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Evolution on Trial Part One- Setting the Stage for the Scopes Monkey Trial

As a Christian parent, have you ever wondered how science class ended up being the battle ground for the age old controversy of where life began?  Even more difficult to fathom, is how we have arrived at the place where our children are taught that the secular theory of evolution is a confirmed fact and creation science is labeled a religious fanatic’s fairy tale, a “pseudoscience”.

Neither creation account is unbiased; neither can be scientifically confirmed. Creation science is biased due to its foundational belief in a Creator. Secular science is biased due to its foundational belief that life did not begin with a Creator. Where does that leave science class? How are we to accurately apply the separation of church and state when it comes to what our children are taught about the origin of life? If the government bans either theory from the classroom it is in violation of its own rule-  remaining neutral between religion and non-religion. Yet, that is exactly what has occurred.

To get a good historical understanding, we have to go all the way back to the 1920’s. Darwin’s writings were well established and generally accepted in biology. As a consequence, they were being incorporated into school curricula. Teachers were beginning to unionize and the National Education Association had recommended that the states align their standards nationally. To this end, states began making science class a mandatory requirement and many textbooks were addressing evolution.

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At the same time, there was a rise in what was called “religious fundamentalism”. The term “religious fundamentalism” was actually coined in the 20’s, referring to strict adherence to certain fundamental concepts of Christian faith, including the literal interpretation of the Bible. These fundamentalists had a problem with Darwin’s theory of evolution being taught to their children.  In order to keep evolution out of the classroom, many states began considering laws that would ban it.

Initially, one is tempted to be judgmental of these “fundamentalists” for taking up a crusade to prevent the theory of evolution being taught alongside creationism. To bring a little context to the situation, however, I’ll insert an excerpt from the textbook in question, William Hunter’s A Civic Biology Presented in Problems:

“If we follow the early history of man upon the earth, we find that at first he must have been little better than one of the lower animals…At present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man and the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”

Plainly stated the theory of evolution was, in its beginning, unabashedly racist. No one today would approve of this unscientific information being included in a text intended for education. Many will cry foul and claim that the Bible has contributed to racist sentiment. However, it should be noted that any Christian harboring racist beliefs does so without any biblical corroboration. Biblical creation makes clear that we are ALL descended from Adam and Eve. Today, the theory of evolution has divorced its racist roots.

While it’s true that fundamentalists didn’t want their children being taught a curriculum that would cause them to question their faith, it was also much more complicated than that. I mentioned earlier that strides were being taken to move toward a national education standard. Parents in the 20’s had an underlying issue- they didn’t want to give the government full control over what was taught in public schools. Public schools are funded by public tax dollars, and parents wanted to be sure they had a say in what was taught.

So, in January of 1925, the Butler Act was introduced in the state of Tennessee and passed as law in March of the same year. This law established a $100- $500 fine for teaching evolution. In response, the ACLU began to publicly advertise that they were looking for a “test case” to challenge the validity of these anti-evolution laws, and promising that they would defend anyone accused of violating them.

In the small, economically struggling town of Dayton, Tennessee, a group of civic leaders read one such ad in a Chattanooga newspaper and hatched a plan while sitting at the table in Fred E. Robinson’s Drug Store where they met regularly.

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Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: F.E. Robinson's Drugstore, Main Street, Dayton, Tennessee.

Hoping to resuscitate their ailing town with the influx of tourists and attention that a high profile trial would bring, this group of men enlisted John T. Scopes (a 24 year old  who had taught algebra and physics for one year at Rhea County High School) to be the center of a trial hosted in their city. Scopes was chosen because he was well liked, and he didn’t have a family whose livelihood would be threatened if he ended up losing his job. Scopes recalled that while substituting in a science class the prior April, he had done an exam review and thought he had probably gone over the chapter on evolution. (Scopes later refuted this statement.) Scopes agreed to play along and this telegram was sent to the ACLU:

“Professor JT Scopes, teacher of science Rhea County high school, Dayton, Tenn will be arrested and charged with teaching evolution. Consent of superintendent of education for test case to be defended by you. Wire me collect if you wish to cooperate and arrest will follow.”

Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: John Thomas Scopes

Secular history tends to glaze over this point, but it’s important to highlight the fact that this trial did not arise organically from Tennessee citizens who felt oppressed by the fact that evolution was being banned in the classroom. The ACLU was shopping for a test case and the civic leaders of the town of Dayton had ulterior motives for volunteering. It should also be noted that although Scopes himself did not agree with the Butler Act, he was not atheist or agnostic. He, like many others, did not believe that the theory of evolution was necessarily incompatible with the Bible.

Thus, the stage was set for the perfect storm. In Part Two, we’ll discuss the fiasco that ensued.

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Written by Tiffany Denham

I'm a stay-at-home mom of three with a B.S. in Finance, Minor in Economics, and a passion for science, research, Christian apologetics, and writing. Upon realizing that I had been a victim of the widely held belief that mainstream science is “unbiased” and the erroneous beliefs that follow, I embarked on a crusade to share the overwhelming evidence revealing science's lesser known yet undeniable validation of the biblical creation account. I'm also dedicated to cultivating a deep knowledge and understanding of the Bible in order to effectively defend God's Word and bring honor and glory to Him. I also blog on a number of topics with the goal of combating the misinformation our society is inundated with daily at

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  1. Thumbs up, Tiffany, on your article here. This bit of history (the true version of it) needs to be kept in the public consciousness. Have you read my article at this site from 1/26/16 ( I pointed out in that article that the Scopes Trial was not a stand-alone event, but was closely connected with other contemporary events, including the Nebraska Man hoax perpetrated by Henry Fairfield Osborn and Harold Cook of the American Museum of Natural History, and the very public debates between Osborn and creationist William Jennings Bryan. Henry Fairfield Osborn, in addition to being the President of the AMNH, and the perpetrator of the Nebraska Man hoax, was also a prominent member of the New York office of the ACLU–and the New York office of the ACLU was the office that placed the ad in the Chattanooga Times newspaper. Osborn was also named as an expert witness for the defense at the Scopes trial but decided to stay home in New York after the full skeleton of Nebraska PIG was unearthed just a few months before the trial–apparently so he would not have to be questioned about the ostensible Nebraska “Man.”

  2. Thanks! I just read your article and I’m blown away that the scandal surrounding this hoax is not more commonly known. I knew that the tooth submitted as evidence of a transitional form was later found to belong to a pig, but I was not aware that the full skeleton was unearthed prior to the trial. In all my research I’ve never come across that bit of information. Unfortunately, it’s not surprising to anyone who follows politics and science. It seems science is frequently used as a propaganda arm for political agendas. We’re certainly drowning in it today!

  3. Tiffany, another observation: at the risk of being seen as trumpeting my own horn, you should check out what I had to say about the role of religion and the Christian faith under our federal Constitution: which I posted on 6/09/2015.
    Legally — that is, CONSTITUTIONALLY — the United States is a CHRISTIAN republic. It was never the intent of America’s founding fathers for America to be neutral regarding religion vs non-religion. The Declaration of Independence is an explicitly CREATIONIST document with four references to Deity, and the U. S. Constitution at the end of Article VII closes with “in the year of OUR LORD.” Jesus Christ is recognized, as a matter of FUNDAMENTAL CONSTITUTIONAL PRINCIPLE, as being the Lord of this nation. The neutrality which the U. S Constitution mandates is neutrality toward the existing Christian sects which existed at the time the Constitution was ratified. That is the reason for the provision prohibiting religious oaths at the federal level. The purpose of the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” was to prohibit any one of the Christian denominations of the time from being recognized at THE national Church; the purpose of the clause against prohibiting the free exercise of religion was to erect a ONE-WAY WALL against the federal government from interfering with the Christian churches and the religious activities of its citizens.

  4. Excellent article. I am in complete agreement with you. It is clear that the purpose of the establishment clause is not to “choose” between denominations. Unfortunately, precedent set by the Supreme Court in its 1971 Lemon vs Kurtzman decision, which resulted in the “Lemon Test,” has altered the outcomes of all “separation of church and state” cases since. The Lemon Test set forth a 3 pronged approach to detailing legislation regarding religion. The first prong states that the statute must have a secular purpose. The second prong states that the legislation may not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and the third prong states that the statute must not result in excessive government entanglement with religion. That first prong is the bane in the side of all court cases revolving around the right to teach creation in the classroom. I have a blog post about how the series of cases since the Scopes case have resulted in the theory of evolution being afforded a legal protection against any rival scientific theory.

