise, and likeable modernist” and the “hero of open-mindedness, a tolerant liberal Christian who values freedom and free will above all else.”[7] The truth is that he was none of these things.

He was a “behavioral determinist who did not believe in free will.”[8] He came to Dayton to defeat religion and not defend freedom at all. The ACLU lawyers tried to keep him out of the courtroom, because he was a liability and they wanted to focus on “academic freedom and freedom of speech” more than anything else.[9]

Well known historian, Ronald Numbers, did a study of the news coverage during the trial and found that not one metropolitan newspaper, out of five studied, portrayed the trial as a defeat for the fundamentalists.[10] However, today fundamentalists are portrayed as “backwoods” and “anti-intellectual,” mostly because of the false portrayal of fundamentalism in modern textbooks and a film made thirty years after the trial took place.



[1] Edwin S. Gaustad and Leigh E. Schmidt, The Religious History of America, rev. ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2004), 298.

[2] Ibid., 298.

[3] John Fea. “An Analysis of the Treatment of American Fundamentalism in United States History Survey Texts.”

The History Teacher. 28 (1995): 207.

[4] Ibid., 208.

[5] Barry Hankins. “The (Worst) Year Of The Evangelical: 1926 And The Demise Of American Fundamentalism.” Fides et Historia 43 (Winter 2011): 4.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Ibid., 5.

[10] Ibid., 5.

About Peter van Brussel

Peter is the Director of For His Glory Prison Ministry. Peter holds a BA in Pastoral Studies from Southwestern College, a MA in Theological Studies, and a M.Div. from Liberty University. Peter is married to Niki, and has two children. He has been saved by grace and seeks to share the Gospel with those who have been forgotten.
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