The Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy and its Impact on Liberal Religion

Daniel Ross Chandler


The theological controversy which developed following World War I furnishes striking parallels to the two disruptions occasioned nearly a century earlier when traditional Congregational churches were challenged by rationally-disciplined Unitarianism, and when the emergent Unitarian movement grew disquieted with the "heretical" New England Transcendentalists. Between 1920 and 1930, religious orthodoxy was challenged when dogmas and doctrines considered as eternal, unchanging truth were questioned when scholars applied scientific investigation and higher criticism to examination of the Bible. "Modernists" who employed scholarly methods to interpret sacred scriptures and compare the world religions, seemingly discounted supernatural sources of the Christian faith and disparaged literal interpretations of Biblical passages. An evolutionary hypothesis explaining human origins and development apparently contradicted the Biblical description of creation, thereby undermining the infallible authority attributed to the scriptures:

The centuries-old conflict between science and religion had been sharpened in the nineteenth century by the publication of two books by Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). During the final quarter of the century one of the favorite topics of discussion in the journals, on lecture platforms, in Chatauqua tents, and in the pulpit was the question of the relation between religion and science—could a reconciliation between the two be effected, or were they, as some affirmed, irreconcilably opposed in a battle to the death?1

While some fundamentalists rejected, repudiated and renounced scientific investigation and Biblical criticism, demanding a literal interpretation of scripture, some modernists attempted a reconciliation between the new knowledge and the old faith by adapting Christian teachings and principles to rapidly changing world-views.

Examining the twentieth-century modernist-fundamentalist religious controversy, Sager concluded that two different world-views and moral philosophies collided.2 Employing scientifically-disciplined methodologies discredited bland reliance upon "authority" and "tradition" in theological speculation. Orthodox religious beliefs seemed threatened by advancing knowledge; humans appeared capable of voluntary control over conditions and circumstances formerly assigned to supernatural power. Ancient superstitions associated with primitive Christianity, passive submission to medieval theology, and reliance upon contrived phantoms were supplanted with a growing self-confident realism; high expectations which anticipated continual progress and constant change became almost habitual. Within this intellectual ferment, thoughtful churchmen disclaimed the divinity of Jesus, doubted the inerrancy of scripture, discounted the virgin birth, discarded the vicarious atonement, and dismissed the second coming.

Militant fundamentalism as a twentieth-century movement of protest and defense sought to protect, preserve and perpetuate an apocalyptic and prophetic message critical of contemporary living and apprehensive toward the impending future. The fundamentalist mentality was creatively zestful even when poorly informed; its persistent resistance to accumulating information undermined its meaningfulness with the inevitable march of passing time and changing conditions. Some enthusiastic modernists advocated a restatement of Christian principles in modern language; some attempted an historical recovery of Jesus' essential teachings from centuries-old distortions and corruptions; and some presented radical reconstructions of Christian beliefs through naturalistic explanations. Some modernists considered "modernism" a mentality or methodology for interpreting Christian scriptures and tradition; others regarded "modernism" as a message containing evident conclusions.

Seeking conscientiously to prevent the destruction of Christianity, modernists revealed an adventuresome mentality when inaugurating a movement to restore a revitalized Christianity. They attempted to refashion Christianity as a religious activity within the historic church, through a transformation instead of a reduction. The modernist-fundamentalist controversy engaged some of the finest theological thinkers and most articulate spokesmen. Individuals such as Harry Emerson Fosdick at the Riverside Churh in New York, John Haynes Holmes at the Community Church of New York, and Preston Bradley at The Peoples Church of Chicago represented a popular liberal religious persuasion. The complex interactions within the modernist-fundamentalist controversy included dramatic conflicts between "religious" and "secular" groups, such as the confused confrontation between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow during the Scopes Trial.3 Theological disputation succeeded in raising the essential question which provoked the Protestant Reformation: what is the ultimate source of authority in theological speculation? However, the critical, crucial issues proved irresolvable because the controversialists remained mired in unresolved epistemological problems, questions concerning the sources of human knowledge.


Clarence Darrow, one of America's greatest criminal lawyers, was born in Kinsman, Ohio, on April 18, 1857. His father, a graduate from a theological seminary whose professional preference turned to furniture manufacturing, was remembered by Clarence as a friend defending oppressed people and a champion promoting every new, humane, and despised cause. Clarence Darrow followed his father as a defender supporting the oppressed, a champion sustaining the underpriveleged, and a hero upholding the accused and abandoned. His addresses before juries possessed the power of deep conviction, the strength of equity and justice and the passion of humanity.

Clarence Darrow studied at an academy, briefly attended Allegheny College, worked in his father's furniture manufacturing factory, taught district school in a country community, studied in the Ann Arbor law school, and worked in a Youngstown law office before he was "called to the bar." He opened a law office in Andover, near Kinsman, before moving to Ashtabula. Moving to Chicago in 1888, he learned how lonely a great city is for a young man who lacks intimates and friends. He captured public attention when Henry George and he shared a speaking engagement in Central Music Hall. Darrow became a special assessment attorney, an assistant corporation counsel, and acting corporation counsel, before resigning and becoming the general attorney for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Company. When the American Railway Union struck in 1894, Darrow resigned to defend Eugene V. Debbs.

Darrow defended human beings charged with crimes, some who paid him, some who could not afford an attorney, and some for whom Darrow spent his own money to defend. He served as defense counsel in several of the most significant criminal prosecutions during his generation: in 1906 he was engaged by the Western Federation of Miners to defend Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone, who were indicted for murdering former Idaho Governor Frank Steuenberg; in 1911 he defended James and Joseph McNamara who were charged with dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building; in 1924 Darrow defended Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold in Chicago's famous kidnap-murder case; and in 1926, he defended Ossian Sweet and eventually Henry Sweet, who were involved in shooting between white and black contingencies in Detroit streets. Darrow was indicted, tried, and found "not guilty" on charges of conspiracy to corrupt a juror. The Lincolnesque Chicago attorney was a militant agnostic, a fanatical humanistarian, and life-long opponent of capital punishment whose clients were never executed.