  5. Alas… “Nebraska Man” was neither a hoax, nor was it the profound “embarrassment” to scientists that the received creationist myth makes it out to be. It was a single misidentified tooth, and the mistake was discovered and corrected by scientists, not creationists… in yet another example of the self-correcting power of the scientific method.

    Only a single scientist ever identified the tooth as belonging to an ancient human, and that was Elliot-Smith… a man who never saw the actual fossil, and who published nothing regarding it in any scientific proceeding. Osborn and his colleagues, identified it only as an advanced primate of some kind. Osborn, in fact, specifically avoided making any extravagant claims about Hesperopithecus being an ape-man or human ancestor:

    “I have not stated that Hesperopithecus was either an Ape-man or in the direct line of human ancestry, because I consider it quite possible that we may discover anthropoid apes (Simiidae) with teeth closely imitating those of man (Hominidae), … Until we secure more of the dentition, or parts of the skull or of the skeleton, we cannot be certain whether Hesperopithecus is a member of the Simiidae or of the Hominidae.” (Osborn 1922)

    Most other scientists were skeptical even of the more modest claim that the Hesperopithecus tooth belonged to a primate. It is simply not true that Nebraska Man was widely accepted as an ape-man, or even as an ape, by scientists, and its effect upon the scientific thinking of the time was negligible. For example, in his two-volume book Human Origins published during what was supposedly the heyday of Nebraska Man (1924), George MacCurdy dismissed Nebraska Man in a single footnote:

    “In 1920 [sic], Osborn described two molars from the Pliocene of Nebraska; he attributed these to an anthropoid primate to which he has given the name Hesperopithecus. The teeth are not well preserved, so that the validity of Osborn’s determination has not yet been generally accepted.”

    Creationists often claim that Nebraska Man was used as proof of evolution during the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, but this claim is apocryphal. No scientific evidence was presented at the trial. (Some evidence was read into the trial record, but even this did not refer to Nebraska Man.)

  6. Thanks for your comment Francis. Scientific evidence was submitted into court records by deposition in the Scopes trial. The Judge ruled against allowing jurors to hear testimony regarding the validity of evolution because that had nothing to do with the purpose of the trial- which was whether or not Scopes was guilty of violating the Butler Act. However, both sides knew that this was a test case and Scopes’ guilt or innocence was inconsequential. “Nebraska Man” and “his tooth” as well as “Piltdown Man” were indeed both mentioned in affidavits by two expert witnesses, Fay- Cooper Cole and Horatio Newman (both professors at the University of Chicago). The judge allowed their reports to be read into record on July 20, 1925. The testimony of Darrow’s “experts” would cause modern day evolutionists to cringe. They consistently equated evolution with embryology which, makes clear that there was no common understanding of how the theory of evolution was supposed to “work.” (Or if there were many scientists who understood it, none were called to testify.) Here’s a link to the expert testimony, though I warn you, it’s a painful amount of rambling to subject oneself to. If this trial were held today, there still would not be any evidence to submit of a transitional form. Darrow was, however, a brilliant man. He duped the judge and the prosecution into framing the argument as “religion vs science” which set what has turned out to be an inescapable legal precedent based on an entirely false premise. There is no “religion vs science”. There is only one “science” viewed from two opposing world views: with a Creator and without a Creator.

  7. Well, Francis, all I can say, is you would do well to do your own research (and your own thinking) on all the original comments being made by Henry Fairfield Osborn and others, and rely a little less on copying and pasting from evolution propaganda mills as a substitute for thinking. Or, at least, give proper attribution to your sources. I’ve heard and read the “in yet another example of the self-correcting power of the scientific method” line a hundred times. It’s hogwash. You are ignorant of what was really going on in the “Nebraska Man” case.

    Henry Fairfield Osborn was, in fact, conducting TWO campaigns. One campaign was directed at the GENERAL PUBLIC, and was CERTAINLY characterized by extravagant claims about what could be known about the original bearer of the tooth; the other campaign was being directed at scientists and was more restrained in its assertions, the quotation you offered being such an example. Even to the scientists, Osborn was pushing for his interpretation of the tooth.

