John T. Scopes

On this date in 1900, famed litigant John Thomas Scopes — defendant in the Scopes “monkey trial” — was born in Paducah, Ky., to Mary (Brown) and Thomas Scopes, the fifth of their five children and the largest at birth (12 pounds). He had four sisters: May, Ethel, Irene and Lela. Thomas Scopes was born in the slums of London and was nominally Anglican when he married his Presbyterian bride.

In his 1967 memoir “Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes,” he said his father read him excerpts from several works by Charles Darwin, which he read in their entirety when he was older. He attended Sunday school and church services regularly until his senior year in high school when an argument with the minister led to him leaving the church. His favorite authors were Dickens, Twain and Jack London. Each, Scopes wrote, tried “to show that civilization is a veneer and to warn us against accepting, without question, the soothsayers of the past.”

The elder Scopes, who embraced agnosticism later in life, also embraced trade unionism and Socialist icon Eugene V. Debs while working as a railroad machinist. His son followed in his footsteps in rejecting organized religion and its moralizing, believing that people’s well-being stemmed from economic justice. Scopes wrote, “Dad didn’t believe the products of poverty and ignorance could be improved by passing laws on morals or by running the whores out of town.”

Little did Scopes imagine that the bible-toting politician William Jennings Bryan, the commencement speaker at his 1919 high school graduation in Salem, Ill., would play a key part in his life in a few years. After three years at the universities of Illinois and Kentucky, Scopes still had no major, then chose law and graduated with a B.A. He took a job in 1924 teaching public high school math, physics and chemistry and coaching football for $150 a month in Dayton, Tenn. He started attending church again to socialize despite the “Repent ye, sinner, or suffer the consequences” sermons that permeated Protestant services, Scopes later wrote.

Bryan had surfaced in the area to attack the teaching of evolution theory and, in 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act that made it a crime “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man had descended from a lower order of animals.”

When the regular biology teacher, who was also principal, declined to test the law in court because he was married with children and had family responsibilities, bachelor Scopes agreed to challenge it even though he had only filled in as biology teacher when the principal was gone. He wasn’t even sure he had covered evolution in class, having only assigned readings from a state-required textbook. Famed attorney Clarence Darrow led the defense team hired by the American Civil Liberties Union. Bryan agreed to represent the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association and was accepted by the state as a special prosecutor.

Journalist H.L. Mencken brought the case to the nation’s attention by labeling it the “monkey trial.” He reported: “The rustic judge, a candidate for re-election, has postured the yokels like a clown in a ten-cent side show, and almost every word he has uttered has been an undisguised appeal to their prejudices and superstitions.” The circus-like atmosphere in sweltering Dayton evoked worldwide interest, with 22 Western Union operators transmitting copy from a nearby grocery store. The all-male jury had six Baptists, four Methodists, one Disciple of Christ member and one man who didn’t belong to a church.

Scopes had been arrested on May 5. The trial opened on July 10. “Center of the Storm” covers the arguments in great, informative and often hilarious detail. On July 21, the jury brought in a guilty verdict after deliberating nine minutes. The judge imposed a fine of $100. Scopes told him the conviction and fine were unjust: “I will continue in the future, as I have in the past, to oppose this law in any way I can.” Bryan died in his sleep five days later.

On appeal, the state Supreme Court upheld the law’s constitutionality but overturned the conviction on the grounds that the fine was excessive because it was over the $50 maximum that could be levied by judges. Only juries could exceed that limit. The state chose not to retry the case. Not until 1967 did Tennessee repeal its anti-evolution statute.

Scopes was offered but declined to accept a new contract at the Dayton school due to the case’s notoriety. Instead he enrolled in a graduate geology program at the University of Chicago before joining Gulf Oil as a field engineer on Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo. He later worked as an oil scout out of Beeville, Texas, then in the company’s Houston office and in Shreveport, La., where he stayed until retiring in 1964.

In his memoir, Scopes wrote about courting Mildred Walker — whose father also worked in Venezuela — whom he married in 1930. “She was a Roman Catholic and to please her I agree to be married in her church. …. News stories subsequently made a point of my being a member of the Catholic Church; I emphasized to all who interviewed me that I had done this simply to please my bride.” He took Catholic instructions to prepare. “The priest in Maracaibo surely realized I couldn’t accept everything he told me I should believe. A good agnostic couldn’t give up his faith that easily. Nevertheless I politely listened to his instructions and I was baptized. I have not since been a communicant.” They remained married until Scopes’ death and had two sons, John Jr. (b. 1932) and William (b. 1936).

In a 1961 letter to journalist and film critic Harold Salemson, he wrote about touring to promote the 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind,” a fictionalized version of the case. A stage production had debuted in 1955. A Shreveport Methodist congregation had invited him to speak, and to the standing-room-only gathering Scopes said, ” ‘I am an agnostic member of a Catholic family and would like to tell a Methodist group how to think —.’ They loved it.”

According to John Scopes Jr., his aunts Lela and Ethel became the boys’ de facto parents for about three years (“pawned us off on my father’s sisters”) due to their parents’ alcoholism. (The American Biology Teacher, February 2020) Scopes died of cancer at age 70 in Shreveport, preceding his wife in death at age 85 in 1990. At Lela’s suggestion, “A Man of Courage” was engraved on Scopes’ tombstone. (D. 1970

PHOTO: Scopes in 1925; Library of Congress photo

Freedom From Religion Foundation