"I would like everyone to look around. Tonight we are doing what is not allowed in the science classrooms of this school or any other school in this county. We are comparing ideas and deeply held beliefs." Gathering steam, Wilson then couched his argument in the language of a patriot. "It is not illegal to present an opposing view. It is fully American. It is why I served this country for seventeen years in the United States Navy. I put my life on the line so that others could express their opinion."
Evolution was well established in the years leading up to the trial of John Thomas Scopes in 1925. It had become accepted among scientists, social scientists, and even many theologians. References derived from it had entered the language. By the late 19th century, even the Constitution, so often referred to as a machine in the days of Jefferson was being described as an organism, in the process of adapting and evolving, improving with age.
But the twenties was a tumultuous decade, the era which thrust America deep into the social turmoil of the twentieth century, and during this time evolution, serving as a kind of metaphor for all the confusion and turmoil that came with the new age, would become a favorite target of those who wished to hold back the onslaught of modernism.
The "Age of Invention," which played out over the forty some years leading up to 1920 had focused people on the wonders of science and technology and provided excitement about a society made by men for men. It began in 1877, when Thomas Edison created the first phonograph – a machine that could "talk." But that was only the first of a series of creative triumphs that included the telephone, the motion picture camera, the automobile, the airplane, and the radio.
It appeared that no problem was too big for science, no job too large for technology. And the fact that so much of the new science – this transformative science — was being practiced on American soil reawakened that never long forgotten feeling among Americans that their land was the new Eden, American man, the new Adam.
The social upheaval that followed these developments was dramatic, and unexpected. The automobile took people out of the small towns where they saw new sites and heard new ideas; the motion pictures and the radio gave them new and often titillating forms of entertainment; and the airplane encouraged a particularly brazen form of hubris: since the beginning of time man had dreamed of soaring like the birds and now, thanks to his own ingenuity, well, he was.
The new technologies sped up the economy and created a new consumer culture, championed by new and brasher forms of advertising, urging people to abandon their old frugal ways and buy, buy, buy. Almost overnight, Americans went from a life deeply connected to the wonders of nature and an omnipotent God to an artificial environment, throbbing with the creations of man. Looking back on it, it seems only logical that there had to be a backlash.
The divide separated Americans on many fronts: urban from rural, old line American from new immigrant, the elite centers of learning from the anti-intellectuals, and fundamentalist Christians (the term itself was coined in 1921, in a defensive posture) from "modernist" Christians, those who, in the eyes of the traditionalists had compromised their religion by finding ways to reconcile theology with the findings of science. As much for convenience as for conviction, the traditionalists seized upon evolution as the stage upon which to join battle, and to speak for them they had one of the greatest orators in American political history, William Jennings Bryan.
Author Edward Larson, whose book on the Scopes trial is the definitive work on the subject, has suggested that Bryan was responsible for more Constitutional amendments than anyone but the American founders. And in fact, the portly politician with his alpaca suits and string ties, held a combination of beliefs which, while not unusual for the time, would read like a contradiction today: at once forward looking in his enthusiasm for liberal reforms, and yet provincial in his glorification of the farm and traditional religious values.