The Scopes Trial: Frequently Rebutted Assertions

John T. Scopes

Maintained by Wesley R. Elsberry

The trial of John T. Scopes for teaching the evolution of man from lower animals in 1925 has passed from historical event into cultural legend. The are a number of assertions commonly made concerning the course, meaning, and outcome of the trial, and much of what is asserted is only partially true if not flatly wrong. As with others who were not present at the proceedings, I rely upon sources. In my case, I rely most heavily upon the transcript of the trial [1], which works quite well for many questions concerning the trial.  That version of the transcript is also the source of the illustrations used here.  However, transcripts are limited to what occurs inside the courtroom while it is in session, and for other questions one must look elsewhere. For other relevant background, I refer to Ray Ginger's "Six Days or Forever?" [2]. Other references will be given at the end of this FRA. 


For a trial to take place, there has to be an issue of law. For Scopes, that issue would be Tennessee's Butler Act, written by John Washington Butler.
An Act prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals, and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, 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 has descended from a lower order of animals.

Section 2. Be it further enacted, That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred ($100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($500.00) Dollars for each offense.

Section 3. Be it further enacted, That this Act take effect from and after its passage, the public welfare requiring it.

The Butler Act passed in the lower house on 28 January 1925 by a vote of 71 to 5. It passed in the upper house by a vote of 24 to 6. This was despite the recommendation of William Jennings Bryan that the bill should not carry any provisions for penalties. Governor Austin Peay signed the Butler Act into law on 21 March 1925. [2, pp.5-7] 

The Assertions

Various assertions concerning the Scopes Trial are frequently seen and rebutted.

Assertion: Nebraska Man was the main evidence in favor of evolution in the Scopes Trial.

There was no physical evidence presented at the Scopes Trial. No expert witness testified before the jury. Only one expert was allowed to speak directly to the court. Statements from experts were read into the transcript at one point. However, no expert whether speaking directly or via affidavit mentioned Nebraska Man in the trial.

The Scopes Trial generated a lot of publicity, and the possibility remains that commentators outside the trial made mention of Nebraska Man. However, this still renders the original assertion false. The Institute for Creation Research grudgingly admits that Nebraska Man was not entered as evidence.

[...] The imaginative newspaper coverage and the timing of the find made a big impression at the 1925 Scopes Trial. Nebraska man was never introduced into the trial, since the lead paleoanthropologist Dr. Fay Cooper cole had some misgivings about it, but it was there nonetheless.
[End quote -- RM Cornelius & JD Morris, 1995, Scopes: Creation on Trial, ICR, p.40.]

Assertion: The evolutionists won the Scopes Trial.

Trying to flatly state who won or lost the Scopes Trial is a futile endeavor. The facts are that the purpose of the Scopes Trial was to begin a process of judicial review of the Butler Act, which did not proceed to a federal court as the ACLU had planned. Scopes was convicted and fined under the Butler Act, but the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law while overturning the conviction on a technicality. One cannot appeal acquittal.

The ACLU's primary purpose was thwarted, and the Butler Act remained on the Tennessee books until the 1960's, and its success led to anti-evolution legislation in two other states, as well as proposed legislative action in many more states.

The creationists, however, received quite a lot of bad publicity. This was not an unalloyed negative, though, since to some any publicity is good publicity.

Assertion: Clarence Darrow said that not teaching both viewpoints was bigotry.

This quotation appears to have been either made outside the courtroom or perhaps even entirely fabricated. See Rob Zuber's FAQ on this issue.

This assertion has been cited by SciCre-ists as appearing in "Biology, Zoology, and Genetics". Senator Bill Keith of Louisiana is claimed by SciCre-ists to have stated that Darrow made this comment during his closing argument to the jury. Darrow's closing argument, if it can be called that, is very brief and simply says that the issues have to be taken to a higher court. There is no mention of the word "bigotry" in it at all.

Assertion: Darrow was trying to defend the practice of teaching only evolution.