A personal friend of controversial Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld, Darrow served as a law associate and delivered a magnificent eulogy at the former governor's funeral, an address Darrow appended to his autobiography.

William Jennings Bryan's captivating "Cross of Gold" speech which spell-bound in the 1896 Democratic national conbention remained alive in Darrow's memory. When Bryan finished his speech, the search for a nominee ended. Bryan's penetrating voice, knowledge of mob psychology, and command of rhythmical sentences captivated the congested audience with an impact which the Great Commoner from Nebraska never forgot.


There never was such a setting for political speech in my own experience, and so far as I know there never was such a setting for any other political speech ever made in this country, and it must be remembered that the setting has a great deal to do with a speech. Webster says that the essentials for a successful speech are eloquence, the subject, and the occasion. I thought that I had at least two-thirds of the requirements—The excitement of the moment was so intense that I hurried to the platform and began at once. My nervousness left me instantly and I felt as composed as if I had been speaking to a small audience on an unimportant occasion. From the first sentence the audience was with me. My voice reached to the uttermost parts of the hall, which is a great advantage in speaking to an assembly like that.

I shall never forget the scene upon which I looked. I believe it unrivaled in any convention every held in our country. The audience seemed to rise and sit down as one man. At the close of a sentence it would rise and shout, and when I began upon another sentence, the room was as still as a church. There was inspiration in the faces of the delegates. My own delegation I can never forget. No man ever had a more loyal sixteen friends than I had on that day. Their faces glowed with enthusiasm.

—The audience acted like a trained choir—in fact, I thought of a choir as I noted how instantaneously and in unison they responded to each point made.

The situation was so unique and the experience so unprecendented that I have never expected to witness its counterpart.4

With these words, one of America's greatest orators recalled his impression of "the Cross of Gold Speech" inThe Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan. In this masterpiece of oratorical persuasion, Bryan reached a pinnacle of excellence which crowned his distinguished career. He was born at Salem, Illinois, on March 19, 1860. As a student in Salem High School, he participated actively in the debate club. Bryan continued his education at Whipple Academy, a preparatory school in Jackson, Illinois between 1876 and 1877; he earned his A.B. degree from Illinois College, where he studies between 1877 and 1881. His curriculum was comprised of courses in mathematics, Latin, Greek, science, logic, ethics and philosophy. He was active in Sigma Pi, a literary and debating society. During his junior year, he won second place in the Illinois intercollegiate oratorical contest. He read law in Chicago under Lyman Trumbull and at the Union College of Law. William Jennings Bryan practiced law at Jacksonville, Illinois between 1883 and 1887, and at Lincoln, Nebraska, for several years beginning in 1887. Myron G. Phillips reports:

On a winter morning in 1888, William Jennings Bryan, then twenty-seven years of age, stepped from a train in Lincoln, Nebr., following an all-night ride in a day coach from a small town in a western part of the state. He walked home, climbed the stairs, and quietly entered the bedroom where his wife was asleep. He wakened her, sat on the edge of the bed, and said: "Mary, I have had a strange experience. Last night I found that I have power over the audience. I could move them as I chose. I have more than usual power as a speaker. I know it. God grant I may use it wisely."5

Bryan was elected a Democratic representative from Nebraska. He served as editor of the Omaha World Herald between 1894 and 1896. Bryan represented his state's silver delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1896, where he delivered the "Cross of Gold" speech on July 18, 1896.

The resolution commitee of the convention had framed a platform that advocated the free and unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of 16 to 1. With Grover Cleveland as its articulate leader, a minority proposed a substitute planking wihch endorsed the gold standard. During the convention debate, Senator Tillman of South Carolina defended the majority report; Hill of New York, Villas of Wisconsin and Russell of Massachusetts opposed it; and William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska concluded the debate. By a vote of 628 to 301, the free-silver resolutions were adopted. The next day William Jennings Bryan was nominated for the Presidency of the United States.

During the campaign, Bryan delivered more than six hundred speeches, traveled farther than any candidate had ventured, and polled more votes than any man except William McKinley, who was elected. In 1898 he served as a Colonel in the Spanish-American War, although he saw no active fighting. Bryan was defeated by McKinley again in 1900. He established the Commoner in Lincoln, Nebraska. Between 1905 and 1906, he completed a world tour. I 1908 Taft defeated him for the Presidency. Bryan was significantly influential in securing the nomination for Woodrow Wilson in 1912; with Wilson as President, Bryan served as Secretary of State from 1913 to 1915. As prosecutor for the state in the Scopes Trial in Tennessee, Bryan was opposed by Clarence Darrow.

But the "Great Commoner" was remembered for the "Cross of Gold" speech. Mark Sullivan reported in Our Times:

It was not merely that Bryan's was the first voice that day to be able to fill the big hall. The music of it was memorable. Years afterward, men who were there talked of Bryan's speech in ways that showed it was a high spot in their emotional experiences. It was as an emotional experience that it was remembered, like hearing Patti or Jenny Lind. Ex-Senator Thomas says that Bryan brought tears to the eyes of men and caused women in the gallery to become hysterical.6

Harry Thurston Peck stated in Twenty Years of the Republic:

Until now there had spoken no man to whom that riotous assembly would listen with respect. But at this moment there appeared upon the platform Mr. William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska—As he confronted the 20,000 yelling, cursing, shouting men before him, they felt at once that indescribable, magnetic thrill which beasts and men alike experience in the presence of a master. Serene and self-possessed, and with a smile upon his lips, he faced the roaring multitude with a splendid consciousness of power. Before a single word had been uttered by him, the pandemonium sank to an inarticulate murmur, and when he began to speak, even this was hushed to the profoundest silence. A mellow, penetrating voice that reached, apparently without the slightest effort, to the farthermost recesses of that enormous hall, gave utterance to a brief exordium—The repose and graceful dignity of his manner, the courteous reference to his opponents, and the perfect clearness and simplicity of his language, riveted the attention of every man and woman in the convention hall—He spoke with the utmost deliberation, so that every word was driven home to each hearer's consciousness and yet with an ever-increasing force, which found fit expression in the wonderful harmony and power of his voice. His sentences rang out, now with an accent of superb disdain, and now with the stirring challenge of a bugle call. The great hall seemed to rock and sway with the fierce energy of the shout that ascended from twenty thousand throats—The leaderless Democray of the West was leaderless no more. Throughout the latter part of his address, a crash of applause followed every sentence; but now the tumult was like that of a great sea thundering against the dikes. Twenty thousand men and women went mad with an irresistable enthusiasm. The orator had met their mood to the very full. He had found magic words for the feeling which they had been unable to express. And so he had played at will upon their very heart-strings, until the full tide of their emotion was let loose in one tempestuous roar of passion.7

Years of practice, training and experience were invested in producing this orator who captivated the convention. At the age of seven or eight he committed to memory his geography lesson, and then was set upon a table from which Bryan declaimed it. During his first year in the academy, Bryan entered a declamation contest giving Patrick Henry's famous speech; the next year he declaimed "the Palmetto and the Pine," placing third in the competition; during his freshman year he entered the declamation of the famous Bernardo del Carpio, winning second place. With the $10 second prize, Bryan selected an Oxford Bible with a concordance and a volume of Shakespeare. During his sophomore year he entered the essay contest and won first prize. Bryan later recalled:

In my junior year I entered the oratorical contest influenced by a double ambition, because the successful orator in the contest would, as a matter of custom, represented the college in the inter-collegiate contest the following fall. My subject on this occasion was "individual power" and I left nothing undone that would contribute towards success. I had had in mind for nearly five years the honor of representing the college in the oratorical contest. It so happened that soon after my arrival in Jacksonville I had the privilege of attending a contest in which Fred Turner, the orator of Illinois College, represented our institution. From that night this vision was before me and my work as a declaimer, as an essayist, and in the delivering of orations was to this end.8

Winning first place in oratory, he gained the right to compete in the state contest at Galesburg, Illinois in October, 1880; delivering an oration called "Justice," Bryan won second palce. The fifty-dollar second prize, the largest sum that Bryan had earned up to that time, helped to purchase an engagement ring for the future Mrs. William Jennings Bryan. Later Mrs. Bryan recalled a deeply moving, personal experience which reflected Bryan's appeal to an audience:

Mr. Bryan spoke in a little Utah mining town. The surrounding mountains were so high that the valley in early afternoon was already in shadow. He spoke from the second-story balcony of the railway sation to a great audience of miners with mine lamps on their caps. Mr. Bryan had just suffered a defeat. He was speaking to them after an unsuccessful struggle. But his youth and his deep earnestness rang to his audience on every clear note of his voice. While he was speaking, the shadows deepened. It was twilight when he closed his speech with the statement tha "all his life, whether in victory or defeat, he would fight the battles of the common people. His life was pledged to their cause through all the years to come." With his closing phrase, there came the moment when applause conventionally follows, but none came. There was a deep silence, and one miner after another took off his cap, until that great crowd was standing with bared and bowed heads. His mood of consecration had carried to them. After a tense pause such a roar of cheers filled the valley as sent echoes rattling back from the hills; a clamor of applause.9

This same spell which Bryan generated to these Utah miners in the summer following the campaign of 1896 had also captivated those who heard the "Cross of Gold" speech. Bryan's voice rang through the convention hall:

We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as is his employer, the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the corss-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day—who begins in the spring and toils all summer—and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak for this broader class of business men.10

When his political possibilities dwindled during 1915, William Jennings Bryan turned his tremendous vitality toward Christianity. Throughout his life Bryan had been respected as a devoted Christian, a man who applied his religious convictions to the demanding issues of contemporary politics. His religious convictions are presented is his lecture, "The Prince of Peace," which Bryan delievered many times in hundreds of cities, towns and hamlets across America. This was his most popular public lecture.

In the spring of 1925, John T. Scopes, a county high school biology teacher, was arrested in Dayton, Tennessee, for violating the recent anti-evolution law passed byt he State Legislature of Tennessee. The lawyers for the State of Tennessee communicated with William Jennings Bryan, who consented to serve as counsel for the prosecution; Clarence Darrow, an eminent lawyer from Chicago, consented to head the defense.

Dayton made great preparations for the "monkey trial," as it soon began to be called in the newspapers. Dayton had a population of 1800 persons, and hitherto the town had been noted chiefly for its strawberry crop; at the time of the trial, it was the boast that Dayton had that year "shipped more strawberries than any community on earth." As the time for the trial approach the town was crowded with evangelists, "hot dog" vendors, curiosity seekers, traveling performers, ice cream cone salesmen and newspaper correspondents.

The money motif was everywhere. Robinson's drug store sold a Monkey Fizz. The city market announced, "We handle all kinds of meat except monkey," and a local druggist advised the visitors, "Don't monkey around when you come to Dayton, but call on us." The Progressive Dayton Club pointed out to local merchants that posters showing monkeys swinging from cocoanut trees with facetious captions underneath probably would not be good for business, and after the trial began, most of these were removed from store windows.

