Charles A. Israel.  Before Scopes: Evangelicalism, Education, and Evolution in Tennessee, 1870-1825.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.  272 pp. ISBN 0-8203-2646-1. Reviewed by James S. Baugess for the Journal of Southern Religion. 

The Scopes Trial of 1925 still captures the imagination of millions of Americans.  The stage play and movie Inherit the Wind continues to be viewed in classrooms across the United States. The film reveals the alleged bigotry of creationists and the wisdom of the evolutionists.  It is unfortunate that Charles A. Israel, professor of history at Auburn University, appears to agree with that dramatization.

Israel's work is essentially about the social forces and educational policy that led to the 1925 Scopes trial, and not the trial itself.”  


Israel's stated desire was to write an educational history that explored the cultural forces surrounding Tennessee's public schools, and “the place of evangelical religion in shaping the changing role and understandings of the family in the New South” (7).  The author admits his debt to other works such as Bernard Bailyn's Education in the Forming of American Society (Chapel Hill, 1960), and John Hardin Best's essay “Education in the Formation of the American South” in Twentieth-Century Southern Education: Exceptionalism and Its Limits (New York, 1999).  The authors of those works argued that education is a process by which a culture hands down its values to future generations; hence, conservative southern religious values set the tone for the Scopes trial of 1925.  Israel's work is essentially about the social forces and educational policy that led to the 1925 Scopes trial, and not the trial itself.  Israel accepts the interpretations of Edward Larson's Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution (New York, 1989) which sets the stage for the controversy, and Larson's subsequent work, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York, 1997).  Israel, unlike Larson, believes that the Butler Anti-Evolution Bill passed by the state legislature before the trial was more important than the legal spectacle in Dayton, Tennessee.

Israel deals deftly with issues such as denominational efforts to rebuild the South following the Civil War and the relationship of white evangelicals to public education from Reconstruction to the beginning of the twentieth century.  He also examines the history of religious higher education in Tennessee, morality in education during prohibition, changes in religion and education, and finally, the passing of the 1925 anti-evolution law and its consequences, which “blurred the lines between church and state in an effort to realize [evangelicals'] apotheosized vision of a particularly religious South” (10).  After the Great War, Tennessee evangelicals, according to Israel believed that Germany's fall stemmed from its religious infidelity and secularism, and fought “to protect schoolchildren from exposure to supposedly faith-killing theories of biological development” (129). Many present-day evangelicals believe that nation-states fall because of national iniquity and moral failure, and they have ample biblical examples (including additional non-biblical historical data) to support their claims, or at least give them credence. 

Israel identifies a direct lineage between the Scopes period and the present resurgence of conservative evangelicalism in the United States.  He laments that resurgence and connects the tactics of contemporary opponents of evolution to those employed by Clarence Darrow. “[M]odern day creationists," he writes, "defending the rights of public school teachers to challenge the evolutionary synthesis with either scientific or thinly veiled religious objections, have adopted the inverse strategy of their fundamentalist ancestors of the 1920s” (165).  Creationists, now the embattled minority, have decided to take up the arguments of the defense in the Scopes trial and plea for academic freedom by demanding the presentation of evolution as a theory in high school science texts.  In an almost condescending and accusatory tone, he refers to anti-evolutionists as using intelligent design scientific interpretation as a “guise” to sneak creationism into the public schools (165). It is tragic that monographs on the Scopes episode seldom give any positive coverage to the creationists or their concerns and assume that one must accept evolutionary theory as fact or at least water down the creationist argument with “theistic evolution,” which states only that God was involved in the process.

In the end, Israel sees the entire creationist-evolutionist controversy “as a question of who controls the public schools” (164).  He also reminds his readers that the United States Supreme Court is the “final arbiter at least as far as state anti-evolution laws raise First Amendment questions about the establishment of religion” (ibid).  Many find that a harsh reality.

Despite what I consider to be his bias, Israel has compiled a well-documented study of the events, policies, and politics that led up to the infamous “monkey trial” of 1925.  His handling of the educational history of Tennessee and the work of Methodists and Baptists on behalf of public education across the state is informative; in addition, his thesis that the cultural values and educational system of Tennessee during the previous fifty-years resulted in the sensational trial of 1925 is worthy of consideration. Historians working in the fields of educational, social, cultural, or religious studies, and anyone interested in the Scopes trial and its implications for the present, will find Israel's concise narrative an easy and fascinating read.

James S. Baugess, Columbus State Community College

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