    Here is a claim Osborn offered to the general public: “THE ANTHROPOID PRIMATE CHARACTERS OF THE TOOTH ARE CONFIRMED by another water-worn third upper molar previously found by William D. Matthew in the same beds but not described because it was not sufficiently distinctive. These two teeth ESTABLISH the existence in the Pilocene period of a new and independent type of anthropoid, intermediate in the structure of its grinding teeth between the anthropoid ape and the human type.” –Henry Fairfield Osborn, see

    “Confirmed” and “established” are certainly extravagant claims.

    Writing in the New York Times newspaper Forum, Osborn declared to the world:

    “In the message of a diminutive tooth, the herald of our knowledge of ANTHROPOID APES IN AMERICA… The world-wide interest aroused by the discovery in Nebraska of Hesperopithecus, “the ape of the western world“, is in widest possible contrast to the diminutive and insignificant appearance of the single grinding tooth … THIS LITTLE TOOTH SPEAKS VOLUMES OF TRUTH, — truth consistent with all we have known before, with all that we have found elsewhere… Certainly we shall not banish this bit of Truth because it does not fit in with our preconceived notions and because at present IT CONSTITUTES INFINITESIMAL BUT IRREFUTABLE EVIDENCE THAT MAN-APES WANDERED OVER FROM ASIA INTO NORTH AMERICA… ”

    Osborn’s “pitch” to his scientific colleagues which you quoted (in part) was made in the prestigious science journal, Nature:

    “Finally, of the utmost rarity are the remains of the Primates, because during the eight seasons of continuous and expert search we have only discovered two teeth, namely, the tooth now regarded as a third superior molar of an old individual of Hesperopithecus found by Dr. W. D. Matthew in 1908, and the type tooth of Hesperopithecus haroldcookii found by the geologist Harold J. Cook in 1921. [Note: Harold Cook actually had the tooth in his possession for five years and only forwarded it to Osborn in 1922 as the ACLU challenge in Dayton Tennessee was nearing.—T.S.] We are this season renewing the search with great vigour and expect to run every shovelful of loose river sand which composes this deposit through a sieve of mesh fine enough to arrest such small objects as these teeth. Even by this laborious and painstaking method the probability of finding more material is not very great…MY ORIGINAL CHARACTERIZATION AND DESCRIPTION HAS BEEN FULLY JUSTIFIED by intensive research of the past two months. I have not stated that Hesperopithecus was either an Ape-man or in the direct line of human ancestry, because I consider it quite possible that we may discover anthropoid apes (Simiidae) with teeth closely imitating those of man (Hominidae), just as we have discovered in the true Piltdown man (Eoanthropus) teeth closely imitating those of the chimpanzee.” ~ Henry Fairfield Osborn, Nature, August 26 1922 p.283

    Somewhat of a different twist, when the quotation is placed in its full context, eh? Moreover, Grafton Elliott Smith’s immense influence over his English colleagues of the day is not to be underestimated. The New York Times reported: “Dr. Elliot Smith, the English scientist, recently wrote to Professor Gregory that BRITISH SCIENTISTS WERE PRACTICALLY A UNIT in accepting the interpretation placed by the authorities of the American Museum of Natural History on the tooth”. (March 22, 1923, pg 30)

    “Fully justified” is certainly an extravagant claim.

    Your claim (source unattributed) that “It is simply not true that Nebraska Man was widely accepted as an ape-man, or even as an ape, by scientists, and its effect upon the scientific thinking of the time was negligible” seems a little hollow to me when compared to the firsthand testimony of respected scientist Grafton Elliott Smith. If the English paleontologists were “practically a unit” in accepting Osborn’s interpretation, then there were certainly a lot of scientists who accepted the tooth as evidence of an apeman.

  8. Yep, another of Darwin’s Cheerleaders© attempting to be experts while dishonestly quoting from the evolution propaganda mills, as Mr. Shipley described them. In this case, propaganda, a great comrade of NCSE. We get false thinkers like this at The Question Evolution Project now and then, and I’ve seen this happen on other social media. You may want to compare Arduini’s remarks with his source, and note how disingenuous they are, even proclaiming the process as good science:

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