On the streets of Dayton various religious signs had been painted. One fence bore the advice: "Sweethearts, come to Jesus." Another sign read: "The Sweetheart love of Jesus Christ and Paradise Street is at hand. Do you want to be a sweet angel? Forty days of prayer. Itemize your sins and iniquities for eternal life. If you come clean, God will talk back to you in voice." A large poster in Robinson's drug store read, "You Need God in Your Business."11

When he arrived in Dayton, Tennessee, William Jennings Bryan announced himself as the defender of the honest country yeoman against the sophisticated city dweller; such an image the "Great Commoner" sought to project throughout the trial. H.L. Mencken, who attended the Dayton trial, wrote this description of Bryan:

It was plain to everyone who knew him, when he came to Dayton, that his great days were behind him—that, for all the fury of his hatred, he was now definitely an old man, and headed at last for silence. There was a vague, unpleasant manginess about his appearance; he somehow seemed dirty, though a close glance showed him as carefully shaven as an actor, and clad in immaculate linen. All the hair was gone from the dome of his head, and it had begun to fall out, too, behind his ears, in the obscene manner of the late Samuel Gompers. The resonance had departed from his voice; what was once a bugle blast had become reedy and quivering. Who knows that, like Demosthenes, he had a lisp? In the old days, under the magic of his eloquence, no one noticed it. But when he spoke at Dayton it was always audible—By the end of the week he was simply a walking fever. Hour by hour he grew more bitter. What the Christian Scientists call malicious animal magnetism seemed to radiate from him like heat from a stove. From my place in the court room, standing upon a table, I looked directly down upon him, sweating horribly and pumping his palm-leaf fan. His eyes fascinated me; I watched them all day long. They were blazing points of hatred. They glittered like occult and sinister gems. Now and then they wandered to me, and I got my share, for my reports of the trial had come back to Dayton, and he had read them. It was like coming under fire.12

The spirit with which Bryan prepared for the trial may be reflected in the last paragraph of his last speech. The address which Bryan planned to deliver at the conclusion of the Scopes trial was never delivered because the decision was reached that the case should be submitted to the jury without final argument. Bryan arranged to have his speech printed and distributed; the conclusion of this speech may contain Bryan's most eloquent masterpiece:

It is for the jury to determine whether this attack upon the Christian religion shall be permitted in the public schools of Tennessee by teachers employed by the State and paid out of the public treasury. This case is no longer local; the defendant ceases to play an important part. The case has assumed the proportions of a battle-royal between unbelief that attempts to speak through so-called science and the defenders of the Christian faith, speaking though the Legislators of Tennessee. It is again a choice between God and Baal; it is also a renewal of the issue in Pilate's court. In that historic trial—the greatest in history—force, impersonated by Pilate, occupied the throne. Behind it was the Roman Government, mistress of the world, and behind the Roman Government were the legions of Rome. Before Pilate, stood Christ, the Apostle of Love. Force triumphed; they nailed Him to the tree and those who stood around mocked and jeered and said, "He is dead." But from that day the power of Caesar waned and the power of Christ increased. In a few centuries the Roman government was gone and its legions forgotten; while the crucified and risen Lord has become the greatest fact in history and the growing figure of all time.

Again force and love meet face to face, and the question, "What shall I do with Jesus?" must be answered. A bloody, brutal doctrine—Evolution—demands, as the rabble did nineteen hundred years ago, that He be crucified. That cannot be the answer of this jury representing a Christian State and sword to uphold the laws of Tennessee. Your answer will be heard throughout the world; it is eagerly awaited by a praying multitude. If the law is nullified, there will be rejoicing everywhere God is repudiated, the Saviour scoffed at and the Bible ridiculed. Every unbeliever of every kind and degree will be happy. If, on the other hand, the law is upheld and the religion of the school children protected, millions of Christians will call you blessed and, with hearts full of gratitude to God, will sing again that grand old song of triumph:

"Faith of our fathers, living still,

In spite of dungeons, fire and sword;

O how our hearts beat high with joy

Whene'er we hear that glorious word;

Faith of our fathers—holy faith;

We will be true to thee till death!"13


Probably the most dramatic episode of the modernists' advance was the Scopes Trial:

Two days before the trial, Lawyer Willaim Jennings Bryan, chief of the prosecution, lumbered off a train from Florida. The populace, Bryan's to a moron, yowled welcome.

Slouching lawyer Darrow, defense cousel, arrived. Finding shy young Scopes in the crowd, asked Darrow: "Is Bryan here? Is he all right? It would be very painful to me to hear that he had fallen victim to a synthetic sin."

Ramifications of the Scopes trial ran all the way from a proposal by residents of Dayton that a Fundamentalist college be founded there with William Jennings Bryan as president, to expressions of astonishment in the Muslim newspapers of Constantinople at "such antiquated ideas."14

Mr. Darrow bellowed his purpose to "show up Fundamentalism, to prevent bigots and ignoramuses from controlling education in the U.S." Mr. Bryan shook his fist, roared back his purpose "to protect the Word of God from the greatest atheist and agnostic in the United States."15

The death of William Jennings Bryan (see page 6) furnished Tennessee's anti-Evolution case with a climax.

Scientists and teachers shook their heads—some of them privately compared the Scopes trial, not with the trial in Pilate's court, but with a trial in the courts of Athens, where a teacher, accused (like Mr. Scopes) of corrupting the youth by teaching things contrary to law and disrespectful to the gods, had (like Mr. Scopes) refused to deny his action, but defended it only by saying that he had taught the truth, which was, in his eyes, the highest form of reverence; and was (like Mr. Scopes) convicted. The parallel, they said, fell down in only one important point; Mr. Scopes was give a fine of $100; Socrates was given a cup of hemlock.17

These colorful gleanings from Time reflect the humor which surrounded the Dayton, Tennessee, trial of biology teacher Scopes, which dramatized the modernist-fundamentalist religious controversy during 1925. Publicized as a duel between advocates defending the Christian faith and antagonists seeking scientific support for evolution, the Scopes trial was described by Nation on May 27, 1925:

The Battle of Tennessee may play as significant a part in American history as the battle of Gettysburg. For what is at stake in the little town of Dayton is as important as any question of political structure, or even of physical freedom; it is the question of bondage of the human mind. 18

On July 8, Nation emphasized that, "For the trial brings to a head the attempt of a great commonwealth to determine science by popular vote, to establish truth by fiat intaed of study, research, and experiment."19 When defendant John T. Scopes published his memoirs in 1967, he asserted:

The trial was a test and a defense of the fundamental freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Constitution. At stake was the principle of separation of church and state. If the state is allowed to dictate that a teacher must teach a subject in accordance with the beliefs of one particular religion, then the state can also force schools to teach the beliefs of the person in power, which can lead to suppression of all personal and religious liberties.20