The Butler Act provides penalties for the teaching of evolution. Darrow was defending the right to teach science in a science classroom, and not arguing for exclusivity.

Assertion: Piltdown Man played a large role in expert testimony.

See the entry concerning Nebraska man above for comments on the expert testimony in the Scopes Trial. Piltdown Man was mentioned by two experts in affidavits, and in each case Piltdown was given no special status. The sense of the affidavits indicates that Piltdown Man was considered to be anomalous.

Assertion: Public opinion following the Scopes trial forced states to permit the teaching of evolution in schools.

The pattern of activity in state legislatures following the Scopes trial would support just about the opposite conclusion.

Assertion: Because of the trial, evolution was required to be taught in the public school system.

No such requirement ensued following the Scopes trial.  As stated above, Tennessee's Butler Act remained the state law until the 1960's.

Assertion: The judge in the Scopes trial was the original "boy named Sue".

The judge in the trial was John T. Raulston. However, the prosecution team did include Sue K. Hicks, so the assertion is not quite as false as it could be.

Assertion: No expert testimony was allowed at the trial.

The prosecution plan was to exclude expert testimony as irrelevant to the facts of the case. Judge Raulston did not permit any testimony in the official presence of the jury, but one witness testified and several affidavits were read into the record when the jury was excused. The portions of the trial that took place when the jury was in were relatively short compared to when the jury was out.

Maynard M. Metcalf did take the witness stand on July 15th, 1925. Statements from experts were read into the trial record. The list of those whose statements went into the transcript is:

Charles Hubbard Judd
Jacob L. Lipman
Fay Cooper Cole
Wilber A. Nelson
Kirtley F. Mather
Maynard M. Metcalf
Winterton C. Curtis
Horatio H. Newman

Assertion: William Jennings Bryan was humiliated by Clarence Darrow's examination, and died a dejected and broken man just a few days later.

It is undeniably true that Bryan did die shortly after the conclusion of the Scopes trial. However, there is no indication that Darrow's courtroom questioning caused Bryan any undue distress. Bryan, it should be remembered, was a prominent public speaker and former adminstrator. He repeatedly ran for the presidency, and lost each time he did so. He served in Woodrow Wilson's cabinet, and resigned over the issue of neutrality. Someone who is prone to bouts of depression does not live the life that Bryan chose for himself. Bryan was just as impervious to criticism as most of his modern counterparts are today, if not more so.

Assertion: There is no transcript of the Scopes trial.

Despite widespread jokes concerning backwardness of Tennessee and its courts, the fact remains that there was a transcript, which was published.

Assertion: William Jennings Bryan was the chief prosecutor at the Scopes trial.

Attorney-General Stewart was the chief prosecutor.  Bryan corrected Hays on this point during the trial.

Assertion: Clarence Darrow cut off testimony by requesting a directed verdict of guilty after questioning Bryan, denying Bryan the opportunity to examine Darrow as a witness.

Court had adjourned during Darrow's questioning of Bryan. At the start of the following day, Judge Raulston decided that questioning would not resume. Because of the judge's ruling, Darrow requested the directed verdict. Bryan made a statement that since he would not be able to put the defense lawyers on the witness stand, that he intended to deliver his questions intended for them to the press. Both Darrow and Malone stated their willingness to answer Bryan's questions wherever the opportunity arose. Attorney-General Stewart made the suggestion that the next thing to be done was to bring in the jury and charge them.

Assertion: The evidence presented in the Scopes trial is no longer considered evidence of evolution.


