Science Versus God in Tennessee: Has Anything Really Changed?

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

Visual representation of the Scopes trial at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Photograph by Jim Stump.

As the prominent Christian journalist Marvin Olasky recently reminds us, the famous Scopes trial concluded exactly ninety years ago this week. That’s when a rookie teacher named John Scopes was charged with violating a new Tennessee law prohibiting public school teachers “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.” From the start, it was a put-up job: responding to a request from his own supervisors (who sought to put their small town of Dayton on the national map), Scopes agreed to stand trial, hoping to obtain a conviction in order to put the law itself on trial in higher courts. The proceedings took place in a very large courtroom on the second floor of the Rhea County Courthouse. That is, except for the famous final day, when the judge ordered everyone outside to accommodate the overflow crowd that wanted to hear the agnostic defense lawyer Clarence Darrow cross examine William Jennings Bryan, who was assisting the prosecution.

Journalistic bias and the Historical Record

Olasky’s analysis of the slanted journalistic coverage of the trial and the back story rings true. I’m particularly struck by a quotation he lifted from an unnamed New York paper, in support of its view (according to Olasky) that the jurors collectively possessed minimal intelligence: “All twelve are Protestant churchgoers.” Why is this so striking to this historian? A similar thing could have been said of the scientists who volunteered to be expert witnesses for the defense at trial: at least several (if not all) were also Protestant churchgoers (I do not have reliable information about every single one). Case in point: Kirtley Mather, the young Harvard geologist who testified at the trial, taught a Sunday School class at a Baptist church for more than thirty years. Mather suggested that the ACLU “include among its expert witnesses at least two or three men of science, in good standing in the community of scientists, as evidenced by their positions in academic or research institutions, who were also men of religion, as evidenced by their activities in a church belonging to one of the major denominations.” They took his suggestion, but apparently they got a pass from the press on this.

Writers for the elite Eastern newspapers did indeed treat Bryan, other conservative Christians, and the town of Dayton itself with open contempt. The Chief Offender was H. L. Mencken, an arch-cynic whose caustic columns for the Baltimore Sun influenced opinion leaders probably more than any other journalist. As far as I can tell, the only Fundamentalist for whom he had any respect was the learned J. Gresham Machen, a fellow opponent of Prohibition. He compared Machen very favorably to the grandstanding Bryan in an obituary that shows an almost ungrudging admiration for him—and, at the same time, gives the back of his hand to Machen’s religious opponents, the “Modernist” Christians who had torn the guts out of Christian orthodoxy in the name of science.

Unfortunately for the truth, as Olasky emphasizes, Bryan actually won at Dayton—contrary to what most reporters wanted their readers to believe. Yes, Scopes was convicted, as Bryan wanted, but that’s not what I mean. Darrow and Scopes both wanted a conviction, too, or the law couldn’t be appealed. Yes, Bryan actually did a creditable job of defending his views of the Bible on the witness stand (as Olasky says), but that’s not what I mean, either. Bryan won because of what happened afterwards, not in Dayton and not in Baltimore, but in the offices of the publishers of biology textbooks all over the nation: they decided to remove evolution from center stage in their books, and they did so for more than three decades. Not until the Cold War jump-started Congressional support to renew science education did evolution make a comeback, beginning with the books published by the Biological Sciences Study Committee. These books hit the market in the early 1960s, just when young-earth creationism was getting off the ground.

The Rhea County Courthouse, Dayton, Tennessee. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

The Evolution of Creationism

Not incidentally, Bryan’s type of creationism differs markedly from that of Ken Ham. Bryan accepted an ancient universe—a dangerous “compromise” with biblical truth, in the uncompromising opinion of Ham’s organization—and he did not appeal to the flood to dismiss the validity of the geological record. However his reasons for opposing the teaching of evolution in public schools could have come right out of Ham’s playbook. He believed that evolution is just an unproved “hypothesis” (a fancy word for “guess,” in Bryan’s opinion) that undermines belief in God and the Bible. Therefore, to teach it in publicly funded schools (including universities) amounts to government endorsement of irreligion, violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Judging from the results of many polls for many years and other information, tens of millions of Americans today probably believe exactly this. The magnitude of the quandary must not be overlooked: science might not be democratic, but in a democratic republic science education cannot entirely ignore public opinion and remain sufficiently funded.

Contrary to what Darrow and the ACLU wanted, the Tennessee law never got a hearing before the Supreme Court. Since Bryan’s day, however, the Supreme Court and federal district courts have consistently ruled that “creationism” (that’s the key word actually found in those decisions) is religion, not science, and therefore it cannot be taught in public school science classes. This conclusion was reached first in the 1980s for young-earth creationism; then in 2005 it was extended to Intelligent Design. Whatever one might think of those rulings, it’s abundantly clear that opposition to evolution is profoundly shaped by—though not caused by—the currently received interpretation of the First Amendment. Without a sea change in jurisprudence about what constitutes religious neutrality in public education (which I do not expect to see in my lifetime), the evolution controversy in public schools is just not going away.