Grebstein described the dramatization as "Fundamentalism versus Modernism, theological truth versus scientific truth, literal versus liberal interpretation of the Bible, Genesis vs. Darwin."21

Although the Dayton episode was perceived as a forensic confrontation between Fundamentalist Bryan and agnostic Darrow, these speakers became incarnate rhetorical symbols representing conflicting world-views and life-orientations clashing within a single life-space. Darrow and Bryan culminated professional careers affirming alternative "universes of meanings." Heston-like actors enacting an historic drama, each supreme in his self-assigned dialogue, Bryan and Darrow role-played a forensic ritual where judicial technicalities superseded theological speculation. In an obscure Tennesssee town, these spokesmen discussed questions which frequently evoke no final answers; they demonstrated how human beings establish religious commitments without an ultimate foundation providing philosophical certainty. They somehow transcended conflicting arguments, transcended even themselves, participating in a grandeur which eluded their grasp although each participated in it. For they witness how tragedy and defeat contain a pradoxical but uncompromising nobility, wherein each man championing his convictions with courage is heroic. The verbal interchange of Bryan22 and Darrow23 marked a "changing of the guard," a last ditch battle for vanishing religious emphasis and the "last hurrah" for two titans completing careers which loomed larger than life.

Extended historical perspective coming with passing time now reveals the dramatic Scopes trial as an unnecessary, illegal, contrived, and comercially-motivated episode which served as a rhetorical vehicle for propagating a religious liberalism. Grebstein concluded:

The Tennessee legislature had only a few months before passed a bill prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and Governor Austin Peay had signed the measure into law with a statement that strongly implied he neither hoped nor expected the statute would ever be enforced. In other words, anti-evolution law or not, Tennessee's teachers would have had little or no interference in their work, even though many of their textbooks, like the state-adopted biology text that Scopes taught from at the Dayton High School, promulgated the Darwinian theory.24

Darrow admitted the illegal nature of the trial; statute provided that a special grand jury could not be called so close to the convening of a regular grand jury.25 Not the defenders of the "anti-evolutionally" legislation but officers from the American Civil Liberties contrived to sponsor a test case. 26 The communication potential which this rhetorical vehicle provided was reflected in statistics from new services; when Bryan took the witness stand, Western Union reported that it carred for than 200,000 words while various press services carried an additional 50,000.27 That the Scopes trial was comercially-inspired for financial gain was reflected through the bizarre and banalburlesque which surrounded the proceedings. The Dayton circus drew what Timecalled "the usual camp-following of freaks, fakes, mountebanks, and parasites of publicity."28

What historic events converged to produce this dramatization? On January 28, 1925, the lower house of the Tennessee legislature passed with a vote of 71 to 5 the Butler bill forbidding teaching evolution in public schools; the Tennessee senate enacted the bill 24 to 6 on March 13. On March 21 Governor Peay signed the Legislation. On May 5, George W. Rappelyea of Dayton conferred with county school-board head F.E. Robinson, county superintendent Walter White, and teacher John Thomas Scopes. They decided to test the legislation by swearing a warrant for Scopes' arrest. Scopes was arrested on May 7 and bound over to a grand jury on May 10. After the American Civil Liberties Union in New York confirmed intentions of defending teacher Scopes, Darrow was appointed as Scopes' lawyer. On May 13 Bryan announced his counsel for the prosecution. A special grand jury indicted Scopes on May 25; trial began with a new indictment and jury selection on July 10; Scopes was pronounced guilty on July 21. After Judge Raulston's hundred dollar minimum fine was paid by the Baltimore Sun, rhetorical strategy was drawn for the next round:

In September, the Supreme Court of Tennessee, sitting at Knoxville, will contemplate arguments for and against the two propositions of Appellant Scopes: 1) That the anti-evolution law, prohibiting the teaching of any theory of creation which denies the account found in Genesis, is unconstitutional under Tennessee's Bill of Rights, being sectarian; 2) that if the law were valid, teaching the theory of Evolution would not—in Scopes' case, did not—constitute a misdemeanor since the two accounts—Biblical and scientific—can be shown to be compatible.29

Following the trial on July 26, Bryan died.30 Hearing upon the appeal before the Tennessee supreme court began June 1, 1926; the court, with a divided opinion, sustained the constitutionality of the Butler Act but reversed the judgment against Scopes on January 14, 1927. On April 12, 1967, following several unsuccessful attempts, the lower house of the Tennessee legislature initiated an eventually successful repeal.31

Does the Scopes controversy suggest how immediately successful causes sometimes become defeated, that long-range consequences remain more significant than momentary vistories? What seems useful is that rhetorical strategies for securing immediate and long-range objectives deserve thoughtful analysis. Within a judicial context, legal questions were debated; however, theological and political ends beyond the immediate context were sought. The jury was not charged with deciding between two alternatives, the Biblical narrative of human creation and evolutionary development.32 The crucial factual question was: did John Thomas Scopes violate the Butler Act? Darrow admittedly "never at any time intended to make any arguments in the case."33 The argumentation employed by the defense was summarized by one of the defense attorneys, Arthur Garfield Hayes:

First, that the law was unconstitutional because it attempted to make the Bible the test of truth; second, that the law was unconstitutional because in the light of present-day knowledge of evolution, to be adduced from scientists, it was unreasonable; and third, that the evidence of Mr. Bryan and other students of the Bible would show the evolution of man and of the Bible, but would also show that the law was indefinite as well as unreasonable, because no two persons understood the Bible alike.34

Bryan tried excluding scientists' and Bible students' supportive testimony,35 while defense lawyers attepted to curtail the Great Commoner by denying his cross-examination of Darrow and by eliminating Bryan's final speech to the jury.

