A 1925 trial officially known as the State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, but more commonly called the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, is widely recognized for its influence on issues related to teaching human evolution in the nation’s schools. But the Scopes trial's origins are more closely linked to a publicity campaign for a small town with a dying economy, and John Scopes – the teacher on trial – never directly taught evolution, as noted in Edward J. Larson’s 1997 book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.
As told in the book, George Rappleyea, manager of a coal mine
near Dayton, Tennessee, approached Frank Robinson, chair of the local school
board, after learning that the American Civil Liberties Union would defend
teachers who taught human evolution in violation of a new Tennessee law
prohibiting it – a law that the ACLU deemed unconstitutional. Rappleyea was sympathetic to the ACLU’s position.
To support his beliefs, he convinced the school official, who also owned the
local drug store, that a trial on this issue would bring national attention –
and thereby new economic possibilities – to Dayton. They needed a willing,
cooperative teacher to be brought up on charges of violating the law, however,
and thought of 24-year-old John Scopes.
Scopes, who taught general science (not
biology), coached football, and was unmarried teacher who had nothing to lose
compared to the regular biology teacher, a family man and school administrator.
Scopes was summoned to the drugstore, later writing this (as relayed in Larson’s
book) about the meeting: “Robinson
offered me a chair and the boy who worked as a soda jerk brought me a fountain
drink. ‘John, we’ve been arguing,’ said Rappleyea, ‘and I said that nobody could
teach biology without teaching evolution.’ ‘That’s right,’ I said, not sure
what he was leading up to.” Then, a copy of the state-approved biology text
was brought out. “‘You have been teaching
‘em this book?’ Rappleyea said. ‘Yes,’ I said. I explained that I had got the
book out of storage and had used it for review purposes while filling in for
the principal during his illness. He was the regular biology teacher,” Scopes
recalled. “’Then you’ve been violating the law,’ Robinson said.” Robinson
then told Scopes about the ACLU offer, and Scopes recalled what came next. “’John, would you be willing to stand for a
test case?’ Robinson said. ‘Would you be willing to let your name be used?’ I
realized that the best time to scotch the snake is when it starts to wiggle.
The snake had already been wiggling a good long time.”
After a bit of
discussion, Scopes agreed to the proposition. But he was never arrested, and in
fact went back to a tennis game after the meeting in the drug store. Rappleyea and Robinson quickly contacted the
ACLU and newspapers in Nashville and Chattanooga with the news. (Stay in touch for Part 2 of this fascinating story!)