International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion

by Edward J. Larson

Introductory Essay by Jon H. Roberts

In recent years the charge that religion receives inadequate attention in treatments of American history has become increasingly common. Even those who advance that charge, however, would readily concede that discussion of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee has become a staple of the textbook trade. Yet, as Edward Larson eloquently demonstrates in his justly celebrated Summer for the Gods, most of the chroniclers of that trial have oversimplified – often even distorted – the trial’s major issues and consequences because they have tended to draw their interpretations of it from simplistic popular retellings of the events in Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday and stage and screen productions of Inherit the Wind. Eschewing that approach, Larson bases his own narrative on an intelligent discussion of the concerns that led conservative Protestant evangelicals to attempt to ban the teaching of human evolution in the public schools in Tennessee, a careful consideration of what actually happened (and did not happen) at the Scopes trial itself, and an incisive analysis of the impact of that trial on American religious and intellectual life.

In the early chapters of this book, Larson provides readers with a perceptive summary of the concerns that animated conservative Protestants in their rejection of Darwinism.  Although many fundamentalists warned that the Darwinian theory implied that God worked capriciously and cruelly, what ultimately led them to press for antievolution legislation was their conviction that the idea of human evolution conflicted with the biblical narrative and provided support for a view of the social order that substituted rapacious self-interest for the ethics of Jesus. But one of the many virtues of Larson’s narrative of the events surrounding the trial of John T. Scopes is the distinction that he makes between the religious considerations that led many Protestant fundamentalists to press for antievolution legislation and the issues of public policy that became manifest in the wake of the passage of the Butler Act in Tennessee and the trial that followed. 

Larson shows that William Jennings Bryan and his followers based their argument for the legitimacy of antievolution legislation and their justification for the prosecution of Scopes on the claim that it was entirely appropriate in a democracy for the majority of taxpayers to determine the content of the public school curriculum. By contrast, the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union, which spearheaded the defense of Scopes, was intent on showing that antievolution legislation constituted an abridgment of teachers’ intellectual freedom.

This is not to say that issues relating to science and religion were utterly ignored during the trial. On the contrary, those issues proved to be central in Clarence Darrow’s famous cross-examination of Bryan (although interestingly, as Larson points out, Darrow’s questions focused on biblical issues that had nothing to do with the issue of evolution per se). It is rather to suggest, as does Larson himself, that it is necessary to recognize that what was at stake in the Scopes trial were the important issues of “populist majoritarianism and traditional evangelical faith versus scientific secularism and modern concepts of individual liberty” [83].