2016-07-27
This excerpt is condensed from the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Summer for the Gods" (Basic Books), by Edward J. Larson. Larson, a historian at the University of Georgia, has in previous sections described how "religion versus Darwin," which was not a hot controversy in the United States in the decades immediately following the publication of Origin of Species, became one in the 1920s. Three forces were at work, Larson says.

One, the discoveries of ancient fossils of earlier humans, which forced men and women to contemplate the notion that not just animals but Homo sapiens descended from earlier forms. The best known, "Piltdown man," turned out to be a forgery, but several genuine proto-human fossils were uncovered as well. Two, the new social phenomenon of universal, public-financed high school education, which put the curriculum of the public school into play as a subject of general debate. The third factor came from the left. Establishment liberalism, which was aghast when the liberal president Woodward Wilson favored restrictions against free speech by those who opposed World War I, began to center much of its political and legal strategy on winning First Amendment cases. When bans against the teaching of evolution were proposed, this seemed to the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union an ideal ground on which to battle for free speech.

In this chapter, Larson describes how conservative Christians coalesced against the teaching of Darwin, with William Jennings Bryan rising as their champion.

***

Fossil discoveries of the 1920s provided persuasive new evidence for human evolution and, as such, provoked a response from anti-evolutionists. Paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn threw down the gauntlet in his reply to William Jennings Bryan's 1922 plea in The New York Times for restrictions on evolutionary teaching. Bryan had argued that "neither Darwin nor his supporters have been able to find a fact in the universe to support their hypothesis," prompting Osborn to cite "the Piltdown man" and other recent hominid fossil finds. "All this evidence is today within reach of every schoolboy," Osborn wrote. "It will, we are convinced, satisfactorily answer in the negative [Bryan's] question, 'Is it not more rational to believe in the creation of man by separate act of God than to believe in evolution without a particle of evidence?'" Of course, the fact that all this evidence was within the reach of every public school student constituted the nub of Bryan's concern, and Osborn further baited anti-evolutionists by stressing how fossil evidence undermined belief in the special creation of humans.

During the years leading up to the Scopes trial, anti-evolutionists responded to the new fossil evidence in various ways. Fundamentalist leader and Scopes trial consultant John Roach Straton, for example, denounced "Piltdown man" as a fraud; ultimately, in 1950, the Piltdown fossil would be exposed as fake. Adventist science educator George McCready Price, who devised a creationist theory of geologic history that Bryan cited at trial, challenged the antiquity and evolutionary order given to the fossilized humanoids. Placing their age at only a few thousand years, rather than the hundreds of thousands of years reckoned by Osborn, Price wrote in 1924, "Such specimens as those from Heidelberg, Neanderthal, and Piltdown may be regarded as degenerate offshoots which had separated from the main stock both ethnically and geographically." Bryan simply ridiculed paleontologists. "The evolutionists have attempted to prove by circumstantial evidence (resemblances) that man is descended from the brute," he declared in a 1923 address to the West Virginia state legislature. "If they find a stray tooth in a gravel pit, they hold a conclave and fashion a creature such as they suppose the possessor of the tooth to have been, and then they shout derisively at Moses." Responding in kind, Bryan then shouted derisively at people like Osborn: "Men who would not cross the street to save a soul have traveled across the world in search of skeletons."

Certainly some conservative Christians rejected Darwinism all along, but when doing so even Bryan earlier had added, "I do not mean to find fault with you if you want to accept the theory." Some articles in the fundamentalist series The Fundamentals--published from 1905 to 1915, these pamphlets were the founding documents of 20th century American religious conservatism--criticized the theory of evolution, but others accepted it. Indeed, the Baptist leader who founded that series and later helped launch the fundamentalist movement, A.C. Dixon, once expressed his willingness to accept natural selection theory "if proved," while a subsequent series editor, R.A. Torrey, persistently maintained that a Christian could "believe thoroughly in the absolute infallibility of the Bible and still be an evolutionist of a certain type." But such tolerance largely disappeared during and after the First World War, as the fundamentalist movement coalesced out of various different conservative Christian traditions.

Conservative Christians drew together across denominational lines to fight for the so-called "fundamentals" of their traditional faith against the perceived heresy of modernism, and in doing so gave birth to the fundamentalist movement and anti-evolution crusade. Certainly modernism had made significant inroads within divinity schools and among the clergy of mainline Protestant denominations in the North and West, and fundamentalism represented a legitimate theological effort to counter these advances. Biblical higher criticism and an evolutionary world view, as the twin pillars of this opposing creed, stood as the logical targets of this conservative counter-attack. Without more, however, a purely theological effort rarely incites a mass movement--at least in pluralistic America. Much more stirred up fundamentalism--and turned its fury against evolutionary teaching in the public schools.

