Bryan’s Downfall:  Evolution and the Scopes Monkey Trial


The closing years of Bryan’s life were spent in preparation for the Scopes Monkey Trial.  However, Bryan did not wage this battle because of his ideas concerning evolution; Bryan actually wanted to keep the scientific specifics out of the trial.  He was an anti-evolutionist, but his reasons were more complex than conflict with fundamentalist literal interpretation of the Bible as many assume.  Bryan was not aggressive in his opinions of Charles Darwin, father of evolutionary thought.  He did state, “I do not mean to find fault with you if you want to accept the theory.  .  .  I shall not quarrel with you about it.”[1]  However, he did dislike the theory for religious and political reasons.

          Religiously, Bryan did not appreciate the compromised Christianity evolution implied.  According to Darwin’s theory, animals mate with those whose characteristics have best adapted to the environment to assure succession of the species.  This theory implies that man is created through competition rather than love.[2]  Harsh origins such as these also could not be reconciled with Bryan’s ideas of social justice and applied Christianity.[3]  Socially, Darwin’s ideas morphed into Social-Darwinism, which was an application of evolutionary ideas to societal structures.  Bryan mirrored the concerns of many others at this time.  He was afraid that the emphasis on competition and superior traits would result in more class-defined snobbery, which could weaken democracy.

          Bryan did see evolutionary rhetoric in public schools as a threat.  Bryan was very concerned with moral education throughout his career, as he deemed a moral conscience as a requirement to following the law and becoming a responsible democratic citizen.  Bryan expressed the need for moral instruction when he stated, “Law is but the crystallization of conscience; moral sentiment must be created before it can express itself in the form of a statute.”[4]  Therefore he was very angry that evolution, which challenges the Bible, could be taught in school while religion was unable to defend its rhetoric.  Bryan stated angrily, “irreligion is being taught under the guise of philosophy.”[5]  Additionally Bryan simply thought that evolution was bad science.  Historian George M. Mardsen asserts that Bryan was holding Darwin to the traditional scientific test of fact and demonstration.[6]   Many people did question the validity of Darwin’s assertions because they were only a string of hypotheses without any concrete scientific support.

          In 1925, Tennessee was the first state to pass legislation, the Butler Bill, that barred instruction of evolution in schools, though it was intended to be a dead letter law.  Predictably, the American Civil Liberty Union was outraged and looked for an offender of the law to support.  The ACLU agreed to sponsor the defense of John Thomas Scopes, who used the state approved text, Civic Biology, in class, which contained lessons on evolution.

          Bryan was contacted to participate in the trial and he agreed.  However, he defended the issue on the grounds of the school’s right to  dictate education rather than promotion of anti-evolutionism.    He stated, “The right of the people, speaking through the legislature, to control the schools which they create and support is the real issue as I see it.”[7]  However, Clarence Darrow, the outspoken defense lawyer did not have similar intentions.  He fully admitted that he wanted to put the fundamentals on the stand.  This mission was accomplished in grand fashion when Bryan himself was called to the stand for the defense.  Bryan made a serious mistake at this time when he allowed the scope of the trial to expand this far.  Darrow asked many leading questions forced the oratorical giant into many logical corners.  The gaps in his logic caused Bryan to be seen as unintelligent, despite the guilty verdict.  Bryan wished to examine Darrow as well, but the court would not allow it, causing only Bryan’s reputation to be scarred by the loss.  This fiasco gave the fundamentalists a radically conservative reputation.  Five days later, William Jennings Bryan was dead.

          The infamous last years of Bryan’s life are often the ones remembered.  However his political career was equally important, perhaps more important, as historian Willard H. Smith asserts, “The Christian in public life had the opportunity to apply the principle of Christianity to contemporary problems.”[8]  Bryan always aspired to this goal.  He wholeheartedly supported progressive reform, world peace, and other agendas that contained the duality of religion and politics.  At the turn of the century, Bryan represented the conscience of America and provided strong religiously based political leadership to the Democratic Party, despite his three failed presidential bids.   Failures only resulted when society moved away from his ideology.  Nonetheless, Bryan was always confident in his efforts.  He often quoted the scripture which read, “One with God shall chase a thousand and two shall put ten thousand to flight.”[9]


William Jennings Bryan:  A Conservative Progressive

Early Life

The Progressive Politician

World War I:  The Destruction of a Dream

Church and State:  Religion's Role in a Democratic System

Bryan's Downfall:  Evolution and the Scopes Monkey Trial


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This page was last updated on March 30, 2001.

[1] William Jennings Bryan, quoted in, Lawrence W. Levine, Defender of the Faith:  William Jennings Bryan:  The Last Decade, 1915-1925 (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1965), 261.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Willard H. Smith, “William Jennings Bryan and the Social Gospel,” The Journal of American History 53 (June 1966):  60.

[4] William Jennings Bryan, quoted in, Levine, 249.

[5] William Jennings Bryan, quoted in, Levine, 263.

[6] George M. Mardsen, Fundamentalism and American Culture:  The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1980), 214.

[7] William Jennings Bryan, quoted in Levine, 331.

[8] Smith, 50.

[9] William Jennings Bryan, quoted in Smith, 57.