Nevertheless moments brilliant with noble convictions exploded when Darrow indicted a growing bigotry and ignorance such as had sanctioned the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials.36 Darrow argued that the State had no legitimate foundation for preferring the Bible above the Koran, The Book of Mormon, the writings of Confucius or Buddha, or Emerson's essays.37 Darrow chapioned individual intellectual freedom, saying:

There are no two human machines alike and no two human beings have the same experiences, and their ideas of life and philosophy grow out of their construction of the experiences that we meet on our journey through life. It is impossible, if you leave freedom in the world, to mold the opinions of one man upon the opinions of another—only tyranny can do it—and your constitutional provision, providing a freedom of religion, was meant to meet that emergency.38

Religious commitment, Darrow declared, should be between an individual and his Maker, or whatever expression suggests that source.39 He defied the regimentation whereby knowledge was submitted to religious testing.40

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustlings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic agaisnt Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men—After a while, your Honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed, until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century, when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.41

Darrow's forensic argumentation constituted a compassionate appeal for personal intellectual liberty, for individual self-determination in religious concerns; however his arguments were diversionary and irrelevant to the legal question under immediate consideration.

Bryan contended that foreigners should not invade Tennessee to undermine poular support for Tennessee legislation which incorporated the public will;42 the Bible would not be driven from the courts by witnesses reconciling evolution with the scriptures.43

Both Bryan and Darrow were eloquent at the trial conclusion. Though human greatness was a pin-point and seldom a beacon-light at Dayton, these spokesment momentarily considered that elusive element which some individuals seek, although all who seek are not worthy candidates. Neither human history nor the Scopes trial reveals why greatness comes to a person, why some are remembered while others are forgotten. Nevertheless Bryan commented that the trial "illustratees how people an be drawn into prominence by attaching themselves to a great cause."44 Darrow indicated that the case might be remembered "because it is the first case of this sort since we stopped trying people in America for witchcraft, because here we have done our best to turn back the tide that has sought to force itself upon this modernworld, of testing every fact in science by a religious dictum."45 Rappelyea remarked that "big movements make big men, but this is the case of the reverse, where big men have made big movements."46 And Judge Raulston emphasized a quality of human greatness which competing spokesmen sometimes demonstrated:

My fellow citizens, I recently read somewhere what I think was a definition of a great man, and that was this: That he possesses a passion to know the truth, but he must also have the courage to declare it in the face of all oppostition—It doesn't take any great courage for a man to stand for a principle that meets with the approval of public sentiment around him. But it sometimes takes courage to declare a truth or stnd for a gact that is in contravention to the public sentiment.47

Although the short-term and long-range effectiveness and consequences provide questions for contrasting historical evaluations,48 the secular rhetorical vehicle which the Scopes trial provided permitted the ambiguity of "truth" to reveal the nobility and dignity of the human spirit which seeks that "truth." Another rhetorical vehicle for the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was the Peoples Church of Chicago marked by the ministry of Dr. Preston Bradley and the Riverside Church of New York with Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick. These, however, are stories for another time.


1. Ernest J. Wrage and Barnet Baskerville, "Modernism vs. Fundamentalism in Religion," Contemporary Forum: American Speeches on Twentieth-Century Issues (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962), p. 93. The times were described by John Vernon Jensen: "it was a period in which liberal religious thought was a noticeable trend and in which science was fast becoming important in many ways in the lives of an increasing number of people. Such an atmosphere welcomes new ideas, is accustomed to vigorous public debate, places great faith in man, lends courage, disillusions [those] with traditional ideas and institutions, and gives increased freedom to debate religious questions." See "the Rhetoric of Thomas H. Huxley and Robert C. Ingersoll in Relation to the Conflict Between Science and Theology" (unpublished dissertation, the University of Minnesota, 1959) pp. 63-4.

2. Helpful is Allan H. Sager, "the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, 1918-1930, In The History of American Public Address" (unpublished dissertation, Northwestern University, 1963). See DeWitte Holland,Preaching in American History (Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press, 1969), pp. 258-277. Stow Persons wrote that modernism, as a movement of religious thought and feeling, cut across denominational lines, expressed a democratic ideology, and was derived from secular sources. Persons stated: "Convinced that history demonstrated the emergence of reason, the refinement of human values, the emancipation of suppressed classes, and the accumulation of material comforts, the modernists, of necessity, regarded religious orthodoxy as a largely outmoded heritage form the past. The dualism and supernaturalism of tradiitonal Christianity were at best implausible. The alleged historic revelation of a Word of Truth, confirmed by miracle, was now seen to be nothing but a primitive religious myth. The modernist insisted upon a complete merging of the spiritual with the secular." American Minds: A History of Ideas (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1958) p. 419.

3. Sager said:"The chronology of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy falls into three sections: the Period of Inception (1918-22) beginning with the postwar heightening of millenial reaction in 1918 and leading up to 1922 when the brewing controversy erupted into open conflict; the Period of Rhetorical Crisis (1922-25) fanned by the Fosdick versus Macartner ecclesiastical conflict over modernism, and the Bryan versus Darrow duel over evolution; and the Period of Consummation (1925-30) when the liberals pushed their cause with greater constructive fervency and the fundamentalists grew progressively more dispirited—William Jennings Bryan became the unchallenged leader of the lay forces of fundamentalism. No man in America knew so well as he the formidable strength of the country's religious conservatism or possessed the strength of belief of and oratorical genius to rally that conservatism into militant action. In contrast, Harry Emerson Fosdick, "modernism's Moses," disclaimed polemical intent and simply championed the cause of ëan intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving church.'" See "The Fundamentalist-Modernism Controversy, 1918-1930,"Preaching in American History edited by DeWitte Holland (Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press, 1969), pp. 264-275.

4. William Jennings Bryan and Mary Baird Bryan, The Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan (Philadelphia" The John C. Winston Company, 1925) pp. 113-5.

5. Ibid., pp. 248-9.

6. Mark Sullivan, Our Times (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926) pp.124-5.

7. Harry Thurston Peck, Twenty Years of the Republic (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1906).

8. Bryan, Op. cit., p. 88.

9. Bryan, Op. cit., p. 249-50

10. William Jennings Bryan, "Cross of Gold," American Public Addresses 1740-1952 A. Craig Baird, editor (New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1956) p. 195.