The First World War played a pivotal role. American intervention in that gruesome conflict, as part of a progressive effort to defeat German militarism and make the world safe for democracy, was supported by many of the modernists who revered the nation's wartime leader, Woodrow Wilson, who was himself a second-generation modernist academic. As a passionate champion of peace, William Jennings Bryan opposed this position and, in 1915, resigned his post as Wilson's Secretary of State in protest over the drift toward war. He spent the next two years criss-crossing the country campaigning against intervention.

Many leading premillennial Christians shared Bryan's open hostility toward American intervention in World War One--seeing that conflict as both a product of natural human depravity and the possible fulfillment of prophesy regarding the global catastrophes that must precede the coming of heaven on earth. With Shailer Mathews, a liberal theologian from the University of Chicago, leading the charge, some modernists took this opportunity to attack premillennialism as an otherworldly threat to national security in wartime. Premillennialists responded in kind by stressing the German roots of higher academic criticism, attributing an evolutionary "survival-of-the-fittest" mentality to German militarism, and accusing modernism of undermining traditional American faith in biblical values. "The new theology has led Germany into barbarism," the premillennialist journal Our Hope declared in a 1918 editorial, "and it will lead any nation into the same demoralization." The trauma of war stirred passions on both sides, and spurred a bitter, decade-long battle among American Christians.

Fundamentalists came to view modernism, together with its twin supports of biblical higher criticism and an evolutionary world view, as the source of much that troubled Western culture. When a horribly brutal war led to an unjust and uneasy peace, the rise of international communism, worldwide labor unrest, and an apparent breakdown of traditional values--the cultural crisis worsened for conservative Christians in the United States. "One indication that many premillennialists were shifting their emphasis--away from just evangelizing, praying, and waiting for the end time, toward more intense concern with retarding [social] degenerative trends--was the role they played in the formation of the first explicitly fundamentalist organization," one historian noted. "In the summer of 1918, under the guidance of William B. Riley, a number of leaders in the Bible school and prophetic conference movement conceived of the idea of the World's Christian Fundamentals Association [WCFA]."

In 1919, Riley welcomed some 6,000 conservative Christians to the WCFA's inaugural conference with the warning that their Protestant denominations were "rapidly coming under the leadership of the new infidelity, known as 'modernism.'" One by one, seventeen prominent ministers from across the country took the podium to denounce modernism as, in the words of one speaker, "the product of Satan's lie" and to call for a return to biblical fundamentals in church and culture.

Although these early developments laid the foundation for the anti-evolution crusade and the ensuing Scopes trial, they did not predestine it. Fundamentalism began as a response to theological developments within the Protestant church rather than to political or educational developments within American society. Even the name of the WCFA's journal, Christian Fundamentals in Schools and Churches, originally referred to support for teaching biblical fundamentals in divinity schools and churches rather than opposition to evolutionary instruction in public schools--though it neatly fit the organization's later emphasis. "When the Fundamentals movement was originally formed, it was supposed that our particular foe was the so-called 'higher criticism,'" Riley later recalled, "but in the onward going affairs, we discovered that basic to the many forms of modern infidelity is the philosophy of evolution." Riley was predisposed to make this connection, but it took the much better known William Jennings Bryan to turn the fundamentalist movement into a popular crusade against evolutionary teaching that led directly to Dayton.

Bryan was not a dispensational premillennialist: he did not agree with their view that the Bible prophesied the imminent degeneration of the world in preparation for Christ's second coming. Quite to the contrary, he thoroughly enjoyed many things of this world--particularly politics, oratory, travel, and food--and believed in the power of reform to make life better. Reform took two forms for Bryan--personal reform through individual religious faith and public reform through majoritarian governmental action. He maintained a deep faith in both throughout his life, and each contributed to his final political campaign against evolutionary teaching. "My father taught me to believe in Democracy as well as Christianity," Bryan observed late in his life.

Bryan's crusade against evolutionary teaching capped a remarkable 35-year-long career in the public eye. He entered Congress in 1890 as a 30-year-old populist Democratic politician committed to roll back the Republican tariff for the dirt farmers of his native Nebraska. His charismatic speaking ability and youthful enthusiasm quickly earned him the nickname "The Boy Orator of the Platte." Bryan's greatest speech occurred at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, where he defied his party's conservative incumbent president, Grover Cleveland, and the Eastern establishment that then dominated both political parties by demanding an alternative silver-based currency to help debtors cope with the crippling deflation caused by exclusive reliance on limited gold-backed money. A potent mixture of radical majoritarian arguments and traditional religious oratory--defiantly demanding, "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold"--the speech electrified the convention and secured the party's presidential nomination for Bryan. For many, he now became known as "The Great Commoner"; for some, "The Peerless Leader."

