John Scopes is best known as the Tennessee educator found guilty of breaking the law for teaching evolution in his class room.
Born in Kentucky in 1900, John Scopes was a teacher in Tennessee who became famous for going on trial for teaching evolution. Scopes was part of an American Civil Liberties Union attempt to challenge a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. Scopes’s trial became a national sensation, with celebrity lawyers like Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan involved in the case. Scopes was found guilty, but his story remains famous as the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” dramatized in the 1960 film Inherit the Wind starring Spencer Tracy.
A high school science teacher, John Scopes found himself at the center of one of the 20th century’s most famous court battles. He served as the defendant in a case meant to challenge a state law against teaching Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution in public schools.
Born on August 3, 1900, in Paducah, Kentucky, Scopes was the youngest of five children born to railroad worker Thomas Scopes and his wife, Mary. The couple’s only son, he spent his early years in Kentucky before moving to Illinois as a teenager. There, he graduated from high school in 1919. After one year at the University of Illinois, Scopes transferred to the University of Kentucky. He had to drop out for a time for medical reasons, but he eventually earned a degree in law.
Evolution on Trial
In the fall of 1924, Scopes joined the faculty of Rhea County Central High School in Dayton, Tennessee, where he taught algebra, chemistry and physics. At the time, there was a national debate about whether evolution should be taught in schools. British naturalist Charles Darwin championed the theories of evolution, espousing that all modern animal and plant life had descended from a common ancestor. Darwin’s theories, however, directly contradicted the Bible’s teachings on the beginning of life. Across the United States, Christian fundamentalists moved to bar any discussion of evolution from the nation’s classrooms.
Tennessee passed their own law against the teaching of evolution in March 1925. The Butler Act made it illegal for any teacher in a publicly funded school “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.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wanted to challenge the Butler Act in court. While he was not a biology teacher, Scopes volunteered to be tried under the new law. He admitted he had used a textbook that supported evolution while serving as a substitute biology teacher. That was enough to get him charged under the new law.