May 12: The Scopes Trial (1925)


Don’t Try to Make a Monkey Out of Me.

While certainly not distinctly Presbyterian matter, the 1925 trial of John Scopes does have Presbyterian ties. Dr. J. Gresham Machen declined to participate as a 

“The World’s most Famous Court Trial,” published by the National Book Company, Cincinnati, 1925

On May 12, 1925, five days after the arrest of John Scopes, Bryan received a wire from William Bell Riley requesting his participation, on the behalf of his World ‘s Christian Fundamentals Association, in the upcoming trial in Dayton. It had been thirty years since Bryan last appeared in a courtroom. No matter; he replied to Riley from his lecture tour stop of Pittsburgh: “I shall be pleased to act for your great religious organizations and without compensation assist in the enforcement of the Tennessee law provided of course it is agreeable to the Law Department of the State.”

Sue Hicks, the local prosecutor in Dayton, sent a letter to Bryan days later expressing pleasure in his willingness to join the prosecution team. “We will consider it a great honor to have you with us in this prosecution,” Hicks wrote. Bryan’s decision to join the prosecution raised the stakes of the trial, in the minds of many supporters of evolution. Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History and arguably America’s most prominent evolutionist, declared, “William Jennings Bryan is the man on trial; John Thomas Scopes is not the man on trial. If the case is properly set before the jury, Scopes will be the real plaintiff, Bryan will be the real defendant.”

Bryan’s hour-long speech sparked a sustained, but not overly enthusiastic, applause. Many reporters thought his remarks, especially his suggestion that man was not a mammal, were evidence of buffoonery. At the least, the speech lacked intellectual rigor. Even some of Bryan’s supporters conceded that his oratory often showed few signs of a penetrating intelligence. One friend of Bryan’s later observed, “Vague ideas floated through his mind but did not unite to form any system or crystallize into a definite practical position.”

After a recess for lunch, Dudley Malone answered Bryan’s speech for the defense. When the afternoon session of court ended, and the spectators had left the courtroom, only three persons remained: Bryan, Malone, and Scopes. Bryan stared for a moment at the floor, then said in a low, shaking voice to Malone: “Dudley, that was the greatest speech I ever heard.” “Thank you, Mr. Bryan,” Malone replied. “I am terribly sorry that I was the one who had to do it.”

Bryan’s memorable two-hour confrontation with Clarence Darrow occurred on the courthouse lawn on Monday July 20. Darrow’s relentless questioning and sarcasm took its toll on the Great Commoner. His anger finally reached the boiling point. On his feet, shaking his fist at his antagonist, Bryan shouted, “I want the world to know that this man, who does not believe in a God, is trying to use a court in Tennessee—.” Darrow, also standing and shaking his fist, cut him off: “I object your statement. I am exempting you on your fool ideas that no intelligent Christian on earth believes.” Judge Raulston had enough. He banged his gavel and announced that the court stood adjourned until the next morning.

At three o’clock, after a brief discussion with a publisher in Chattanooga to discuss the printing of his final speech, Bryan laid down for a nap. He never woke up. Bryan’s personal physician, Dr. J. Thomas Kelly, concluded, “Bryan died of diabetes melitis, the immediate cause being the fatigue incident to the heat and his extraordinary exertions due to the Scopes trial.”

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  1. David’s avatar

    “Dr. J. Gresham Machen declined to participate as a….” — what? expert witness? (You’ve roused my curiosity!! 🙂 )

  2. archivist’s avatar


    Yes, last night’s storm knocked out my web connection and I was unable to complete that post. Then today has been unusually hectic and I’ve still not had time to amend the entry. Hopefully soon.
    Machen basically declined any participation or comment on the trial. He didn’t want to muddy the waters in regards to the battles he was already fighting.


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