11.M.R. Werner, Bryan (New York: Hardourt, Brace and Company, 1929), pp. 314-7.

12. H.L. Mencken, quoted, Bryan, Memoirs, pp. 330-1

13. Bryan, "Mr. Bryan's Last Speech," Memoirs, pp. 555-6.

14. Time, VI (July 20, 1925), pp. 17 and 28.

15. Time, VI (July 27, 1925), p. 15.

16. Time, VI (August 3, 1925), p. 18.

17. Time, VI (August 10, 1925), pp. 18-9.

18. Nation, CXX (may 27, 1925), p. 589. Clarence Darrow wrote, "It was evident that Scopes was trying to do for Dayton, Tenn., what Socrates did for Athens. And so why should not Dayton, Tenn., do to Scopes what Athens did to Socrates?—Everyone had been informed that a body of men and women were seeking to make the schools the servants of the church, and to place bigotry and ignorance on the throne." The Story of My Life (New York and London: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932), pp. 261-8.

19. Nation, CXXI (July 8, 1925), p.58.

20. John T. Scopes and James Presley, Center of the Storm: Memoirs of John T. Scopes (New York, Chicago and San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), p. 271.

21. Sheldon Norman Grebstein, Monkey Trial: The State of Tennessee vs John T. Scopes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960), p. x.

22. Much journalistic criticism agrees with Scopes: "The man who died at Dayton was a poor copy of the vigorous, sterling William Jennings Bryan who electrifeid the Democratic convention of 1896 in Chicago with his Cross of Gold speech, with it winning the Presidential nomination. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of his life was not that so many goals eluded him but that he was misplace in time. Bryan, it seems to me, was born at least a half-century too soon, before the age of TV when he could have projected his personality to millions." Center, p. 209. Enthusiastic commendation came from Genevieve and John Herrick: "in the last great phase of his career, standing in the little Tennessee town of Dayton, upright against the onslaughts of those whom he believed to be undermining the faith of the nation, Bryan rose to his supreme height. Baring to the taunts of the unbelievers the faith that had carried him through life, proclaiming publicly the simple beliefs that had steadied him through the storms of his career, he was at his best. Admitting his limitation, admitting some of the the arguments of those who disagreed with him, he was a valiant figure." The Life of William Jennings Bryan (np: Buxton, 1925), p. 31. They wrote: "his life demonstrated the ends to which immovable moral convictions may bring a courageous man." Ibid., p. 27. J.C. Long stated, "Bryan's contribution to his age was primarily his belief in the inherent dignity of the common man." Bryan: The Great Commoner (New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1928), p. 403. Incisive was Levine's comment: "The enduring threads which ran throughout Bryan's career have been obscured by the misguided effort to characterize him at various stages of his career as either a progressive or a reactionary, without understanding that a liberal in one area may be a conservative in another not only at the same time but also for the same reasons—The Bryan of the Scopes Trial, for all his dismal obscurantism, was after all merely struggling in behalf of the three great faiths of his life—majority rule, the sanctity of the Bible, and the primacy of the rural way of life—And if his final years ended in tragedy, it was not the tragedy of a good man gone bad, but the tragedy of a good faith too blindly held and too uncritically applied." Defender of the Faith, William Jennings Bryan: The Last Decade 1915-1925 (New York: Oxford University PRess, 1965), pp. 363-5.

23. Levine commented: "Darrow was an iconoclast, an agnostic, and in many respects a cynic, whose active, searching mind, unlike Bryan's, conceived of truth not as merely a possession to be defended but as a prize to be discovered." Ibid., p. 348. Scopes recalled: "Darrow was a many-faceted man—he was an ethical man who, when he knew he was right, went out to win. He had a deep feeling for the individual, whoever he was, and this feeling gave meaning to his life. When the mob or the crowd opposed the individual, Darrow could be counted on the side of the person—Darrow excelled as a lawyer and public debater for the same reasons he would have become prominent in any other profession. He was thorough in reasonong from cause to effect, and he had absolute control of his mind. He was systematic; he put a proposition before he audience and then proceeded to analyze the question from all sides. He would exhaust a subject before he finished, and he used language everyone understood, communicating plainly and directly his chain of thought. It was the same whether he addressed a large audience or talked to one person. He was not a great orator who could stir people's emotions as Bryan did. Darrow angled for minds rather than emotions, realizing that reason, properly presented, could affect a man's emotions and actions more permanently than a blatantly emotional pitch." Center, pp. 219-29. Darrow's principal biographer stated: "Despite the fact that he was constantly attacking the intellectual base of organized religion his friends declared him to be the most religious man then had every known, one of the few true Christians alive in America—He believed with all his heart that if ever man was to become free his brain must be utterly free to lead him to that freedom, for no one could free man but man himself, and he could never accomplish this tremendous task without exerting him to the utmost through the days and the centuries, without having the full power of his brain, without making it an ever-stronger, bolder and more resourceful machine to serve him." Clarence Darrow: For the Defense(Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1941) pp. 423-5. Darrow was known then and now primarily as Grebstein described him, as "the country's foremost criminal lawyer and defense attorney—widely known as a defender of ëradicals' and ëradical movements' a bitter opponent of the Volstead Act, and an outspoken agnostic." Monkey Trial, p. ix. Finally, Ginger pondered the particular weaknesses of both spokesmen: "Darrow could have gotten a more realistic view of human possibilities by pondering some of his other clients—Eugene Debs, Jim McNamara, John Thomas Scopes. Or he could have read more deeply in Aeschylus, or Shakespeare, or the Bible. Perhaps the example of Bryan comes to a final irony: the Bible is a magnificent book, but like any book it must be read with a scientific and human mind, not with the mind of a superstitious, frightened, and ungenerous past." Six Days or Forever? Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes(Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p. 241. Athough generalizations sometimes violate individual exceptions, Bryan and Darrow seem representatives-in-miniature or advocates-incarnate of the fundamentalist and modernist religious philsophies which Sager examined in his doctoral dissertation.