A narrow defeat in the ensuing bitter election did not diminish Bryan's faith in God or the people. He retained leadership of the Democratic Party and secured two subsequent presidential nominations as he fought against imperialism and militarism following the Spanish American War, and for increased public control over corporate business practices. His vocation now became speaking and writing, with majoritarian political commentary and evangelical Protestant lectures serving as his stock in trade. During the remainder of his life, the energetic Bryan gave an average of over 200 speeches each year, traveled continually throughout the country and around the world, wrote dozens of books, and edited a political newspaper with nationwide circulation. After helping Woodrow Wilson secure the White House in 1912, Bryan became Secretary of State and idealistically set about to his pet cause, negotiating a dreamed-of series of international treaties designed to avert war by requiring the arbitration of disputes between nations. This became more of a religious mission than a political task for Bryan, who called on America to "exercise Christian forbearance" in the face of increasing German aggression and vowed, "There will be no war while I am Secretary of State." Ultimately he had to resign from office to keep this promise.

Left without a formal governmental post but with an expanded sense of mission, Bryan resumed his efforts as an itinerant speaker and writer on political and religious topics. Although his campaign for peace failed, he helped to secure ratification of four constitutional amendments designed to promote a more democratic or righteous society: the direct election of senators, a progressive federal income tax, prohibition, and female suffrage. Out of office, he found two new campaign targets--the conservative Republican administrations in Washington, and evolutionary teaching in public schools. Bryan remained a progressive even as he crusaded against evolutionary teaching. "In William Jennings Bryan, reform and reaction lived happily, if somewhat incongruously, side by side," biographer Lawrence W. Levine concluded.

Bryan's anti-evolutionism was compatible with his progressive politics because both supported reform, appealed to majoritarianism, and sprang from his Christian convictions. From this earliest point, he described Darwinism as "dangerous" for both religious and social reasons. "I object to the Darwinian theory," Bryan said in 1904 with respect to the religious implications of a purely naturalistic explanation for human development, "because I fear we shall lose the consciousness of God's presence in our daily life, if we must accept the theory that through all the ages no spiritual force has touched the life of man and shaped the destiny of nations." Turning to the social consequences of the theory, Bryan added, "But there is another objection. The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate--the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak." Bryan's standard stump speech on Darwin allowed for an extended geologic history, and even for limited theistic evolution in which God "stands back of" natural selection. But Bryan dug in his heels regarding the supernatural creation of humans, and described it as "one of the test questions with the Christian." Though Bryan regularly delivered this speech on the Chautauqua circuit during the early years of the century, he said little else against Darwinism until the twenties, when he began blaming "Social Darwinism" for the First World War.

As a devout believer in peace, Bryan could scarcely understand how supposedly Christian nations could engage in such a brutal war until two scholarly books attributed it to misguided Darwinian thinking. In Headquarters Nights, renowned Stanford University biologist Vernon Kellogg, who went to Europe as a peace worker, recounted his conversations with German military leaders. "Natural selection based on violent and fatal competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals," he reported, and served as their justification "why, for the good of the world, there should be this war." Whereas Kellogg used this evidence to promote his own non-Darwinian view of evolutionary development through mutual aid, Bryan saw it as a reason to suppress Darwinian teaching. Philosopher Benjamin Kidd's The Science of Power further explored the link between German militarism and Darwinian thinking by examining Darwin's influence on the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Bryan regularly referred to both books when speaking and writing against evolutionary teaching. For example, Bryan warned in one of his popular books, "Nietzsche carried Darwinism to its logical conclusion and denied the existence of Good, denounced Christianity as the doctrine of the degenerate, and democracy as the refuge of the weakling; he overthrew all standards of morality and eulogized war as necessary to man's development."

A third book had an even greater impact on Bryan, and touched a nerve. In 1916, Bryn Mawr University psychologist James H. Leuba published an extensive survey of religious belief among college students and professors. "The deepest impression left by these records," Leuba concluded, "is that...Christianity, as a system of belief, has utterly broken down." Among students, Leuba reported, "the proportion of disbelievers in immortality increases considerably from the freshman to the senior year in college." Among scientists, he found disbelief higher among biologists than physicists, and higher among scientists of greater than lesser distinction--such that "the smallest percentage of believers is found among the greatest biologists; they count only 16.9 percent of believers in God." Leuba did not identify evolutionary teaching as the cause for this rising tide of disbelief among educated Americans, but Bryan did.

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.