Scopes Trial Timeline

Trial dates taken from [1]. Non-trial dates taken mainly from [2].
1923 July 4
Clarence Darrow poses 55 questions about the Bible and evolution to William Jennings Bryan in the Chicago Tribune.
1925 January 28
Butler Act passes Tennessee lower house, 71 to 5
1925 March 13
Butler Act passes Tennessee upper house, 24 to 6
1925 March 21
Tennessee Governor Austin Peay signs the Butler Act into law. It takes effect immediately.
1925 April 24
Alleged date when John T. Scopes taught evolutionary theory from Hunter's "Civic Biology" to his class.
1925 ??
ACLU advertises for a teacher willing to be a test case for the Butler Act.
1925 May 4
George W. Rappleyea reads newspaper article relating that Chattanooga had given up on plans to be the site for a test of the Butler Act. The Robinson's drugstore conspiracy to put Dayton, Tennessee on the map is put into motion. John T. Scopes agrees to become the accused in a test case.
1925 May 7
Arrest of John Scopes for violation of the Butler Act
1925 May 10
Preliminary hearing. Scopes bound over to grand jury, scheduled to meet in August.
1925 May 13
William Jennings Bryan announces his willingness to serve for the prosecution.
1925 May 14
John Randolph Neal becomes Scopes' chief counsel.
1925 May 25
A special session of the grand jury is summoned by Judge John T. Raulston to prevent usurpation of the test case by Chattanooga. Scopes was indicted under the Butler Act and the case set for trial on July 10th.
1925 June 6-7
Scopes, Rappleyea, and Neal travel to New York to consult with the ACLU. The ACLU promised to support the defense financially, and Scopes selected Darrow for counsel.
1925 June 13
Motion to quash Scopes' indictment entered by J.L. Godsey on the grounds that the Butler Act was unconstitutional.
1925 June 24
Tennessee Bar Association cancels invitation to Darrow to speak at its conference on June 26th.
1925 June 25
Darrow publishes a letter from Luther Burbank on the Scopes case.
1925 June ?
Paducah, Kentucky school board dismisses Scopes' sister from her job teaching mathematics.
1925 July 3
Darrow announces that Neal plans to enter a motion to enter an an injunction against the trial at the federal district court in Nashville. Dayton boosters become alarmed.
1925 July 5
Federal Judge John Gore turns down Neal's application for an injunction.
1925 July 7, Tuesday
Bryan arrives in Dayton
1925 July 8, Wednesday
Bainbridge Colby withdraws from defense team. H.L. Mencken arrives in Dayton.
1925 July 9, Thursday
Darrow arrives the evening before the trial starts.
1925 July 10, Friday
Scopes trial begins.
Trial Images (from [1]).
Rhea County Courthouse, Dayton, TN Judge John Raulston John T. Scopes Clarence Darrow       
1925 July 13, Monday
Second day of trial.
1925 July 14, Tuesday
Third day of trial
1925 July 15, Wednesday
Fourth day of trial
1925 July 16, Thursday
Fifth day of trial
1925 July 17, Friday
Sixth day of trial.
1925 July 20, Monday
Seventh day of trial.
1925 July 21
Eighth day of trial.

Further timeline:

I wish to extend the timeline from the end of the trial, but fear that I must postpone that endeavor for a while.  If anyone is interested in aiding me in finding dates for the following events, I would much appreciate it.  Email me at

Events to be dated:
Bryan's death, and deaths of other participants.
Founding of Bryan College.
Review of case by higher court in TN.
Supreme Court decision overturning all such state laws as the Butler Act.


  1. Anonymous. 1925. The World's Most Famous Court Trial. Cincinnati, Ohio: National Book Company.
  2. Ginger, Ray. 1958. Six Days or Forever? Oxford University Press.
  3. Larson, Edward J. 1989. Trial And Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution. Oxford University Press.
  4. Thompson, A. 1983. Biology, Zoology, and Genetics: Evolution Model vs. Creation Model 2, 271.
Bryan College apparently sells books related to the Scopes trial. Contact information (as of 960425) is:
Bryan College
Dayton, TN 37321-7000
Contact Dr. Richard Cornelius, English Dept.
Tel. (615)775-2041


I want to thank all the people over the years who have written timely and informative messages over the years concerning the Scopes trial. I have shamelessly assimilated your instruction, and now I acknowledge the debt.