24. Grebstein, Monkey Trial, ix. Ginger said: "That the Butler Act was intended as a gesture rather than as ëactive statue,' in Governor Peay's words, is confirmed by the failure of the law-enforcing agencies to make any effort to execute it in the classrooms." Six, p. 18.

25. Darrow, Story, p. 254.

26. Levine, Defender, p. 328.

27. Herrick, Life, p. 350. Grebstein recognized that the Scopes Trial was the first American trial to be nationally broadcast; furthermore, "the trial drew over one hundred correspondents (including a few from abroad), and was reported and editorialized by newspapers, periodicals, and wire services at a rate estimated as high as 165,000 words a day." Monkey Trial, p. ix.

28. Time, VI (July 20, 1925) p. 17. Ginger asserted that the atmosphere "was 90 per cent carnival, 10 per cent chastisement." Six, p. 93. Darrow recalled: "Hot dog booths and fruit peddlers and ice cream vendors and sandwich sellers had sprung into existence like mushrooms on every corner and everywhere between, mingling with the rest, ready to feed the throng—Pop-corn merchants and sleight-of -hand artists vied with evangelists for the favor and custom of the swarms that surged back and forth along the few aquares that were the centre of the community; speeches were bawled at street corners under the glare of trying artificial-lighting arrangements; the vendors raised their voices to drown the evangelists who were the old-time sort who seemed to believe every word they said and were really interested in saving souls; and each worked his own side of the street, up and down." Darrow, Story, pp. 258-61. Vivid, specific examples of the "evangelists, ëhot dog' vendors, curiosity seekers, traveling performers, ice cream cone salesmen and newspaper correspondents" are given in M.R. Werner, Bryan (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929), p. 314-20.

29. Time, VI (August 3, 1925), p. 18.

30. Frank R. Kent commented: "If during the trial a bolt of lightning from the sky had singled out Mr. Darrow for slaughter few would have been surprised. Many actually expected it. On the other hand, to thousands in this section it would have come as no surprise if Mr. Bryan, having gloriously defeated the forces of the unrighteousness, were to be visited by an angel of the Lord who would whisk the old gentleman off to Heaven in a chariot of fire." New Republic, XLIII (july 29, 1925), p. 260.

31. Darrow predicted, "I prophesy that it will be only a few years before the senseless statute will be wiped from her books either by repeal or the decision of a final court." Story, p. 276. The Butler Act was repealed in 1967. See the Scientific American, MMXX (February, 1969) pp. 15-21. An Associated PRess dispatch from Nashville, Tennessee, April 12, 1967, reported that the Tennessee House of Representatives initiated repeal of the Butler Act by a voite of 58 to 27; the measure was passed over the objections of many rural lawmakers who were told among other things, "our young people are being taught so much already that their lives are wrecked." Several earlier repeal acts failed.

32. Grebstein, Monkey Trial, 134 and 34.

33. Darrow, Story, pp. 259 and 249.

34. Nation, MXXI (August 5, 1925), p. 157. Ginger stated: "the defense strategy was necessarily formulated in more legalistic terms; it was to show that the law was unconstitutional becasue (1) it violated freedom of religion by making the Bible the test of truth, (2) it was unreasonable in the light of modern knowledge of evolution, (3) it was indefinite because no two persons construed the Bible exactly alike." Six, p. 78. Darrow recorded, "My object, and my only object, was to focus the attention of the country on the programme of Mr. Bryan and the other fundamentalists in America. I knew that education was in danger from the source that has always hampered it—religious fanaticism." Story, p. 249.

35. Ginger, Six, p. 80. The Memoirs of William Jennings Bryan records: "The question involved was a purely legal one, namely, had Scopes violated the law, and the efforts of the opposition to make the case hinge on the truth or lack of truth in the theory of evolution were out of place." (Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington: The United Publishers of America, 1925), pp. 483-4.

36. Darrow, Monkey Trial, p. 72.

37. Ibid., p. 72.

38. Ibid., p. 77.

39. Ibid., p. 77.

40. Ibid., p. 79.

41. Ibid., pp. 81-2

42. Bryan, Monkey Trial, p. 125.

43. Ibid., p. 130.

44. Ibid., p. 178.

45. Darrow, Monkey Trial, p. 179.

46. Rappalyea, Monkey Trial, p. 179.

47. Rauston, Monkey Trial, p. 179.

48. The results from the Dayton, Tennessee Scopes Trial have been pondered. More accurate and appropriate than the expectations from Nation is the comment from Levine: "the Scopes Trial, occupying the center of national attention, offered the friends of academic freedom a rare opportunity to proclaim the essentials of their creed and to point out that while local communities had the unquestionable legal authority to regulate education, there were moral as well as legal limitations to the curb that could be placed upon free speech and thought in the classroom." Defender, p. 331. L. Sprague de Camp commented in the Scientific American: "The Scopes Trial, although legally inconclusive, helped to end the monkey war. It created an enormous revival of popular interest in evolution. Furthermore, Darrow's verbal manhandling of Bryan had not made the antievolution crusade any more attractive. Politicians drew back from the "Adamist" approach, if not for love of science, then for fear of ridicule. Thus in a sense the defense in the Scopes case won after all." MMXX (February, 1969), p. 21. Irving Stone wrote in his biography of Darrow: "The Scopes case had won another conquest for freedom: Bryan and his Fundamentalist dogma had been discredited; the literal interpretation of the Bible had been weakened; the Bryan University in Dayton, which had been projected to teach fundamentalism, had progressed as far as a deep hole in the ground, in which state it remained. The high-school students of Tennessee were reading about evolution; the scientific approach to the understanding of man's inheritance had gained impetus; Judge Raulston had agreed to read Darwin's Origin of the Species andDescent of Man." Clarence Darrow, p. 464.