Bryan wanted more than a debate, however. He wanted political reform, and this took time. Most states then had part-time legislatures, which only met in general session during the first few months of odd-numbered years. When the Kentucky anti-evolution bill died in 1922, opponents of evolutionary teaching had to wait until 1923 for their next shot. The legislatures of six different southern and border states actively considered anti-evolution proposals during the spring of 1923, but only two minor measures passed. Oklahoma added a rider to its public school textbook law providing "that no copyright shall be purchased, nor textbook adopted that teaches the 'Materialistic Conception of History' (i.e.) the Darwin Theory of Creation versus the Bible Account of Creation." The Florida legislature chimed in with a non-binding resolution declaring "that it is improper and subversive to the best interest of the people" for public school teachers "to teach as true Darwinism or any other hypothesis that links man in blood relationship to any form of lower life."

The Florida resolution was important because Bryan suggested its language, and later claimed that it reflected his views on the issue--with one significant exception. "Please note," he explained, "that the objection is not to teaching the evolutionary hypothesis as a hypothesis, but to the teaching of it as true or as a proven fact." Bryan agreed with the resolution's focus on human evolution. In his "Menace of Darwinism" speech, he conceded that "evolution in plant life and animal life up to the highest form of animal might, if there were proof of it, be admitted without raising a presumption that would compel us to give a brute origin to man. Bryan asked Florida legislators to outlaw such teaching, however, rather than simply denounce it as improper. But even on this point, the trusting Commoner added, "I do not think that there should be any penalty attached to the bill. We are not dealing with a criminal class." Legislators in Bryan's adopted state compromised by unanimously passing an advisory resolution, rather than a law, thereby avoiding any risk of a lawsuit over their action. Two years later, Tennessee legislators displayed less caution than their Florida counterparts, by opting for a criminal law on the subject, including a penalty provision, and applying it to all teaching about human evolution rather than solely to teaching it as true. This set the stage for the Scopes trial.

Anti-evolutionists began targeting Tennessee soon after the 1923 lawmaking season ended. Bills to outlaw evolutionary teaching had died in committees of the Tennessee legislature, but mostly due to inattention as Bryan and other anti-evolution leaders campaigned in other states. Now they focused on Tennessee and its neighbor, North Carolina, in anticipation of the 1925 legislative sessions. Bryan gave anti-evolution speeches in the two states; Riley toured the region, speaking widely in fundamentalist churches and calling upon the faithful to drive Darwinism from the public schools. Billy Sunday scheduled popular crusades for the two states, and encamped in Memphis during the 1925 Tennessee legislative session. T.T. Martin, Frank Norris, and John Roach Straton also appeared on several occasions. As a result of these efforts, evolutionary teaching became a hot political issue in both states during the 1924 elections, with many Democratic candidates vowing to support "Bryan and the Bible." Local defenders of evolutionary teaching tried to stem the rising tide. Nashville's nationally famous progressive cleric, James Vance, argued for a middle course between fundamentalism and modernism in his books and sermons, all the while pleading for tolerance. Nashville's afternoon newspaper, The Banner, regularly denounced anti-evolutionism and sniped at Bryan.

But by 1925, this issue had gained too much momentum in Tennessee to be easily turned aside. "Fundamentalism drew first blood in Tennessee today," a January 20, 1925, article in The Nashville Commercial-Appeal reported, "in the introduction of a bill in the Legislature by Senator [John A.] Shelton of Savannah to make it a felony to teach evolution in the public schools of the state." A day later, John W. Butler offered similar legislation in the House of Representatives. Butler was a little known Democratic farmer-legislator and Primitive Baptist lay leader. For him, public schools served to promote citizenship based on biblical concepts of morality. Driven by such reasoning, Butler proposed making it a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $500, for a public school teacher "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 animal." The House passed the bill without amendments, 71 to five.

Tennessee's modernist clerics, although outnumbered by their fundamentalist counterparts, held influential pastorates in several cities, and joined in condemning the anti-evolution bill. Indeed, one liberal preacher gave lawmakers such a tongue-lashing that, after a newspaper reprinted his comments, the House took the unusual step of passing a resolution denying them. Thirteen Nashville ministers expressed their opposition in a petition to the Senate. Chattanooga's leading liberal pastor, M.S. Freeman, began a widely publicized series of sermons by criticizing the proposed statute: "I believe that such laws emanate from a false conception that our Christian faith needs to be sheltered behind bars." Modernist leader R.T. Vann, who played a lead role in opposing anti-evolution legislation in North Carolina, delivered an address in Memphis on the need for academic freedom in science education. "Now, granted that we may and must teach science in our colleges," he argued, "this teaching must be done by scientists....Neither priest nor prophet nor apostle, nor even our Lord Himself, ever made the slightest contribution to our knowledge of natural science." The three main tactics for attacking the anti-evolution measure emerged: the defense of individual freedom, an appeal to scientific authority, and a mocking ridicule of fundamentalists and biblical literalism. They would become the three prongs of the Scopes defense.


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