Summer for the Gods

How conservative Christians coalesced against the teaching of Darwin

BY: Edward J. Larson


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In 1921, Bryan began speaking widely about the dangers of Darwinian ideas, formulating the arguments later used at the Scopes trial. This thrust was marked by a new speech, "The Menace of Darwinism," which Bryan repeatedly delivered during the remaining years of his life. "To destroy the faith of Christians and lay the foundations for the bloodiest war in history would seem enough to condemn Darwinism," Bryan now thundered, drawing heavily on evidence from Leuba, Kellogg, and Kidd.

In addition to stressing the dangers of Darwinism, both speeches denounced the theory as unscientific and unconvincing. He entertained audiences with exaggerated accounts of seemingly far-fetched evolutionary explanations for human organs--such as the eye, which supposedly began as a light-sensitive freckle. "The increased heat irritated the skin--so the evolutionists guess, and a nerve came there and out of the nerve came the eye! Can you beat it?" Bryan asked rhetorically. "Is it not easier to believe in a God who can make an eye?" As historian Ronald Numbers noted, "Bryan was far from alone in balking at the evolutionary origin of the eye. Christian apologists had long regarded the intricate design of the eye as 'a cure for atheism,' and Darwin himself had readily conceded his vulnerability on this point."

This sort of thinking inclined Bryan to seek a legislative judgment on evolutionary teaching and to accept a trial by jury to enforce the law. Bryan's mode of operation, and his optimistic temperament, required offering ready political solutions to outstanding social problems. "The Menace of Darwinism" speech, however, included only a vague call for "real neutrality" on religious issues in public schools.

This situation changed almost overnight. In 1921, Kentucky's Baptist State Board of Missions passed a resolution calling for a state law against evolutionary teaching in the public schools. Bryan immediately adopted the idea. "The movement will sweep the country, and we will drive Darwinism from our schools," he wrote to the resolution's sponsor. Within the month he was on the spot in Lexington, addressing a joint session of the Kentucky legislature on the proposal. Bryan then spent the next month touring the state in support of such legislation, which lost by a single vote in the state House of Representatives.

The campaign for restrictive legislation quickly spread. Fundamentalist leader John Roach Straton began advocating anti-evolution legislation for his home state of New York in February of 1922. Frank Norris, pastor of the largest church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, soon took up the cause in Texas. Evangelist T.T. Martin carried the message throughout the South. By fall, William Bell Riley was offering to debate evolutionists on the issue as he traveled around the nation. "The whole country is seething on the evolution question," he reported to Bryan. Three years later, these same four ministers became the most prominent church figures to support the prosecution of John Scopes.

Bryan's arguments propelled the crusade to outlaw evolutionary teaching and shaped the prosecution's case in Dayton. Bryan justified anti-evolution lawmaking on majoritarian grounds. "Teachers in public schools must teach what the taxpayers desire taught," the Commoner admonished the West Virginia legislature in 1923. "The hand that writes the pay check rules the school." Such reasoning went to the core of Bryan's populist political philosophy: through his campaign for world peace, when he proposed holding a national referendum before the country could go to war; to his anti-evolution crusade.

Individual rights lost out under this political philosophy. "If it is contended that an instructor has a right to teach anything he likes, I reply that the parents who pay the salary have a right to decide what shall be taught," Bryan maintained. He gave a similarly facile response to charges that anti-evolution laws infringed on the rights of non-fundamentalist parents and students. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews shared a creationist viewpoint, Bryan believed, and he sought to enlist all of them against evolutionary theory. "We do not ask that teachers paid by taxpayers shall teach the Christian religion to students," Bryan told West Virginia lawmakers, "but we do insist that they shall not, under the guise of either science or philosophy, teach evolution as a fact."

Concern about the social and religious implications of Darwinism had been a secondary issue within Christianity for two generations and, although the rise of fundamentalism revived those concerns for some, it took Bryan to transform them into a major political issue. Even his wife--who was Bryan's closest confidant but did not share his enthusiasm on this issue--could not understand the response. "Just why the interest grew, just how he was able to put fresh interest into a question which was popular twenty-five years ago, I do not know," she wrote in 1925.

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