Journalistic bias and This Historian (Me)

Even if by some miracle the dispute about public education were to evaporate, the larger cultural controversy about God and evolution would still be with us, especially but not solely among Christians ourselves. Olasky laments the minimal presence of Christians in journalism, implying that coverage of the trial might have been much fairer otherwise. He’s probably right, but his own coverage of the same issues today has not always met this standard. Case in point: in a cover story for World magazine about evolution at Christian colleges, Olasky quoted highly selectively from a detailed, very specific statement about how my colleagues and I at Messiah College approach teaching students about origins. “Clear as mud” was his overall evaluation. He goes on to say, “Students and parents should understand the spectrum of creation/evolution positions,” obviously implying that this is not what I try to accomplish in my classes. He concluded that Christian colleges “should not excommunicate young-earthers” and “should encourage debate among all who see the Bible as God’s Word but have differences in interpretation.” The irony is still ringing in my head: Messiah’s origins statement explicitly says that we “offer our students multiple models for relating science and faith, which parallels what we do in other academic disciplines.” In fact, I’ve been showing students multiple models (originally three, but presently five) for more than twenty years, while fully respecting their own beliefs and convictions. I even caution them not to agree with my own position, unless they truly decide for themselves that it’s the best model. It’s not too much to say that Messiah has blazed a trail in teaching students about origins that many other colleges have since followed. So much for fairness in journalism: it cuts both ways.

Where Are We Now? Has Anything Really Changed?

Olasky’s observation about a minimal Christian presence in journalism leads directly to my final point. In the United States today, many scientists are active Christians who accept evolution while affirming the great ecumenical creeds; that is, they are orthodox Christians in the usual sense. The number is substantially less than half, to be sure, but it’s not negligible, and it includes a number of world class scientists. In my work as an historian of science I’ve discovered a very significant change since the Scopes era. At that time, few American scientists were orthodox Christians, as far as I have been able to determine from clear evidence, and I have yet to find one really prominent American scientist from that period who was an orthodox Protestant believer. (If there were any such, they were pretty quiet about it.) Nearly all orthodox Protestants in America between the two World Wars rejected evolution, and nearly all scientists who identified publicly as Christians were not orthodox, including those who testified at the trial.

This is an apparent fact of great significance for our time. I’ve developed this point more fully elsewhere, so I’ll cut to the chase. As far as Bryan was concerned, “theistic evolution” (a term he used himself often) was “an anesthetic which deadens the pain while the patient’s religion is being gradually removed,” or “a way-station on the highway that leads from Christian faith to No-God-Land.” In other words, evolution is tantamount to atheism on the installment plan. Ken Ham holds this tenaciously, many proponents of Intelligent Design hold it privately (remember: ID is to keep silent about God and the Bible), and Jerry Coyne agrees with Ham. Bryan’s view was very effectively presented in visual form by Ernest James Pace, the leading religious cartoonist of the day. Bryan himself suggested the iconography. Here it is:

 E. J. Pace, “Descent of the Modernists,” frontispiece to William Jennings Bryan, Seven Questions in Dispute (1924). In context, the step “NO DEITY” was intended to mean the divinity of Jesus, not generic theism.

Bryan wanted the cartoon to “represent evolution as I believe it to be, [namely,] the cause of [religious] modernism and the progressive elimination of the vital truths of the bible.” It would have “three well-dressed modernists,” a student, a minister, and a scientist, all descending a staircase on which “there is no stopping place”—that is, a slippery slope, ending at the bottom with “a scientist stepping from Agnosticism to Atheism.” (Bryan to Charles Trumbull, 31 January 1924, Bryan Papers, General Correspondence, container 40, Library of Congress Manuscript Division)

Bryan’s concerns were very well placed in 1924, but not in 2015. It is no longer hard to find Christian scientists who find the evidence for evolution very persuasive, but haven’t found good reasons to descend that staircase. Anyone who still thinks that theistic evolution (or, as we like to call it, evolutionary creationism) is just “a way-station on the highway that leads from Christian faith to No-God-Land” had better think again. For us at BioLogos, founded by a world class scientist who also believes in the deity and bodily Resurrection of Jesus, that is the bottom line.

Come, taste and see. And keep thinking. We hope you won’t be disappointed.




Davis, Ted. "Science Versus God in Tennessee: Has Anything Really Changed?" N.p., 22 Jul. 2015. Web. 23 January 2019.


Davis, T. (2015, July 22). Science Versus God in Tennessee: Has Anything Really Changed?
Retrieved January 23, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/science-versus-god-in-tennessee-has-anything-really-changed

References & Credits

For more information about Bryan, Pace, and anti-evolution cartoons, see Edward B. Davis, “Fundamentalist Cartoons, Modernist Pamphlets, and the Religious Image of Science in the Scopes Era,” in Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America, ed. Charles L. Cohen and Paul S. Boyer (2008), pp. 175-198, and James R. Moore,The Future of Science and Belief: Theological Views in the Twentieth Century (1981). The quotation from Mather is published in Edward B. Davis, “Altruism and the Administration of the Universe: Kirtley Fletcher Mather on Science and Values,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 46 (3), September 2011.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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